Earl Best explores a Grimm WI tale
The story is too good to be true; it has the clear ring of fiction.
Once upon a time there was a boy who dreamed of becoming the best batsman in the world. He ate, drank and breathed cricket, practised batting constantly with rudimentary equipment and eventually joined a club where he honed his talents to the point of mastery. Sent to a school where he was allowed the freedom to develop his gifts, he became the captain of that college’s side, then of his country’s youth side and finally of his country. By the time he was promoted to the helm of his regional team, as batsman he had gone where no one had gone before and been dubbed The Prince of Port of Spain.
Twenty years later back in Santa Cruz, Trinidad, where the Prince grew up, there was a boy who dreamed of becoming the best batsman in the world. He ate, drank and breathed cricket, practised batting constantly with rudimentary equipment and consciously modelled himself on the Prince, who happened to be his cousin. Eventually joining a college where he was allowed the freedom to develop his cricketing gifts, he finally came through the ranks to earn a place on the regional team and get the opportunity to go as batsman where no one, including his cousin the Prince, had gone before.
And he has, says the Prince of Port-of-Spain, the wherewithal to finesse his fine hand and “become one of the great players”- if he has the maturity to withstand the pressure that will now be brought to bear on him.
On the evidence of the last two months, Darren Bravo, now up to #21 on the ICC’s top batsmen list, has the maturity that Brian Lara says he requires. The potential evident in the scores he posted in his first outings in the full maroon cap in Sri Lanka last year has mutated into consistent achievement, half-centuries giving way to big centuries. Uncannily, as has been the focus of so much commentary, there is a very close parallel between the early progress of the Prince and of his would-be clone. Bravo’s first 12 Tests yielded 941 runs at an average of 47.05, the exact same numbers posted by Lara in his first dozen Tests. In Test number 13, the Prince treated his home fans to a splendid 167 against England at Bourda whereas against India in Mumbai in his 13th, DB stole Sachin Tendulkar’s thunder, winning over the home fans assembled to witness the Little Master’s 100th international century with his brilliant 166, one short of Lara.
But there’s more. Lara’s 941 contained seven 50s and the magnificent 277 he scored against Australia in January of 1993, which several respected commentators maintain is his best ever innings and which gave his daughter, Sydney, her name. In Bravo’s 941, there were six 50s, one short of Lara and a near double century. That 195, made against Bangladesh in Dhaka last month, is without doubt so far the best of Bravo the Younger’s 24 Test innings although it is doubtful that its venue will give its uninspiring name to any of his scion if and when they do come along.
In a pre-World Cup interview last March, Bravo had this to say to ESPNcricinfo’s Dileep Premachandran:
When he was playing, and even now, I’ve always looked at the way Brian batted. (…) He was obviously my hero and role model and someone I look up to. I can remember games I stopped watching once he was out. I’ve been really lucky that we’re so close.
“My hero and role model,” he says, not just his role model. And it is important to notice that he says that he has “always looked at the way Brian batted.” (my emphasis). So, although it may be invidious to raise it at this juncture, it has to be pointed out that, as far as role models go, despite his stellar career as batsman, the now 42-year-old Lara is not exactly the model’s model; he is hardly just what the doctor ordered if we are talking about more than batsmanship, if we are talking about “heroes.” The best interest of West Indies cricket requires that we call attention early to the dangers of untrammelled emulation, of unrestrained adulation, particularly if the model seems likely to hold good beyond the boundary as well.
But lest I be accused of prejudice, here’s what ESPNcricinfo’s player profile of Lara, whose 11,953 runs, amassed in 131 matches, make the once world record holder Test cricket’s current fourth-highest run scorer, says:
In the space of two months in 1994, Lara’s 375 and 501 not out broke world records for the highest Test and first-class scores, but sudden fame turned him into a confused and contradictory figure. During an inventive but largely fruitless spell as captain of a fading team, Lara reiterated his genius by single-handedly defying the 1998-99 Australian tourists with a sequence of 213, 8, 153 not out and 100.
