In April, the 25-year-old Trinidad and Tobago and West Indies batsman scored 375 runs in the fourth Test against England in Antigua, breaking Sir Garry Sobers’s 36-year-old record for the most runs scored in a single innings in Test cricket. Less than two months later, in June, just as ecstatic media people were coming down to earth and starting to think of him as only a superhero, he scored 501 runs for his English county side, Warwickshire, the most runs ever scored in a single innings in the history of first-class cricket, and propelled himself back into the realms of the supernatural.
For three months Brian Lara remained the darling of the English media. He could do nothing wrong. Even when he answered his mobile phone on the playing field during one of the first matches he played for Warwickshire, reporters were not angry but delighted, and penned gushing stories about his innocence. Twice he was the subject of glowing editorials in no less a journal than The Guardian, probably the best broadsheet paper in Britain.
When he returned to Trinidad for five days in June, two British television crews and every national paper in England covered his holiday as news. Brian Lara was the only story in the United Kingdom, and everyone wanted it. His sheer talent, his natural exuberance and his ability to shatter records at a glance made him good news for everyone.
And then something happened. Soon after the 501, he stopped making centuries, almost stopped making runs, every time he went out to bat. Scores of 12 and 13 and 6 and 0 began appearing after his name. The exhaustion he he’d been fighting off since the day he made the 375 began to take hold and Brian Lara became statistically less staggering and visibly less keen.
One day, he was two hours late for a match because he chose to drop his Trinidadian girlfriend to London’s Heathrow airport; another day, it took the Warwickshire captain’s personal entreaties to help him to summon up the willpower to overcome a knee injury and go out to bat. Rumours of dissension in the Warwickshire dressing room began to circulate; the enthusiasm of the British media cooled. For some cricket writers, the hero became a target. The Prince of Port of Spain began to be cast as the Prima Donna of Port of Spain, the man who thought he was too important to do anything except bat.
His business deals, which newspapers had been celebrating on his behalf, began to incur resentment. When he complained of not being able to attend to personal problems because he was “always in the middle” he found little sympathy.
But Lara himself did not change. He remained the same as he ever was: a modest, well-mannered young man from a good Catholic West Indian family, doing his best to have as ordinary and fulfilling a life as one can when one happens to be the world’s best batsman. At every press conference after every spectacular innings Lara did his best to deny the greatness everyone else sought to thrust upon him. “One score cannot make you a great player,” he said time and again, “and there will be times when I will not make runs.” But of course no one believed that. How could Brian Lara not make runs?
“It’s been too much,” Lara admits. “It was overwhelming. You just wonder, in two years’ time, will they still want to talk to you? A lot of important people are going to come and want to be your friend, but they weren’t interested in you in years gone by. It’s been very tough over the last few months.”
As soon as he broke Sobers’s record in April, Lara came under unimaginable pressure. Everyone who knew anything about cricket, and many who didn’t, wanted to meet him personally. To say that Lara was mobbed after the 375 is an understatement, like saying that the Beatles were quite popular in the US in the sixties. By rights, Lara should be clinically exhausted just from shaking hands and signing autographs.
It’s not that Lara tires easily. All his sporting life, Lara has amazed even his closest friends and playing companions by his ability to party all night long and score first-class centuries the morning after. Michael Carew, Lara’s fellow Trinidad and Tobago opening batsman (and a man Lara regards as his brother) recalls that one of Lara’s most important big scores – the 180 for Trinidad and Tobago that won a Red Stripe Caribbean Cup match against Jamaica at Sabina Park – came after a night of partying (though not drinking) until 4 a.m. The same thing happened the night before he made 148 against Barbados.
Such stories are not exaggerations: the night before the game in which he made his 501 at Edgbaston began, Lara was awake until after 2 a.m. being interviewed for this story.
Lara’s powers of concentration have been admired by the best cricketers alive. He says he relaxes at the batting crease by letting his mind wander between deliveries, because “you can’t get out while the bowler is walking back to his mark.” Batsmen of high pedigree will tell you they focus their minds on their batting long before they walk down the pavilion steps and fight to maintain concentration until the moment they lose their wicket; but Brian Lara notices pretty girls in the crowd in between balls.
But after April 18, Lara’s personal D-Day, the day when he became a superstar and a piece of public property, his schedule became impossible. Business deals demanded his presence in Trinidad and Tobago and England (his personal appearance fee was last reported at £2,500). The strain of full-time cricket as an English county player was new to him: he simply did not realise what it would be like to play all day, every day, week in, week out. If Lara had not been signed by Warwickshire, 1994 would have been like the last few years, and he would have had several months’ rest from competitive cricket.
