Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A cut above

One of the cricket magazines I have just begun writing for is planning to do a feature on who they consider to be the five greatest batsmen of the modern era. They have identified Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting as that elite group and they have asked five people to “act as advocates” for one of the quintet.

Naturally, my advocacy is for Brian Lara, and while I have never been enthusiastic about this business of comparing players, especially when they are all classy and their differences do not necessarily indicate superiority; I was also determined not to veer off into the kind of wishy-washy, non-committal tone so annoyingly associated with academics when they try to offer analysis. In accepting the brief, I figured I would go all out and tout the reasons I think Lara deserves to head that quintet. After all, this is as subjective a task as any.

That they are all batsmen of class is indisputable. These are men who have made the heart leap by the sheer beauty of their strokes. The way I look at it, greatness is a really spectacular word, wearing a heap of accessories. To admit all the batsmen whose willows have made us weep would be careless.

It had to be the aggregation of different elements: character, ability, spirit, stamina, charisma; a broad range that feels impossible to define until as you mentally collect qualities, an image of Viv Richards comes striding out to meet you, and you just know.

Except for Kallis, all have been Test captains. Except for Lara, who went in 2007, all retired in 2012 and 2013. In this order, they are the five leading Test run-scorers of all time: Tendulkar (200 matches, 15,921 runs), Ponting (168 matches, 13,378 runs) Kallis (166 matches, 13,289 runs), Dravid (164 matches, 13,288 runs) and Lara (153 matches, 11,953 runs).

But in reflecting on the five: on their careers, their teams, their eras, the circumstances— cricket and otherwise—under which they established their stardom, it struck me once again that Lara had carried an unimaginably heavy load during his years as a player.

Of the five of them, representing India (2), Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, only Lara had the misfortune to have been part of a team that was unrelentingly skittering downhill for almost the entire duration of his career. Despite all the personal records he established, in his three stints as captain he would never know the thrill of leading a team with a formidable reputation—not even a competent one.

Not only that, he grew up during the period when the West Indies team was establishing itself as world champions, and it must have been profoundly disturbing to finally enter the environment that your childhood mind has idealised only to find a seething mess of discontent and disunity. The veneer of a powerful unit was maintained by the polish of professionalism of the team members, but that was quickly being eroded by the false moves of administrators.

The history of West Indies cricket over the past 20 years traces how the cracks appeared and were ripped open by the constancy of betrayals, lies and broken promises. It tells of how talent falls by the wayside without nurturing, and it tells many other stories—all bound to repeat themselves ad nauseaum if proper interventions are not made.

I’ve come to this because as I looked back at Lara’s career, the events of today are so often repeated in the past 20 years (and further, to be frank) that it is tiresome to even discuss it. Early in his captaincy, Lara had complained about disunity; about how hard it was to manage a bunch of guys from different cultures, and how parochial selection policies were.

Once again in West Indies cricket there is another eruption, echoing the discordant chords of two decades of unhealing and unlearning.

A Bravo comes home. Reasons undisclosed. The elder Bravo says the team is fragmented; disunity was the term he used—a rather striking one, given his generally upbeat, carefree outlook, which makes one rather inclined to associate him with bonding.

The Test captain says changes are coming and hints that his job might be on the line. Word on the street is that some altercations have taken place. Officialdom, as usual, has nothing to say. The coach remains fixed despite a regional call for his resignation. He has been there for a long time, hasn’t he? But then, such calls are now unreasonable. After the humiliating 5-0 Ashes defeat, England team manager Andy Flower was bluntly asked why he did not resign. He baulked visibly, then said, “I’ve been very proud to be part of English cricket. I was not proud of the way we performed in this Test.”

And so, things keep rolling on, without anything fundamental being changed. It has been hard to keep optimistic over the years. Too much has been said and too much ignored.

For being able to survive and shine through that morass alone, Lara can top the list. But there is much more. Greatness is so complex.