By: St. Clair Sazam Hull
Over the years, West Indies have gifted to the world some of the finest batsmen the game has seen. From George Headley to Garfield Sobers to Vivian Richards to Brian Lara. All four master craftsmen, were the best player of their respective generation besides Headley. And he only lost out due to the fact that he was competing with Donald Bradman. Headley, who was the Caribbean’s first great player, was dubbed the ‘Black Bradman’ but Bradman was also called the ‘White Headley’. Many people were of the perspective, that Headley was a better player than the Don, when batting on wet pitches.
Sobers held the world record of 365 not out for 36 years, before it was shattered by Brian Lara in 1994. He also has the distinction of being the first player in cricket, to hit six sixes in a solitary over, when he hoisted Malcolm Nash six times consecutively beyond the boundary in a County match. Nash was bowling his left arm orthodox spinners for Glamorgan and Sobers was batting for Nottinghamshire. Sobers is widely and justifiably regarded as the greatest cricketer of all time.
However, when it comes to the entitlement of West Indies greatest ever batsman, nothing sparks a debate like the one with Richards and Lara. Headley especially is always excluded from the debate because he played in an era when media was not popular and most persons who saw him play, are no longer in existence. Similarly, the same comparison can be drawn in football in regards to let’s say, the Argentine Lionel Messi and Ferenc Puskas the Hungarian International. Puskas scored 509 goals in 523 matches, excluding 84 in 85 matches at International level. His record is superior to that of Messi’s at both levels, but Puskas played in an era where his performances were not recorded, as opposed to Messi’s whose performances are televised and seen worldwide.
I started following International Cricket closely, from the first match in the ICC World Cup of 1992. A heated debate at the Prospect Primary School amongst Principal Anthony Jones, Carl Williams and Wilroy Gerald piqued my interest. Williams is an ardent West Indies supporter and the only thing Gerald probably loved better than the Aussies was Gold house. Principal Jones, who marked harder than ESPN’s sports analyst Skip Bayless, usually played the mediator role between Williams and Gerald. Williams was of the tenacious belief, that Lara was going to be Cricket’s next great player and Gerald was adamant that he was vulnerable just outside off stump. Jones claimed that West Indies had no chance of winning because they left Richards out of the touring party.
When Gerald had a point, Williams could have talked until the cows come home, that wasn’t going to change his view. At times when the bell rang for assembly, I pretended to be sweeping the corridor in order to continuously hear their perspectives. I will be the first to admit, that listening to them was more refreshing than morning devotions.
Richards and Lara were batting geniuses and cricket can consider itself extremely fortunate that two such batsmen appeared one after the other. Two players that were capable of taking their craft to a level seldom touched and into a privileged place inhabited by a chosen few. Two players that made even none cricket fans dance to their tunes. One right and the other left handed. Both were great enough to average over 60 in Test cricket but suffered at times due to their attacking styles.
Calypsonians were also intrigued and enticed by their artistry. The King Short Shirt sang a song in 1976 entitled, ‘Vivian Richards’. “No bowler holds a terror, for Vivian Richards, not Thomson not Lillee, not Bedi nor Chandrasekhar, perfect coordination of body and mind, dat broda is really dynamite, pace or spin, he don’t give a prance wa you bowling him, fast or slowly, you going back to d boundary”. Super Blue sang a song in Trinidad entitled ‘Break another record Lara’ and a racehorse was named ‘Lash dem Lara’.
If you ask persons who were more superior of the two, some will say Viv because he never wore a helmet and some will tell you Lara because he made 375, 400* and 501*. Personally, my admiration for Lara didn’t come from him scoring a hundred or hitting the winning runs. It came from a shot I saw him play, that I had never witnessed before. A ball was delivered to him in the region of his ribcage, he jump with both feet about two feet above the surface, and dispatched the ball over mid wicket. Likewise, others would have fell in love with Richards for other reasons. But Numbers solely can no way justify a player’s superiority over another and likewise not wearing a helmet gives no justification. If numbers were the case then countless batsmen would have surpassed Richards. Similarly, not wearing a helmet would also meant that Alvin Kallicharran was better than Lara, Tendulkar and Gavaskar.