The World Cup offered him a chance to bow out on home soil and on a high, but it was not to be. He showed glimpses of his abilities, but one fifty in seven innings was not enough as West Indies went out with a whimper. He quit, one ODI short of his 300, amid rumours of bitter disputes with administrators. It was a sad, but perhaps inevitable, way for such a genius to bow out.
On Bravo, for the moment, there is still little for current biographer Sidharth Monga to comment on. This is what he offers:
Darren Bravo is living proof that imitation is the best form of flattery and learning. Only he chose to do it with one of the most inimitable masters of the game. To try to imitate is one thing, to pull it off at Test level, to imbibe it so much that it becomes you, is quite another. Brian Lara’s cousin and Dwayne Bravo’s half-brother, the younger Bravo, used to watch cricket only for Lara. As soon as Lara would get out, Bravo would switch off the TV and go out to bat. The result was not quite The Prince, but a talented left-hand batsman with the same walk, the same backlift, the same flourish, the same footwork, the same mannerisms.
“Right down to the same Lara leap upon reaching a century,” he adds.
“To try to imitate,” says Monga, “is one thing.” To do so mindlessly, say I, is quite another, especially when we are dealing with a model which, in the words of Camilo José Cela, is “no para seguir sino para huir.” (“not to follow but to avoid”). The list of what has come to be called euphemistically Lara’s “indiscretions” is long and well documented. There is neither the space nor the need to reproduce it here. It is, however, useful to recall that the flawed genius has never been a great respecter of authority. Starting with his very public altercation with national captain Gus Logie and progressing through his equally public dismissal of his regional captain Richie Richardson, Lara has evinced scant regard for those whom he perceived to be standing in his way.
Having been unjustifiably catapulted into the captaincy hot seat at the expense of the long-serving Courtney Walsh in 1998, his first act as the team’s leader was to call, on the way to South Africa, a players’ strike for increased wages. He got his way. Often. Too often. It arguably undermined the authority that he needed to make a success of the task of turning around the fortunes of West Indies cricket. At the end of the first of his three unsuccessful strikes at the captaincy, he was forced to concede that his tenure had been marked by “modest successes, devastating failures.”
It is useful, I think, to remind ourselves of the circumstances under which Lara prematurely bowed out of the international arena, a few runs short of a 12,000 Test aggregate. The record shows that he retired but there is more than a suggestion that he jumped before he was pushed. After the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, Michael Holding, never one to fawn at the feet of the Prince, told an ESPNcricinfo commentator that there was only one move that would bring positive change for the West Indians. “Lara has to step aside, not necessarily as a player, but as captain,” he said. “He appears bigger than the game. He has got whatever he has wanted.”
“We haven’t seen an improvement when he has taken over the captaincy,” he continued. “Everyone knows he’s a great batsman but that’s not what it takes to lead a team. I can’t even say he is a good captain tactically.”
Colin Croft, who has rarely pulled his punches on any issue, agreed that Lara’s time had come. He wrote that “It is very obvious that the West Indies players are either not reacting positively to the captain or that they are not as good as the people that have selected them think.”
Some fans, too, added their voices to the growing chorus of disenchantment with the highly successful batsman as captain of the regional team. “What we are getting is simply not good enough,” one Barbadian told AFP in the middle of the tournament. “I don’t see them winning another game. This is over for us. Lara should go, he should retire from the game. He is a great batsman but his leadership is weak.”
Overhearing this contribution, another supporter shouted, the reporter tells us, across the room: “In all my days I’ve never seen us as bad as this – we can’t take this any more. Time for a change. We have to get rid of Lara.”
In his final media conference, Lara implicitly criticised the Board and suggested that, were he the one making the decision, things would have happened differently. Asked whether he had planned to leave the game after playing against England because that was the team against whom he had made his two world records, he responded: “That was not the plan. I think it is just a coincidence.”
