A habit West Indies have developed, after terminally descending into decline starting in 1995, is sparking controversy. From Nelson Mandela’s intervention before the 1998-99 tour of South Africa to the latest saga with head coach Phil Simmons before the current Sri Lanka tour, the cricket world has collectively groaned at every fresh West Indies crisis as it has come to light.
Prior to the Simmons affair, there was the captaincy change, with Denesh Ramdin being replaced by Jason Holder in spurious circumstances by the WICB’s leaders. But enough about the litany of faux pas that is West Indies cricket; let us reminisce about Brian Lara in Sri Lanka in 2001.
Following Lara’s “Mount Everest” series performance against Australia in 1999, he took a surprising break from cricket after the tour of New Zealand later that year. Over the next two years his batting succumbed to another uncharacteristic slump as a troubling eye problem (which led him to bat with shades on during the 2000 series in England) and many injuries, plummeted his average to a paltry 34.15 during this period.
His overall career average slipped below 50 and critics did not show much sympathy, suggesting he was a spent force with a big ego and little heart.
“Brian watched a lot of tapes of Muralitharan. Roger Harper tried to assist the batting group by inviting many local spinners with similar actions to bowl at the net sessions” DAREN GANGA. Daren Ganga, who was Lara’s team-mate and opener during that series, recalled how those comments played a key role in motivating Lara.
“I’ve always viewed Brian’s batting on that tour as the most remarkable I’ve ever seen live,” Ganga says. “Having played with him many times for West Indies and Trinidad & Tobago, I don’t recall ever seeing his preparations and pre-game warm-ups so focused before matches.
“Clearly he had taken offence to what the critics were saying and it moulded some extra competitiveness in him.”
Caribbean cricket lovers never actually saw or heard about Lara’s feats in that series on television or radio because the WICB was unable to negotiate broadcast rights. Fans back home were left only with international newspaper reports.
Most cricket followers in the West Indies can probably tell you where they were when Lara broke world records, or when he scored 277 at the SCG. But there has always been a mystique about what he did in Sri Lanka in 2001. Highlights of his three hundreds are now available on YouTube. It was the way he tackled legendary spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan that stood out.
Earlier that year, when England secured a famous series win in Sri Lanka, Graham Thorpe mustered every bit of his mental and technical skill to conquer Muralitharan, akin to a British soldier battling to survive trench warfare. Lara, on the other hand, played the leading wicket-taker in Test history with contempt and panache, as if he was taking a jog around the Queen’s Park Savannah in his native Trinidad & Tobago.
This is how Lara dealt with all slow bowlers in his career and it could be argued that no top-class batsman in Test history ever played high-quality spin better. In the final Test, in Colombo, Lara joined an exclusive list of players who have scored a double-hundred and hundred in the same Test – a batting display that can be best described as a “blueprint to playing spin in the subcontinent”, as Ganga termed it.
“Brian watched a lot of tapes of Muralitharan,” he said. “Our coach at the time, Roger Harper, tried to assist the batting group by inviting many local spinners with similar actions in some cases to bowl at the net sessions.
“Of course, facing Muttiah was difficult enough and this didn’t help all of us much, but without the burden of leadership, those specific sessions complimented Lara’s personal preparation perfectly for the task at hand.
“His batting in the final Test is surely in his top-five career performances I’ve seen him play.”
When asked about Muralitharan and Shane Warne, post-retirement, Lara gave an insight into how he managed to play Murali so well, averaging 77.73 in nine Tests against him.
“Muttiah always confused me in the first half-an-hour to 45 minutes,” Lara said. “I had no clue what was going on. I don’t know if he knew, [but] after 45 minutes, if I was still there, I could see that he was losing confidence.”
Tony Cozier, writing from Sinhalese Sports Club at the time, aptly summarised this somewhat unheralded Lara masterpiece. Fourteen years and numerous squabbles later, his words are worth recalling.
“It is on days like this, with the sun burning down from a blue sky, the pitch flawless, the outfield like a billiard table top and his mind intently focused on a particular objective that Brian Lara can elevate batting to heights reserved for a select few. It is on days like this that his mastery presents a refreshing contrast to the sordid controversies stoked by men in high places without an ounce of cricketing skill in their bones who would undermine the game for the sake of their inflated egos.
And it is on days like this, as with those earlier in the series, that we wonder why his average should need boosting up above 50 once more, when 70 would be more appropriate to his God-given talent.”