Brian Lara pulls

Brian's bounty: in 51 Test innings against England, Lara averaged 64.2; his world-record 375 and 400 both came against them

John Marsh / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Talking Cricket

Brian Lara: 'I understood when I was in a 50-50 battle and when I was in total control'

The West Indies legend talks about his new book, driving Viv around England, and coping with having to carry the team on his shoulders throughout his career

Interview by Alan Gardner  |  

First up, a personal one, since I spent so much time playing it in the late 1990s… do you remember being involved in Brian Lara Cricket and were you aware of how big an impact it had at the time?
I used to get the numbers and I think it was doing pretty well among sports games on PlayStation. My involvement was: every year they would launch something new and I'd get beaten by some young kid who was very good at the game! A lot of people still talk about it, all around the world actually. I was pretty proud of it. At some point in time, it was one of the No. 1 games in Europe. Which wasn't a bad effort by everybody. But I must confess I wasn't that good at it.

So you never scored 400 on Brian Lara Cricket?
No, I didn't!

Do you ever get asked to endorse games these days?
Yeah, it's been mentioned but never really came to fruition. I think with all the young cricketers at present, it's very easy to find someone that's very marketable compared to a 55-year-old.

You do have a new book out, Lara: The England Chronicles. What made you decide that now was the right time to sit down and write about your career?
First thing was the fact that everyone asked for a book. What am I waiting for? My first official authorised biography was at the age of 25, so just getting into my career, but obviously with a couple of little records at the time. There was a story to be told, about my youthful life and coming up, and that [1991] summer in England.

It's a really big call when you start thinking about writing a book about your career. And sometimes if you're thinking through a career month by month, year by year, countries that you've played against, situations, highs and lows, it's not the most motivating thing to say you're going to sit down and write.

Then you see the 500-600-700-page books by some other sportsmen and sportswomen… I felt that I had a good story to tell if I was to break this book up, have it readable. Put it in sort of fractions, like my career against England, against Australia, even in Africa and Asia. You can put different stories out there where people are intrigued by it and put the whole series [of books] together. So, yes, it took 17 years [from retiring] but I think quite a lot of it is still very fresh in my memory. And I felt that doing it the way I plan to is going to give me the sort of inspiration that I need to keep going. The first manuscript I sent, I have it deep down in my emails, is the Australian version of it. But I think this was ideal - England and the history between West Indies and England. I think it's a great start.

"I always felt that burden of having to be the main batter in the team. I wanted to be up there with the very best in world cricket. It's something I embraced" John Walton / © PA Photos/Getty Images

You scored 277 in your fifth Test, then broke the world record in your 16th Test by scoring 375 against England. What was it like to reach such heights so soon in your career?
It was unexpected, I must say. I played [in a period] of transitions from the greats of the game, to trying to get a young team [together]. A lot of the greats left at the same time: [Gordon] Greenidge, [Desmond] Haynes, [Malcolm] Marshall. Just before those guys, Joel Garner, [Michael] Holding, [Gus] Logie, Larry Gomes left around the same time. So what you have is an influx of young players, and we were just trying to find our way because they were very big shoes to fill.

As you said, within the first 15-20 Test matches to elevate myself to that level, it was unexpected [but] it was a wonderful experience. It was a wonderful feeling. But it brought with it a lot of different things, a lot of obstacles. And it took my career to a place where I was scrutinised maybe for the rest of it.

In the book you talk openly about going into a side that had so many great players, and in particular your relationship with Viv Richards. You write: "He did try to intimidate me but never succeeded." What was that like - as a young man, dealing with those personalities as well as the expectations of you?
I was living my dream. I started as a late teenager and [had] that two- or three-year period where I got into the team but [then] sort of stalled. I wasn't someone that sat on the bench for most teams that I played on as a youngster, so it was that apprenticeship period that I found really tough. And yes, I was in a group with some guys in the twilight of their careers, and West Indies, maybe, showing signs of not [having] the same invincibility that we had [in the past]. But I was living my dream, and to have a taste of international cricket with these guys still being around was, I believe, something that definitely laid the right foundation for me.

That two-year period when everybody wanted me to play, and a lot of my fans or even astute cricket thinkers felt I should be in the team - I felt that not being selected for 99% of those matches made me stronger, mentally, physically, individually. And if any opportunity came, I grabbed it with both hands. But it was great just being in that same dressing room.

