Cricket: Lara justifies use of overused superlatives

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the things to be learned from Brian Lara's match-winning 153 against Australia in Barbados on Tuesday is that sportswriting is all too frequently debased by immoderate assessment.

Tremendous by any standards, thrilling, daring and gutsy in the face of Glenn McGrath's hostile fast bowling, Lara's innings justified all the superlatives showered on it from the commentary box by past cricketing heroes.

Impressions of class trip too lightly from the tongue in a sporting era when people use "great" for "average", "sensational" for "good", and "immortal" for "competent", but there was no rush of irritation here when Jeff Thomson declared that he had seen genius at work.

The more you think about the circumstances of an effort that held me rivetted to Sky TV's transmission for four hours, the more you have to agree that Lara merited Thomson's estimation.

Until Lara compiled a double-century in the second Test to level the series he had not reached three figures for more than 12 months. He was held to account for the recent loss of all five Tests to South Africa. On Tuesday afternoon, Lara found himself at the crease with only four wickets left (although Jimmy Adams provided commendably stubborn resistance) and Australia's target a distant one.

Fearlessly, Lara took the initiative, cutting and driving to such effect that Australia's leg-spinners Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill were battered out of the action. With only two wickets in hand the West Indies were still 60 short but Lara got them there, victory completed with a flashing cover drive.

After a certain age, the heroes of our youth are always more mythic, larger than life, than those we acquire later on. You secretly think that Don Bradman and Denis Compton would have plundered today's bowling attacks. That Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney would have adjusted effortlessly to the pace of modern football. That Willie Pep would have made utter nonsense of Naseem Hamed's claim to be one of the great featherweight champions. Weren't the summers hotter, the winters colder, days longer, nights darker, then? Hasn't the world shrunk since you grew up?

Trouble is that too many sporting conclusions are reached without the benefit of comparison. How can any of today's footballers be put up against Pele and the equally talented Alfredo di Stefano if you never saw them? The greatest batsman I have ever seen - albeit towards the end of his career - is Bradman. The best fast bowler, Ray Lindwall. Muhammad Ali is the best heavyweight of my experience but respect is held out for those who saw and argue in favour of Joe Louis.

Given technological developments in golf, isn't it possible that Ben Hogan and Sam Snead would have been as long from the tee as Tiger Woods? Equally, it is hard to imagine that Jack Nicklaus's probably unassailable record of major championships could have been achieved against today's depth of talent.

You can go on and on like this, however it gets me no further from the aggravating fact of glib appraisal.

A habit of some football commentators and writers is to confer superior status on players who have yet to prove that the gift they were born with can be successfully applied at the highest level. To my mind, the term "world class" in its purest form implies serious consideration for a team chosen from the best presently playing. In a wider, more illustrious context, it can be applied to the best ever.

For some years now I have gone around with a list in my head of eight footballers who figure beyond all reasonable doubt in the highest category. They are: Pele, Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, George Best, John Charles, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. Many came close, but not close enough in debate with managers and coaches to make disagreement more than marginal.

Apart from natural talent, the quality common to all those players in their prime was determination.

Along with rare powers of skill and imagination, it stood out in the marvellous innings Lara played on Tuesday. A genius of his game. No question about it.