501 Not Out: A Cricket Fan’s-Eye View of Brian Lara

The Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) from September 9 to 22 was, as with many other events nowadays, a “first,” since it was online. In fact it was the Festival’s fifteenth anniversary and over 120 films were shown, with major sponsorship from the Trinidad & Tobago Government’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts. Co-founder and Interim Executive Director of Filmco (founded in 2017) Mariel Brown explained that a lot of excitement was planned – open-air screenings and the like – before COVID-19 arrived. She described the change as “dramatic and immediate.” There is no doubt that what Ms. Brown called “the myriad twists, turns and challenges of 2020” has badly affected the film and television industry, regionally and worldwide. But, one has to “pivot,” in the current COVID jargon. In fact, the TTFF did just that, hosting an online screening series called #WatchAMovieOnUs, from March 28 to April 10, this year.

Mariel Brown, Director of the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival, is Interim Executive Director of Filmco and an art publisher as well as filmmaker and writer. (Photo: Filmco)

The TTFF announced ten winning films across its two award categories (jury prizes and special awards) at a virtual awards ceremony held on Monday 14 September. The juries comprised several international film industry professionals. Films selected for the juried competitions were rigorously discussed, dissected and unanimously agreed upon by the festival’s programmers before being selected for competition. I am happy to note that Jamaica’s Gabrielle Blackwood won in the Best Documentary Short category for Unbroken, about a young amputee who defied the odds to qualify for the Jamaican Olympic Rowing Team.

You can still watch all the films up to September 22, so why not sit back, relax and enjoy one of the “bundles” of films available here for your viewing pleasure, at home. Hurry, now!

I was kindly invited to attend the Opening Night on September 9, which featured a heartfelt introduction by Ms. Brown and a screening of the most delightful documentary, “51 Not Out,” directed by a dedicated UK cricket fan, Sam Lockyer. Mr. Lockyer is not just a cricket fan, but very specifically a Brian Lara fan – his childhood hero.

Yes – cricket. Now, full disclosure: I am not personally very “big” on the game. I am a football girl, myself (Arsenal Football Club, the pride of North London). I did, however, find myself writing a piece quite recently about Sir Everton Weekes, who passed away on July 1 – and wishing I had met him, or seen him play.

Cricket hero Brian Lara. (Photo: David Gray/Reuters)

Mr. Lockyer describes the prolific, record-breaking batsman Brian Lara as “the greatest cricketer to ever live.” Many others would agree with him. Mr. Lockyer made his pilgrimage to Trinidad, starting in the small town of Santa Cruz, where Lara was born in 1969, growing up with numerous brothers and sisters. His family was well known as performers of a special kind of folk music called parang, which has South American roots. The neighborhood, in a valley with an old cocoa plantation, is considered prime real estate. Mr. Lara seems to have had a rather comfortable and uneventful childhood, with a very supportive father. We learn of his very fast rise as a cricketer; he attended a local coaching clinic from age six. Later on, we see him as a small-framed schoolboy with a large afro at a rather exclusive Roman Catholic boys’ school in Port of Spain, Fatima College. In all these youthful photos we see the same friendly smile.

The film maker interviews iconic names from the world of cricket, including some of Lara’s former teammates, his friends and coaches in Trinidad and the Caribbean, and the “Trini Posse,” who are cricket fans on the island. But what makes it for me is the director’s eye – as a British fan, and the perspectives of several other British fans.

Brian Lara.

What are the characteristics of a sports fan? Well, obviously there is the enthusiasm, the intensity of the experience, and – if the object of fandom is a particular person – there is a sense of awe and inspiration, besides a feeling of empathy with the sportsperson. He or she almost becomes a member of the family. Looking back, this becomes nostalgia, memories – and in this case, cricketing memories.

Not being particularly attracted to the game itself, I found myself wanting a bit more of the man in this film. Well, he is an overall “nice guy,” but I did not quite get to know him as a person. He only speaks, in a cool, quiet voice, about half way through the film. Up until that point, the director does the narrating and interviews others about him. Perhaps a full-blown interview with his hero would have been nice; but then, a fan sometimes wants to maintain a certain distance; one is in awe. We saw him through others’ eyes – including two young millennials who, as excited little boys, were among those who ran onto the pitch when he hit his record 501.