The greatest pressure has been the demands made on him by other people, notably journalists and favour-seekers. Whether he is in Trinidad or England, all Lara’s telephones (phone companies have given him free mobile phones in both countries) ring all the time, and he answers them nearly all the time. It is generally someone who wants him to do something or go somewhere, often for charity, usually for free, often refusing to take no for an answer.
It is a lot to get used to in a short time, and Lara has had very little space or time to himself to deal with the new, accelerated aspects of his life. People in normal jobs can take their phones off the hook or stay away from the office. But a cricketer has to stand in the middle of a cricket ground, under the attack of bowlers and the scrutiny of the world, and try to sort everything out. Part of Lara’s drive to excel is a conscious wish to please his late father, Bunty, who died on the first day of the first Test in which Brian was chosen for the West Indies 13 (against India in 1988). His father never physically saw him play West Indies Test cricket. After scoring both the 375 and the 501, almost the first words out of Lara’s mouth were that he wished his father could have been there.
“I never really got the opportunity to be really good friends with my father … Now, today, I can imagine the kind of relationship my father and I would have. My playing for the West Indies would be a dream come true for him. I suppose the father-son relationship would have got so strong there that we could have been very good friends now.”
Brian Lara’s personal foundations are laid firmly in family. Bunty Lara devoted the last years of his life to his youngest son. He used to carry Brian around like a toy, recalls Joey Carew, the former Trinidad and Tobago and West Indies batsman, and a man Lara thinks of as his second father.
Because it was convenient for cricket, Lara lived at the Carew family home in the Woodbrook suburb of Port of Spain from the time he was 14 until very recently, and he is still very much at home there. “They took care of me way before I was who I am now,” Brian says. “I was just a little kid, 14 years old, from Santa Cruz, and there was just pure, true friendship, and I would say real love.” In a sense, Brian Lara comes from two good Catholic Trinidadian families, not just one.
If he is not at the Hilton, Lara still crashes out in Michael Carew’s bedroom in Woodbrook while he is in Trinidad. (There is a single bed and a spare mattress. Whoever gets in from his night out first takes the bed; Brian invariably sleeps on the floor.)
But the first thing Lara does on returning to Trinidad is drop his suitcase off in Woodbrook and go to Santa Cruz to visit his mother. Pearl Lara crops up unprovoked in her son’s conversation over and over again, whether in reference to his religious belief (“I’m not for any particular religion. I think that if I can sit down and have a chat with God, pray with Him, I think that’s good enough for me”) or in a discussion about respect for one’s elders. His home is in Santa Cruz, in the hills north of Port of Spain, where he grew up with his 10 brothers and sisters.
Joey Carew‘s influence on Lara’s career has been great. It was Carew who organised his first important professional association, a job with Angostura, the Trinidad company which makes the world- famous Angostura bitters. Seven years ago, in the bar of the Queen’s Park Oval, Clive Cook, the Angostura CEO, told Carew that his company wanted to hire Lara, or at least pay him a salary. Cook’s intention from the start was to give Lara the financial security that would enable him to concentrate on becoming a professional cricketer. Carew persuaded Lara to remain in Trinidad, with Angostura, rather than go to England to play league cricket.
Lara was hired to work in the marketing department with the vague notion that he would “do something” for Angostura. For a while he made desultory excursions with salesmen; one manager went so far as to say Angostura was wasting its money backing Lara because he was just a gofer. And then Lara approached Cook and suggested that he might be better used in doing promotions; so began the public appearances and school tours for which Lara is very well-known in Trinidad.
Clive Cook, like most of the people who have worked with him, is a keen Brian Lara fan. It does not take Lara long to build up reserves of loyalty with people he meets. His Trinidadian and English agents think the world of him and go to great lengths to protect his interests. At Angostura there is a cashier named Sandra Awai who, long before he was the success he is today, covered her workspace from wall to wall with his posters. Lara always stops to chat with her whenever he visits the Angostura offices; when he was shown the list of Angostura employees Cook thought should be invited to official state functions celebrating the 375, Lara noticed Awai’s name was not on the list and immediately picked up a pen and wrote it in himself.
