'Him black, him beautiful, him the 501 man', which wouldn't have pleased the Joe Bloggs executive standing to Lara's side

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The duties of the international cricketer on tour are many, diverse and onerous: an endless round of travel, training and tonking medium pacers about in country matches; of signing souvenir bats in a hundred dressing- rooms and signing the register in a thousand hotels. Plus, if you are Brian Lara, spending most of the Tuesday afternoon before a Test match sitting in Debenhams in London's Oxford Street being treated as if you are a member of Take That.

Lara was at Debenhams (rather than, say, in the nets with his team-mates) as part of his contract with the Joe Bloggs jeans company. It must be a great thing for a jeans manufacturer to be associated with someone like Lara: to have the player's record-breaking achievements so readily associated in the public mind with their brand. But you can't help feeling the wrong firm signed him up. Another well-known jeans manufacturer, you would of thought, would be able to make far better mileage out of his record of 501.

Nevertheless, Bloggs must have been delighted with the turn-out at Debenhams: not even Ian Botham in his prime would have attracted this much interest. Hundreds of people were there to see the great man, filling the bottom of the shop's atrium with a jostling scrum of the over-excited. A woman in a Debenhams blazer reckoned there was almost as big a crowd as the day a couple of Christmases ago when Claudia Schiffer had turned up to sign copies of her calendar, a publication in which she appeared wearing diminishing quantities of clothing as the year progressed.

The reception he received, too, was not what he would have been used to at cricket grounds, even on those record-breaking days. A master of ceremonies wearing micro shorts and a pair of boxing boots had simmered up the crowd for half an hour before he appeared, turning the heat to boiling point when Lara was spotted making his way across the shop floor in that languid loose elbowed way of his.

"Here he is! Here he is!! HERE HE IS!!!," squawked the MC, as if Elvis himself had dropped in on Debenhams for the afternoon. "Everyone say owzat, owzat, OWZAT!!!"

The crowd, barely held back by a couple of over-stretched security men and a line of rope, bawled and squealed their "owzats" like Dominic Cork in particularly mad-eyed form. They were a diverse congregation, black, Asian, a good sprinkling of young white boys failing the Tebbit test in reverse; men, women, children. And girls. Like one, in a T-shirt with 501 all over it, who was yelling repeatedly: "Him black, him beautiful, him the 501 man". Which would not have pleased the Joe Bloggs executive standing to Lara's side.

Lara's first task was to engage with a couple of questions from the crowd, a role he conducted while standing on a box so that those at the back of the scrum could see him. So that those at the front of the scrum could see him, too, for that matter.

It was standard stuff - favourite ground, Sydney; favourite player, Viv Richards; favourite opponents, England ("cos we always trash em") - until, in a piping voice from the heart of the scrum, a small boy asked, with Paxman-style directness, the big one. "Why don't you want to play for Warwickshire anymore?" "I don't know yet if I will or won't," he said. "But I'm a bit tired."

Too tired, in fact, to stand up much longer. The questions were terminated and a large cane armchair appeared in which he sat while signing autographs. Several people had brought along props to be caressed by his pen: small boys with miniature bats, big girls with T-shirts, an old man with a carrier bag full of magazines, books and score-cards. Lara attended to everyone, writing, neatly with his right hand, a hand which looked too small and delicate to have inflicted such damage on so many sporting reputations.

After about an hour of this - a task which looked far more likely to sap a cricketer's stamina than, say, facing Somerset's attack on a dead pitch in Taunton - a man at the back of the queue asked the master of ceremonies how long "the man" was going to carry on signing, whether it was worth his while hanging on.

"He'll be here until he's signed for everyone," came the reply.

"Until him done this lot?" said a middle-aged woman standing within earshot. "No wonder the poor boy's knackered."

She had a point. In fact, since the line of excited autograph hunters seemed undiminished as the afternoon wore on, a conspiracy theory began to form in the mind: that it was being deliberately lengthened by stooges paid by Ray Illingworth to complete the exhausting of England's chief tormentor.