Brian Lara, the early days - before the legend

By Veersen Bhooai,

March 29, 2020

" ... “He was an excellent wicketkeeper. He was the best Keeper the WI never saw. I am not exaggerating. ..." Harry Ramdass, Brian Lara's U  14 Coach, Fatima College.

Brian Lara with his father, Bunty.

How many people have ever had a chance to see a legend grow up? To watch a young Muhamad Ali,

Diego Maradona or Michael Jordan slowly progress to iconic status.

 

For those of us who lived in Trinidad & Tobago in the nineteen seventies and eighties, some were lucky to see the evolution of a young Brian Charles Lara before becoming the Prince of Port of Spain.

 

I have travelled the world and nothing can turn a conversation on its head like saying you know Brian Lara. I have received discounts from restaurants and even tours of hotels letting  me know that “Brian is very welcome.”

 

I remember the first time I saw him, it was September, 1981 and I looked over at a Form I class. I saw this very short fellow and were it not for the school uniform, I would have sworn he was six years old. He was well under five feet.

 

The following week, a student stopped me in the inner court of the school and pointed to him, “Bhoolai, you see that little fellah. His name is Brian Lara and he played for the TT U-12 Football Team.” I thought to myself, that short man must be good.

 

The following term was cricket season. Fatima College consistently had one of the best school teams in the country in those days. I walked past the nets and there was young Lara constantly chatting away as he faced the best U-14 bowlers. He then

put on the gloves and went behind  the stumps. There was only five feet or so between the stumps and a brick wall so you

had to know how to catch that ball from the fast bowlers. He was unperturbed, still talking away. I thought, he can play cricket too.

 

For the unacquainted, it may surprise them that Brian represented TT in three sports, football, cricket and table tennis.

One of his teammates on both the football and cricket  U-12 steam was Dwight Yorke who would go on to win the Treble with Manchester United in 1999. Dwight was a more than competent opening batsman/wicketkeeper.

 

During his Giants and Colts years, Lara opened the batting and was the first choice wicketkeeper. Whilst still in Form III,

he was brought  up to the First Eleven, considering that there were six players on the team that would go on to play for the TT Youth team that was quite an accomplishment.

 

His biggest fan was his Dad, Bunty. I don’t think he ever missed a game. On one occasion during the North Zone Final vs Queen’s Royal College, Harry Ramdass, who coached both Giants football and cricket was giving him some advice on his wicketkeeping. Lara explained that his father had given him different instructions.

 

“Brian who is coaching this team, me or your father?”

 

Brian fell silent and all the boys just looked at him. During a break Ramdass once again was instructing him when Mr. Lara interrupted and starting drawing a diagram in the dirt to explain his point. Brian looked at both his father and Ramdass. The boys looked at all three of them but no one interrupted Mr. Lara.

 

A few years after his father’s death, Brian admitted in a Toronto interview in 1991, that sometimes it would be difficult with his father around “but then I would be batting and I would look up and see him there and I would understand how important my career was to him. He was my biggest fan. He still is.”

 

When England visited the WI in 1981, they were thoroughly dominated by the hosts. Geoff Boycott had a torrid time with Michael Holding in Kensington. Facing the first over, he was unable to touch a ball and was comprehensively bowled on the sixth ball.

 

A year later as I was walking along the school corridor, there was petite Brian telling the boys around him, “As naked as ah born. As naked as ah born, I could last an over against Michael Holding.”

 

It must be nice to be that confident, I thought.

 

While Lara was making a name for himself in the North, there was another young batsman/wicketkeeper doing likewise in the South, Suruj Ragoonath.

 

He and Lara first encountered each other at a Fatima vs Presentation match at Fatima Grounds, 1986. “He didn’t do particularly well but I scored a half century. I remember him coming up to me and telling me he admired my batting. He was always pint sized as a youth player but he was one of those guys who was already making an impression. He was always stylish and a lot of attention was being paid to him.”

