December 16, 2000

Lara is Back!

Adelaide-Brian Lara duly, and at last, delivered the performance here yesterday that a series rapidly deteriorating into boring inequality desperately needed.

His masterly 231 against Australia "A" in his last innings three days earlier was a portent for his unbeaten 136 that carried the West Indies to a promising 274 for four after the first day of the third Test.

Its value was enormous and obvious. It followed his personal scores of 0, 4, 0 and 17 and team totals of 82, 124, 196 and 173 in the previous two Tests, both won by Australia by an innings within three days.

In the four hours, 20 minutes he spent in the middle, he played with the flair and certainty that separate the great batsmen from the rest. His 21 fours and one six were accumulated with a wide range of strokes, all executed with a full, free swing of the bat, in the full arc from fine-leg to third man. It was the Trinidaddian's 15th Test century and sixth against the Aussies.

Six of his boundaries-three from successive balls in one over-were off Glenn McGrath, Australia's premier bowler who had dismissed him three times in his previous four innings. Lara's so-called nemesis went wicketless from 23 overs on the day.

Lara also helped himself to a hat-trick of boundaries in an over from Jason Gillespie and was only quiet when he chose to be.

The Australians had one difficult chance to get rid of him, at 73. But Mark Waugh at slip could only parry a sliced cut off leg-spinner Stuart MacGill with his left-hand.

Lacking the incisive pace of the injured Brett Lee, Australia's bowling was uncommonly flat and unbalanced on a typically true, unforgiving Adelaide pitch.

Gillespie, in his first Test on his home ground, was rewarded for his persistence and movement with all four wickets, but McGrath lacked his usual fervour, MacGill, seemingly overawed by Lara, was taken for 71 from his 18 overs and off-spinner Colin Miller created few problems.

Apart from his exceptional skill, Lara revealed the other attributes common to the finest sportsmen-courage and determination-and getting through a cautious start during which he took a blow on the helmet from a McGrath bouncer to dominate the opposition.

They were to the fore when he transformed the last series against the Australians in the Caribbean early in 1999 in similar circumstances. But they are qualities often obscured by his own erratic temperament.

As in that series, Lara had the reassuring presence of his trusted friend, now captain, Jimmy Adams, at his side during two critical partnerships. He did again yesterday.

Adams, whose only similarity with Lara is his left-handedness, stayed with him for three hours, ten minutes in solid, defensive support while 183 were added for the fourth wicket.

It was the sixth three-figure stand in Tests between the two-and the 322 in Kingston and 133 in Bridgetown in 1999 were essential to West Indian victories.

Adams' dismissal for 49, in the ninth over of the second new ball, nine balls before the end, caught behind driving at Gillespie, was an untimely setback.

With 19-year-old debutant Marlon Samuels in next, followed by wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs and the fast bowlers, it heightened the need for Lara to carry the team to the 400 target that must have been set overnight, if not from the time Adams won the toss.

When Lara stepped onto Adelaide's immaculate Oval, 20 minutes before lunch on a glorious, cloudless day, both openers Daren Ganga and Sherwin Campbell had been removed by Gillespie and 52 for two had an ominous ring to it for a fragile batting team.

At least, he didn't have the worry of confronting a hard, new ball and fresh bowlers.

Not without alarms, Campbell and Ganga saw off the opening burst of McGrath and Gillespie and Ganga had been in for nearly an hour-and-a-half, batting with gathering confidence, when indecision brought his demise.

Half-way between playing at and leaving an ordinary Gillespie delivery, he diverted the ball back onto the stumps. For the third time in the series, he was out in the 20s, a worrying statistic.

Less than a quarter-hour later, Campbell, playing back, was beaten by Gillespie's skidding pace and went lbw. There is no conviction in the gritty little opener's movements at present and every ball looked as if it could be his last.

Lara replaced Campbell, carrying the soreness of a hamstring that has bothered him since the summer's tour of England and the weight of expectations on his shoulders, one of which was still stiff from a strained rotator cuff muscle sustained on Monday.

For most of the tour, he has been the centre of negative media attention over a bookmaker's accusation against him in the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation report, over the presence at his side of his blonde English model girlfriend and over his batting failures.

It changed in Hobart last Sunday and Monday when he made his intentions plain with his manhandling of Australia's reserve bowlers.

As soon as he came in, Australia's stand-in captain Adam Gilchrist followed standard operating procedure and summoned McGrath to have an immediate go at him.

Blow to the helmet and all, he got through the spell and gradually took control. Indeed, Wavell Hinds outscored him 23 to 11 while they were together.

Hinds has most of the shots but is not selective enough in playing them. He had been in for an hour-and-a-quarter for 27 when he sought to punch Gillespie through the covers off the backfoot but edged to first slip's right instead for Ponting to gather in a sharp catch.

At 86 for three, 40 minutes into the second session, the innings was at the crossroads. Another quick wicket would have presented Samuels on a plate to the cock-a-hoop Australians and another collapse would not have been difficult to visualise.

As it was, Lara was just getting into top gear and Adams was in his most dogged mood. As so often in the past, the two turned things around.