Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Brian Lara has an affinity for numbers. If it weren’t for cricket, he says, he would have ended up as an accountant. It’s perhaps only poetic that the game that had consumed him since he was a kid has now given him ownership to some of its most staggering digits.
Consider that exactly 25 years ago, in June 1994, Lara, playing a county match for Warwickshire, notched up 501 runs, the only quintuple hundred to have ever been scored in first-class cricket; his brisk scoring made Brian Hunt, the scorer for opposition Durham, admit that this was the hardest he had worked in life, but it was “well worth it”. This epic came two months after he broke a 36-year-old record in Tests, racking up 375 against England to overtake Gary Sobers’s 365 as the highest individual score. So sublime was his game that day that English captain Mike Atherton had forewarned his spinner Phil Tufnell of a big one when Lara was batting on 60.
Australian Matthew Hayden snagged Lara’s pole position in late-2003 with a 380 against Zimbabwe, but the Trinidadian reclaimed his spot barely six months later, in April 2004, with an onslaught of 400 runs against England. Fifteen years on, it remains international cricket’s only quadruple hundred.
“It’s something I wasn’t expecting,” Lara says with nonchalance, but statistics will tell you that 12 years after his retirement in 2007, two of the five highest Test individual scores still belong to the southpaw. That these records still stand unsurpassed despite modern cricket’s dizzying strike rates and jaw-dropping totals tell you a thing or two about Lara’s place in cricketing history.
His twin achievements in 1994 put one of his sponsors, Joe Bloggs, in a bizarre quandary. The Manchester clothing company had put out a brand of ‘375’ jeans to commemorate his Test score, but when he ratcheted up the first-class high, they faced copyright infringement from Levi’s, which already had a 501. Joe Bloggs eventually released an apparel line christened ‘500 And One’.
In between these numerical superlatives, Lara’s career has been peppered with daddy centuries and doubles: His first Test ton was a masterful 277, in Sydney against Australia in 1992, a knock that Sachin Tendulkar counts among his favourites. It established him as a successor to the cohort of greats that made West Indies invincible through the 70s and 80s. So pleased was the left-hander with his innings that he named his first child, a daughter born in 1996, after the city. “I begged her mother to name her so,” says Lara.
Sydney is now 22, and Lara also has another daughter, Tyla, 9, who keeps him engaged since his retirement. That apart, there is the Brian Lara Cancer Treatment Centre in Port of Spain, his hometown, which provides affordable medical care to the underprivileged, and his role as the sports ambassador of Trinidad & Tobago, where he looks to foster sports tourism for the twin islands. His on-and-off commentary duties, for which he hotfoots between continents, has led to a resurgence of his love for the game (although he admits he is no longer obsessed enough to spend every waking hour tracking it). And there’s always golf to wind down, a passion that Lara has indulged in since calling time on his career, and one that he shares with his good friend Tendulkar.
Evidently, Lara, who turned 50 this May, isn’t slowing down. Just like in cricket, he has enough and more to keep him going.
Bring up those mind-boggling numbers with him, and Lara responds with a shrug. Merely incidental, just like the cup of tea he sipped on at a Mumbai hotel on a Sunday morning. “The numbers play little significance in terms of how I felt about my career. As a kid, the dream was to play for West Indies. Back then, we didn’t have Playstations, Instagram, Facebook etc; there was just the transistor radio through which we would listen to reports of matches being played in some other part of the world. Clive Lloyd, Frank Worrell, Gary Sobers, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Vivian Richards, look at the history. It’s great to have those numbers, but the ability to don the West Indian cap is more special and will always stay with me,” he says.
Walking into the West Indian dressing room for the first time as a 19-year-old, and watching his heroes alight the team bus to join him are among Lara’s most precious memories. What happened thereafter is a story he could regale his grandkids with.
India was touring the Caribbean in 1988-89 and Lara got pulled into the squad in the third Test to be played at his homeground in Trinidad. He reached the ground at 8 am, an hour before schedule, and plonked his kitbag in a corner of the dressing room that would always be his when he played first-class games for Trinidad & Tobago. “Turns out, when the national team plays here, it was Richards’s seat. He entered the dressing room, and my bag came flying out of it,” says Lara. “I was put in my place very early.”
That Lara would unwittingly pick Richards’s seat was perhaps an indication of things to come, of his eventual induction into the pantheon of cricketing gods that had a devout following not just around the world but also at his home, particularly with his father. The second last of 11 siblings, young Lara had to work his way up in the batting order at home after being initially slotted at No 10 in the order of geriatrics; his elder brothers toughened him up for match situations by showing no mercy even at gully cricket. When he was six, his eldest sister Agnes convinced their father Bunty to take him to the local Harvard coaching clinic. “For the next 10 years, I was at Harvard every Sunday morning,” he says. “My dad, who loved cricket, lived vicariously through my progress. Even if I left home alone following an argument, he would reach the ground two hours later and watch me play. Mum Pearl, on the other hand, would only be concerned about whether I’ve eaten or that I return home injury-free.”
But no amount of nurturing would have led him to the record books, Lara claims, had it not been for the invisible hand of destiny. For instance, he says, he wasn’t even scheduled to play county cricket at the start of the season, but was roped in as a replacement for an injured Manoj Prabhakar. Warwickshire signed him up for the season for a princely sum of £40,000. “The decision was not about how much money but that my best friend Dwight Yorke was playing for Aston Villa, Warwick’s football club. Playing for Warwick would mean getting to spend five months with Dwight,” says Lara. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice for the county too as days later, Lara struck 375, sending his value through the roof.