 

Ragoonath recounts, “There was a North – South U 19 match in 1986 at Dubisson Park, he advanced down the park to Rajindra Dhanraj and got caught behind. He was also out of his crease but Hermat Gangapersad didn’t stump him because we all went up for the catch … he went on to score a half century.” However, Lara approached Dhanraj after the game, “‘You not going to get me out again you know because I am learning how to play you better’ and the rest is history. He started to master spin bowling to the extent that even the top spin bowlers in the region became fearful of him.”

 

Chris Sagar and Winston Chandler played both cricket and football with Lara during his Fatima days.

 

One of Sagar’s earliest memories was opening the batting with him in the Secondary School’s U-14 League vs South East at Fatima Grounds. In those days the Coaches were used as Umpires. Sagar explains, “Although it was U-14 cricket their fast bowler was big, close to six feet.” Sagar continues, “Brian walked out to open and the bowler looked at the Umpire, ‘Coach I could bowl hard to this fellah?’ The first ball was a good length but for Brian it was chest high. He rocked back and hit him into the Mucurapo wall. The Coach looked at him, ‘What you think? You could bowl hard now?” He scored ninety odd runs in  that match.

 

Sagar explains that although his teammates had an inkling of what was to come “We didn’t know at the time that he was going to break a World Record.

 

“Brian could take on a bowling attack and destroy it. From early on he could do that.”

 

Sagar admits that he was able “to sneak on to the First Eleven team as a wicketkeeper in 1986 ”because Lara was experiencing some pain in his back and the Coaches decided he should focus on his batting. The following year Fatima won the double. However, it was not easy as Barrackpore gave them some good competition.

 

Sagar explains, “People could not play Rajindra Dhanraj. There were some epic battles between him and Brian. He protected the team from Dhanraj. Brian would go at him and destroy him.”

 

Chandler and Lara were both midfielders for the Giants team with former usually keeping the latter on the bench.

 

“I remember we used to have to face bowlers like Ian Bishop,” says Chandler. “When he bowled at you with that pace and coming from that height you used to hear the ball singing as it passed your ears. You would hear WHOOSH and feel the breeze in your face like if it was a car driving by. When I batted with Lara and we had to face bowlers like him my objective was simple, take a single and let Lara face that fire and I would handle whomever was bowling at the other end. Brian actually seemed to enjoy that.”

 

Chandler remembers him as the shortest on the team, always playing pranks but full of confidence while batting. “… when one of us hit a boundary, we would have a midwicket conference and tell each other good shot. I remember Brian hit a beautiful cover drive for four. Back then I used to watch a lot of WI cricket so the shot Brian hit reminded me of when Greenidge or Richards hit a boundary and you would hear the Commentators say ‘not a man move.’ And actually, when Brian played that stroke the only time the fielders moved was to retrieve the ball from the fence.

 

“So as was customary, I started to walk to mid pitch. All I saw was Brian’s teeth at the other end. He had the biggest smile on his face so when we arrived at mid pitch, I hit him a bounce and told him ‘Good shot Brian.’ And I was about to ask him if he had noticed that the other team had just changed the field and had put a man in the gap. But he was still skinning his teeth and before I could say another word, Brian said ‘doh worry. You will see that on TV in the next five years.’ We were teenagers so I just looked at him, steupsed and started to laugh but in my mind I was saying yuh know he probably right.”

 

Chandler continues, “When all the other batsmen  on our team were struggling to make a fifty, Brian was hitting centuries at will. We used to get out and go back to the pavilion and watch Brian bat on and ‘ on. We always knew that he was destined for greater things.”

 

He feels compelled to mention Lara’s father, Bunty. “One person I always admired and looked up to was Brian’s dad, Bunty. I think he was Brian’s biggest supporter. He used to come to all our matches and he even used to come to watch us practice.” He adds, “He was the most sincere and down to earth individual you could meet. He was like our unofficial Manager/Coach. Many times, he would come to me and offer advice if I played a bad stroke.”

