A tribute to the cricket legend’s less-than-legendary T20 Black Clash innings.
By the time Brian Lara walked off the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui last Saturday night he had faced 19 balls, scored nine runs and, by the strict letter of the laws of cricket, should have been given out three times already.
As the West Indies batting genius and inspiration behind the groundbreaking Sega Mega Drive game Brian Lara Cricket crossed the boundary rope, his first words to TVNZ’s sideline interviewer Guy Heveldt were a plea for understanding. “You’ve got to remember I am 54,” he said. “Things have gotten a little worse in the last 20 years.”
Truer and more profound words have never been spoken by a batter so soon after losing their wicket. Brian Lara’s nine off 19 balls in the 2024 T20 Black Clash was not a good innings by any traditional measure. But it was a deeply human innings, relatable to anybody who’s played the sport of cricket at any level. And in that way it was its own kind of masterpiece.
Over the course of his test career, Lara scored 11,953 runs (seventh on the all-time list) and hit 34 centuries (sixth equal). He made two of the three highest individual test innings ever, breaking the record with 375 against England in 1994 and reclaiming it with test cricket’s first and only 400 against the same opposition 10 years later. As recently as 2020 he hit 30 off 11 balls in an Australian charity T20 match, and as recently as last week he put on a batting masterclass in the Adelaide Oval nets.
But in the Black Clash he was outshone by former All Blacks captain Kieran Read. Of their 58-run partnership, the flanker contributed 41 to Lara’s nine.
Unpredictability is one of the main draws of an exhibition match like the Black Clash. Most serious cricket matches tend to follow one of a handful of well-worn scripts, but in an exhibition match full of former stars and rugby players there is a sense that anything can happen. In this respect, Lara more than delivered.
What we all thought we were going to see when he arrived at the crease was an elegant display of strokemaking from one of cricket’s all-time greats. What we got was a bittersweet reminder that glory fades and an opportunity to reflect on our own mortality and the inexorable march of time.
Lara came to the crease in the first over of Team Rugby’s chase of Team Cricket’s 221. This was no doubt earlier than he had anticipated. In the long moments it took him to emerge flustered from the depths of the Bay Oval changing rooms the television audience enjoyed a tension-building extended shot of teammate Steve Devine sitting down to enjoy a plate piled high with meat from the buffet.
Strictly speaking, Lara should have been given out before even facing a ball. The laws of cricket say a batsman can be declared “timed out” if they’re not at the crease and ready to resume within three minutes of the previous batter being dismissed – a rare mode of dismissal seen only once before in international cricket (at last year’s ODI World Cup). It took Lara just over three-and-a-half minutes to reach the middle, but no one from Team Cricket appealed and umpires Chris Harris and Todd Astle chose not to invoke the rule.
The first ball of Lara’s innings was delivered by part-time spinner Anton Devcich. He played an elegant-looking drive and the ball passed the outside edge by a good 10 centimetres. His second ball was from Kyle Mills. Back of a length outside off, the left-hander attempted to run it down to third man but got an inside edge and chopped it back onto the stumps. He was out for a duck.
“Oh noooooo,” howled the Alternative Commentary Collective’s Jason Hoyte, who’d spent the best part of the previous five minutes talking about how vital Lara was to Team Rugby’s chances. But as the team’s only actual cricket player began his long walk back to changing rooms, umpire Todd Astle belatedly thrust out his arm to judiciously declare a no ball.
As Astle signalled a free hit, Lara signalled to the changing room. He was calling for a helmet. A spare one was duly brought out to him. It was far too small. It looked like it might be a child’s helmet. Everybody watched as he struggled to jam it onto his head and yank the strap down under his chin. It looked claustrophobically tight and for the rest of the innings sat at an angle Hoyte accurately described as “horrendously skewiff”.
The free hit was whipped off his hips and bounced down to the fielder on the midwicket boundary for a single. After a shaky start, Lara was underway.
Jacob Oram came on to bowl the third over with his cap on backwards. The first ball was pushed back to the bowler and the second ball struck Lara on the thigh pad. The ground DJ started playing MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’. At the end of the over he was on two from seven balls.
That became two from nine after back-to-back dot balls from Nathan McCullum. The third ball he faced from the spinner beat bat and pat, hitting Lara on back leg right in front of middle stump, the kind of LBW decision that even a club umpire supplied by the batting side might feel compelled by the spirit of cricket to give. Astle’s finger remained unmoved.
After Kieran Read hit 21 off a Colin de Grandhomme over to ease some scoreboard pressure, Team Cricket brought on Queensland rugby league legend and self-described “slow medium” bowler Jonathan Thurston to bowl to his childhood hero. Thurston was in conversation with the commentators the whole time, revealing that not only was he “severely hungover”, he was also actively trying to get hit for six. “If Brian Lara hits me for six that’ll be one of the greatest memories in my life,” he said.
Thurston ran in to bowl his first ball with his arms raised while at the non-striker’s end Kieran Read punched the air in time to stadium dance anthem ‘Kernkraft 400’ by Zombie Nation. The resulting delivery was wide down the leg side. “I’ll throw one up so he can smack it over the fence,” Thurston told the commentators, before bowling another wide half-tracker outside leg stump which Lara could only help down to fine leg for a single.
“Has someone told him it’s a T20?” Hoyte wondered after Lara met the first ball from Northern Districts Under-19 offspinner Riley McCullum with a solid forward defensive shot. Now eight off 16, and with the required run rate sitting at well over 12 an over, the pressure was beginning to mount. “Time for him to go for it, time for him to have a swing,” declared commentator Matt Heath. Lara advanced down the pitch to the next ball and miscued it back to the bowler.
He took a single off the next ball as the opening chords ‘Sweet Caroline’ rang out around the ground. In serious cricket matches music is restricted to in between overs and stoppages of play, but in the Black Clash anything goes. The following ball, Kieran Read was bowled through the gate at the exact moment the chorus kicked in. “I think Brian’s ready to start hitting,” he told Heveldt on his way off the pitch.
But the next ball Lara faced he was out too. Like earlier in the over he came down the pitch, but this time he missed the ball completely, Gareth Hopkins whipped the bails off in a flash and Riley McCullum joined Australia’s Zoe Goss in the exclusive club of bowlers who’ve got Brian Lara out stumped in an exhibition match. Cruelly, the ground DJ played ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ by Steam as he walked from the pitch.
In his exit interview, Lara half-jokingly and wholly relatably blamed his performance on the bowlers. Mills and Oram in particular had bowled “back of a length, seaming into me, what is going on with them?” A legend of the game, reduced to asking just like the rest of us: “Where’s the half volleys?”
BC Lara st. Hopkins b. R McCullum 9 (19) (0 fours, 0 sixes, run rate 47)