A man driven to distraction

Brian Lara's relentless pursuit of perfection has forced him temporaril y to leave behind the game he loves.Derek Pringle explores the tensions that exploded in the world's best batsman
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The Independent Online
BRIAN LARA, it seems, is not listening to anyone anymore. Not to his agent, not to Joey Carew, the West Indian opener who was his boyhood mentor, and certainly not to his conscience. If he had been, he would not have pulled out of the West Indies tour to Australia with all the vindictive timing of a spoilt child.

To snub the game and the team through which he has achieved hero status is a dangerous act, the kind of gesture usually made by those whose pride is unable to yield or by men close to the end of their tether.

The evidence is inconclusive. The greatest batting talent of his generation has always had a muleish streak lurking beneath the cloudless poise of his exterior. Once, when his father, Bunty, banned him from attending a football trial in his teens, Lara disobeyed him and played, damaging his knee badly in the game. In the recriminations and convalescence that followed, never once did the young Lara admit wrong.

It shows a wilfulness and bloody-mindedness that, once possessed, can seldom be diluted to suit the duller tastes of those less driven. Botham had it, Viv Richards had it, and Lara has it in spades.

But is Lara being unreasonable? Some believe his criticism of the West Indies management was a misguided attempt to show his own credentials for the captaincy, and that Richie Richardson's re-appointment for the tour was the main reason for his petulant withdrawal.

Bob Woolmer, Warwickshire's coach during Lara's phenomenal season there in 1994 and now coach to South Africa, believes the problems are more complex. "Basically, Brian is a nice bloke, who has very strong views on cricket and knows his own game. But he is very guarded and not good at communicating them," Woolmer said last week.

"For instance, he always felt we were doing things that suited Warwickshire but didn't suit Brian Lara." One such occasion was against Northamptonshire. Lara, having recently returned from Trinidad, wanted a game off to recuperate. When this was refused, he kept leaving the field to rest a knee injury. This led to Dermot Reeve, the Warwickshire captain, suggesting that the West Indian was a prima donna.

"You could say there was a clash of wills between him and the captain," Woolmer said. "Apart from Brian's atrocious time-keeping Dermot felt Lara's outspoken opinions were undermining him in the dressing-room and promptly ignored them." When Lara is snubbed, he withdraws deep into himself, rarely if ever allowing the slight to dissolve harmlessly.

It is a trait common to many from the West Indies, where cricket is an emotive force, brokering real social power. Disillusionment is bound to set in when people question the motives of players, as the West Indies Cricket Board have done by fining Lara.

Clive Lloyd, the captain widely credited with unifying the island factions of the West Indies, is deeply concerned by Lara's stance. "Something is radically wrong when a brilliant young fellow is unhappy and doesn't want to play. I believe he must be having problems with either the team or the management, or both, and an investigation ought to be undertaken. All this talk of him being tired is just a smokescreen. If anyone is tired, it should be the bowlers."

Not according to his British agent, Jonathan Barnett. "Brian mentally tired of playing cricket. Even when he gets 50 it's considered a failure. On the tour of England he was unhappy with the unprofessional management, so he walked out for two days.

"When Peter Short [the WICB president] came to England to talk him back to rejoining the tour," Barnett explained, "he gave Brian assurances that there wouldn't be any recriminations and that he needn't tour Australia. Although both these undertakings have been reneged on, I wouldn't have advised him to pull out of the tour."

It is a curious about-turn. The WICB has increasingly been criticised for its punishing itineraries and its hectoring attitude towards the players. To date, only the Antiguan contingent have made known their discontent. Last summer, one of them, Winston Benjamin, was sent home, while another two, Curtly Ambrose and Kenny Benjamin, were fined along with Lara.

It is not clear at this stage whether Lara sympathises or is a detractor horrified by the excesses the Antiguan element were allegedly allowed to get away with under their fellow islanders Richie Richardson and Andy Roberts, the team coach. But it is plain that Lara is used to taking situations into his own hands. He once said: "You sometimes have to put selection beyond the selectors." Something he has again done, this time relying on a fax rather than on sheer weight of runs.

By wielding the stick after offering the olive branch, the WICB were, quite possibly, in their own heavy-handed way, trying to save Lara, a supreme talent, from imploding. They seem to have realised the error of their approach, however, and on Friday Short was talking of bringing the matter to a happy conclusion that preserved the dignity of "both the WICB and Brian".

Lara is not easily assuaged.Last summer, during the Trent Bridge Test, an England bowler made a throwaway remark to Lara about making the most of the easy batting pitch, as they would not all be that flat. When handshakes were exchanged at the end of the match, Lara apparently refused to respond.

To most in the England side who thought they knew and liked Lara, it was completely out of character. When the niggling resurfaced at the Oval, the bowler in question, asked by Lara if he had anything to say after the batsman played and missed, responded: "No, I'm just privileged to be playing on the same pitch as someone who's bigger than the game."

It would be a shame if this heat-of-the-moment sarcasm proves prescient. As Woolmer rightly points out: "Brian needs to understand that cricket is the reason he gets all this attention. He must never forget that."

But as sponsors invoke clauses in the small print and vast sums of money are hastily withdrawn, Woolmer believes we should not be too dismissive or judgemental. "Right now there is nobody to guide him down the right path because no one's been there before. As far as cricketers go, it's unexplored jungle."