Sagar, himself, the Women’s Soccer Coach  at Phoenix College, Arizona, explains that so many fathers today are “Helicopter dads, they hover over the kids constantly, coaching or critiquing. I remember Brian’s dad as being pretty quiet and one who would just come and watch and just let Brian play.”

                                            " ... the best wicketkeeper the WI never saw"

 

Harry Ramdass, coached Fatima Giants Football/Cricket for well over two decades. He remembers Bunty; “His father never lived to see him make the Test side. He  had heart problems. He would walk around the field, tell me hello. He was an introvert. We got along very well.”

   Ramdass reminisces, “The first time I saw him was at the U 14 trials. In those days

there was no U 13. He was short in stature with a big afro.

“I remember he asked me if I thought he would get any taller because the afro

made him look taller. I told him ‘yes you’ll grow but how you grow is different for

{everyone}.'”

Ramdass explains that when Lara started at Fatima nobody knew him. “He had to

compete with the fellas in Form II and III, It was a tough job.  Somebody at Harvard

told me he was good and I said ‘Yes for his age but how will he do against the older

boys.'

 

“It was tough  for him but looking back now I realize nothing was beyond him. 

I remember there was a time he was not doing too well and he was short for

Form I. He said he wanted to try opening. I said ‘You sure? So far, you are not doing

very well.’ The transformation was something else. It was an U 14 match and he

made 90 not out. … He was smiling at me. I told him ‘you are smiling at me but I am

not smiling. Do you know the record is 160 not out by Sean Roberts You have to

steel yourself.’”

 

Ramdass, continues, “I told someone if I had half of Brian’s mindset, I would be a Billionaire. He could do it and beyond.

 

“He was an excellent wicketkeeper. He was the best Keeper the WI never saw. I am not exaggerating. Brian had the ability to stump you quickly and fold his hands. When you looked back you were out. He was excellent.”

 

Gus Logie, the former Test batsman and present WI Women’s Coach, remembers meeting Lara in the early eighties. Lara was introduced to the TT team at the Oval. “I met this small guy and he had unbelievable confidence. He believed he would be great. He was born for greatness. Jus his name alone, Brian Lara, it rolls off your tongue.”

 

Logie continues, “I remember offering him my Gray-Nicolls bat which is ironic because he became an icon more so than I with {it}.”

 

He describes the Fatima youngster as “record conscious.” He adds, “He studied the game. He was determined to meet records and surpass them. It was not surprising that he did what he did. It was an incredible journey.”

 

Logie, recounts Lara’s Test debut vs Pakistan at Lahore, 1990, where he scored 44. “the confidence he had to face the senior bowlers like Imran Khan, it was breathtaking. With that high backlift he had, it was beautiful to watch.”

 

Logie credits him as a student of the game. “He knew what he wanted to do. He an analytical outlook, more so than any other player. Today players depend on Coaches. Back then, there weren’t much videos or Coaches. Only later on when Rohan Kanhai joined the WI team in 1992.

 

“Even when I was Coach (of the WI 2033-2004) he would know what he needed to do. He would work on his technique on the nets. He had a mental strength second to none.”

 

He explains that Lara may have been talented but he also had the ability to bat for many hours. After Matthew Hayden had briefly borrowed his World Record for the highest score in Test cricket, “He  knew he would get the record back. He said he would and he did. It was ordained.”

 

                                                                                  Opponents who learned “the hard way”

 

When Lara entered Fatima College in 1981, it was a magical time for their cricket team. For most of that decade they were represented by Joey Carew’s two sons, Michael and David; Bryan Davis’ sons, Gregory and Barry; Willie Rodriguez’s son, Scott; Nicholas Gomez, Nick Govia and Robert Wickham. They all represented TT at youth level Gregory and Michael playing for their country at First Class level.

 

Therefore, when a pint sized, Form III, Lara entered the First Eleven, he was surrounded by a fair bit of pedigree.

