At the crease with Brian Lara

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Navneet Ganesh on playing with the West Indian cricketing legend

It is not very often that you get to say that you have played cricket with Brian Charles Lara – arguably one of the premier batsmen of the modern era and the game’s all-time greats. However, that was exactly what a select group of individuals will get to say to their friends, family and even grandkids one day – all thanks to University of Western Sydney’s Brian Lara Community Cricket Day.

By virtue of being involved in grassroots cricket through Infinity Cricket and also my association this season with the Parramatta Grade Cricket Club, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play in this once in a lifetime match.

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For me, like so many others of our generation, Brian Lara was one of my favourite batsmen. Words cannot really do justice to how it felt to be sharing the same ground as a cricketing icon and interacting with him as a player. He is a superstar of the sport, but the moment he crossed the boundary rope, he made everyone feel as though they were his equal. And that is what makes Brian Lara the person so much more compelling.

The exhibition style modified rules match was played at the Old Kings Oval in Parramatta. There were hundreds of applications, which were ultimately trimmed down to a 15 a side contest with each side batting for 15 overs. Brian Lara batted for both sides. The result did not matter.

The players were mixed and included UWS students who played cricket, grade cricketers, Brian Lara enthusiasts, talented female cricketers as well as other high profile celebrities. Gurinder Sandhu made an appearance on the field, whilst a few Rugby legends were present too. Anthony Minichiello, the Australian former professional rugby league player and Sydney Roosters skipper, even bowled to Lara. A couple of powerful hits to the boundary was followed by this from Lara to the wicket-keeper, “Ok, I’m going to dance down the wicket and miss the ball. Take the stumping.” And so, Minichiello got Lara’s wicket and there were smiles all around.

There were up to 15 players allowed on the field. If Lara was dismissed, he was allowed to stay on. Each batting pair could only bat for a maximum of four overs or unless they were made to retire. No bowler could bowl more than two overs. The focus was less on the cricket rules, but more on the experience of playing with a cricketing icon and no one seemed to mind as the game was played in good spirit.

The first ball of the match was bowled by the UWS Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover, who almost had a wicket off that delivery, only for it to be parried at square leg. The Chancellor Peter Shergold was given the responsibility to umpire. “This is a delightful ground to play cricket,” said Shergold as he pointed to the white picket fences and picturesque surrounds of the Old Kings Oval. The wicket itself was soft due to the recent rain and Lara was quick to notice that as he said tongue-in-cheek, “Maybe Parra need to get the covers on next time!”

You could sense the excitement in the air even as early as 8:30 am, the time the players were told to arrive at the ground. Brian Lara was already there sitting up on the pavilion, wearing a fitted white shirt, black trousers, designer sunnies and what looked like “don’t ask the price” type watch. He oozed class and GQ would have been proud of his outfit. The moment he stepped down the stairs, he was the centre of attention and rightly so.

For a man who has scored mountains of runs; Lara is the only batsman to score 501* runs in an innings in County cricket and also has a test match 400* – he was down to earth and took time to mingle casually with everyone.

A few moments that stand out from the day included a young kid called Ryan, currently playing under-14s cricket who was the first player to dismiss Lara. The champion batsman immediately walked over to the boy and congratulated him. He was presented the match ball with Lara’s signature, giving him a story to tell for years to come and a memory of a lifetime.

Parramatta Grade player Ameesh Kaul had the privilege of being Lara’s batting partner. “It was a surreal feeling when he walked to the crease. I wasn’t sure what to say and if I should speak to him. But he walked up and asked me how the wicket was playing and put me at ease,” said Kaul.

“Everyone has come to see Lara bat, so I wanted to give him strike but was finding it tough on this wicket. So he asked me how old I was and said that perfecting placement comes with time and many years of practice,” he added.

There were plenty of talented young female cricketers who also participated in the match and Lara ensured that their dreams of batting with him were fulfilled. At the innings break, a number of local primary school children gathered and Lara duly obliged by signing a number of autographs. There was the traditional Aboriginal welcome by the local elder before play started, African drummers and even a Bollywood performance in what was quintessentially a carnival atmosphere.

To be able to walk out and field a ball that Lara hit to you and be part of a unique event like this was an incredible experience. Lara recounted a tale when as a kid growing up in his village in Trinidad & Tobago, he was able to develop his cricket by chance after enrolling in a cricket coaching clinic.

From batting with broken branches on the streets to amassing a mountain of runs at Fatima College, Lara emphasised the role that education provided him in reaching his goals and giving him a platform to succeed. “I have fond memories of Sydney. Some of you may recall my 277 scored here in 1992. I also named by daughter Sydney,” said a beaming Lara to the enthralled audience. He showered praise on UWS on this event, “It is great to see so many supporters of the university here today. I don’t think even UWS realise the great work they are doing in the education space and it was not a hard decision for me to play here today.”

Brian Lara hit some vintage shots including a couple of powerful cuts that raced away to the fence. He used his feet and danced down the track several times and sent the ball sailing over the in-field, whilst the trademark Lara pull-shot with one leg up in the air was also in display. For a man who is 45 years of age, he looked in tremendous shape. UWS Vice Chancellor Barney Glover had commented earlier in the day, “I told Brian over a recent dinner that he was looking good enough to play for the West Indies still,” and many fans would agree.

My take away from today was that the passion for the sport is alive and well. The expressions on the school kids’ faces as they received autographs from Lara were priceless. He even received a chorus of “Lara, Lara, Lara,” as he walked out to bat. Brian Lara may have retired from cricket in 2008, but today in Sydney, he still remains a prince – a player who captured the imagination of so many people growing up in the 90s and who continues to inspire the youth of today. UWS must be congratulated for this fantastic initiative, as it is priceless moments like these that will forever attract you to cricket.  I would love for Infinity Cricket to work alongside UWS and other universities and educational institutions in future in promoting this great sport to our next generation. Who knows, Lara may pad up yet again, or it may be Tendulkar!

Just believe that dreams can be real.

The writer is founder of Infinity Cricket, a leading cricket organisation. He is passionate about the sport and its development. He founded Infinity Cricket in 2010 with a vision of ‘Connecting people through Cricket.’ Infinity Cricket organizes Australia’s premier ‘open’ T20 cricket events at the grassroots level and has a presence currently in two cities: Melbourne & Brisbane. Infinity Cricket will be launching in Sydney in 2015. Navneet is also a knowledgeable cricket writer.

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