The Innings of a Lifetime
And so it came to pass, with a rueful shake of the head, and a brisk walk back to the pavilion. Slowing down near the boundary, he stopped, turned and raised his bat to the crowd one last time. A turn to acknowledge all the spectators all around the ground, and he was gone. His last innings in his beloved maroon had been cut short before given time to flower, undone by an impetuous younger teammate.
50 overs later, the undulations of a riveting contest washed victory on English shores, as the men in maroon eventually surrendered to the blue of their old colonial masters. The match may well have been inconsequential in as much as the tournament was concerned, but surely all neutrals would have been wishing for that one last hurrah for the retiring Brian Lara. It was not to be, and Lara the captain finished with one last failure against his name, a sad end to a storied career.
So much has been said and written about Brian Lara, that there is almost nothing revealing to add. His statistics as a batsman are well known, his relative failures as a captain overly dissected, the state of his team debated endlessly.
All that we can add is how he made us feel.
From the start, there was so much that was different about him. Before the mammoth scores and the unrelenting appetite for runs- before all of that, at the beginning there was that thrill. To watch him bat was to see it done like never before. The unorthodox backlift, the lightning fast batspeed, the timing, the exaggeration of movement- it was all so very different. The simple act of a square drive never seemed quite so awe-inspiring, as the ball invariably sped away between fielders, you could not help but think he was so very different.
While others would choose circumspection, he would choose aggression. Where others would have no option but to defend, he would instinctively attack. While others would see no way out, he saw no other way but success. If a measure of a career is one defining innings, then by any standard his was a career of many rolled into one.
|West Indies captain Brian Lara was given a guard of honour by his teammates after he set a new world batting record in Test cricket with 400 runs not out against England on the third day of the fourth and final Test in Antigua on April 12, 2004. Photo: The Telegraph, Uk
His first defining innings was in Sydney, a breathtaking assault on the Australian bowlers to the tune of 277 runs. He was a young batsman of undoubted quality, but unproven as a performer in the intense cauldron of Test match cricket. As a young 23 years old, stepping into the shoes of so many greats before him, Viv Richads and Co. were a fading memory, as the heady days of West Indian domination looked to be challenged by a few pretenders to the throne. 277 runs later, he had announced definitively to the world that everyone would have to wait.
In the helter-skelter world of today's game, many batsmen score faster than many before would have dreamed of. Yet when watching footage of that Sydney innings in 1993, the aggression and speed of scoring stand out, even by today's standards. So dominating was his control that he spoke afterwards of having his sights set on Sir Garfield Sobers' then record score of 365- and this was from a batsman playing in only his 5th Test. It was an innings the venerable Rohan Kanhai would call one the greatest he had ever seen.
Yet precocious performances belying his age, according to those in the know, have always been the hallmark of this man. In what was unbelievably only his second first class match, still a teenager, he constructed a 5-hour innings of 92 against a Barbados attack led by Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner.
If the Sydney innings announced his arrival, the next moment would signal his immortality. A pull of Andy Caddick in Antigua 1994 and he had climbed higher than every single batsman that had ever preceded in him in Test matches. Cricket's holy grail, the highest individual score by a batsman, had fallen and lay at the feet of this man. Raising the bar from Sobers' 365 to 375, Lara had showed the world that his appetite for the big ones was unparalleled. In the heady days and weeks to follow, he would scale even further heights, scoring a scarcely believable unbeaten 501 not out, for Warwickshire in a county game.
That 10 years later (to the week), he would unimaginably raise that bar from 375 to become the first human to score 400 in a test match, is not so much unbelievably as ridiculously sublime.
In between all of this was so much more. Littering every part of the world with gem after gem, there is one performance that stands out head and shoulders. That was an innings for the ages, the one that confirmed that when possessed, he was a God amongst boys. In 1999, in front of a raucous crowd in Barbados, Lara touched immortality with 153 undefeated runs. Single-handedly shepherding the tail, absorbing the suffocating brilliance of the Australian bowlers, he stood higher than any batsman I have ever seen. Never has a batsman been so alone, his team mates deserting the cause, falling to the sheer magnitude of the task as any mortal would have done. Alone, he fought back, clawing the game back in a breathtakingly brilliant assault that, at first resisted, then fought back, and finally took them over the edge. If for but one innings, one moment in one lifetime, he took us all higher than anyone could possibly. He took us to the sublime, and surely no man would ever be fortunate enough to see a better knock. It was one for the Gods.
That is how he made me feel. When watching Lara, anything was possible. There was no mountain too high, no challenge insurmountable. He did not do it through 'steady accumulation,' that most euphemistic of excuses for the staid old-school game. He took us where no one had ever taken us, on a roller-coaster ride of spills and thrills. He knew that we watched sport not for solid foundations- no, he knew we watched to transcend our mortality. Vicariously, he made us superhuman, if just for a day. We could fly, we could walk on water, we could do no wrong.
It is often asked who one would have to bat for one's life. For me, there is no doubt. Tendulkar could give me another lifetime, Ponting a victory against any opposition. But only Lara could thrill me like no other. In batting for my life, he might have scored 28 runs in an over, 400 not out or even 501 not out. He might even score naught, bowled around his legs in midst hop, skip and jump. But by God, you would come to watch. You would come to watch, because you knew you could have the time of your life.
If his career is one long innings, then it has been the innings of my lifetime. Every time he walked out to bat, the sense of anticipation was like no other. The butterflies in my stomach, the sense of wonder at what might come to pass. The thrill, the excitement, the superhuman and the sublime. When last did we behold an immortal?
If men of genius are meteors destined to burn themselves out in lighting up their age, as Napoleon Boneparte would have us believe, then Brian Lara's light will linger a bit longer.
In the years to come, we will tell our unborn children that we saw him bat. They might well think of us as exaggerating, the foolish memories of old fogies. They will see many different greats, but only we who have seen Him, will know they did not see the innings of a lifetime.
Thank you Brian, for all the memories. Thank you for taking us to dizzying heights, thank you for making us supermen. Thank you for the innings of a lifetime.
Nausher Rahman, lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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