 

David Carew, reminisces, “In my humble view, he was a natural sportsman. … His real strength was his mental toughness. One must remember that Brian was physically very small during his school career. Because of that he did not score many boundaries. His famous shot was the square cut which would go towards the tennis court and he would have to run two or three at a time.” Carew’s most vivid school memory of Lara is “ his first year at U 19. He came in on a beaver trick with three of the big boys back in the pavilion. He came out undeterred and proceeded to score a hundred. You could imagine the faces of the opponents when they saw this little guy, half their size come out to bat. They probably would have said ‘he making up numbers.’ But they would have had to learn the hard way.

 

                                                                                         A decent and respectful individual

 

"Brian was very humble, a trait passed down to him by his parents. His father came to all of his games but he would sit away from the players by himself with his hat and cushion. I remember one day when Brian made a hundred, I happened to look in his direction; he got up and applauded like anyone else but you could see how proud he was of his son’s achievement.”

 

Carew explains, “A lot of people would not know this but U 19 games were held after school on a Friday and the entire Saturday. So, one could just imagine how committed his father and by extension, his sister were to get him to the ground. Strangely enough, that is how he ended up staying by us as we lived two minutes away. I suggested one day to stay over for a weekend so it would be easier to get {there}. It was not unusual in those days to stay at a friend’s house. So, what was supposed to be a weekend ended up being over ten years.” He adds “ … my parents and grandmother grew to love him as a son and grandson not because of his cricketing prowess because they would not have known how good he would become but more so, he was a very decent and respectful individual.”

 

                                                                              Limitless ambition but limited bats

 

Fatima had an incentive to give back then to give its players a new bat if they scored a century.

Based on previous performances they would usually order around six bats for the whole school.

“But they didn’t cater for Brian. In one year, he made over six centuries so I think the school had to

rethink their incentive packaging going forward because of him,” says Carew.

 

Carew goes on to say that Lara was driven by the belief that the sky was the limit. “I remember

him once giving a chat to the younger guys at the Queen’s Park Cricket Club where he said his goal

from young was to play against the best. At the time he referenced the great Pakistani bowling pair

of (Wasim) Akram and (Waqar) Younis, whom he saw as his greatest challenge during his Test

career. He said that all he wanted to do was see his name in the papers the next morning.” Carew

believes that was the “yardstick” Lara also used for all levels of competition, schooldays included.

 

“My personal opinion is that Brian and by extension the entire Lara clan has remained humble

despite the level of success Brian has enjoyed internationally. I can always pick up the phone and

have a quiet chat with him and he will always respond …”

 

Michael Ruiz played with Lara at every age level in high school. “He was a very tiny guy … he was

afraid of the ball. I suspect that is why he went to the wicketkeeper position and became

very good.”

 

Ruiz recounts the Giants Final against Mt. St. Benedicts in 1982. “They almost beat us except

I … got 6/12 (with his off spin) and Lara stumped four of the six..

 

“He couldn’t wait until he grew up years afterwards and was measuring our height in a party. I

didn’t recognize him because he had actually gotten to my height.”

 

There were two U-14/16 players that just about everyone at Fatima thought would go on to represent the WI, Lara and Andrew Singh. The latter was a tall, strapping allrounder who bowled with firesome pace and was a hard hitter of the ball. Ruiz says, “Andrew and I were the only two boys allowed in {Mr. Lara’s} car. He had a big old Kingswood. He would drive us to matches. I guess he saw us as potentially good players, especially Andrew.”

 

Singh quit the game for what Ruiz alleges was a “racist incident with the Coach Theo Cuffy,” in the mid- eighties. Players had been assembled for what he recollects as a kind of National Schoolboys Trial. “I am very upset about it to this day,” exclaims Ruiz. “He was told by Theo Cuffy that he is an Indian and he should be playing in the East not in the North. I went up and challenged Mr. Cuffy about that. But as a big man to a boy, what could I do?” He adds “Lara to this day asks me about him, ‘Where is Andrew boy?’”

 

He recalls one day when Lara, Singh and himself had a successful trial, they decided to celebrate with a huge bucket of KFC. “Between the three of us we sat down in Independence Square which ironically became the Brian Lara Promenade and gorged down {the chicken}.”

