Lara to play again

Some sports legends can walk off into the sunset with barely a backward glance at their careers, but very few. Even those who never consider a comeback can lie awake at night for years after retirement and, privately, wonder whether “just one more game” might be possible.

Saying goodbye to a great career is the sporting equivalent of bereavement. It is emotionally hard for years but, eventually, the pain and longing for something that was part of your life for so many years begins to fade and you move on. But there will always be reminders – and in sport, there will always be those who encourage and entice stars to give it “one more go.”

Brian Lara is considering one such offer. The legendary West Indian was the guest of honour at Zimbabwe’s annual awards dinner last week and spoke with wit and wisdom for a bladder-bursting 50 minutes towards the end of a long evening in Harare. But it was worth every moment.

Amongst a tittle of tales and anecdotes, the 41-year-old Trinidadian ambassador made an extraordinary plea to Asia’s underground bookmakers to leave the players alone and concentrate on ‘clean’ betting which relies on skill to interpret sporting advantage between teams and individuals rather than illegally gained information. “You are killing the game you profess to love,” said Lara with genuine sincerity and accidental naivety in equal measure.

He also explained how close Zimbabwe was to his heart having first toured the country as captain of the Zimbabwe ‘A’ team back in 1989 and assured his rapt audience that he had been following the country’s cricketing progress closely towards the end of a miserable and painful decade in the 2000s and was looking forward to their return to Test cricket. He said he was hoping to retain a bond with the nation’s cricketers beyond that evening.

The following day ZC officials realised they were staring a gift horse in the mouth – or rather, about to put one on an aeroplane and say goodbye to it. So the carrot was dangled – an opportunity to play in the second edition of the country’s domestic T20 tournament at the beginning of November.

Having gained more weight than he would have liked before negotiations last year to make a comeback for Surrey in England’s T20 tournament, Lara has hit the gym since discussions collapsed and was looking every bit as trim as he was five or six years ago. He was excited about the possibility of acting as a mentor for the many young players in Zimbabwe’s domestic structure and was also, no doubt, relieved by the absence of ‘spotlight’ in Zimbabwe compared with England.

“But I still have my reputation to consider,” he was overheard telling officials.

If he plays he will achieve something far more important than the number of runs he scores. He will serve as another reminder to the rest of the cricket playing world than cricket should, as far as possible, exist as an autonomous sport beyond governmental interference and control. Cricketers should be free to travel and play wherever they choose. What right do politicians and governments have to say where the citizens of free democracies are allowed to play cricket?

Clearly, the British government believes it does. It greedily and deliberately blurs the lines between Zimbabwe Cricket and Robert Mugabe in a cheap effort to win right-wing approval and stay in power.

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Speed, the then ICC chief executive, used to speak frequently about the ICC being an “apolitical body” with “freedom and independence from political interference as one of our cornerstone policies.”

Now, however, the ICC steps aside and allows the UK government to ban all cricket contact with Zimbabwe. Not because of anything ZC have done, but because of the despotic leader of the country.

Lara will join Jason Gillespie and Allan Donald and a dozen other international players in Zimbabwe for the domestic T20. They will all be sending the same message – inadvertently mostly, but sending it anyway – that cricket may have been a traditional ‘toy’ for politicians for many decades, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.

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