Cricket’s finest ambassadors, West Indies, are in town and tickets for the five match limited overs series are selling like hot cakes. Sri Lanka and West Indies have engaged in some of the fiercest rivalries the game has seen over the years.
Sri Lanka’s first ever international game, in fact, was against the mighty Clive Lloyd’s side in the inaugural World Cup in 1975. Anura Tennekoon’s side was blown away for just 86 runs as the opposition’s fast bowling was fierce. Hundreds of supporters traveled to Manchester from London to witness the historic game but they could not see any action as the game was over before noon!
Many West Indies teams have since visited Sri Lanka and individual players have left an indelible mark. Of all those individuals, Brian Charles Lara’s splendid effort, in the 2001 tour, will be fondly remembered by Sri Lankan fans. No batsman from any cricket playing nation has dominated a single cricket series as much as Lara did nearly 20 years ago.
Lara was not only the best batsman of his generation; he was a freak. Many are the struggles a batsman goes through on his way to his maiden Test hundred. Often, soon after the player reaches the milestone of a hundred, he gives it away. The elation of reaching the elusive landmark, fatigue and the assurance that his place is secured for the next few games make him throw away his wicket. Not Lara. His appetite for runs was insatiable. He reached his maiden Test hundred, in Sydney, against a strong Australian side, in 1993. It was his fifth Test match. The 23-year-old from Trinidad didn’t just stop at the hundred. He went on to score 277. A new star had been born; the press all over the world rejoiced. Those 80,000 fans who witnessed carnage over the five days at one of the most beautiful cricket grounds had little doubt that they had seen the next big thing in the game.
When Lara’s daughter was born two months later, he named her – SYDNEY!
England, the country that gave birth to the great game was quick to spot his talent. Warwickshire signed him up as their overseas player in County Cricket. The same county would go on to sign up our own Kumar Sangakkara in 2007!
Like with Sanga, Warwickshire hit a gold mine with Lara in 1994. He established the World Record for the highest First Class score when he made 501 not out against Durham in Birmingham.
Lara did have his share of luck. He was dropped by wicketkeeper Chris Scott, who innocently pleaded, ‘Oh God, I hope he won’t go on to get a 100. Gods weren’t keen to answer Scott’s prayer as Lara was busy breaking the World Record.
When the West Indies arrived in Sri Lanka in 2001, Sanath Jayasuriya’s side was on a roll. The team had won a first ever Test series against Australia and then beaten India, too. Muttiah Muralitharan was at his peak and was ranked world’s number one bowler. Batsmen were having trouble picking his doosra.
Lara was in a league of his own. He smashed 178 and 40 in Galle. In Kandy, he was given out wrongly in the first innings where he made 74 and followed that up with 45 in the second essay. He reserved the best for the last, hitting 221 and 130 in the SSC Test.
Kumar Sangakkara was the wicketkeeper. There’s no batsman in the world he has not sledged. The articulate former Trinitian often gets under the skin of batters turning up the heat and many have cracked under pressure.
The Spectator asked Sanga once whether he had ever sledged Lara during that series. ‘I don’t mind sledging. But when it comes to certain players, it is better to keep quiet. Lara is one such. Why invite trouble? I didn’t want to be the person to make him angry and then be at the receiving end.”
Most people who passionately love Sri Lankan cricket want their team to do well. But when they are up against an artisan, they don’t mind admiring him. Lara was one such. Even the opposition players admired his skills.
Murali simply had no answers for Lara’s versatility, in 2001. On wickets that were turning square, Lara would give the bowlers the charge and clear the boundary with ease. Batting on difficult wickets looked a walk in the park for him.
Before him, players like the late Martin Crowe, Mohammad Azharuddin and Andy Flower had had success against Murali. But none dominated the world’s best bowler as much as Lara.
Despite all his heroics, West Indies were whitewashed 3-0 in that 2001 series. Many teams had suffered similar fate at the hands of Jayasuriya’s well-balanced side. The wickets obviously were tailor-made to local spinners. The press was elated with their team’s efforts and some of us went overboard comparing Jayasuriya’s team to even that of Sir Don Bradman’s Invincibles of 1948! Lara was bemused. He was quick to remind us of something. He said, “Next year, Sri Lanka is coming to the West Indies maan. We’ll show you maan. We’ll show you how to prepare wickets.”
True to form the return series in the Caribbean was played on green tops and the ball rarely spun. The Sri Lankans had lost their aura. After the series, Lara recognized us and minced no words. He said, ‘You guys wrote shit. Now eat it!’
Several years later, during the Super series in Australia between the hosts and World XI, The Spectator came across Lara at the lobby of the team hotel – Four Seasons and greeted him. ‘Brian, I covered that series in 2001 in Sri Lanka when you made 650 odd runs against us.’ Lara was quick to correct The Spectator. “Go away! I did not make 650 odd runs. I made 688 runs. Don’t steal runs from me,” he said.
That was Lara. He remembered every bit. Truly, he is a freak!