 

Ruiz laughingly says, “I hope he forgives me for this. He was so good that he was playing U-14/16/19 at the same time. We were playing an U 19 match and the opening batsman by the name of Warner got hit in his neck with a ball at silly mid on and that shattered his confidence.” There was a discussion as to whom the Coaches should pick as the replacement, Ruiz or Lara. “Both of us sat down on the bench, hopeful. … They picked me. Well boy! That man cuss. All kinda cuss I get from him that day.”

 

Ruiz was put at silly point, he borrowed a box from the wicketkeeper, Gregory Davis. “A batsman slammed a ball down the legside. Everybody was looking for the ball on the boundary and Gregory Davis bawl ‘It in Michael Ruiz hand.’ Well you know that cemented my place,” much to the chagrin of the future Prince of Port of Spain.

 

                                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                            Confident but not cocky

 

A young Lara may have been head and shoulders above his contemporaries but no one ever accused him of being big headed. Confident and keen on making the right decisions but certainly not cocky.

 

 Gus Logie explains that “He knew the game. He wasn’t always someone who would agree with you. He would want to question a change, a batting declaration … inevitably, we had to agree to disagree.

 

“Some might call it disrespectful or insubordination but he did it in the best interest of the team.”

 

Logie points out that when Lara himself was Captain of the WI team not everyone agreed with his decisions. “This was the only blot on his career.”

 

He recounts a game vs Jamaica at the QPO, 1992. Rajindra Dhanraj was taking wickets but he was getting hit by the tailenders. I brought in a change bowler, Clint Yorke from Tobago.” Yorke got hit for 17 runs in that over, however, “ … The first bowl it went down Tony Gray’s throat at mid on and he floored it.” The game was won in the following over with Gray bowling.

 

However, the young Lara was not  impressed. He explained to Logie after the match “ … that I should have persisted with Dhanraj. He even accused me of not wanting Dhanraj to get Man of the Match. It was childish petulance really.”

 

Logie explains “I was more disappointed with the response from the people in charge, like Joey Carew, instead of saying No, they agreed with him. I did not want to be on a team that supported that kind of behavior.” He continues, “I did not take it personally but I knew if that kind of behavior on the National Team was not held in check, it could affect him.”

 

Ramdass says “There was never a problem with him in terms of his knowledge of the game. But he was always questioning things, ‘Why do this? Why put somebody there?’

 

“Brian was at a higher level. I remember against a team, he tried called for a run. I was wondering why?  That run wasn’t on. He said he had a feeling. If he played the ball to the fielder’s left, he would have to use his right hand to throw. He was a couple levels ahead. I think he hardly ever got run out.”

 

Sagar, points out, “Brian could singlehandedly destroy a bowling attack and he would never say anything to them. He didn’t have to.”

 

Regarding Lara’s humility, he says, “He has never changed with us (his boyhood friends).” Sagar, who is the Head Soccer Coach for the Women’s Team at Phoenix College, Arizona, explains that some years back he and his wife were in TT. They were out on the town and Lara walked in with his entourage. Sagar did not wish to disturb him. However, later in the night, “ … he left the group and came over to us, ‘What? No hello for me?’ My wife was blown away.”

 

Ruiz, recounts an U 14 practice session. Coach Ramdass, had set up a single stump at the first of the three nets, which was open on the right side. “I bowled Lara. My mistake. He then proceeded to hit every ball into {the legside}.” All the time shouting to Ruiz, “’You could bowl me! You want to bowl me Michael Ruiz!’ It was a lesson of his cockiness but also of his genius. And I feel proud to be a part of training him to hit people,” he says and laughs.

 

Ragoonath and Lara had played for the TT Youth Team in both 1986 and ’87. They were now looking towards the Senior Team. Barbadian, Roland Holder, had already made his FC debut. Ragoonath remembers leaving the QPCC after a net session in 1987. “ … in those days we were travelling. Brian was sitting outside … on the pavement. He stopped me and said very casually, ‘Ragoo, hear this. You think Roland Holder could bat better than me?’ It was more of a rhetorical question that he was asking me. ‘He only has one shot on me and that is the hook shot and I will give him that. But other than that, he cannot bat with me.’ Such was his confidence.”