The Warwickshire team (with Lara right at the back) celebrate his 501 not out in 1994. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gradually, however, Lara in his cultural context – as well as living his famous life overseas – emerged. An almost fiercely focused and driven person, he had to overcome the “easy-going culture” of Trinidad and Tobago that he grew up in. Behind that nice smile there was a huge amount of grit and determination. He had already set his mind on breaking the record on the day he scored 501 not out: “Guys, do you think I can get the record?” he asked his team mates. His single-mindedness was remarkable.

I also felt I wanted to know more about how he coped with fame (one hears that he “handled it pretty well” but had his moments of not managing quite so well, and that’s not surprising). One image that struck me was of Lara arriving at Warwickshire Cricket Club, amidst much “hype” – with his small, boyish smile, in a formal jacket a little too large for him (“He didn’t look like a cricketer,” observed the herculean, six foot eight inches tall West Indies bowler Curtly Ambrose in one interview. “He was so small.“)

Mr. Lara was remarkably self-deprecating when asked about his achievements and his ambitions. “I’m still just twenty-four,” he reminded reporters. “When I get to a ripe old age, I can talk about being a great cricketer.” At another point, he says: “I’ve been doing quite well. But I may not do that well in the future. I will enjoy it while I can.” This is not false modesty. Like many great sportsmen and women, he was always focused on the “now.” Tomorrow was another story, another hurdle to be conquered.

A large part of the film documents Mr. Lara’s extraordinary achievements on the cricket pitch. So, we are taken step by step through his enrollment in the national Under-14 team (where he was already scoring centuries). The film describes his stunning rise to international cricket fame, which really started when he scored 277 runs in his fifth test match against Australia, in 1993. He didn’t waste any time. He just persisted.

The two boys who ran up to Lara on the pitch after he broke his record are interviewed in the film, to the accompaniment of British rock music of the 90s. (Photo: Getty Images)

1994 was the year when “it” happened. On Tuesday, June 6, 1994, Lara hit 501 runs not out in a match between Lara’s team, Warwickshire, and Durham at Edgbaston, off a ball from Johnny Morris – breaking the world record of 499 set by Pakistani player Hanif Mohammad back in 1959. It was almost the last over of the day, and at 497 runs, Lara had taken a hit on the head. But he went on. “He’s a genius of a player,” said one cricketer. From that day onwards, he was a superstar.

Brian Lara (left) demonstrates to President Barack Obama how to do a cover drive, in Port of Spain, 2009. Note the President’s look of deep concentration. They are both left-handed.

I have actually met Mr. Lara – or at least, said hello – at the Hilton Hotel in Port of Spain, during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The occasion was the Summit of the Americas in 2009 – a big event where I also met the late Hugo Chavez. As I stood with a crowd of international journalists on the hotel rooftop in the blazing midday heat, while the President gave a press briefing, I realized Mr. Lara was standing quietly beside me. He had just done an amusing photo-op with the President, showing him how to wield a cricket bat – no, not like a baseball swing, Mr. President. Referring to another U.S. sport, President Obama later described Lara as “the Michael Jordan of cricket.”

By that time, Lara had retired – two years earlier. The film ends with a commemorative match for his fiftieth birthday, followed by a party at the Lara mansion. Another of those small waves of nostalgia wafts over us. Fans say: “What were you doing when Lara broke the record?” The millennial fans revisit an empty Edgbaston Stadium, where the record was broken, recalling racing onto the pitch, jumping up and down and touching Lara’s bat. A charming elderly couple, sitting together on the couch at home, reminisce about how they were listening on the radio, and decided to go down to the cricket ground to witness Lara’s great moment.

“I was still in awe,” confesses the film’s director at the party. All fans to the end; because one never really stops being a fan.

2 thoughts on “501 Not Out: A Cricket Fan’s-Eye View of Brian Lara

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.