Comparing players from different generations is always difficult since most things will be based on hypothesis. For example, what if Shane Warne had to bowl to Richards or Richard Hadlee to Lara. However, if I was asked to select one without bias and partiality Lara in my view Lara was better than Richards. I do think Richards might be the greatest ODI Player in history but judging players from limited over’s cricket is always dangerous because the playing field is not level.
An opening batsman has an advantage over all the other batsmen because of field restrictions. Plus he has the full quotation of overs to face. Let us use Sachin Tendulkar as an example who scored 49 ODI centuries from 452 innings during his career. As an opener, he batted in 340 innings and scored 45 centuries, which meant that in the other 112 innings he only scored 4 centuries. Also Tendulkar scored his first century after 79 matches when he was elevated as an opener. We can argue that Richards was not an opener but back in his era ODI Cricket was 60 overs per innings as opposed to Lara when it was 50 overs.
Look at a modern day player such as Virat Kholi of India. He can lay claim that he is a better ODI batsman than Richards was. His record does indicate that he is better than Richards was as it currently stands. Richards batted in 167 innings, 6721 runs, 11 centuries, average 47.00, Strike Rate of 90.20. Kohli records says, 158 innings, 6831 runs, 23 centuries, average 50:60 with a Strike Rate of 89.50. It indicates that Kohli has scored over twice as many centuries as Richards did, from fewer innings with a better average. Their strike rates are in touching distance of each other.
But is Kohli a better ODI player in my view? Maybe not! The limited overs game in this generation, favours batsmen far too much. From ‘powerplay’, to ‘free hit’ and other restrictions.
Let’s first analyze both batsmen style of play. Both ignored the text book and were not highly technical players but Lara’s technique was better. Richards was a ‘power player’ while Lara was a ‘stroke player’, Richards was better at genuine pace and Lara was better at playing spin. Lara also had more precision than every other batsman including Viv when it came to placing balls into gaps. That is precisely why Lara made 277 and 375 without hitting a single six. There may be questions surrounding who is the greatest player of fast bowling but truth be told Lara is the best player of spin the game has seen. There’s no denying this!
Warne and Murali, are indisputably the two greatest spinners of all times. Throughout Warne’s entire career only six double centuries were scored against him and Lara was responsible for half of them. Ravi Shastri (207) VVS Laxman (281) Paul Collingwood (206) and Lara scored (277, 226, and 213). Also the greatest innings to have been played in Test cricket was Lara’s 153 not out against Australia and Warne at Kensington Oval in Barbados in 1999. For the final Test match which was played in Antigua, Warne was dropped for the first time and only time in his career. Lara’s also has a phenomenal record against Muttiah Muralitharan. In 14 innings he amassed 1125 runs at an average of 86.53 with 5 centuries including two double tons.
How do we determine if a batsman is better than the other? First of all we have to take a number of things into consideration such as, runs scored, the situations and conditions in which those runs were scored, the strength of the opposition bowlers and the way the batsman would have dominated them. If we go just by numbers from Batsmen who emerged from the Caribbean nobody is close to Lara. In 1987 he broke Carl Hooper’s Northern Telecom West Indies record by scoring 432 runs; it was later eclipsed by the Antiguan Dave Joseph in 1989 who scored 514.
In 1991, Lara broke Rolston Otto’s Regional record of 584 runs that was set in 1984, when he scored 627 runs from five matches. The record was broken by Desmond Haynes the following week when Haynes totaled 654 but Lara came back in 1994 and broke the record a second time by amassing 715 runs at a staggering average of 79.44. To this day it is still the Regional record for a five-match tournament.
Lara also has the record for most runs and most centuries in West Indies one-day competition that was once called the Geddes Grant Shield then the Red Stripe Bowl. 34 matches 32 innings 1896 runs, 7 centuries, average 59.34. Two of those centuries (109* and 112) were scored in 1995 at the Queens Park Oval against Curtly the Leeward Islands. The attack was comprised of West Indies quickies, Ambrose and Kenneth Benjamin.
In West Indies Regional Cricket four –day competition, Lara played 43 matches batted in 70 innings, five not outs, 3546 runs, 10 centuries, (127, 122*, 135, 180, 169, 206, 168, 145, 143, 174), average 54.55. Richards played 47 matches 84 innings, two not outs 3084 runs, 9 centuries, (112, 101, 124, 168, 106, 167, 132, 119, 112), average 39.68. So Lara had 14 innings less, scored in excess of 500 runs more, with more centuries and averaged 25 more in Regional cricket.
