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Cricket: Crease is the word and new formats a big hit, says Lara

West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara (in red cap) at the Singapore Cricket Club on Saturday. He rates Twenty20 as "the strongest" form of the game, saying: "I didn't try it during my time, but I'm all for it."
West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara (in red cap) at the Singapore Cricket Club on Saturday. He rates Twenty20 as "the strongest" form of the game, saying: "I didn't try it during my time, but I'm all for it."PHOTO: SINGAPORE CRICKET CLUB

The style of batting has changed drastically since Brian Lara was a phenomenon at the crease. Graft and craft have given way to innovation and aggression.

At his peak in the early 2000s, the West Indian was a master of wristy elegance and select shot-making.

Today's gladiators mostly prefer brute force, slamming the ball to all parts of the field, in an effort to get the most runs as the game has become shorter and faster.

But Lara is not perturbed. Aged 47 now, after retiring from international cricket in 2007, he is enjoying the bold approach being displayed by the world's current top batsmen.

"I enjoyed the shots I played," he said over a glass of orange juice at the Singapore Cricket Club. "But the game has evolved and I do appreciate the fact that the guys have been innovative in their shots.

"They have to be, given the newer versions of the game, with Twenty20 the strongest. I didn't try it during my time, but I'm all for it."

EXPLORING NEW FORMATS

Playing in an atmosphere where people appreciate (cricket) is great. T20 provides that. And it is great for the game.

BRIAN LARA, retired West Indies batting legend, about embracing new platforms for the game that is steeped in tradition.

RESULT-ORIENTED

There are other avenues to make Test cricket more exciting. The core game itself needs a bit of tweaking. Every game should have a result.

LARA, explaining why drawn five-day Test matches diminish the excitement on the part of spectators.

Would he have mastered the art of power hitting too?

"I don't know if I would have tried it," said the Trinidadian, who now serves as a tourism ambassador for his country. "But these shots have been there before too. I remember at the 1987 World Cup  final (England's) Mike Gatting got out playing a reverse sweep.

"There was also (legendary West Indian) Vivian Richards who could hit the ball wherever he wanted to, but maybe in a more conventional manner.

"So, you have to appreciate what has happened through time. Some of the guys can hit the ball (anywhere in the range of) 360 degrees from one spot, which is awesome."

Switch-hitting, overhead scoops and ramp shots have transformed the game's traditional emphasis on batsmen building an innings, but Lara believes batting has to change with the times.

"Cricket can be a bit dull and we were losing some of the spectators," he said during his stopover in Singapore en route to Australia for appearances at pro-am golf and dinner events. "Today it attracts a lot more people because it is glamorous and more exciting.

"For any player, playing in front of 100,000 fans in Australia or 60,000 anywhere else in the world is what they want. Playing in an atmosphere where people appreciate it is great. T20 provides that. And it is great for the game."

From being a game which was played in sunlight over five days with a red ball, Test cricket is now switching to day-night matches and pink balls to attract bigger crowds. There are even suggestions about limiting the number of overs per innings to produce results.

Lara is not averse to experimenting. "There are other avenues to make Test cricket more exciting," he said. "The core game itself needs a bit of tweaking. Every game should have a result.

"I have played in great Test matches, saved Test matches, that's all good. But, at the end of three days, usually, one team looks like winning, while the other one will hang on for a draw. So, some of the excitement can be drawn out of the game.

"After five days, if one team wins, it will be good for the game. If they (the International Cricket Council) can come up with a formula like that, that's the best."

The quicker versions of the game should ideally suit West Indians because they have traditionally been powerful with the bat and fast and furious with the ball.

But the standard of cricket in the Caribbean islands has declined, with some of their recent success coming only in T20.

"The decline has been there for a long time," said Lara, who started playing international cricket at the age of 21 in 1990. "People are now focusing on the fact that we are not winning at all. We are no longer invincible as we were in the 70s and 80s.

"I'm looking at how best we can get out of this rut. For sport is a cycle, you win one day, you lose another day. It's time for us to get back on the ascendancy."

Unhealthy inter-island rivalry, poor leadership, bad management and meagre financial incentives are repeatedly touted as reasons for the decline of West Indies cricket.

Lara agrees that the problems are deep-rooted. But he believes it is more cyclical.

"Just look at Australia, their infrastructure is good, but they are getting beaten (in the ongoing Test series) by South Africa," he said. "There comes a time when that invincibility is gone.

"I would like the West Indies to be competitive. Right now it is a bit embarrassing when we are not. We are handicapping ourselves as we are not lifting our performance."

Cricket used to be one of the few sports career options for youngsters in the West Indies 30 years ago. Today, athletics, basketball and football offer better pay packages and fame. Instead of aspiring to play Test cricket, many want to follow in the footsteps of Usain Bolt or Dwight Yorke.

"I still think we have several talented cricketers in the West Indies," said Lara. "The problem is we do not have the system to develop them into great players.

"England, India, Australia have academies and well-structured programmes. They can even take mediocre cricketers to another level, but we don't have that.

"I'm hoping that things can change. Corporates have to be involved. Something has to be done to harness that talent and bring it out into the open."

Given that the West Indies are no longer producing swashbucklers in the class of Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Richards or Chris Gayle and the emphasis is on T20 matches, the world-record Test knock of 400 not out is most likely to remain under Lara's name for a long time.

However, the man himself, considered one of the best batsmen the game has seen,  thinks it will be broken soon.

"(India's) Virat Kohli can do that," he said. "I rate him the best current batsman along with (England's) Joe Root."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Crease is the word and new formats a big hit, says Lara'. Print Edition | Subscribe