Lara at the Last

Long day, yesterday.

For one thing England and the West Indies fought each other to a standstill in the World Cup's best game. The fact that it was a contest between two of the competition's most uneasy and mediocre teams didn't matter as we at last had a match which encapsulated everything which people hoped for from the West Indies' first World Cup but which it has almost completely failed to deliver - noise, atmosphere, colour, vibrancy, brilliant strokeplay from Gayle, Samuels, Vaughan and Pietersen, passionate athleticism in the field from Collingwod and Bravo, further obvious signs of promise from Ravi Bopara.

And then there was Brian Lara. Run out for a staccato 18 in a mix-up with Samuels, unable in the end to stem the tide of England's run-chase, and finally gone for good from cricket in a welter of flash bulbs, autographs and snatched handshakes.

When I woke up on Friday morning and heard that Lara was going to retire I was surprised but also saddened. At the very first it was selfish personal disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing him bat in person for the last time at Lord's in May, but later it evolved into a wider awareness that cricket currently stands at one of those tipping points in its history when a range of pivotal figures slip from the international stage and we're left to wonder who will take their places. In the past few months Warne, Lara, Langer and Woolmer have gone, McGrath has one or two games left and even Sachin's once unimpeachable seat at the head of the game's top table looks vulnerable.

I've written before about how I was always a Lara man. It started with the 375, which I followed on the radio as I didn't have Sky then, went on through the 501, his destruction of Australia in an ODI at the Queen's Park Oval in March 1995, then to Trent Bridge that August and just about the greatest work of genius I ever saw in person. And on to the peerless 1999 series: 213 at Sabina and his finest hour of many, the undefeated 153 in Bridgetown that saw his side to the narrowest of victories. And on to Antigua again, to the world records, to a walk-on part in his team's 418 in the final innings against Australia in 2003, and the 400 not out against England in 2004. And on into retirement.

The essence of Lara can be hard to capture in words, but the inimitable Alan Ross, in Green Fading Into Blue, did better than most:

'He keeps very still at the wicket and is stillness personified. Alert as a gundog, scenting something, giving nothing away. Leaning on his bat between overs he may be dreaming, perhaps doing mental arithmetic.

The bowler approaches and now everything works together in harmony, the bat an extension of the arms, the legs and feet as in the first steps of a dance, abruptly halted.

In defence he is classically correct, body and head aligned, something of the martial arts in his position, pose held just long enough to be admired.

Runs appear to flow from him rather than he make them. He is anticipatory, a sixth sense making him ready, even before the bowler lets go. He strokes not hurts, times, caresses, even in moments of aggression melodious.'

And Rahul Bhattacharya does pretty well here.

I'm not going to say that things will never be the same again as it's the oldest cliche in the book and they probably will be, one day.

But who will take his place?

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