Lara's back, but is he still the best?

Last summer, he was hailed as cricket's new genius. Now, as the West Indies prepare to face England, there are signs Brian Lara is merely mortal. Tim de Lisle reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This year's Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is the 132nd, and a first. Never before has the little yellow bible been promoted with "POS" - point- of-sale material, dump bins and so forth.

The reason is partly that the publisher, John Wisden & Co, has engaged a new distributor for the book - the much bigger, and more overtly commercial, Penguin. But mainly it's down to one person. There he is on the dump bins, in life-size, full-colour, high-gloss cardboard: a handsome young black man, not wearing cricket whites but holding a copy of Wisden. "I rewrote it," says a caption. "Now you read it."

This is another first: Wisden has never been endorsed by a player. But that is what happens when Brian Lara is involved. Things change. Rules, as well as records, are broken.

The endorsement says much about Lara's standing, and about the workings of contemporary sport. When the Penguin marketing department had the idea, Lara was at home in Trinidad. Penguin negotiated with his agents in England, Jonathan Barnett and David Manasseh. They agreed to give the endorsement for nothing, on condition that Lara wore the logoed leisurewear of his principal sponsors - the baseball cap that says Mercury Asset Management, and the T-shirt that advertises Joe Bloggs clothing. A Penguin executive flew to Port of Spain with an old Wisden (the new one was still being printed) and a new cover to wrap it in. They got the picture. Wisden is now near the top of the non-fiction best-seller list.

And Brian Lara is back in England. He arrived on Monday with the West Indies squad for a tour that lasts all summer. Tomorrow, weather and selection permitting, he will play in the traditional curtain-raiser at Arundel. It is a year since he enjoyed the purplest patch in the history of batting: 375 against England in Antigua on 18 April, the highest score ever made in a Test, followed by seven centuries in his first eight innings for Warwickshire (another world record), culminating in 501 not out, the highest score ever made in first-class cricket, against Durham at Edgbaston on 6 June.

Lara's performances since have been no more than very good. Even so, he is the biggest star in cricket today. And as stardom, like any other currency, is subject to inflation, it is not overkill to suggest that he is the biggest star the game has known.

On Tuesday, the West Indians invited the media to their West End hotel. After the press conference, four players were available to reporters: Richie Rich-ardson, the captain; Courtney Walsh, vice-captain; Ian Bishop, fast bowler; and Lara. Richardson had an audience of three, Walsh and Bishop two each. Lara sat surrounded by 19 of us.

He is 26, but looks younger. He has smooth skin, a thin moustache, small ears and flawless teeth. Two of the features of his batting stay with him off the field - a still head and an effortless elegance. Small (5ft 5in tall), he would be perfectly formed if it weren't for his bloodshot eyes. He suffers from tyrigium, a persistent condition that makes the eyes scratchy and filmy, and which eventually requires an operation. (As the commentator Jack Bannister remarked, Lara will be quite a player when he can see properly.)

Already, after only a year of fame, he has been subjected to myths and misinformation. It is reported that he has vowed to make a century in all six Tests this summer. Asked to confirm this, Lara says: "I never said that." Next day's Sun repeats the story anyway. When the deal with Mercury Asset Management was announced, several papers said it was worth £500,000 a year, and labelled Lara cricket's first millionaire. The true figure was £40,000.

To be a top sportsman is to be in marketing. Lara could hardly be more marketable if he had been put together in a laboratory. "We've been very im-pressed with him," says Richard Royds, the director who signed him to MAM. "He's a genuinely nice person."

Even Lara's twin peaks, the 375 and the 501, are nice round numbers. If he had made 374 and 502, it would have been just as phenomenal, but not so lucrative.The trouble with feats like these is that the rest of your career can be an anticlimax. Some argue that Ian Botham, and even the England team, never really emerged from the shadow of Botham's comic- book heroics in 1981. If Lara's 375 cast a shadow, you would never have known it. It was his final innings of the Caribbean season. He joined Warwickshire nine days later, and just carried on where he had left off.

But there had to be a dip some time. It came when Lara next played Test cricket, for the West Indies in India last November. In the first Test he failed in both innings, making 14 and 0, and the West Indies lost. They rallied to square the three-match series, and Lara played his part with 50, 3, 40 and 91. It was a measure of his new status that he was reckoned to have had a bad tour.

In the English winter, he also went to South Africa, to do some PR for the township cricket programme ("a great honour") and to New Zealand on another West Indian tour. He got into trouble for arriving late, made only two in a rainy first Test, but bounced back with 147 in the second and 161 for once out in the one-day internationals, when he also captained the West Indies for the first time.

From New Zealand he flew to London, dropped in on Birmingham to sign up with Warwickshire for three more years, and went home to face Australia. His scores in the Tests were 65, 9, 88, 44, 24, 14 not out, 65 and 0, for an average of 44. Not bad, but not enough: the series was lost, and with it the West Indies' 15-year unbeaten record. Lara says he was "very disappointed" with his contribution.

Batsmen come in two broad categories: dashers and accumulators, showmen and yeo-men. Botham and Gower were dashers. Boycott and Border were accumulators. What is unusual about Lara is that he is both. He is as dashing as any dasher, and as accumulative as any accumulator.

He is both the hare and the tortoise. That 147 against New Zealand was the lowest of his four Test centuries. The first time he reached 100 was against Australia in Sydney in 1993. "If you get a hundred," Richie Richardson told him, "make sure you go on and make it a big one." So he did: he made 277. Sir Gary Sobers, by general consent the greatest of all West Indian cricketers, was in Sydney to see it. "It was obvious," Sobers writes in the foreword to Lara's ghosted autobiography, Beating the Field, "that here was a very special player with all the qualities needed to pile up really big scores."

The book is illuminating about that innings. Lara says that it was his best performance, better than the 375 or the 501, because of the circumstances - Australia had just gone 1-0 up, thanks to the leg-spinner Shane Warne, but Lara's innings turned the tide and West Indies won 2-1. And he reveals that it was his first double century - not just in Tests, not just in senior cricket, but at any level.

So his insatiable appetite emerged only when it counted. Lara's publishers are trumpeting him as "indisputably the world's number one batsman". It is far from indisputable. In the series just finished, he was outplayed by Australia's Steve Waugh.

In cricket's league table of individuals, the Coopers & Lybrand ratings, Lara is ranked fourth. Top is Jimmy Adams, another West Indian, dogged, glamourless, known only to cricket buffs, but harder to get out than anyone, even Lara.

It doesn't matter. Lara is the most famous batsman in the world, and the most entertaining. He is much more than the sum of his runs. He understands better than any other current player that batting is brinkmanship. Other batsmen are brought up to defend unless they see a chance to attack. Lara attacks unless forced to defend. He places the ball like a snooker player, and hits it like a whiplash.

His trademark shot is the riskiest one not in the book. He receives a straight ball, shapes to play it placidly back to the bowler, and then at the last second flicks his wrists and whips it at right angles past the fielder at square leg. In cricket's ample vocabulary, there is no established name for this shot. The Australian commentators call it the hip clip. One day, perhaps, it will be known as the Lara.

Cricket fans in this country know a lot about him, and yet have seen very little. He has never played a Test here, his Caribbean appearances have been shown only on Sky, and not even he could change the longstanding tradition whereby a few thousand is a good crowd for a county match. The armchair army have never watched him make runs. This summer, they can't lose. If Lara does badly, it will be a great thing for England. If he does well, it will be a great thing for everybody.