The most glorious sight for me on a cricket field is to see an in-form left-handed batter, blasting runs in full form. The southpaws among the batsmen are blessed with a natural grace that makes them an oddity in the times of wham-bham-thank-you cricket. Sourav Ganguly’s flamboyant cover drives, David Gower’s deft touches, Stephen Fleming’s leg-side flicks and Saeed Anwar’s wrist-play all make it worth your while to watch cricket.
There is one batsman, though, who shines among the shining, who is the classiest among a magnificient bunch of left-handers, and that batsman is Brian Charles Lara. He was easily the most gifted and classiest batsman I have seen. Every step of his seemed to have been choreographed to perfection. Be it the slight shuffle of feet before he launches into a seething cover drive, or the way he steps out of the crease to whack a spinner into the long-on fence, it was all doused with oodles of grace that would earn the envy of even a Zaheer Abbas or a David Gower. For me, the most enduring image of beauty in cricket has to be any of BC Lara’s cover drives and the follow-through poise he assumes post that.
Hours of practice and tons of effort will not earn this flair. The brilliance and genius of Lara’s batting is all natural and in-born. He was blessed with it and we are blessed that cricket discovered him. What he has earned through hard work is the stamina and perseverance that goes in building big innings. The only batsman to break the record for a highest individual test score and the holder of the title as the Highest Ever Individual score in a first-class game, Brian Lara knew not where to stop. I suspect he can settle down much earlier than other batsman and hence, saw the cricket ball, not as a 3-inch sphere, but a 12-inch football that he had absolute control over. Even his bludgeoning pulls and hooks would look like an operatic piece that should have been playing on some stage, and not on the 22-yard pitch.
I did not have the opportunity to witness either of his 375+ innings but I did see another that has to be my best Test innings, after the 281 by VVS Laxman. His 153 against Australia in 1998 is ranked as 2nd on the all-time best cricketing innings and no one who saw him play that morning would dispute it. It takes sheer audacity to beat the Australians, and in this case, plain craziness, considering the fact that West Indies were walloped in the series earlier, being dismissed for a grand sum of 53 runs. Lara must have walked out that day with Jimmy Adams knowing that he would have to play out of his skin to even save the match. But, he did not. Before the start of the play, he walked out that morning with a friend to plan out how to outwit the Aussies on a fast Kensington Oval pitch. It would not be unfair to say that the match was won by him – no other batsman even reached 50 from his side. But, he was the King of the Oval that March morning. Against an attack boasting of McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and MacGill, he took the attack to them and with style. They bowled short at him, he launched hook after hook. They bowled at him around the wicket to curb his off-side play and he scored deft touches off his leg. Not once did he lose his cool when runs slowed down or when wickets fell all around him. All he would have told the batter at the other end is to stay on and watch the show from the other end. They would have gladly accepted, I am sure. After 6 hours at the crease and with just one wicket left, he rounded off the match with a fitting glorious cover drive to the boundary.
Whatever his antics were off-the-field, he ruled the pitch when he was in his elements, with no bowler in the world who had the class to outwit his. Lara knew this well and his arrogance was all too evident in the way he strode to the crease or the lack of total disrespect to bowlers. He reportedly once told the batsman at the other end to watch ‘how he would toy with the attack’. I once remember him telling a TV commentator about how he liked scoring off ‘that some left-handed spinner in their team’. Unlike the analytical batsmen of Australia or South Africa, he went out there to enjoy cricket and God save anyone who came in the way of that. Well, he is so great that he deserves to be arrogant, I guess.
In some ways, the last few years have seen the final acts of classy batsmen I suspect. Lara, Anwar, Ganguly (he is no longer the Prince, that’s for sure), Fleming, Kirsten and Thorpe have all exited or are on the verge of exiting the game. The left-handers these days appear the descendants of a bull-ox-man mutant – Hayden, Graeme Smith, Glichrist all look like they have all slog and no class. Of all the batsman moving on, it is Lara’s absence that will be felt the most among the true fans of test cricket batsmanship.
No more graceful brushes of a painter. No more melodies from a soulful voice.