The farewells and testimonials have been effusive, befitting someone of the stature of Brian Charles Lara. But, behind the carefully complimentary prose and the staggering, almost numbing, statistics, there have been both a tension and a hollowness.
A tension, because it would not be proper for seasoned journalists to write thinly veiled love letters to a player who has reminded them that beauty and grandeur are still part of professional sports, and a hollowness because last month Lara was in the cricketing world and the sun shone, and this week he is not, and everything is a little dimmer, and a little less worth doing.
At some point in the next few months, Sachin Tendulkar might regain some form, and peel off a couple of his perfect, soulless centuries, and the decade-old debate comparing him to Lara will resurface briefly. If he plays on for another two seasons, the Indian should pass Lara’s record test runs tally. Eventually, both men will be eclipsed by Ricky Ponting, if form and favour spare the Australians.
The current wave of genuinely awful international bowlers and batter-friendly pitches swamping the sport will no doubt also conspire at some stage in the next 20 years to catapult some hard-charging entertainer past Lara’s record score of 400 not out. But, whatever the lists look like when the last Test is played, or whatever the water-cooler debates insist about the merits of Tendulkar, Lara’s legacy will stand unchallenged. For nobody in the history of the game made as many runs, in such dire circumstances, quite so beautifully.
To watch Lara bat was to see the perfect combination of technique, intent, improvisation and confidence: genius, in other words. Before excess weight, hamstring injuries and horrific pressure plunged him into a form trough in 2001 and forced him to revisit his technique, every delivery he faced was a spectacle.
First would come the two-footed hop into position, back and across his stumps, as his body bunched and his eyes got low: future generations will struggle to reconcile those eyes, serious and intent in every action photograph, with the high voice, the shrugs at post-defeat press conferences, the wide, boyish smile in the few happy times.
Then came the back-lift, flashing up to the vertical, samurai-like. An instant of stillness. A flash of sunlight on willow, as an idiosyncratic flexing of the wrists sent a ripple of adrenalin through the blade: it was the same pulse one sees in the haunches of the big hunting cats before they launch.
And then the stroke, technically familiar, but eternally reinvented. The guillotine-like forward defensive, the bat slamming down in front of excessively high elbows, head bowed in an exaggerated pose of caution. The spanking cut, as vicious and cheeky as if he had rolled up a wet towel and whipped the passing rumps of an elderly dame at a health spa, and scampered off grinning. The famous raised-knee pull; the slightly wild hook, with its chaotic swivel, the crunch of spikes ripping up pitch as he rode the hurricane over backward square leg.
And, at last, the stroke one had come to see, and the stroke that made all the miscued shots or jogged singles worthwhile: the cover-drive, a flashing pronouncement of intent and domination, offset by touch and grace. To be hammered through the covers by a Tendulkar or a Ponting is to have bowled a bad ball; to be smoked to the ropes by Lara is to have been part of something great.
Many of those who have written eulogies for his career this week have mourned the fact that he failed to flourish in his final international appearance. It was an odd observation, partly because it overlooked the fact that almost all of the greats have stumbled at the last hurdle, but more so because it also seemed to ignore the reality that Lara’s one-day career since 1999 has been entirely forgettable, a procession of half-starts, bored surrenders and frenzied, ill-fated onslaughts.
Certainly, Lara was too great a player and has too refined a cricket brain to pay very much attention to one-day cricket. But perhaps there was more to it. After the England game he tried to insist, one last time, that he was a team man, but no genius is truly a team player.
When Lara batted, he was entirely alone, testing himself in a rarified space that only a handful of batsmen in history have known. To someone able to score 400, or to summon the will and aggression to beat Australia single-handed as he did in 1999 with what is widely considered the great Test innings of all time, an unbeaten 153, the nonsense and haste of one-day cricket must have seemed less than mildly irritating: the frenzy of ants caught in the beam of a magnifying-glass held by children or sponsors or committee men.
“Did I entertain you?” he asked as he tried not to cry in Barbados.
If only you knew how much, we replied, also trying not to cry.
First published in the Mail&Guardian