Or his world record innings of 501 against Durham, his seventh 100+ score in eight innings. “I got bowled off a no-ball for 10 and, on 14, the wicketkeeper dropped a sitter,” he gestures by cupping his hands. “I told the umpire this is it, my golden run was coming to an end.” But once the nerves settled, Lara took the bowlers to the cleaners. His 500 off 427 balls was played with an aggression that could match any modern-era blitzkrieg.
Throughout his career, Lara has remained that rare breed who has attacked as well as accumulated with equal panache. India’s No 3 batsman in Tests, Cheteshwar Pujara, reminisces about watching Lara during his formative years. “If Lara was in, West Indies could be 40/4 in one session, and 140/4 in the next. Lara could turn the game around from any point. In the 2000s, there were many attacking batsmen, even in Tests, but Lara predated them. He was among the pioneers of attacking cricket,” says Pujara. “It’s a special ability to consistently score quick runs, yet stay at the crease over a long period of time.”
Batting for long, though, wasn’t something that Lara spared much thought for at the beginning of his career, not until his fifth Test against Australia in Sydney. Unbeaten on 100-odd during a rain break, he came back to the dressing room basking in congratulatory messages from his teammates before coach and West Indian great Rohan Kanhai sat him down for a word. “He told me ‘Set your scores out’. I had no idea what he meant. ‘Your next innings starts from zero’, he said. Finally I understood. I needed to take advantage of the situation I am in. I had played myself in, I should make it count,” says Lara, who went on to score 277. Since then, Lara’s game plan has been not just to pile on the numbers, but to stay on “till the captain waves from the dressing room to call us in”.
Says former India cricketer VVS Laxman: “Modern cricketers have an important lesson to learn from Lara. While you don’t compromise on your flamboyance, you should never let go of your focus and concentration either. Being stylish is great, so is the appetite to score big runs.”
Santa Cruz, the town where Lara was born, to Port of Spain, where he now lives in a mansion on a private hillock (and has an open-door policy for “anyone who wants to drop in and say hello”), is a short, 20-km journey. But it has been anything but easy, he claims. Not just was it punctuated with slips in form—“I’ve had far more scores below 40 than above”—but also constant chatter about the goings-on off the field: Partying habits, late-night shenanigans. And Lara’s wriggled out of every corner he’s been hemmed in.
Put on probation as captain in a home series against Australia in 1999, following a disastrous tour of South Africa, Lara first scored a sensational 213 to level the series for Australia in the second Test; later, he went on to snatch victory from the brink of defeat in the third Test chasing 308, finishing the match with 153 not out in the company of last wicket Courtney Walsh, known for his tentative pokes and nudges. Tendulkar calls it an innings of “grit, determination and controlled aggression”.
“People talk about my failures or that I led a different life, but no one talked about how I trained. Preparation was the key and I don’t know why anyone would believe that I would walk in to bat without any. Once, I had gone jogging early in the morning and had run past the late cricket writer Tony Cozier. He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t know you do that’. Most of my success was on the back of hard work and preparation,” says Lara.
The extent of Lara’s planning and ability to execute came forth to Tendulkar in 1990 when the duo played together as part of the Rest of the World outfit in an exhibition match against Pakistan in Canada. “Batting first, Pakistan had put up a 300+ score and boasted a formidable bowling attack comprising Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Aaqib Javed and Mushtaq Ahmed. Lara and I stitched together a big partnership of 180-190 and chased down the total. It was a joy to bat with him and plan that run chase,” says Tendulkar whose name was invariably taken alongside Lara’s whenever there was a discussion on the greatest contemporary batsman during their careers. “He is extremely sharp and has a clear thought process. His calculation in terms of whom to attack and whom to defend is spot on.”
For Lara, it was simple mathematics of time versus efficiency. When he walked out to bat, he felt the bowlers had a 70:30 chance of getting him. With each ball, there would be a perceptible shift in power. “I would create my momentum based on that.”
He hopes that the current West Indian team led by Jason Holder, which is showing signs of a comeback, after having gone through over a decade of slump, deploys such clockwork precision to plan the road ahead. But it’s still early days, and resurgence is too strong a word at this stage, he warns. The team is building strong foundations by winning at home, but an aura of invincibility only stems from consistent shows abroad. He cites the World Cup match against New Zealand as a test case, a game he stayed up till nearly 3 in the morning in the hope of a miracle win only to be disappointed in the last over. “Where was the planning? If Carlos Brathwaite could score a century rallying with tailenders, what happened to the other set of players?” he asks. “We have exciting young talent, but you have to grow as a player because the game will only become tougher, tougher and tougher.”
He’s eager to mentor the young guns should they look him up, returning a favour the greats of his era had done to him: Sobers who would stand behind him in the nets and remind him to watch the ball every single time, not just from the point of release but as the bowler starts running in from the top of his mark, Desmond Haynes and the late Malcolm Marshall who he roomed with and whose brains he would endlessly pick until the latter would plead, “Please Brian, go to sleep, no more questions.”
“I’ve had so much in my cricketing career, yes a lot of disappointments too. But people ask me if I would have given up my period of play to be with the greats, or with the T20 era. Never,” says Lara. With the kind of CV he has the privilege of brandishing, it’s really a no-brainer.