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The fascinating journey with Lara

By Nirmal Shekar

HE has always had the gift of perfect timing, an astonishing ability to draw you away from whatever it was you were preoccupied with and then, suddenly, even dramatically, becoming the sole object of your attention, dominating the stage as very few sportsmen can. The Last Emperor of West Indies cricket who has often looked like a Lost Emperor, a relic of the past, even if one of dinosaur-proportions, Brian Charles Lara has done it again.

Even as everyone was talking about the soon-to-be-enacted heroics of the Tendulkars, Sehwags, Gilchrists, Haydens and Kallises, the man who flew back home from Colombo on the eve of the West Indies' tour of India last year amidst rumours of a serious, potentially career-ending illness, is now back on stage, dominating the consciousness of cricket lovers like few can. For sheer timing, Lara's century in the Cup opener on Sunday was a marvellous coup de theatre. As a comeback statement, that's about as good as it can get for a sportsman.

For me, it has been difficult to make up my mind about Lara. What will he do? What can't he do? When will he turn on the blindingly brilliant light of his batsmanship? When will he retreat into his shell and look a parody of the player he can be?

But, then, that's hardly a surprise. For, it has always been difficult for Lara himself to make up his own mind about himself. What is he? World beating champion batsman who can reduce the greatest of bowlers into nervous wrecks? Or a confused, fidgety batsman preoccupied with a million things other than batting and who is given to gifting his wicket to ordinary bowlers?

Over three decades in the business of sport, one has seen many a full-blown enigma. But modern cricket has seen no one quite like Lara: infuriatingly mediocre now, outrageously brilliant then, a hapless sitting duck now, a hungry lion chasing down its prey then. No cricketer in recent times might have triggered as much agony and ecstasy, and as often, in fans as has Lara from the very beginning of a remarkable career that has had more ups and downs than craters on the face of the moon.

And, surely, few cricketers in the entire history of the sport might have inhabited the sort of emotional extremes that this Trinidadian megastar has swung to and from with mind-numbing frequency.

Ever since he started dominating the post-Richards phase of West Indies cricket, taking a world record 375 off a poor English attack and, not much later, hitting up a first class world record 501 for Warwickshire against Durham, Lara has been a pure one-off. He has disappeared from tours, walked out of training, frolicked with high-profile super-model girlfriends even as his peers toiled to help West Indies regain its place among the best in the sport and, most of all, conducted business with the unmistakable air of a prima Donna.

Lara often travels to the United States to park himself on a psychiatrist's couch but still doesn't seem to be sure what's on his own mind. How much of a help the American psychiatrist has been we'll never know. But this much is sure: not even he can predict which will be Lara's season of light and which his season of darkness.

For all that, few would argue that Lara has been one of the most fascinating characters in modern sport, and arguably the most watchable batsmen in contemporary cricket.

All complicated lives need not be interesting, but most interesting lives in the world of sport quite often turn out to be complicated.

In a sport that often appears to have undergone a charisma-bypass, Lara is one man who oozes that special quality which draws millions to the television when he's on centre stage and thousands to the stadiums when he is performing. If William Shakespeare were to create a cricketer, he would have dreamed up of a Lara, not a Tendulkar or a Dravid or a Hayden. If a Norman Mailer or a Hemingway had wanted to write about a cricketer, Lara would have certainly drawn them to him ahead of anybody else in the sport barring Steve Waugh, who might have done it for vastly different reasons.

Now, pause a minute, and think of 10 things you can say of Tendulkar or Dravid. Great batsmen. Handsome men. Wonderful team-men. Perfect gentlemen. Icons in this country. And so it will go on and on.

But, if you notice, the traffic is one way. If there are flaws in their character, then the Tendulkars and the Dravids have been smart enough to hide them from us. Not Lara. Like John McEnroe and Boris Becker and Ayrton Senna and every single champion who has oozed great charisma and has not been unfamiliar with controversy, Lara has bared himself in public, so to say, letting us all into his inner world, letting us all see him warts-and-all, letting us all feel sorry for him even.

How many times have you felt sorry for a Tendulkar or a Dravid or a Hayden? How many times have you shaken your head and said, "Poor little thing, wish I could do something to sort out his problems for him", when it comes to one of them?

But Lara? Ah, Lara is another story. We have scaled the Himalayas with him; we have dived into the great big, black hole with him. We have warmed to his genius at the crease while thanking our stars that such a one should stride to the middle in our lifetime. And we have, too, turned away from the TV screen in distress, in disbelief, wondering where the Lara of our dreams was. We have taken wings with him to reach stratospheric heights of sports watching pleasure. And we have plumbed the depths with him to realise how excruciatingly agonising sports watching can be.

Brian Charles Lara has done it all. And we have done it all too, travelling with him to destinations that he alone determines and seldom lets us know ahead of the mysterious journey. No matter that, it has been a fascinating voyage of discovery. Give me a Lara any day...warts and all.

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