And he added, curiously, “I saw Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge – all these guys wanted to go that little extra step. Unfortunately they were not granted the opportunity to. For me to call the shot today, at least I had the opportunity to say goodbye officially and when I wanted to.”
He also more than once said that he did not “see myself regretting this decision.”
“What I have to do is just wish the team and the new captain all the best,” he went on, “and try to persuade the West Indies Cricket Board to ensure that the captain and the team have the support that is necessary from them.”
Finally, he made it clear that the decision to omit him from the party for the tour to England was not his. “I don’t know anything about any selection. I know I sat with the selectors in Antigua to pick the team for England and, of course, I picked myself. That’s all I know at this present time.”
And he followed that up with this very curious statement: “I have informed the President that I want to move on with my life. So I think I have done the right things and allowed them an opportunity to move ahead with West Indies cricket.”
Today, Lara remains a consistent critic of the West Indian cricket set-up but nowadays it is usually constructive, insightful criticism, designed to improve the lot of those who continue to represent the region. So why do I dredge up all of these negatives at this stage? Is the point of all this to tarnish the image of the Prince which he has been working so hard to burnish? Two weeks ago, speaking in the capacity of a T&T ambassador at the World Travel Market in London, where he was part of a contingent trying to sell the country as a tourist destination, Lara told an ESPNcricinfo correspondent that “the administrative infrastructure for cricket in the West Indies has to improve before the team can become consistently competitive again.”
Last month, speaking at the ceremony to induct 13 new sportsmen into the Trinidad and Tobago Hall of Fame, he damblayed those sentiments to the Trinidad Express’ Kwame Laurence:
“The infrastructure for our cricket is very poor and there’s nothing to build on. I still believe that what we’re seeing out in the middle is raw talent. I don’t believe they’re getting what is necessary to harness their talent.”
“Until I see a few things done administration and infrastructure-wise, I still believe we’re going to have those sporadic performances where we’re going to beat the best in the world but it’s not going to be on a consistent basis.”
Diplomatically, the new T&T ambassador stopped short of commenting on the nature of the administrative and infrastructural changes he would like to see implemented. And neither interviewer attempted to draw him on the vexed question of the continuing exclusion of Chris Gayle. Or the role being played by the current coach Ottis Gibson in the reshaping of West Indies cricket. But one wonders just what are the ex-captain’s thoughts on the Jamaican ex-captain’s situation. Does he feel, like me. that Gayle is being hard done by? Or does he feel that a man who cavalierly and prematurely announced the death of Test cricket is simply getting his just desserts? Does he feel. like Gibson appears to, that Gayle has given his best and it’s time for him to move on? Or does he feel, like me, that young Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieran Powell, whose 100-run opening partnership initially set up the 229-run West Indian win over Bangladesh in Dhaka, would find their cricketing feet far more quickly if they batted often with the left-handed veteran at the other end? Does he think, like me, that Gibson prefers the malleable Bharath to the less plaint Lendl Simmons and is determined to promote both over the player whose record shows no fewer than three Test double centuries as an opener? Or is it simply that Gibson, with his paltry two and three Test wickets, is so insecure as to feel threatened by the presence in his team of a man with three triple centuries, 91 Tests and 6000-plus Test runs to his credit?
Perhaps Bravo, too, will one day amass the statistics and assume the cricketing stature to make him feared by insecure coaches and a voice respected in the West Indian space. But he must know that he can do so without traversing the controversial path travelled by his “hero.” He can do so without becoming “a confused and contradictory figure.” He must attempt to ensure that when the time comes to make his exit, there is inevitability but not sadness surrounding his departure, not at any rate because he has sullied his reputation.
And whether or not in the end his first-class record boasts a 100, 200, 300, 400 and a 500 innings, he must ensure that his CV does not feature any of the “indiscretions” that in many eyes have made the cricketing Prince a pauper.