That iconic backlift, recognisable anywhere, anytime

That iconic backlift, recognisable anywhere, anytime Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

You have an amusing anecdote about driving Richards around England in a sponsor's car on the 1991 tour.
Yeah, that was fun. I made the mistake [of saying I] liked the car and wanted to go on a drive. But it worked out well because I spent a lot more time with him. Not a lot of conversations in the car, because obviously he had a lot going on and most of the time he just used to sort of relax. I'm almost sure that he would have preferred to be in the bus. But this is how it goes, I suppose, with sponsorships: we had to drive that Vauxhall Calibra everywhere we went. I happened to be in the driver's seat nearly every single time.

Talking about how the team were in transition, you batted alongside Richards for the only time on that tour, in an ODI at Lord's. He retired at the end of that tour and then you became the next West Indies icon. How big was that burden to shoulder?
I didn't mind because when I played cricket at the youth level, I always felt that burden of having to be the main batter in the team. I grew up at a time when Carl Hooper was around, Jimmy Adams, Keith Arthurton… and most of those guys are slightly older than I am. And I felt that I sort of pushed myself, I wanted to be up there with the very best and not just the very best in the West Indies, the very best in world cricket. It's something I embraced. It so happened that the disparity between some of my performances and others was [noticeable]. That wasn't something that we expected. I think all the young players coming in had the talent to make a batting nucleus that was going to be, not invincible, but as competitive as ever. So yes, the burden was there, but it wasn't something that I shied away from.

At what point did you feel that it crossed over from the West Indies being that dominant side to having your backs against the wall a lot of the time?
I felt that the series against Pakistan in 1988, [then] 1990 against England in the Caribbean. I felt roughly when I got in there, that period of invincibility left our cricket. We were holding on with some very experienced and great players, but I think everybody was champing at the bid to get to us, and the minute Allan Border saw a team arrive in Australia without Viv and Greenidge, I think they fancied themselves a lot. On my first tour to Pakistan [in 1990-91], we won the second Test to draw the series. So yeah, the 4-0 defeat of England in 1988, or [beating] Australia 3-1 in 1988-89 - we weren't that team anymore.

"My period of leadership coincided with West Indies' continued decline. If I was to be critical, I think that understanding each player and what they brought to the team is something that I sort of missed" Chris Brandis / © Associated Press

In the book you describe not being too focused on technique and say entertainment was your main driver as a batter. And yet you managed to combine that with the discipline of twice being at the crease for more than 12 hours, during your innings of 375 and 400 not out. How did you achieve that balance?
I think it stems from how I view the game, how I view batting. When I walk out to bat, I feel the guy with the ball in his hand wouldn't be there unless he's very good. And me walking out, playing for the West Indies, I was assured of myself, I was very confident of my ability. There was nothing about my technique that I was thinking about [when] walking to the middle. I was sort of soaking up the environment. I would have done a bit of homework, maybe just watching the opening partnership, or if I was batting at No. 4, watch the fall of the first two wickets, [see] how the pace of the pitch was playing, how the bowlers were bowling. And my frame of mind is what got me through.

I felt that on occasions I understood when I was vulnerable and I applied a certain technique towards that period. I understood when I was in a 50-50 battle and I understood when I was in a battle where I was in total control. And I believe that that part of my game is where the success came from, understanding where I stood in a battle against the opposing team. Yes, I've got a bat in my hand, I've got pads like everybody else. But there's certain technical and tactical things that I did to ensure I came out on the better side a lot of times.

Did you know when you were in that zone when you were about to break records? What were the signs?
I looked at the bowlers, I knew who was tired. I knew who didn't want to bowl at me. I knew who I didn't want to face, even if I was 140 or 150. I knew how to put that plan together to keep going. The question is always asked: Did you get tired? I don't understand the question. If I keep somebody in the sun for three or four sessions, they're the ones supposed to get tired. I'm the one that's just expressing myself in the best way possible. That's how I looked at it.

It sounds like you don't need much sleep. In the book, you write about playing golf at 5am on the day you passed Garry Sobers' mark for the highest individual Test innings in Antigua.
That was a one-off. You sit down and [you are] 320 runs [at the end of day two]. You know everyone's coming to the ground for one purpose. The English are coming to try to stop my team. We're all sort of anxious to get out there the next day, so it wasn't possible to have a restful night, to close my eyes. Make dinner, watch some movies, [then it's] three or four in the morning and you need to wake your muscles up. Because even though my eyes wouldn't be closing, I'm definitely sure my muscles [were] pretty tired. Back in those days I don't think they had ice baths, but that would have been a nice thing to have.

