At 26 Brian Lara is already so wearied by the weight of public expectation that not even next year's World Cup excites him

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The Independent Online
One way of thinking about the stress implied by Brian Lara's refusal to turn out for the West Indies in Australia is that it would be endured happily by any number of less fortunate people.

Probably, if the fact of Lara's disenchantment with continuous cricket was explained to the many millions worldwide who will never know a permanent roof over their heads and where the next handful of sustenance is coming from, he would be told to count his blessings and get on with the game.

Another point of view, one with which I have some sympathy, is that demands made on the best team players today, especially stars of Lara's brilliance, take little or no account of the possibility of burn-out.

At just 26, Lara it seems, is already so wearied by the weight of public expectation, the prospect of being required to go on repeating feats that justify comparison with the greatest batsmen in history, that not even next year's World Cup excites him.

Despite the debilitating effect of a dispute with the West Indies management that resulted in the pounds 2,000 fine he and three other players incurred this week for a breach of discipline, Lara left us last summer with the glorious memory of three centuries in the last three Tests. Nobody who saw it will ever forget the third, an epic effort at The Oval.

What we now discover is that Lara walked out in mid-tour and had to be coaxed back into the team. You may suppose this to have been a childish fit of temperament but something rather more serious was suggested when he secured release from a contract to play a second season for Warwickshire and risked the wrath of his sponsors.

The promise of a break before the World Cup indicated that the West Indies were in sympathy with Lara's problem, so why select him for a comparatively unimportant tournament? Was their cut of the proceeds dependant on Lara's participation?

This, of course, is what sport, certainly cricket and football, has come to; more or less a year-long grind with little or no opportunity for rest and recuperation. Doubtless many think it a privilege but there is a limit to what the leading performers can deliver. Locked into the agreements their employers reach with television and sponsors, they are often called upon to appear before recovering from injuries. The painkillers any number are persuaded to take carry the threat of crippling arthritis.

People in individual sports have it better. If usually committed to a minimum number of events, they do not have to keep going out there. For example, more and more leading golfers these days ration their appearances. As Walter Hagen once put it, there is sense in taking time to stop and smell the roses.

Getting back to Lara, a good question could be asked of cricketers from past generations. Did Sir Donald Bradman, Denis Compton and Sir Garfield Sobers ever feel the strain evident in Lara's behaviour? Tours were long but not as frequent. The impression you get now is that the authorities are concerned mostly with making a great deal of money.

In the light of recent history it is nauseating to hear them prattle on about moral obligations and responsibility to the public. Life is tougher underground and on an oil rig, and even in advanced societies the majority have a mundane existence, but there is often a price to pay for sporting prowess.

Last week, when speaking about the dip in form a now revitalised Ryan Giggs experienced last season, the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, wondered whether it resulted from too much football. "I sometimes worry about the number of games they are asked to play," he said. A safe bet is that not many club chairmen share Ferguson's concern. Shamelessly, they suppose that by paying wages they are keeping to their end of the bargain.

An interesting feature of Lara's case is that presumably it involves the West Indies captain, Richie Richardson, who was recently granted time off to recover from what was thought to be a nervous breakdown.

If something similar was not identified in Lara, there is even more cause to be fearful of where sport is heading.