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Que Sera, Lara

Ten years ago, almost to the day – Friday fell on the 27th in 2007 – I wrote this about one of the most distressing events in West Indies cricket; ten years later, it’s much easier to see it as one of the major – perhaps the first – stepping stone to where we are now, with Louis XVI fiddling while Rome burns, to mix examples from the past that aptly sum up the future of West Indies cricket.

FORMER West Indies captain and still world record-holding batsman Brian Lara (whom everyone apart from the West Indies selectors expected to hang around for at least another six months or 47 Test runs) timed his announcement of his retirement from international cricket as immaculately as his exquisite late cut, given the current position of West Indian cricket: he made the declaration right after beating Bangladesh, West Indies' only victory in the second round of the Cricket World Cup, and before the next game started, the closest the contemporary West Indies team comes to being on a winning streak.

Lara's sudden departure – premature, artificial, against the run of even recent West Indies play – like so much else in Caribbean life, astonishes without really surprising. No one in the know, or its immediate environs, expected Lara to stay on as captain but practically all of us – including Brian himself – expected him to stay on. Only a chosen few – perhaps the choosing few – could have predicted his being booted off the team, which is the elephant in the drawing-room the cricket world is pretending not to see. In the post-Emancipation Caribbean, only a native West Indian could handle another so callously; and nowhere else in the world would a player of such talent be simply tossed aside. Had the same thing not happened with every West Indies captain before Lara since Sir Viv Richards (excepting only Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who jumped even as West Indies cricket administrators were scrambling to push him), one might have thought Lara's was a special case.

In fact, Lara's should have been a special case and should have been handled in the polar opposite manner

As ICC CEO Malcolm Speed recognised in delivering the Sonny Ramadhin Memorial Lecture at the UWI last month, the West Indies ought never to have become a force in world cricket at all, far less dominate it for 15 years. A dozen tiny, poverty-stricken island states, separated by water, petty rivalry and great distance (Jamaica is, for six months of the year, in a different time zone from Barbados) with a combined population one-third that of Mumbai, half that of London, should never have become "the greatest team sport phenomenon of the 20th Century".

The West Indies have produced a slew of great players and teams way out of proportion to their size. Almost any letter of the alphabet throws up examples of West Indies players of historical standing, with even W giving rise to the Three (all born at almost the same time, within strolling distance of one another, and in the shadow of the great Kensington Oval, where the final is being played tomorrow).

If only statistically, Lara is indubitably the greatest living West Indian batsman and is probably the greatest Caribbean player of all time. Only George "The Black Bradman" Headley and Sir Garry Sobers could seriously challenge him on ability. Whatever he might have been personally, as a batsman, Lara was a thing of rare beauty. And, in societies that have propagated themselves for centuries without changing attitudes formed in slavery and honed in indenture & colonialism, Beauty must be destroyed, lest it reveal the ugliness surrounding it.

It is no accident that the two most elegant modern West Indies batsmen to watch as pure athletes, Brian Lara and Carl Hooper, should also have been the two most difficult players to manage. When either of these names is mentioned, the mind wrestles with itself in deciding whether to call up the image of grace at the wicket or disgrace off the field. Neither Lara nor Hooper might ever have articulated it – they both may even have failed to discern it – but what they have themselves wrestled with is the ages-long Caribbean dilemma: do we recognise primarily our human or our market worth? Both Lara and Hooper have, consciously or unconsciously, asserted the dignity of the man ahead of the takings at the gate. In other places, there may be discussions over whether the individual is bigger than the game; in the Caribbean the discussion is whether the individual exists at all.

For 500 years, the Caribbean challenge has been to view itself as a society, rather than a collection of white sand beaches for others to frolic on, and to view ourselves as citizens, not waiters and bartenders; for half a millennium, we have studiously ignored the gauntlet at our feet. Enter any important public space in any city in North America and you will find West Indians occupying key positions. A Trinidadian, Roger Toussaint runs the New York City Transport Workers Union. Both Time Warner Inc executive Roger Ames (uncle of Canadian/Trini golfer, Stephen) and leading film & stage director Sam Mendes have Trinidadian roots. All over the world, Caribbean people excel.

At home, they're worth US15 cents an hour.

The great loss to the Caribbean in Brian Lara's departure is not the subtraction of the batsman, substantial as that is. It is, rather, the loss of the opportunity to recognise and embrace our own excellence. In any other cricketing nation, bar possibly Zimbabwe, Brian Lara would have been seen for what he was: a sporting genius of the ilk of Pele, Tiger Woods or Diego Maradona; and his talents would have been appreciated and developed. In what doggedly remain the slave societies of the West Indies, he had to be neutered, not nurtured. Everywhere else in the world, Brian Lara will be remembered as cricket's Michael Jordan; at home in the West Indies, we will do our best to render him as its Michael Jackson.

-BC Pires once more points out the man's name is BC Lara. You can email your, "How dare you!s" to him at bc@bcpires.com

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