Profile: Stroke after stroke of pure genius: Brian Lara, newly crowned king of the cricket world

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SPORTS fans often get overexcited about the smallest matters, but there doesn't seem much doubt that Brian Charles Lara is the real thing. When he batted his way into the history books in Antigua last Monday morning - a swish through the covers followed by a swat for four - a clap of rare pleasure echoed across the cricket world.

If ever proof were needed that an individual performance could transcend the game, this was it. As he was scoring the highest Test innings in history, good humour swam round the ground and into radios and televisions all over the world. One England selector, asked if he could see any weaknesses in Lara, replied: 'Well, he looks a bit dodgy once he's passed three-fifty.'

The great names of cricket queued up to go bananas, and emphasise how they knew all along he was a good 'un. Clyde Walcott called Lara 'a cut above the rest'. David Gower said: 'I've never seen anything like this.' Viv Richards grinned: 'May God help the cricket world.' And Gary Sobers himself was generous. 'I don't think a better person could have broken my record.'

One of the most remarkable things about Lara's innings was that people talked in monumental terms from the start. There is something so charismatic about him that it felt like fate. The local papers saw it as a classic fairy- tale: the prince of Port of Spain turns into the king of the West Indies.

The tremendous impact Lara made on the world this week has something to do with his name - that romantic surname, that unromantic Christian name - and a lot to do with his spectacular talent. But it also has a bit to do with cricket itself, with the stately pace at which a great innings unfurls. It's a bit like the slow conquest of a mountain.

On Saturday morning the West Indies were in trouble, but Lara changed everything. By the evening he had scored 164 with such glamorous ease that people were already whispering about records and history. There were 30 boundaries that day, and Lara hit 24 of them. Overnight, people passed on the news that something astonishing was happening in Antigua. On Sunday he had (amazingly enough) an early round of golf and then picked up where he had left off, glancing and tip-tapping and sweeping the ball off his hips and punching towards the crowd all day long. At sunset he bivouacked on 320, the eighth highest Test score ever and a stone's throw from the summit.

On the third day he rose at 4am and practised in front of the bedroom mirror. He wasn't the only one who was nervous: the world listened and crossed its fingers. Anyone who has ever played cricket knows about Sobers's record score of 365 not out. It seemed to belong to another age, to a time when the world, and the game, was steady. Not many people really thought anyone would come along, in the video age, with the art and the patience to play well enough for long enough. But Lara, he didn't even seem tired. Over the years there had been many pretenders to Sobers's crown, and none had been able to pull the sword from the stone.

In Port of Spain, where today Lara will be pleasantly mobbed by his compatriots, messianic language like this almost makes sense. He is adored: Botham meets Take That. Crowds roar when they glimpse him in the player's enclosure, and beg him to come over when he's fielding. A column in the Trinidad & Tobago Sunday Guardian ('Thinking Things Out with Earl McD Best') pondered Lara months ago and stated: 'Sobers's record is seriously endangered.'

In the run-up to the one-day matches in Port of Spain, the papers ran large adverts saying: 'SpectacuLara] T- Shirts & Hats. Everyone is into Lara, you can be too.' Local fans were quick to warn visiting English supporters of the danger: 'If Lara he wake up in the mood, England gonna be in bi-i-i-g trouble,' they sang. One respondent in a newspaper crime survey even managed to bring the great Brian into it. 'England have crime, too,' he told the interviewer, 'but they ain't have Lara.'

This was pertinent. In February, Lara's car was stolen by armed Trinidadian raiders and he lost all his equipment. In a tribute to his princely status in Port of Spain, the thieves, when they found whose gear they had swiped, gave it back. From now on, though, Lara is worth robbing. His double century earned him a pounds 50,000 bonus; Gray Nicholls is rushing out a new '375 Brian Lara' bat. And eager, grateful spectators in Antigua have been pressing cash on him like some sort of dowry gift.

Lara began life coming in at number nine in a family of 11 children in a village called Cantaro, near Santa Cruz. His sister Agnes would take him off for cricket coaching at the Harvard Club when he was six. His father, an agricultural store manager, died shortly before Brian first played for the West Indies, but Mum remains a busy spokeswoman on his behalf. 'Want to talk about Brian?' she asked a visiting interviewer a couple of weeks ago. 'You know he could do anything with a ball since he was about three. Played football for Trinidad Under-14. Took up tennis for a while and came second in a national competition.'