 

Ragoonath emphasizes Lara’s tactical acumen. “In the Dressing Room he was just exuding confidence. He was someone who saw the game a couple hours ahead at any point in time. … I don’t know anyone who was able to assess, plan and execute in any situation as well as he could.” He explains that at the beginning of the day Lara would try to predict a number of scenarios seeing “where the game would be in two hours’ time. … so that in two hours’ time the game was where he wanted it to be. That was the kind of insight that Brian had and … it contributed significantly to him becoming the great player that we eventually saw.” Ragoonath says that Lara was able to assess players and come up with strategies that yielded results in spectacular fashion at times.

 

“I think he failed at WI level as a Captain not because he was not {good} but because he overestimated people’s abilities {as well as his own} as a result some of the things he tried didn’t pay off because he didn’t have the resources or tried to get extraordinary {results} out of ordinary people.”

This reporter had a chance to do a telephone interview with an emerging Lara in Toronto in 1992. In a world of no internet and with some WI/Canadians unaware, I had to explain to my Editor that this was a future legend and it would be a scoop. Brian was very patient with my questions and seemed to remember me from our Fatima days. He was just as patient when I called him again to ask some follow up questions despite him having a long distance call on the other line. A bit pushy of me but I was a young reporter trying to get his story.

 

A few months later he would top-score for the World Eleven vs WC Champs, Pakistan with 94 odd at the Sky Dome. As a youngster, I came to the match in a Tobago T-shirt and a jeans. Imagine my surprise to see my colleagues in the Press Box, resplendent in their jacket and tie. I was in my mid-twenties and looked about a decade younger. They must have thought I was some precocious youth.

 

Usually we were told beforehand if cricketers were coming for an interview. However, to our surprise, in came Captain Kapil Dev and Lara without any warning. The reporters ran as one to meet them. I was stuck at the back trying to cue my recorder.

 

I will never know how but Brian saw me at the back of  this semi-lit room. He sidestepped the mob and walked up to me, “How are you,” shaking my hand. I was in shock, “How yuh going?” I responded shaking his. He sat next to me and Kapil immediately followed him.

 

The reporters had to stop in mid-rush and swivel their heads. Then as one they all looked at me curiously. The youngster had gotten some respect.

 

Gregory Davis played a fair amount of cricket with Lara at Fatima College and the QPCC. He remembers the

TT batsmen were failing in 1994. “He was frustrated because he was batting alone. I reminded him how the

old time players used to farm the strike for the tailenders.”

 

Lara heeded his advice and TT’s fortunes improved.  Playing against Jamaica in TT, he put on 105 runs with

Rajindra Dhanraj for the eighth wicket, with latter contributing only eleven.  “He took the responsibility to bat

with the tail and this propelled him through the rest of the year.” Lara would famously go on to a break a

number of records that year including the highest Test and FC score.

 

As a young boy playing on the streets of Cantaro Village, not even his most ardent admirer could have had a

clue about the records that would tumble in the years to come brining pride and joy not just to his family and friends but an entire nation.

 

Carew concludes, “ … on behalf of our family, we are extremely proud to be associated with the Lara family. His father, Bunty and mother, Pearl, must be extremely proud of their son. Not only in his sporting achievements but his ongoing commitment to his family and community through their foundation and his country for putting us on the world stage.”

Brian lara, flanked by his father, Bunty and his mother, Pearl.

Fatima College, National Under 14 Secondary Schools Champions, 1982.

"... he cannot bat with me." Brian Lara commenting on fellow prospect Roland Holder (above) in  1987.

Suruj Ragoonath

I would like to thank Gus Logie, Suruj Ragoonath, Harry Ramdass, Winston Chandler, Chris Sagar, Michael Ruiz, Gregory Davis and David Carew for their contribution to this article. 
VB

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