Not to mention Lara’s County season in England in 1994 for Warwickshire when he took County cricket to a whole new level. His debut match verses Glamorgan saw him scoring 147; this was followed by centuries in each innings (106 and 120*) against Leicestershire. Lara scored 136 against Somerset in his very next innings, a rare failure of 26 verses Middlesex just to prove that he was human but responded with 141 in the second innings. Then he compiled that mammoth score of 501 not out verses Durham to show he can also do inhumanly things. He took 197 of off Curtly Ambrose and his Northamtonshire teammates then blasted a blistering 142 verses Derbyshire.
He began the season with 6 centuries in his first seven innings and finished with 2066 runs with 9 hundreds at an average of 89.82 in 15 matches played scoring over 40% of his team runs in totality. County cricket never saw those feats subsequently to Lara’s arrival, or since he left. As a result of his heroic performances, Warwicksire won the County Championship by 42 points over second place Leicestershire, the highest margin since 1979.They also won the Benson and Hedges Cup and the Sunday League. Interestingly, Warwickshire came third to last the year prior to when Lara arrived. One man sure do makes the difference at times.
But like I mentioned before, greatness goes beyond statistics so let us look at some of the finer points. One of the arguments I have always made against Richards is that during his career West Indies had the best bowlers in the world so he never had to face them on the International circuit. Roberts, Holding, Croft, Marshall, Garner, Clarke, Daniel, Walsh, Ambrose and co. Furthermore, Roberts and Ambrose played for Leeward Islands which also meant Viv didn’t had them to deal with in Regional cricket. Likewise, Lara had the luxury of not having to face the likes of Ambrose and Walsh on the International scene as well so a good way of matching them up is to see what happened when they played against them at regional level.
In 16 innings verses Barbados with their attack comprised of Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, Richards mustered 225 runs at an average of 16.07. Lara’s first game verses Barbados in 1988 against Garner and Marshall he scored 92. That was to be his only game verses both at the same time as Garner retired, but when Lara faced Marshall in 6 more encounters in 90, 91 and 92 he managed scores, of 47, 0, 89, 64, 135 and 17. We have to take into consideration that Malcolm Marshall was vastly experienced and Lara was a young player trying to make a name for himself. What is even more intriguing is the way Lara performed against Jamaica with Walsh, Patterson and Rose. His first encounter against them was in 1990 at Queens Park Oval when Lara was given captaincy for the first time at the age of 20. He managed just one half century for the entire season, 56 which was scored against Jamaica.
The second outing was in 1991 as Trinidad was sent in on a dicey pitch at Sabina Park. Trinidad and Tobago was bowled out for 225 as Patterson and Walsh proved too much for their batsmen except for one player, Brian Lara. Lara scored 122 not out of the team’s total of 225. Four batsmen didn’t trouble the scorers including Captain Gus Logie and 4 barely made it past double figures. The second highest scorer after Lara was extras which were 22. Then in 1994 when Jamaica traveled to Trinidad this time with Walsh and Franklyn Rose Lara scored 180 out of Trinidad’s total of 247. He was severely harsh on Walsh throughout his innings and hoisted him twice over long off for six.
All what Lara achieved at the regional level was also accomplished with an extremely weak supporting cast. Anyone who follows cricket knew that Trinidad and Tobago is never known throughout the region for producing top quality batsmen. Gus Logie, Ken Williams and Phil Simmonds were average players and Suraj Ragoonath, Clint Yorke, Rampersad Keno Mason, Dave Mohammad, Michael Carew. On the other hand Richards always had proper players around him. Jim Allen, Enoch Lewis, Luther Kelly, Richie Richardson, Lockhart Sebastian, Rolston Otto, Irving Shillingford all made their mark on the regional scene. Some are of the view that Jim Allen was better than Richards and rightfully so hence Allen was Leewards leading batsman during the 1970s.
It is safe to say hypothetically, if Lara had played for a team besides West Indies he would have been successful against them. On the other hand we can’t necessarily say the exact thing about Richards.
