Lara fulfils prophecy of a Marxist mystic

'Some young romantic will extend the boundaries of cricket with a classic perfection... and a whole race of bowlers will go underground for 15 years'
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The Independent Online

According to Brian Lara, or at least his ghost writer, the weight of Caribbean history was heavy on his shoulders when he went to the wicket at Old Trafford and delivered that glorious shellburst of an innings.

According to Brian Lara, or at least his ghost writer, the weight of Caribbean history was heavy on his shoulders when he went to the wicket at Old Trafford and delivered that glorious shellburst of an innings.

"Maybe," he wrote, "this is the time for us to draw some motivation from the history books. There is no doubt in my mind, and several renowned Caribbean thinkers like C L R James have written at length on the subject, that the history of how the West Indies came to be has provided a massive inspiration for our cricketers through the years." Rarely since the eve of Agincourt has a man of action made such a swift transition from patriotic sentiment to thrillingly executed, valiant performance.

Here, where we yearn so desperately for a quickening of the blood when our national teams take to the field, we can only weep for all the times that the likes of Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan gave their arid tactical pep talks when they could have been recalling the Charge of the Light Brigade, or, perhaps more appropriately after the Portugal result, the defence of Rorke's Drift.

However, sometimes there is a piece of sporting action which drives a huge hole into the most practised of cynicism and if Lara's summoning of old battles, and ancient hurts, seemed to be stretching it a bit, it is still true that at the crease he lacked only a warrior's breastplate. Lara, as he has done from time to time before, played with an exquisite passion, a self-possession and a single-mindedness that validated all those fears that his absence, as once seemed so likely, would have heavily impoverished this English summer. Whatever happens in the remaining Tests, we have been touched by the greatest of talent, and this is somehow only accentuated by the fact that on this occasion it was not without flaw.

Indeed, at times it was more than anything a sheer triumph of will. This, you would have to believe, would have most pleased the man whose name Lara invoked before one of his most important innings. C L R James, the author of the classic Beyond the Boundary who asked what anyone knew of cricket who only cricket knew, was the Marxist mystic who saw in the game a beauty which soared beyond its painful association with the colonialists who heaped so much oppression on his people.

He revered above all others Learie Constantine, W G Grace and Frank Worrell, but he refused to be locked into the past. He died before the rise of his fellow Trinidadian Lara, a circumstance which, given his idealistic streak, no doubt deprived him of joy and despair in roughly equal measure. But James was sure there would be other great players, and perhaps one above all in the way of a Grace or a Bradman; what he couldn't know was the amount of distraction and pressure they would find in a world changing beyond his, or any contemporary's, power to grasp.

Wrote James: "Some young romantic will extend the boundaries of cricket with a classic perfection. He will hit against the break so hard the poor bowlers will wish he would go back to hitting with it. He will drive overhead and push through any number of short legs, as W G Grace used to do, and a whole race of bowlers will go underground for 15 years. We will extol his eyesight, his wristwork, and his audacity. He may come from Pudsey or South Sydney, Nawanager or Bridgetown, and he will be doing what W G did, so reshaping the medium that it can give new satisfaction to new people."

For a little while, around six years ago, we thought that the messiah had come from Cantaro, a sprawling little township a few miles along the highway from Port of Spain. But then James's projection of a heroic new cricket empire, centred on one young man's genius, said as much about the innocence of the world the writer inhabited as the one his saviour of the game would inherit.

I flew to Trinidad with Lara, along with what seemed like roughly half of Fleet Street, after he scored his record-breaking 501 against Durham. He was bemused by his entourage, and readily reached a compromise that in return for a few days of freedom on his favourite beaches he would devote the best part of a day to public relations. He led a convoy to his mother's home in Cantaro, a spotless little house dominated by a sewing machine in the parlour. His mother spoke of her pride in her son's achievements - though she pointed out a little testily that it did not stretch to that of Curtly Ambrose's mother, who was known to run into the street ringing a bell whenever her son claimed a wicket - and how as a boy he had smote little green oranges with the bat made by one of his brothers. You had to wonder then how well the new life of Brian Lara would survive in all the glare.

By chance, Viv Richards had been on the same flight from London, which had put down in Antigua, by schedule rather than the King's command. At one point of the journey, Lara slept, cradled by his great hero, who declared: "It makes me so proud that this boy has become a man so quickly. This boy who I kept back a bit when I was captain of the West Indies because I knew he was so special and I wanted him to grow in his own space, his own era. He has set himself the greatest standards any cricketer has achieved. I'm a religious man and when people told me cricket was dying, I said, 'Man, a Moses will come to deliver us.' Well, Moses has come and his name is Brian Lara."

It wasn't quite so and the more you thought about it, the more improbable it seemed; Lara had moved from one world to another, and it was no longer one which permitted the kind of parting of the waves which had been routine work for Grace and Bradman and Sobers. Lara talked bravely of his challenge, though. He said, "I'm telling myself that these are just scores I've put up [the 501 against Durham, the 375 against England in Antigua which broke the watching Sobers' record and prompted Lara to kiss the ground]; I have big scores, but I know that in the past players were not great at around the age of 25. When it's all over, I just want everyone to say when they look back at my time that I was consistent towards my cricket."

They have rarely said that since that great eruption in 1994. One flew from Trinidad to Los Angeles for the onset of the American World Cup of football, and within hours of arriving witnessed the murderous drama of O J Simpson, when a great nation appeared to be going collectively mad. C L R James spent quite a bit of time in America, but he would have been as mystified by the Simpson circus trial as the complications that came into the life of a young compatriot who was blessed with a sublime ability to hit a cricket ball. But no doubt he would have been thrilled by what happened at Old Trafford last Sunday afternoon. He would have reached out hungrily for the remnant of a dream. Like the rest of us.

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