Warwickshire legend Neil Smith tells of his close-up view of Brian Lara in action versus Leicestershire
Brian Lara announced himself as a Warwickshire player with a century on his debut against Glamorgan at Edgbaston in the first match of 1994.
Eleven days after scoring a world record Test score of 365 for West Indies against England in Antigua, Lara strode out to bat in Birmingham, in rather colder, greener conditions, and unfurled a luscious 147 from 160 balls with 23 fours and two sixes.
He (Lara) marshalled it superbly. I hung around while we added 60-odd to see the game out but I faced one ball an over, at most.Neil Smith
The ‘Lara effect’ was immediate. His century arrived in a total of 657 for seven which equalled Warwickshire’s record and underpinned victory by an innings and 103 runs. Roger Twose, who added 215 with Lara, went on to make an unbeaten 277, having scored 224 runs in the entire 1993 championship season – an immediate indication of just how spectacular that Lara effect was to be on team and individuals alike.
“Brian gave a complete batting masterclass that year,” recalls Neil Smith, an ever-present during the magical 1994 treble season. But it was in the second championship match, at home to Leicestershire, that Smith, granted a close-up view, came to appreciate the true genius of Lara.
Leicestershire were strong in 1994 and would finish as championship runners-up to the Bears, principally due to a strong bowling attack led by the seam attack of David Millns, Alan Mullally, Gordon Parsons and Vince Wells, supported by the spin of Adrian Pierson. They started the season with a ten-wicket eclipse of Northamptonshire and then got well on top of Warwickshire at Edgbaston.
The Foxes made 403 then bowled the Bears out for 254 despite Lara’s 106. Set 285 to win, Warwickshire were then in deep trouble at 65 for four as Millns blasted out Twose, Dominic Ostler, Dermot Reeve and Paul Smith. The Foxes pared away at the middle order. Keith Piper fell: 91 for five. Asif Din went: 120 for six. But still there was Lara.
Next in to join the West Indian was Smith who knuckled down for a crucial 20 in a stand of 67 which saw Warwickshire to safety – and brought home to Smith just what a colossal talent it was that Brian Charles Lara possessed.
“Leicestershire were a very competitive side,” he recalled. “They had a strong bowling attack and had their tails up and were pressing hard for victory. When I went in they kept putting the field out to try to get Brian off strike but he just took control.
“He judged where to hit the ball so well. He would pick the gaps for four but, when it was needed, just as easily manipulate it round for three or one. He marshalled it superbly. I hung around while we added 60-odd to see the game out but I faced one ball an over, at most.
“In that innings it became apparent to me just how good Brian was. To be able to control an innings to that degree in that situation was absolutely fantastic. It was obvious that here was a guy, not just with supreme talent, but who understood the art of batting.”
Lara’s innings, described with customary eloquence by Mike Beddow in the Daily Telegraph as “unhurried in defence and wickedly punishing with 22 fours,” ended on 120 not out and took his run tally in the match to 226 out of his team’s 460. All the anticipation and hype surrounding his signing by the Bears appeared thoroughly justified – but he had only just begun.
Next up came a brilliant 136 in a thrilling run-chase at Taunton, then 140 against Middlesex at Lord’s (his sixth century in seven first-class innings) and 501 not out v Durham. Warwickshire’s 1994 treble achievement was built by many big contributors but the catalyst for so much of that year’s momentum was Lara’s blazing start to a championship season. His 2,066 championship runs in ’94 arrived from 2,262 balls, almost a run-a-ball, a rate that moved matches on so swiftly that Warwickshire’s bowlers had the plenty of time to do their bit and bowl teams out.
“Brian scored a lot of runs very quickly but he didn’t just go out and blast it,” said Smith. “It was pure quality and a massive learning curve for the rest of our batters feeding off the back of him and learning from him. It was not just his weight of runs but the way he manipulated fields and would take the attack to the opposing side at the appropriate times. Brian gave a complete batting masterclass that year.
“It was an amazing time for the club. We had a great atmosphere and whenever we went on the pitch everybody had a collective goal to win. The team-spirit was amazing. It wasn’t perfect – we didn’t all get on and there were issues off the field on a few occasions but that collective will-to-win underpinned everything.
“If you are going to have that degree of success everybody has to contribute and everybody did. Then throw in the Brian Lara factor and the pace at which he scored runs – Brian triggered huge belief in the rest of us and everything just snowballed.”