Brian Viner Interviews Brian Lara
The West Indies great tells how to deal with Warne and McGrath, why Vaughan must vary his tactics and why the Ashes series should go all the way down to the wire
Monday 18 July 2005
Lara has not yet decided whether to place any money on the outcome of the Ashes. But he is uniquely qualified to assess the two teams, having played 51 Test innings against England (at an average of 62.14; highest score, ahem, 400 not out) and 50 against Australia (average 51.45, highest score a feeble 277).
Indeed, any sense of superiority that fans of English and Australian cricket might feel as they prepare to watch the best two Test teams in the world playing for what is repeatedly called cricket's holy grail deserves to be punctured with a reminder that the greatest batsman in the game will be a spectator. And that Lara is the greatest there is surely no doubt.
There are those who would press the claim of Sachin Tendulkar, but it is the Trinidadian who heads the International Cricket Council rankings, who holds the record for the highest Test score, and who stands higher than anyone still playing in the all-time list of run-makers, third (with 10,818 runs) behind Allan Border and Steve Waugh.
All this, plus his experience of captaincy (albeit that he has been relieved of the job of leading the West Indies), makes me anxious to get his thoughts on the Ashes as I take my turn with him following a photocall in the gym of a north London school to publicise a new computer game called Brian Lara International Cricket.
But will he play ball? Great sportsmen have a tendency to get shirty on the subject of sporting encounters for which an accident of birth has rendered them ineligible. For example, when Greg Norman was at the height of his golf game, the Great White Shark used to get downright snappy with people who banged on about the Ryder Cup. Similarly, the Ashes are not the holy grail as far as Lara is concerned.
Happily, the great man could not be more accommodating. During the photocall I have watched him cheerfully lying for several minutes on his belly holding a bat with a small model car balanced on it, at the behest of a chap photographing him for a motoring magazine. So a conversation about the Ashes is unlikely to faze him. In fact, he even answers the one question I fully expected him to duck: if he were selecting a composite England-Australia team, perhaps to play a composite West Indies-India team comprising both him and Tendulkar, whom would he pick?
"[Matthew] Hayden, [Andrew] Strauss, [Ricky] Ponting, [Michael] Vaughan, [Damien] Martyn, [Andrew] Flintoff, [Adam] Gilchrist, [Shane] Warne, [Jason] Gillespie, [Steve] Harmison and [Glenn] McGrath," he says, with scarcely any hesitation. "The captain could be either Ponting or Vaughan, depending which of them is most successful in the Ashes. I think that would be an awesome side. To have Flintoff and Gilchrist together ... that would be awesome."
He smiles broadly at the notion, while I invite him to put his batting helmet on and consider the merits of the three men whose bowling performances may well swing the Ashes one way or the other: McGrath, Warne and Harmison. "Well, McGrath is not as penetrative as he was in terms of pace, but he still gets the ball in the right area. With him it's patience you need.
"He thrives on the fact that you can get impatient and want to take him on. He seems innocuous, like someone who can't get you out. In that way he's like [Shaun] Pollock. The minute you try to get aggressive, that's when things go wrong. I'm an attacking player, and I've been too aggressive against him in the past, although when I'm on song I know exactly how to play him. I think England should look at scoring maybe two runs an over off McGrath but not more than that. His impeccable line and length gets him all his wickets.
"Against Warne, it is an advantage being a left-hander but only until the fourth day when the rough appears. I try to read spinners and dictate to them, but they know very quickly if you're not reading them or if you're not confident. With Warne or [Muttiah] Muralitharan I watch only the fingers. Never the run-up, only the fingers. Will it be a leg break, a googly, a straight ball, a topspinner? If I can read it then they can't dictate to me, I dictate to them.
"But you ask me only about McGrath and Warne. The other guys, Gillespie, [Brett] Lee, [Mike] Kasprowicz, they're all match-winners too. You can maybe score more quickly off them but they're match-winners.
"That's the thing about Australia, they have a team of 11 match-winners. Most teams around the world, including England, have a few match-winners and a few supporting players. Not them. You can't single out one player, or disregard one.
"With England it's easier to single out the vital players, like Harmison. His strength is his bounce. He's a similar bowler to [Courtney] Walsh, [Curtly] Ambrose and [Joel] Garner in that way, although he maybe has even a bit more pace than those guys. But you know, international batsmen can handle most things. Yes, on his day he can get anyone out, and the Ashes will put a bit more spring in his step, but you can't afford to be fearful of any one bowler because it's an entire team you're playing against. As soon as the Australians say they must keep Harmison out, their wickets will start falling. They mustn't pinpoint him. I think they will handle him OK." It is beginning to sound, I venture, as if he doesn't give England a prayer.
"No, I wouldn't say that at all. I think they could win. But it will be a very tough summer, and it will be good to see them with their backs against the wall. They haven't been beaten much in Test cricket in the last 18 months, and they have shown a lot of character, but that character is really going to be tested."
It is all very well suggesting that Australia are a team of 11 equal match-winners, I say, but surely some of them are more equal than others? For example, if there is a more destructive batsman in world cricket than Lara himself, it must be Gilchrist, the difference being that the Aussie wicketkeeper comes in well down the order.
"Yes, he's a tower of strength to them. And he doesn't get small hundreds, he gets big hundreds. When Australia were in trouble in India he would come out and play a blinder. So you're right, he's a key figure. In a Test match, if the top six do their job against you then you're thinking of drawing the match. If they don't do their job then you're thinking of winning. That's different with Australia because all of a sudden this guy comes in at seven and changes the whole complexion of the game. I've seen it happen many times. But Flintoff can do something similar. He comes in when 60 or 70 overs have gone and the bowlers are tired and can change the game."
Let us now consider the two captains. Lara's own captaincy has been much debated, and the expert consensus is that it fell some way short of genius. But then it was his misfortune to captain a West Indies side that, him and perhaps a couple of others apart, stood not the slightest comparison to the great teams of the past. After all, it is often said that Clive Lloyd wasn't much of a captain either, but then with Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding at his disposal with the ball, and Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes Viv Richards and himself wielding the bat, he didn't have to be. Whatever, Lara has seen Vaughan and Ponting at close quarters.
"Vaughan didn't have to do much against us because we didn't play very good cricket in the West Indies or in England. But I know that he's very patient. He brings on a guy like Ashley Giles after 40 or 50 overs, when some captains get their spinners on as quickly as possible. Good captains know the strengths and weaknesses of their teams and make decisions accordingly. I think his captaincy will come in to play more than ever against Australia, and it will give a proper picture of how good he is as a captain.
"Could he show more imagination? I can only speak of our matches against England, and yes, he could be a little more innovative. He has a pattern, and you sometimes need to swerve away from it when you're under pressure. But then we didn't put England under pressure. I can't knock a guy who led his team to seven wins in eight matches against the West Indies.
"Ponting is a different sort of captain. He's more involved, more hands on, and always wants to make things happen. That's an asset but it can also be a liability. Sometimes you can change things just for the sake of changing them."
Lara's agent wants to whisk him away. But I have to ask him about the state of West Indian cricket, and his own future in the light of his chippy relationship with the selectors. He is not in Sri Lanka at the moment, thanks to a row about sponsorship.
"I think the people in charge of the game in the West Indies have shown a lack of respect for the game. That is what has really diminished the talent we have. Yes, there are other things that distract people from cricket, like basketball scholarships to American schools. But the same things are happening in England and Australia. Here is a sport that has been around for 150 years, while sports like basketball have just come on the scene, relatively speaking. As present-day cricketers and administrators we must ensure that we make youngsters want to play, and give them the proper facilities.
"I want to keep playing until West Indian cricket has turned a corner and is becoming successful again. But I'm 36 now and I've seen a lot of players dropped and never selected again. I have no plans to retire yet, but I want to leave the game when I choose to, not when someone chooses for me."
Whenever that time comes, it seems likely that one of the greatest batsmen the game has known will hang up his bat without ever having raised it at Lord's. Never scoring an international century at the home of cricket, he concedes, will be an enduring regret.
"It is not one of my favourite grounds. My five favourites are Newlands, Trinidad, Adelaide, Sydney and, of course, the Recreation Ground in Antigua [where he scored his 400 not out against England]. But I cherish the atmosphere there. Every time I've gone out to the middle, walking through the Long Room, it's been wonderful, tremendous.
"When I do retire, I've heard that honorary membership is a possibility. I'm looking forward to that. And I'm looking forward to seeing what happens there between England and Australia." Amen to that.
'Brian Lara International Cricket', from Codemasters, is released on Thursday (www.codemasters.com/brianlara)
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