Lara was Viv Richards' de facto driver during West Indies' 1991 tour of England:

Lara was Viv Richards' de facto driver during West Indies' 1991 tour of England: "I was living my dream, and to have a taste of international cricket with these guys laid the right foundation for me" Touchline / © Getty Images

Did that restlessness, and the energy you expended during batting, cause problems when you took on the captaincy as well?
I wouldn't say so, because my batting definitely didn't suffer. I think if we want to be critical of my captaincy, it [came from] the transition between starting off with the greats and understanding what it took to get into the West Indies team, and that change. The criteria sort of dropped a bit, obviously, because we lost all those great players and we had to replace them very quickly. My period of leadership coincided with the continued decline. If I was to be critical, I think that understanding each player and what they brought to the team is something that I sort of missed. I tried to learn from that very quickly - I had two or three opportunities to captain the West Indies team. I tried to make it better each time [without] too much statistical success. I found that by the time I left, I was a much different captain than the first time.

You averaged 57 as captain and 50 without the job, so it clearly didn't hamper your game.
The only answer to that is the fact that I was doing that since before my teenage life. If you were the best batter in street cricket, or in the garage or wherever, that sort of became a part of learning to bat under pressure, embracing pressure, and trying to work things out as a leader.

You call the West Indies captaincy the "impossible job" in the book. Do you think that's still the case or has the situation improved for West Indies captains?
I think the standard has dropped - not to be overly critical and not to make a big thing of it. I mean, it's understandable now, what the team is like. You look at Nicholas Pooran, who missed out on a couple of World Cups as captain and he immediately handed it over [within seven months]. That is not expected, to actually miss out on qualifying for a World Cup.

I think what the expectation was in the '90s, or maybe even in the early part of the 21st century, it's not the same expectation now. A guy like Kraigg Brathwaite is our most senior batter. It's very difficult to find a captain within that squad. And he remains with confidence if things don't go well. Now, it's pretty much based on having someone capable of leading off the field, who understands his duties, more than looking to judge him by winning series against the big Test-playing nations or winning World Cups or something like that. So it's easy, in a way, now that the bar has fallen a bit.

Lara has bigger scores than his 213 in Jamaica, but picks that innings as his favourite, having taken West Indies from 34 for 4 to 431 and a ten-wicket win against Australia with it

Lara has bigger scores than his 213 in Jamaica, but picks that innings as his favourite, having taken West Indies from 34 for 4 to 431 and a ten-wicket win against Australia with it © Getty Images

The West Indies squad for this tour has a lot of exciting bowling talent, including the likes of Shamar Joseph. But who do you think is the key batter, and can the team produce the runs to put England under pressure?
My favourite batter in the team is Alick Athanaze. I think he's still trying to find his way and we have to allow him [time] because he is also in a very important position, batting at No. 4. When you look at his talent, I believe that as a batter he may be the most talented in the team - free-flowing and looks well-organised against pace and spin. You want him to jump a couple of steps very quickly. So he starts thinking about a three-Test series, [and] scoring 300-400 runs, maybe even 500. You want him to start thinking like that.

Looking at West Indies and the performances in the last couple of years, I think when the ball gets a little bit older, between the 30th over and the [second] new ball, is when we seem to play a sort of recovery period, so that we tend to maybe lose a few wickets, but that period where you see [Kavem] Hodge, Athanaze, wicketkeeper [Joshua] Da Silva, Jason Holder, [Kevin] Sinclair is where we need to put up an extra 150-175. That's going to be key. You would love to get it up front [from the top order]. You'd love to have a strong foundation, but this has just been the norm and the trend. I'm hoping that these guys get the opportunity to show we can still pile on the runs in the middle and in the back end.

And finally, another personal one. What was your favourite innings?
There's a lot to choose from. Each single one at one point in time was my best, if I was to rattle off 277, 375 and so on. But I think I have to give it to when I felt most under pressure, when I felt most unloved, and the knives were out.

I felt my 213 in Jamaica against Australia [in 1998-99] showed me my true character and it also showed me where I stood in West Indies cricket, in the hearts of the administrators and the hearts of the people. It was so pleasing being booed walking out to bat and then a couple hundred Jamaicans running out on the field [afterwards]. That was maybe the most satisfying innings I ever played. Talk about the 153 [in Barbados] and a lot of people try to explain it in terms of batsmanship, "Brian, why winning that game is so amazing." For me, 34 for 4 going into the second morning and having to stand up with a puzzled mind and focusing on the job at hand - that will be 213 in Jamaica.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick