Stephen Thrope unveils the exciting talents of Brian Lara the young Trinidadian left-hander in 1991. Rapid assimilation of young talent into the higher echelons of the game has been a constant tenet of West Indian cricket over the years. The great George Headley (Black Bradman) made his debut in the first-ever home Test match against England in 1929, aged 20, and later, in 1954, the incomparable Garfield Sobers, when only 17, faced England in Kingston.
More recently, Deryck Murray, the current manager of Trinidad and Tobago, first played for the West Indies at 19, whilst Michael Holding, Carl Hooper, and Ian Bishop were all 21 on their first appearance. The syndrome is now evident again with one unassuming 22-year-old Trinidadian whose future seems assured after a single Test performance.
Brian Lara, a gifted left-hander, made his debut in Lahore last December 1991, scoring 44 in extremely trying circumstances against a dangerous Pakistan attack. He had been on the fringe of the side for two years already, a phenomenal achievement for a player of such tender years, but the historical precedents will encourage him greatly.
Though Brian Close, like Michael Atherton,was a special case, such instant progression is completely foreign in the more conservative environment of the English game. India has no qualms either in allowing youth to be flung, as Sachin Tendulkar proved, while last summer Majid Khan, the Pakistan Under-19 manager, expressed disbelief that John Crawley was not selected for the full Ashes tour.
Sensibly Lara, a level-headed, modest young man, is being spared the damaging effects of one-day cricket. ‘Obviously, you’d like to establish me as early as possible but it’s not easy forcing your way into the best team in the world. Patience is a virtue and I’ve got time on my side,’ he says.
He was surprisingly named in the West Indies squad for the Third Test against India in 1989 and, having been named 12th man, suffered his father’s death simultaneously. Graduating from Fatima College in Port of Spain and the Queen’s Park Club to the national team only the year previously, he had played in just nine first-class matches, which included an innings of 92 against Malcom Marshall and Joel Garner.
Maturity and outstanding leadership qualities, despite a schoolboyish demeanor, also earned him the captaincy of West Indies’ youth team in the inaugural World Cup in Australia in 1988. He then led the senior Trinidad and Tobago team in 1990 after captaining West Indies ‘B’ to Zimbabwe. A case of too much too soon, perhaps, since the experienced Gus Logie rightly replaced him as Trinidad’s captain last winter.
Comparisons with an eminent predecessor, Larry Gomes, are inevitable but Lara is arguably a more fluent, classy stroke maker off both front and back foot and consistency have become a byword. An eye for the main chance is also apparent.
In March 1989, captaining the Under-23 XI, he compiled a superlative 182 against India, admittedly on an ultra compassionate wicket in Basseterre, St Kitts. That effort of almost six hours, quick-footed and full of sumptuous cover driving and controlled sweeping, was watched by Vivian Richardsand earned him a collection, an unusual Kittitian tradition.
He earned a welcome bonus no doubt after previously refusing a contract with Ashton, the Central Lancashire League club. A month later he was a member of the senior squad on home ground at Queen’s Park but was eventually omitted in deference to Keith Arthurton, an important decision as it later transpired.
Last year, too, he top-scored with 134 for the President’s XI against England at Guaracara Park and Brian Lara in recent action for the West Indies Board XI v Australia, when he scored a quickfire 91 off 85 balls against the Australians in a rearranged one-day match at the same venue in March.
His dismissal here reflected another admirable side to his character when he sportingly walked after missing a square cut against Matthews. A knock of exquisite placement ended in controversy with the suspicion of Mike Veletta’s pads being implicated. Lara said, ‘They kept appealing and I asked Matthews whether it hit the stumps and he said “yes”. I thought the best thing was to go off.’
Anthony Lallacksingh, secretary of the local umpires association, later advised the scorers to record ‘retired’ after consulting both umpire’s emphasis in West Indies cricket, and as a response to the sometimes brittle stock of the middle-order. Technique and temperament are all at the Test level of course and Brian Lara, with wrists of steel, nifty footwork, and a glorious cover drive has both qualities in abundance.
In the strange way that names often reflect the character, Lara’s is just that, all smoothness and economy, rolling off the tongue like runs off his bat. His output in last winter’s Red Stripe Tournament was prodigious – 627 run in five matches including six consecutive fifties, a record which Desmond Haynes overtook only a week later.
During the match at Sabina Park against Jamaica, after Lara had made 122 and 87 on a difficult wicket, Michael Holding, commentating on local radio, remarked effusively, ‘he picks Lara first for the Test team, then looks for 10 others’. Nonetheless, he has gained high praise indeed from one commanding huge respect as both cricketer and man.
Brian Lara is undoubtedly on the threshold of a great Test career and his father Bunty would surely have been proud. But he still has the support of his mother, Pearl, and five elder brothers- Backing too from all those who purrs at the aesthetic in boatmanship. The calmness for his inclusion in an aging West Indies team reached a crescendo before the Third Test against Australia in Trinidad in April but he was still excluded.
The current break in England will not be his first; having freelanced here last year and played in benefit matches for Roland Butcher. Will it prove a final breakthrough? Either way enjoys him around the shires this summer. Le time will surely come as part of the shifting.