His rise to fame has been as sure- footed as his strokeplay. At every stage he has announced his supremacy with a flamboyant sense of occasion. He was only 14 when he started playing for West Indies Under-19. At 19 he captained a West Indies Youth XI against India and scored 186. He became captain of Trinidad when he was 20. When he scored his first Test century in Sydney last year, he went on to score 277 (and was criticised by Sobers for running himself out when he could have gone record-hunting).

But it was in a single match last autumn that he came to seem like a redeemer. From a distance, the West Indies seems so coherent, united and successful a team it is hard to appreciate quite how riven by local hostilities it is (Barbadian joy at Lara's record was tinged with regret). The West Indies is a union built on cricketing foundations. When Jamaica play Trinidad it's a little bit like England vs France. But when the two sides met last year it was Jamaica vs Lara: the prince scored 180 while his teammates gathered just 23.

With Lara it is not only a matter of numbers, though. Even more than his phenomenal performances it is the manner of his batting that has transfixed admirers. He has swagger. He is young (24), tiny, smiling, brilliant- looking and dapper: when he's batting (in a cap - who needs a helmet?) he seems half chorister, half predator. In Port of Spain the crowd chants for a wicket, impatient for him to come to the crease. The man is watchful in defence, and in attack better than buccaneering. Sometimes it all looks so easy, it's as if he's taking the piss.

In the present euphoria he is being painted as a character way too good to be true. No one seems to dispute his straight-down-the-line niceness. He likes a beer, but not too many (though he was once involved in a barroom punch-up along with his friend Dwight Yorke, the Aston Villa footballer). He appreciates the burden of expectation and is humble about the need to keep performing well. But he is also confident to the point of cocky. It was Lara himself who talked about 'maybe even a double or a triple' before this England tour began. And it was the uncapped Lara who, after scoring a century against England four years ago, declared that sure, he was happy to captain the West Indies any time, anywhere. Even this week, long before the excitement had died down in Antigua, Lara was saying: 'Now I have the record I want to beat it. I'll give it a real try for 376 sometime.'

History won't bother too much about the circumstances of Lara's performance - the ultra-benign pitch, the hapless England bowling attack. After the West Indies flayed England for 313 in a one-day match in St Vincent at the beginning of March, the mighty Don Bradman (who once scored 300 in a single day) was asked what sort of an average he thought he might achieve against England's present line-up. When he replied that 60 seemed about fair, everyone was puzzled. But Don, they said, your career average is ninety something. Surely you'd be looking for something a bit, I don't know . . . bigger. 'Well,' the Don replied after a pause, 'I am nearly eighty.'

Nor is it clear how well Lara will survive the unique burden of political and national, as well as sporting, pride. His emergence coincides with a dip in the popularity of cricket even in the West Indies, where America's immense cultural weight is pushing basketball - more lucrative, easier - to the fore. We can be fairly sure that even Brian Lara couldn't cut it as a basketball giant: he is only five foot five. But in Port of Spain right now they wouldn't put even that past him.

The amazing thing is that he'll be here next week. For pounds 40,000 (roughly what a tennis player would accept for a lost semi-final, or a golfer might think fair for coming 10th in a big tournament), he has agreed to spend his summer in Birmingham, lugging his bat along the motorways of England (looking out for car thieves, who this time might not give anything back).

Next Thursday morning Brian Lara might well be wearing three sweaters, blowing on his chilled hands and shivering while his new teammates try to prise out Glamorgan's obstinate openers on a muddy pitch, and grimy clouds swirl over the ground down towards West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Stoke. Lara is approaching the prospect with his usual mixture of lordly composure and assured modesty. 'I always play to win,' he said. 'I will expect a lot from the other guys, and I hope they expect a lot from me.'

No doubt they do. England expects a hatful. But we mustn't blame him if, the first time he drops a catch, his mind goes back to the bright stunning heat of Antigua, to the moment the crowd crossed its fingers and roared, and Chris Lewis ran in and dropped one short ('I knew he'd bowl a bouncer'). And when he swishes too early on a ball that sticks and seams in the English moss, and is caught behind, why shouldn't he console himself by reliving the time he swayed inside and snapped his wrists high through the ball with that momentous rifle crack, that shot heard around the world?