Brian was first given the captaincy of the Trinidad and Tobago team at the tender age of 20, when the conventional wisdom (outside the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board of Control) thought he was still too young for it. He had not yet played Test cricket (although he had captained the West Indies “B” team) and there were players on the Trinidad and Tobago team who were West Indies Test team members.
He had a difficult time making the team work as a unit: an apocryphal story is told of him giving a bowler the ball and telling him to bowl and the bowler throwing the ball back to him and saying, “Nah, I don’t feel like bowling. You bowl.” But he learned from the experience, and today the Trinidad and Tobago team will do anything for their captain.
Lara has a distrust of journalists (asked whether he considers them “a necessary evil,” he replies: “No, an unnecessary evil”). “I waved to a girl I knew in the crowd at Lord’s from the field and she waved back, and before her hand could stop moving a reporter was sitting next to her asking if she was my girlfriend and wanting photographs of her. These things are frightening. They can turn anything into something really monstrous so you’ve got to be really careful.”
But he tries his best to accommodate the press. In fact, Brian Lara tries his best to accommodate everybody.In part, this is due to the thing called “manners” that used to be drilled into children in Trinidad: you do not enter someone’s house without saying “Good Morning.” You say “Please” and “Thank you.” You give up your seat for an elderly person on the bus. And you don’t turn down an interview if you can fit it in between the photo opportunity, the charity dinner and net practice. Brian Lara’s good manners often get him into trouble. The morning after the series of interviews for this story was finished, for example, he insisted on driving me to the railway station, although it made him late for the start of play. He would not hear of me taking a taxi after I’d been a guest in his home for three days.
How could someone with that outlook allow his girlfriend to go to the airport unescorted? The day he dropped his girlfriend to the airport and was late for cricket he got into trouble. The day he dropped me to the station and was late, nothing happened. Of course, he did make 501 runs later in the day, which may have deflected criticism.
Most of Lara’s friends and associates are either themselves sportsmen or keenly interested in sport. His best friend is Tobago-born Dwight Yorke, the Aston Villa striker, whom he met while playing under-12 football for Trinidad and Tobago. They play golf together whenever they get the chance at Edgbaston. (Lara loves golf, but he is yet to make the sort of impression in golfing circles that he does in cricketing circles. In fact, he is yet to make any impression in golf at all. Getting through a hole on par is a major achievement for him, and he is still undecided whether he should play with left or right-handed clubs.)
Off duty, Brian Lara can be lively, playful and entertaining. He’s a Carnival addict: “I love Carnival. It’s the best time you could ever have, it’s the most relaxing thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s free from everything.” He has an amazing repertoire of jokes, for example, and can keep a dinner table laughing for an entire meal.
He loves going out to dinner, particularly to Chinese and Italian restaurants; after the cricket ground (and possibly nightclubs), restaurants are the places where he relaxes most. The night before he scored his first Test century – the 277 against Australia that turned the series for the West Indies, and the innings that he himself rates as his best – he went out to dinner with Desmond Haynes to a Chinese restaurant and, over Desi’s anguished protestations, ordered duck.
Many people will tell you confidently that Lara thinks he is the best batsman that ever lived and has always thought so. But Lara himself will insist that it is too early in his career to talk of being great. He does have a good opinion of himself (if you held the two most important batting records of all time, wouldn’t you?), but he also has a good head on his shoulders and a solid steady foothold. He knows what he is doing, even if media people aren’t sure.
“I might not be as marketable as I am now two months from now,” he says. “I’m trying to get a foundation laid where everything will move smoothly from here on. It’s been very hectic but it will cool down and I will be able to have time for myself.”
You can’t help but like Brian Lara. He’s a man who learns from mistakes, and can deal with setbacks. He is cautious with new people and new experiences, treating them in much the same way as he would a new ball in a game of cricket: he knows very well that it takes only one ball to get you out and that a new ball is dangerous. So he plays it very carefully. When he is satisfied that he has taken the shine off it, he starts to place the ball pretty much where he wants, when he wants, scoring boundaries at will.
The only real question to be answered is how high and how far he can go. Only he can answer that. His prodigious talent will not go away, and he won’t suffer a personality change because of his successes or failures. After the 1994 dust has settled, the original Lara will still be there, playing cricket as best as he can. He may or may not regain his status as Most Favoured Batsman with the British press, which is searching for a new monarchy to make up for the disappointments of Charles, Diana, Fergie and company, but it is unlikely to bother him either way in the long run.
In August, Brian Lara was named vice-captain of the West Indies team for its tour of India. He is a professional, and his innings has only just begun.