November 30, 2001

Brain Lara soars again

It is on days like this, with the sun burning down from a blue sky, the pitch flawless, the outfield like a billiard table top and his mind intently focused on a particular objective that Brian Lara can elevate batting to heights reserved for a select few.

It is on days like this that his mastery presents a refreshing contrast to the sordid controversies stoked by men in high places without an ounce of cricketing skill in their bones who would undermine the game for the sake of their inflated egos.

And it is on days like this, as with those earlier in the series, that we wonder why his average should need boosting up above 50 once more, when 70 would be more appropriate to his God-given talent, and why he should only now become the sixth West Indian to pass 7 000 Test runs instead of the third to 8 000.

His waning passion for the game clearly rekindled, Lara reeled off his second Test hundred in ten days and his 17th in all on the opening day of the third and final Test yesterday that led the West Indies to 327 for three off the allocated 90 overs.

He acknowledged at the start of the series he was concerned about an average that had rapidly dipped a dozen points to 47 and set himself the goal of bumping it back up to where it belongs.

His unbeaten 178, spread over five-and-three-quarter-hours and 285 balls with a straight six from off-spinner Thilan Samaraweera and 20 fours in all directions, carried him to within 30 runs of achieving his mission, after earlier scores of 178, 40, 74 and 45.

It also lifted the West Indies from the early gloom of losing openers cheaply again. Within five minutes of Carl Hooper winning the toss, the left-handed Chris Gayle had gone third ball for his second successive duck to yet another indeterminate outside edge for a low catch to the keeper.

Half-hour later, the right-handed Daren Ganga was lbw playing across an inswinger.

The probing left-armer Chaminda Vaas was the bowler each time, the Sri Lankan Ashoka deSilva the umpire.

A Sri Lankan bowler didn't claim another wicket all day as Lara shared successive partnerships of 194 with Ramnaresh Sarwan, who was run out for 69, and 116 with captain Hooper, who was 52 at the end of a day that reduced even spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan to 32 wicketless overs and the concession of nine fours to Lara's blade.

The situation was almost identical to that at a similar stage of the first Test when the West Indies were 316 for three, with Lara 117 and Hooper 34.

Yet their all-round fraility led to defeat by ten wickets as it did when they failed by quarter-hour to hold out for a draw in the second that Sri Lanka won by 131 runs.

It left Lara and Hooper with plenty of work to do to ensure a total that would allow their inexperienced bowling the foundation from which to work and at least end the series with some pride restored.

Along the way, Lara joined the elite company of Sir Viv Richards, Sir Garfield Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes as West Indians with over 7 000 Test runs.

It was a statistic he acknowledged he was aware of before he set out and, as soon as he completed his 130th run that got him there, he raised his helmet and his bat to the dressing room.

Such things matter to Lara and they might just be the catalyst for the relaunching of a career that, when he quit the captaincy and took a four-months break early in 2000, was in definite doubt.

He committed few errors throughout his long vigil. At 85, he edged occasional off-spinner Russel Arnold through wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakarra's gloves.

At 99, he was a whisker away from an lbw decision in favour of Chaminda Vaas during an especially testing spell of reverse swing with a ball past its 50th over.

At 115, in the second over after tea, his call for a sharp single to cover's right left the sprinting Sarwan short of his ground on Mahela Jayawardene's swooping pick-up and direct hit.

It was the fifth time in his young Test career the 21-yearold right-hander had been run out and Lara held his head in anguish at the needless loss.

Once again, Sarwan had filled the breach as virtual opener on Gayle's first-over dismissal and batted with calm, sensible assurance.

He took a blow behind the helmet from an outfield return soon after lunch that required attention and was never entirely at ease to Muralitharan's straight ball. But he was quick to pounce on any overpitched offering with his elegant driving. He had one sharp chance to short-leg off Muralitheran at 44 but was determined not to be shifted before misfortune struck four hours into an innings that occupied 162 balls and had ten fours.