Brian Lara: The batting genius from Trinidad
Cricket enthusiasts have always been engaged in debates on deciding on the best from among two or more outstanding batsmen of their respective generations. Although the reader might differ (and digressions are welcome), but I believe that batsmen offer a more diverse study (in contrast).
Dominant hand aside, batsmen differ widely across physiological nuances in terms of stance (and head position), back lift, follow through and much more that’s visible more to a technical eye. A comparison of bowlers rests mostly on their numbers, whereas for batsmen, style of play is a factor in equal measure.
There’s always a dissection of a batsman’s style, apart from his technique and temperament. Or else, pundits would not banter Graeme Smith’s ‘ugly’ batting style while lauding his performances at the same time. On the other hand, Victor Trumper only averaged 39 in test matches, but is universally regarded as one of the greatest batsmen to have played the game, mostly on the back of his elegant (and brilliant) style of play. Style, it seems, does matter.
There was, by universal consent, no better exponent of style across eras than Brian Charles Lara. Any tribute to Lara is futile without a mention of that back-lift and the flourish that followed it. His contemporaries swear by that if the last penny was to be spent on something, it would be to watch Lara bat. Lara batting style, according to Ian Chappell, was a mix, and reminiscent of two swashbuckling West Indies batsmen; Sir Garry Sobers and Roy Fredericks.
In debates to decide who the better batsman was between Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, the diminutive Indian usually comes up trumps backed by an inference that he was more consistent than the former. This, I believe, is a grave misconception. For Lara was not all style, there was some serious substance that (sadly) made itself evident when few were watching.
A colossus in Tests
Lara’s career can be divided into three phases - from December 1990 to August 1995, from April 1996 to April 2001 and from November 2001 to November 2006. His form and numbers were similar in the first and last of these phases. However, he relatively struggled during the second one; averaging almost 20 lesser than in each of the preceding and following periods.
Lara averaged 60.96 from his debut till the end of the 1995 Wisden Trophy in which he triumphantly topped the batting charts with 765 runs with three centuries. Keeping a cut off of 1000 runs, his average was bettered only by fellow West Indies batsman Jimmy Adams (62.15). His two record-breaking innings of 375 & 501 were also registered in this period.
Lara's form fell away after August 1995 and he averaged 40.06. Although the world saw flickers of his genius in the 1999 Frank Worrell Trophy, where he single-handedly denied Australia a series victory with innings of 213 (Kingston) and 153 (Barbados), the inconsistency of such performances meant that his average (keeping the same cut-off) was placed 26th during that phase.
Starting from the 2001 test series in Sri Lanka where he aggregated a massive 688 runs, which is also the second highest aggregate by a batsman for a 3 match series, Brian Lara commenced on a prolific, but often in vain, run making period which continued right till his retirement. Keeping a 1500 run cut-off for the period, Brian Lara averaged 60.90, only behind Ricky Ponting, Mohammad Yousuf, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. The next West Indian on the list is Shiv Chanderpaul with an average of 49.40. His run-aggregate (5420) is also only behind Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden.
Lara also scored 19 of his 34 career centuries in this period, and was scoring a century every 4.8 innings, a rate bettered only by Mohammad Yousuf (4.19) and Ricky Ponting (4.21).
This period also saw West Indies plummet to new lows, the 50 Tests Lara played in, West Indies lost 29 and won only 7. For Lara to feature on this list is a testament to his genius and a statement on the state of affairs of West Indies cricket. Lara’s average in losses (53.17) is also the highest in this period followed by Jacob Oram and Mohammad Yousuf. He also holds the record for most runs scored in a match in a losing cause - 351 against Sri Lanka at Galle (2001).
George Headley once said that he’d be wearing his pads in the dressing room after the toss and that a wicket would fall and he’d have to go out to bat. At number four, Brian Lara is his worthy successor in this regard. His contribution to the total team score (20.07 percent) is easily the highest for any batsman, followed by Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting.
Lara was also one of the most consistent batsmen in overseas matches. Keeping a cut off of 1000 runs, Lara’s average in overseas tests is a mighty 59.75. Only Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Yousuf and Ricky Ponting have a better average. Also, only Dravid scored more overseas centuries (10) than Lara’s nine. The stylish left-hander also scored 4 of his 9 career double centuries during this period.
Much has been said about Lara’s huge appetite for runs. His nine double centuries are only behind Don Bradman's 12 and Kumar Sangakkara's 11. Also, for players who have scored at least 1000 runs in centuries, his average century score (173.2) is only behind Don Bradman, Zaheer Abbas, Stephen Fleming and Virender Sehwag.
Lara’s relish for big scores translated to huge aggregates in series as well. As of date, he holds the record for scoring more than 400 runs in a series a total of 11 times. He is followed by Don Bradman and Sunil Gavaskar who did it 10 times each.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Lara reserved his best against Australia and England. His first century was a majestic 277 against Australia at Sydney which is the second highest score for a first career century after Sobers’ 365 against Pakistan in 1958. Among all batsmen who have scored a minimum of 750 runs against them, Lara’s average versus Australia (51.00) is next only to Saeed Anwar, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.
Dropping the career span filter, Lara’s average comes down to being the 16th highest, but, his 9 centuries against them are joint-third highest after Sir Jack Hobbs and Tendulkar.
Lara’s record against England is even more formidable. For batsmen who have scored at least 750 runs versus England, his average (62.14) is sixth highest overall and third highest for West Indies batsmen after Headley and Sir Viv Richards.
For a majority of his career, Lara batted at number four. For batsmen who have scored at least 2000 runs at this position, his average (51.25) is 19th highest overall and second highest for a West Indies batsman after Sir Everton Weekes (63.62). His aggregate of runs at this position (7535) is next only to Tendulkar, Mahela Jayawardene, and Jacques Kallis.
It is while batting at number three that Lara’s numbers find few peers. Keeping the same cut-off as above, his average (60.46) is next only to Don Bradman, Ken Barrington, Wally Hammond, George Headley, Viv Richards and Kumar Sangakkara.
A match-winner in ODIs
Lara’s ODI career was a shade less glorious than his Test career, but it had its moments. He was at his peak as an ODI batsman in a four year period between 19 February 1993 and 12 January 1997.
Lara’s characteristic as a genuine match-winner stamps itself strongly in the one-day format. His average of 61.82 in ODI wins is second highest for West Indies batsmen (after Ramnaresh Sarwan). Overall, it is bettered only by MS Dhoni, Hashim Amla, Virat Kohli, AB De Villiers, Michael Bevan and Joe Root.
The fact that six of the seven batsmen ahead of him made their debuts in the relatively free-scoring decade of 2000s points to Lara’s exceptional ability to play match-winning innings in an era when scoring was curtailed by an array of quality pace and spin bowlers around the world.
The majesty of BLara’s stroke play was described best by Tony Cozier in one sentence. While executing a scorching cover drive off Makhaya Ntini en route to his 202 against South Africa at Wanderers in 2003, Cozier remarked:
‘Oh Glorious, now that’s the difference between Chanderpaul and Lara, that bat came from above his head and finished up above his head’.
Lara’s brilliance put him on a different pedestal altogether. At full flow (or even less than that), he made other batsmen look like what Neville Cardus exclaimed for Ranjitsinghji’s batting: ‘Plebeians toiling in the Sun’.