Then some are of the view that Richards’ era of the 70s and the 80s had better and faster bowlers than that of Lara’s. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Let us look at the facts. During Richards era only two teams had genuine fast bowlers, West Indies and Australia and as I stated before Richards never had to play against West Indies. Plus Australia never had a four prong pace attack similar to that of West Indies. Thomson and Lillee were genuinely quick but Gary Gilmour was fast medium and Max Walker bowled the same pace as Dwayne Bravo. The only time Richards ever encountered 3 genuine quick bowlers in the same match was in 1980 when Thomson, Lillee and Hogg played together.
England had the likes of Bob Willis, but besides him everybody else was almost associated with medium pace. Let’s have a look at them. Chris Old, Mike Hendrick, Tony Greig, Ian Botham, Graham Dilley, Neil Foster, Derick Pringle and Jonathon Agnew. In terms of the Indians, India never had a genuine quick bowler. Kapil Dev was great, but he was nothing more than fast medium. At one point, India was opening their bowling with Madan Lal, in order to remove the shine for their spinners in, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandresekar and Venkat. Pakistan had Imran Khan who was fast but not lightening quick. His opening partner, Sarfraz Narwaz was medium fast. New Zealand had Richard Hadlee, but Ewen Chatfield was medium fast.
Majority of the genuine quick bowlers besides West Indians, arrived on the eve of 1990 and onwards. Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Devon Malcolm, Mohammed Zahid, Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, (The fastest bowler in the history of cricket), Shane Bond, Shawn Tait. Also, the best attack probably to have featured for England, was the attack that was on the receiving end of Lara’s 400 not out. That attack was comprised of Harmison, Flintoff, Hoggard and Jones. The same attack that defeated Australia, in the 2005 Ashes Series in England, for the first time in 17 years.
Furthermore, people usually have the argument that Lara’s huge scores didn’t win games for West Indies. That is quite correct, but that can also be said of Richards. Throughout his career, Richards scored 3 double hundreds. Two verses England (291 and 232) and 208 verses Australia. Only one of his double centuries won a game, the other two, the matches resulted in draws. Some also have the notion, that majority of Richards centuries won games for West Indies. That is another false belief. Of Richards’ 24 Test centuries, only 10 of those centuries won games for West Indies, while the other 13 resulted in either draws or losses. Lara scored 34 centuries and 8 won games for West Indies while the other 24 resulted in either draws or losses.
One of the reasons why Lara made so many losing hundreds, was because the other batsmen seldom made any contribution of note. Let us examine a few of them along with the second highest score for the innings. 226, (34) 196, (35) 182, (49) 176, (53) 145, (44) 122, (35) 100, (47). The other batsmen displayed such mediocrity in those games that if West Indies were going to stand a chance of winning, Lara would have probably had to double each of his score.
For the duration of Richards’ career, he played with three specialist opening batsmen, Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. Those three batsmen scored a combined total of 41 centuries when they played in an eleven with Richards. That is precisely why when Richards batted at number 3 for West Indies he came in at an average of 45 for 1. In 33 matches batting at number 3, Richards scored 3508 runs at an average of 61.23 with 12 centuries. On five occasions he was given century partnership starts of one hundred or more with the lowest being 105 and the highest 192.
On ten occasions, he received starts between fifty and one hundred with the lowest being 50 and the highest being 98. Not to mention the 30s and 40s that saw off the new ball. Having Greenidge and Haynes at the top would have made life easy for any number 3. To make the batting pot sweeter, when Richie Richardson came into the team Viv moved down to number four. As we are all aware Richie was one of the best number 3 batsmen in the history of cricket. So with Greendige and Haynes at the top and Ritchie at number 3 and sometimes Larry Gomes, Richards came in at an average of 84 for 2. He couldn’t ask for anything more glorious.
In Brian Lara’s case, he enjoyed no such luxury. Let us take a look at the facts. Throughout his career, Lara witnessed 10 specialist opening batsmen. Haynes, Simmonds, Williams, Campbell, Lambert, Wallace, Griffith, Gayle, Ragoonath and Smith. Darren Ganga and Wavel Hinds opened occasionally. Haynes was only around for 15 Test matches as he was nearing the end of his illustrious career when Lara’s took off. The last being the one prior to when Lara broke the world record of 375 in Antigua.
