How could I not hate Brian Lara? He was exactly the kind of cocky, flashy show-off that Australians are trained from birth to despise: especially if the show-off is not Australian; and doubly so if the show-off happens to be very, very good. To see a man who is too big for his boots is anathema for many an Aussie fan. To see the same man demonstrate that, in fact, he fits into those boots perfectly is utterly unbearable.
My memories of Lara are mainly of frustration, of games that my beloved Australia would have won easily were it not for this contemptuous aristocrat standing in the way, plundering great and average bowlers alike. And he did it with such a born-to-rule attitude that you grew to hate the sight of him. He had an arrogance that you never sensed in Sachin Tendulkar, his rival for the title of world’s best and a much harder man to hate. When in full flight, Lara batted like an angry lord horsewhipping a servant: he didn’t just obliterate bowlers, he behaved as if it was sheer impertinence for them to even dare bowl to him.
If anything, the fact that Lara barely participated in the era of West Indian invincibility made him all the more loathsome. Marshall, Garner, Holding and Ambrose battered and crushed Australia; Richards, Greenidge, Lloyd and Richardson flayed them; but to hate these men seemed pointless. They were grand and terrifying, so clearly on another level that their feats were merely the natural order of things.
Brian Charles Lara was a different kettle of fish. I was introduced to him during the epic and desperately close 1992-93 series when he lit up the otherwise deathly dull Sydney drawwith a frighteningly powerful 277 that would still be going on were it not for a run-out. After that series – the last time West Indies held the Frank Worrell Trophy – Lara increasingly became the shining light in a struggling team. My team beat his more often than not, which made his triumphs all the more irritating. I still remember a one-day international in Perth, in January 1997, when with West Indies on the mat, half-out, far behind the asking rate and limping towards a meek defeat, Lara suddenly decided he’d rather win. An assault of utter savagery ensued. He swung Australia’s best bowlers to and over every part of the ground with all the difficulty of a lion swatting aside a rabbit.
I remember even better the 1998-99 series, which Australia would have won 4-0 were it not for Lara’s monumental 213 in the second Test, and his unbeaten 153 in the third – the latter surely as good an innings as anyone has ever played. The Test was done and dusted, West Indies five down and 203 short of victory, when Lara once again made up his mind: Australia should lose. And so they did, by one wicket, following a display of batsmanship so breathtaking it was positively symphonic. A mighty Australian team drew the series 2-2 with a feeble West Indian side, purely because of Lara’s unmatched ability to heave the whole team onto his shoulders and drag them towards the light. And sitting at home in Sydney, bleary-eyed and exhausted after staying up all night with the radio for company, I seethed at this up-himself little aristocrat’s denial of the complete domination that Australia surely deserved after the humiliations of the ’80s. If there was one thing Lara specialised in, it was denying Australians their full measure of joy. He wouldn’t even let an Australian keep his world record for more than six months, topping Matthew Hayden’s 380 with his own 400 not out before we’d even had a chance to revel in it.
And yet, and yet… as easy it was to hate Lara, the harder it was to deny his dazzling, intoxicating appeal, which stemmed not only from his genius, but also from his frailty. If there was something monstrous about Lara’s ability to compile gigantic scores, there remained something appealingly human about the way that ability would periodically desert him. If Tendulkar lacked Lara’s appetite for the truly gargantuan, Lara never quite had Tendulkar’s calm, perennial authority. He was a true artist: possessed of boundless creativity and unmatched aesthetic expression, yet also captive to the artistic temperament; arrogant, moody and prone to distraction.
That Lara rose amid the ruins of an empire cannot have helped his demeanour. As defeat for West Indies became the natural order, a crumbling dynasty turned to its last titan. Yet in taking on that burden, Lara proved himself perhaps an even greater player than he could have been had he been surrounded by fellow champions. If this was a one-man team, there can rarely have been one man so well equipped for the job.
And no matter what context you saw him in, no matter what team you cheered for, there was no argument against those strokes. The high, ominous backlift, daring the bowler to sneak under it. The glide across the crease and into perfect position. The square drive, flashed off front or back foot with a bullfighter’s flourish. The square cut, rasped at light speed through point from anything a smidgen short or wide. The iron-wristed pulls and subtle glances, the feet tap-tapping down the wicket like a crocodile springing from the water, the bat whipping through in a brutal arc to unleash a cannonade into the stand. Innings after innings played with cyclonic force, cavalier grace allied to an inner fury, punishing anyone with the temerity to send a ball his way.
You could hate this remarkable batsman. You could curse his name and grind your teeth whenever he hove into sight. But you couldn’t watch him slash and thunder his way through the world’s best attacks without being aware that you were witness to something extraordinary. At the end, even an Australian who had wished countless times to see the back of him knew that his life was richer. Even an Australian could be grateful to have seen his team put to the sword by a man who piled up mountains of runs, more remorselessly than anyone since Bradman, but made every moment of accumulation a work of art. Brian Charles Lara, you gave us so much. If only a little less of it had been against Australia.