Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Greatness beyond 400 & 375


THE 400 MAN: Brian Lara, April 2004

Mark Fraser

It’s anniversary time for the disciples of Brian Lara.

Last Saturday made it 20 years since Trinidad and Tobago’s batting genius compiled 375 against England in Antigua to displace Sir Garfield Sobers as the record-holder for the highest individual Test innings. On Friday, it will be ten years since he reclaimed the standard that was held briefly by Australia’s Matthew Hayden in getting to 400 not out, once more against the English at the Antigua Recreation Ground, the first time that an individual quadruple-century had been amassed in a Test innings.

These are moments to remember. Who could forget the pull to the midwicket boundary that took him past Sobers’ then 36-year-old mark, or the gentle sweep backward of square that brought up the 400th run ten years later? World records are world records.

As Tony Cozier observed in his preamble to delivering the Sir Frank Worrell Memorial Lecture at UWI, St Augustine mere days after the second feat, it is mind-boggling to contemplate one player scoring 400 runs in a single Test innings.

However the most does not automatically mean the best, as Lara himself would have acknowledged subsequently. Indeed, there are at least three other innings that are fully deserving of being placed ahead of those monumental achievements for reasons that have more to do with context than the straightforward determination of which score is higher than the other. Take those two match-winning innings against Australia in 1999 for a start.

I’ll place the 153 not out in leading the West Indies to a pulsating one-wicket victory in pursuit of 308 on the final day of the third Test at Kensington Oval ahead of the 213 he blazed off Glen McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill to set up his side’s ten-wicket victory at Sabina Park two weeks earlier. Both were astounding performances against the best bowling attack in the world at the time, although that is just part of the story.

Lara was effectively on probation as captain after a disastrous, controversy-laden campaign in South Africa, a tour that started with a players’ standoff at a hotel at Heathrow Airport in London and finished with the Caribbean side losing all five Tests and six of seven One-Day Internationals. His career at the helm looked all but over when the home team were shot out for just 51 – then their lowest Test innings total – to lose the first Test against the Australians at Queen’s Park Oval by a massive 312 runs.

His response to the challenge was nothing short of a cricketing miracle, the 213 together with a supporting 94 from Jimmy Adams turning a perilous 34 for four into 431 all out and a first innings lead of 175 that proved decisive. Yet the performance on the last day of the Barbados Test was even better for it encapsulated the cut and thrust of Test cricket and the gladiatorial drama right down to the final ball on that fifth afternoon.

At 105 for five early on that last day all seemed lost, even with Lara still at the crease. But Adams again played a major part, helping his captain add 133 for the sixth wicket although, as in Kingston a fortnight earlier, the Jamaican was hardly noticed. For a crowd growing steadily through the afternoon and the audience following everywhere on television and radio, this was Lara versus Australia.

Warne suffered to the extent that he was dropped for the final Test that followed in Antigua. McGrath and Gillespie were the greatest threats as enthralled viewers hung on every delivery until, after last-man Courtney Walsh survived an entire over from McGrath, Lara lashed Gillespie through the covers and his jubilant teammates were lifting their heroic captain even as the ball rebounded off the wall in front of the Kensington Stand. It was the stuff of boyhood dreams.

Another definite candidate for an innings to be placed ahead of the world record Test performances would be his very first Test hundred, 277, also against Australia, also with his team on the back foot, and also turning things around for the West Indies, not just in the match but in the series.

It was the 1992/93 tour Down Under with the tourists licking their wounds after Warne had bowled Australia to a 139-run win and a 1-0 series lead in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Momentum was very much on Australia’s side as they piled up 503 for nine declared in the first innings of the next match in Sydney and had the West Indies stumbling early at 31 for two when Lara joined his captain, Richie Richardson, at the crease.

For the record, Richardson scored 109, but even he admitted that it would probably have been the most anonymous Test century ever because everyone watching was mesmerised by the majesty of Lara’s batsmanship at the other end. The 23-year-old’s command of the bowlers (Warne, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Greg Matthews) and the situation was such that he seemed on course to eclipse Sobers’ 365 not out before Carl Hooper turned down his call for a single and he was run out.

Yet by then the match had been saved and the momentum of the series was shifting, leading to a heart-stopping, series-levelling one-run win in Adelaide and an innings demolition of Allan Border’s men inside three days in the decider in Perth.

Records are a statistician’s delight. Those three innings against Australia though really show Lara’s greatness as a batsman.