Wednesday, Feb 12, 2003
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Brian Lara is dancing again and the world had better watch out. Showing the freshness of a child at breakfast and the maturity of a man unafraid of his responsibilities the mighty left-hander reminded supporters that great stages belong to great players.
Over the years Lara has played many thrilling innings but few as controlled as a masterly performance that provoked admiration from spectators even as it caused dismay.
Teammates responded with some brilliant strokes in the last few overs as the South African attack was torn apart. By nightfall the worst fears of the host had been confirmed as by the slenderest of margins and in the most exciting of circumstances South Africa was beaten. Now there will be a spring in the West Indian step.
Not for a long time has a team from the Caribbean shown such spirit. Pune was its nadir two World Cups ago as a miserable bunch of players went with long faces to the University town and were beaten by Kenya. Pride was missing and only in recent times has it started to reappear.
For years the team depended unduly on a couple of bowlers and a single batsman, Lara, whose misfortune it had been to emerge with his team at low ebb after a decade of domination. The West Indians could win at home but were worse travellers than game shows.
Last festive season, though, the team went back to India and won a few matches. Carl Hooper had reappeared and seemed to have a grip upon himself and his players. With Lara and others restored and the side chosen on merit the West Indians were looking forward to the tournament.
Lara was inspired. Never mind that he had not played competitive cricket for five months. Never mind that West Indies had crept to 7/2 in 7 overs as his innings began, as the openers pushed around with the suspicion of hated dictators at a plate of food.
Never mind that the pitch was slow and his team depended on him. It was his day.
Nothing was going to stop him for he was hungry and prepared. Lara has never been a man for the humdrum. Like most top sportsmen he yearns for the roars and the spotlight for then he will dance.
At first the Trinidadian batted cautiously, taking a look at bowling and pitch and holding himself in check. His narrow scrape against his first ball settled him down, as his edge flew inches wide of second slip.
Upon such inches matches are won and lost, fortunes made and squandered. Not that he looked rusty, for the importance of the occasion helped to focus a mind that inclined to wander.
Lara does not live and breathe the game as some men do, cricket does not so much possess him as flow through his body. Often he craves for release and then he drifts away or else loses form for even geniuses cannot play the game half-heartedly.
Perhaps his illness has been a boon, allowing him to recharge his batteries. Some cricketers need to play all the time to maintain rhythm, others can pick up a bat and use it like a baton or, in the Trinidadian's case, a magic wand.
From the outset Lara concentrated hard and his placement was outstanding as he guided the ball to leg or else lashed it through the covers. Meanwhile colleagues struggled against an accurate attack. Lara timed the ball sweetly and drives, lofted or grounded, flashed to the boundary whilst sweeps eluded fine leg.
Nor was the left-hander flustered when the scoring slowed. He did not score for 17 balls at one stage and still believed in himself enough to take his time. This was a finely paced innings. Ambition could be detected in his play.
Doubtless Lara was pleased that his team had been managing without him. He is not a man capable of changing the mood of a team, merely a match. He responds to happiness and withdraws when sourness is around.
For years Lara had been not so much part of the West Indies batting as its entirety. Now he was helped by partners willing to give him the bowling. Accordingly Lara was able to gather momentum as he set about the destruction of the opposing forces.
Nor did he waste time or strength and it is hard to think of a single forcing stroke that was intercepted by a fieldsman.
The runs flowed and the South Africans fell back in disarray. Lara reached three figures, departed and his replacements responded with a memorable assault
Lara has given his team a fillip and the competition a magnificent start. After all the arguments the cricket was underway, and the great men had come to play. Moreover a challenge was issued to other batsmen. Now it is up to Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Inzamam and company to follow in his wake. Lara has reasserted himself... Every time his career seems over he produces the sort of innings few can play.
Lara did not merely stamp his authority on this match, he imposed himself on the tournament. First blood to the West Indies, first points to an underdog on a day upon which a great cricketer rose and a powerful side fell.
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