The consistent, sustained brilliance of Brian Lara is a marker of excellence.
The young Lara had already made his name as a worthy successor to the great Vivian Richards. Whenever he stepped to the crease you expected a fluent knock of authority and grace, even if the style was different and the disdain subdued. And he usually delivered. But Viv was not Garfield Sobers, record-holder of the most runs in a Test match innings: 365, a run for every day of a normal year. So when Lara came out to bat in the fifth Test against England at the Antigua Recreation Ground, on a pitch the commentators said was good for batting, few had Sobers’s record in mind. When he pulled Tuffnel to the midwicket boundary to bring up his hundred, of course we celebrated. That’s what we expected. But, as it transpired, young Lara was just settling in: 150 off 240 balls. Approaching the double century, yes, we expected that. The man was Viv’s successor. At 250, his fluency, grace and authority driving, steering, gliding, punching, caressing the ball to every boundary, the image of Garfield Sobers began to take shape, dimly at first, but now clear and unmistakable on an overnight score of 320. Sir Garfield flew in.
All through the Caribbean, work stopped. In Kingston the normally busy streets were empty. On the Mona campus, students remained in the Halls and lecturers scurried to departments with television monitors. Nobody wanted to miss history in the making. I myself wanted to be able to tell where I was when Brian Charles Lara broke the record set by Sir Garfield Sobers, one of the greatest of all times. I was upstairs in my Department of Sociology and Social Work, glued to the television monitor set up by our Administrative Assistant, Franklyn Wapp, in Room 31. That’s where I was on the 18th of April 1994: when Brian Lara drove Chris Lewis for four; when Taylor and Chancellor Halls went up in a tremendous roar from across the Ring Road; when all hell broke loose in Antigua; when Sir Garry walked onto the pitch to congratulate Lara in front of tens of millions of viewers across the world; when the clocks started working again.
Brian Lara was brilliant. 766 minutes of extraordinary concentration of the mind and perfect rhythm of the body. With that knock Lara entered a sphere where Garfield Sobers, still the only man to smash 36 runs in one over of first-class cricket, walked with the likes of the legendary Australian, Sir Donald Bradman. After the Test series, he went on to establish another first-class cricket record, 501 runs for his club, Warwickshire. Records, Lara once said, are made to be broken, so he was not surprised when in 2001 the Australian Matthew Hayden pushed the Test record up to 385. But in 2004, with England again touring the West Indies and the fourth Test again at the Antigua Recreation Ground, Lara took his record back, this time 400 not out. The impact was not the same: no tension, no stopping of time. After all, it was Brian Charles Lara. We expected that! To break a record in one of the mentally toughest and physically most demanding sports in the world is enough to join the ranks of the all-time greats. But to do it twice, first at age twenty-four, then at age thirty-four, compiling along the way the most runs by any batsman in test cricket, 11,294 . . . if that is not excellence, then words have no meaning, none at all.
Excellence is the quality of excelling, the noun deriving from the verb. It is essentially comparative, speaking to levels of achievement that are beyond the normal, the ordinary. It is a measure of difference in human accomplishment. With our tendency to classify, we separate the good from the better and the best. Every schoolgirl and schoolboy know what Teacher means when at the end of the homework he or she writes “Good”. It signifies a standard of work that meets Teacher’s approval. When Teacher writes “Very Good”, it means she is doubly satisfied. But when she writes “Excellent”, we know we have reached a level beyond which it is not possible to go. There is no “more excellent” or “most excellent”, or “less excellent” for that matter. Excellence is excellence, a class by itself, apart. Which is why there is no positive or comparative of the same root, forcing us to fall back on “good” and “very good”, even “brilliant”.
Of Lara’s innings of 375 in 1994 we wouldn’t say it was “very good”. No. That would suggest that it was good (which of course it was), but with more of the quality of being “good” (which it had). But because it was really a special, once-in-a-lifetime performance, we strive for other descriptors. “Brilliant” or “dazzling” would be appropriate, for it was a chanceless mark of genius, crafting runs where good and very good batsmen would have found none, and for all of twelve and three-quarter hours over two entertaining days of cricket. Brilliant. “Excellence”, however, demands more than just brilliance. “Brilliant” describes a particular performance. It is possible to say of Lara that he is a brilliant batsman, meaning that not once, not twice, not three times, but repeatedly, time after time and against all comers, he performs with brilliance. In that sense he has achieved the status of excellence. Excellence is therefore a state. You cannot attain it on one or two performances. You cannot achieve it by characteristically good performances. “Good” is not good enough to be declared excellent. You must be able to perform at a level beyond the ordinary, even when the bar of the ordinary is raised, and to do so over and over and over.
In universities around the world, the pinnacle of the status hierarchy is Professor. You can go no further. To reach it you must have gained international recognition for distinguished and original work. Although it is the dream of every Lecturer and scholar to reach Professor, few achieve it: one in ten, at best. In many North American universities, those who keep on excelling by consistently original and distinguished performance are accorded the title “Distinguished Professor”. Here at our regional University of the West Indies they receive, instead, The Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence. But because Excellence is Excellence by any other name, The Vice-Chancellor’s Award smells just as sweet: beyond the ordinary, sustained distinction, rare.
Barry Chevannes is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of the West Indies at Mona, and a leading scholar of Jamaican culture and identity. He is the chairman of the Institute of Jamaica. In January 2006 the University held a conference in his honour, examining the influence of his work and thought.
The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.