To get a better gist of things, let’s take a look at what Lara had to endure when he batted at number 3. Sherwin Campbell managed 1343 runs from 36 innings with two centuries, (208 and 113) and Stuart Williams mustered 1119 runs from 47 innings without a century. Campbell scored 4 centuries when he played with Lara but two were amassed when Lara was batting at number 4 and even though Williams scored a solitary Test century, Lara did not batted at number 3 for that innings. When Lara played his role at number 3 he entered the wicket with the score at an average 11 for 1. It is quite obvious since he never got reasonable starts from the opening batsmen.
During his stint at number three, Lara never received a century stand from the openers and only on 4 occasions he met more than 50 on the scorecard with the utmost being 85. Yet still his record is staggering, 43 matches, 66 innings, 3749 runs, average 60.46 with 9 centuries. Let me also add that both of Lara’s world records 375 and 400 were accomplished at number 3.
Batting at number 4 for Lara was also no different. He entered the fray with the score at an average 12 for two, but his record is no less flattering. 91 matches, 148 innings, 7535 runs, average 51.25 with 24 centuries. He never played much at number 5 but probably Cricket’s best innings was played in that position when he scored an unbeaten 153 against the Australians in 1999 in the most adverse of situations. When Lara departed International cricket his 34 centuries were more than everybody on the team combined.
Just imagine Chris Gayle who was the premier opening batsman only had 7 centuries from 65 matches. Ramnaresh Sarwan who was given the mantle to bat at number 3 had 8 centuries in 65 matches played. So the main opener and the number 3 had a total of 15 centuries from 130 games played. Lara had twice as many centuries with 4 to spare from just one addition game. That sort of incompetency from two of the prime players made it virtually impossible for a team to be successful.
What is also a good way to draw comparison with Richards and Lara is by comparing them against the supreme team they would have played against during their outstanding careers. During both players era, Australia would have been their toughest opponent. Lara’s record against Australia reads 31 matches, 58 innings, 2856 runs, average 51 with 9 centuries. Richards’ record indicates that he played 34 matches, 54 innings, 2226 runs, average 44.43 with 5 centuries. Besides Lara record being more supreme in every which way, Lara also played better innings, his 277 at Sydney in 1993, his 213 at Sabina Park in 1999 and his 153 not out a week later were better than anything Richards ever played against Australia. Take into consideration Viv had help while Lara virtually had none. Take also into consideration that during Richards’ era, West Indies was the best team in the world and during Lara’s West Indies was almost the worst.
Some are of the view that Glenn McGrath had Lara numbered. I agree to a certain extent for McGrath dismissed Lara on 14 occasions in 49 innings played. Likewise, Dennis Lillee also had Viv numbered. Lillee was responsible for Viv’s dismissal 10 times in 21 innings. However,
Lara is no longer Test cricket leading scorer as his mark of 11953 runs was overhauled by Sachin Tendulkar a few years ago. The stark difference is though that when Lara broke Allan Border’s record he did it in 56 innings less while Tendulkar took an additional 16 innings more than Lara to break his.
Sobers when he played had Conrad Hunte, the 3 W’s in Weekes, Worrell, Walcott and Rohan Kanhai. Vivian Richards had one of the games’ truly splendid casts in Greenidge, Haynes, Lloyd, Gomes and Richardson. Brian Lara was almost a one man army. This also explains why Sobers scored 14% of West Indies team runs, Richards 12% while Lara scored 20%. The opposing teams knew the prize they had to pay when they didn’t saw the back of him early. He was the ultimate batsmen with five in one. Let me explain, Lara had the concentration of a Rahul Dravid and a Jaques Kallis but at the same time dominated like Richards. Richards on the other hand could have dominated like Lara but lacked the concentration Lara possessed.
At times, I was also Lara’s harshest critic because on some occasions, he seemed not to care. Instead of having his feet on the ground, his head was in the clouds. There was a period between 96 and 98 when he had way too many off the field distractions. He himself has admitted, of being engaged in a few things he ought not to have done. But in terms of his batting ability and to lead from the front. In the most unfavorable situations against the very best of bowlers when the chips were down, Brian Charles Lara was head and shoulders above every other batsman, including Sir Vivian Richards.