1994 April 19, 2014

The world record that nearly wasn't

Twenty years ago this week, Brian Lara became Test cricket's highest scorer, but he almost didn't make it

Twenty years ago this week, one of cricket's most famous landmarks was broken in Antigua when Brian Lara pulled Chris Lewis for four and in so doing passed Garry Sobers' record of 365 for the highest Test innings. As Lara removed his helmet and raised his arms to the heavens he was almost immediately engulfed by supporters, and then Sobers stiffly walked to the middle to offer his personal congratulations.

"While there was understandable joy, there was no real surprise among many of his countrymen at the left-hander's achievement," Wisden noted. "[There was] simply the feeling that his inevitable date with destiny had arrived rather more suddenly than expected."

Lara's genius had been apparent from an early age. Aged 15 he had rattled off seven hundreds in a senior school season. In his second first-class match, aged 19, he made a five-hour 92 against a Barbados attack including Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner. His international career had to wait, thanks in part to the vagaries of the West Indies selectors, until Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge retired and created a permanent vacancy which he immediately filled. His 277 in Sydney in January 1993 raised his profile massively and is still regarded as one of the great Test innings.

When England arrived in the Caribbean in early 1994 the era of West Indies' complete dominance had ended but they were still a formidable side, all the more so at home. Few expected England to seriously compete in, let alone win, the series, and heavy defeats in the first three Tests raised the prospect of another whitewash.

But a remarkable and morale-boosting win at fortress Bridgetown in the fourth Test gave England renewed belief to set up the series finale at the St John's Recreation Ground.

On what was predicted - rightly - to be a featherbed track, West Indies won the toss but within half an hour were 12 for 2. "When we got a couple of early wickets, I started thinking, 'This is going all right'," Jack Russell England's wicketkeeper, told the BBC. "We'll knock this lot over and won't be out here for too long."

Jimmy Adams joined Lara and England's hopes evaporated in the heat. The pair effortlessly added 179, of which Adams made 59 before becoming the third and last wicket of the day. With Keith Arthurton, Lara put on 183 for the fourth wicket; Arthurton's share was only 47.

At 374 for 4 England's bowlers were wilting and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, five years younger than Lara, at 19, joined him to put them to the sword in a fifth-wicket stand of 219 extending through four rain interruptions. "[Lara] kept the same pace throughout his innings," said Graham Thorpe. "There didn't seem to be a single risk taken in it."

"I bowled my first over and was putting my jumper back on when Mike Atherton, the England captain, came over to me and said: 'Brian's batting well today, he might break the record'"
England left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell

In the final session of the second day Lara passed 300 and the realisation dawned to the wider public that on such a pluperfect pitch against a weary attack, breaking Sobers' record was a reality.

"You begin to wonder where it was all going to end," Angus Fraser told the BBC. "By that stage you have tried all your tactics and your variety, it has not really got you anywhere and it begins to boil down to if he will make a mistake." By the close Lara was on 320, only 46 short of the history books.

The media pressure overnight was intense and by the start of the third day the Rec, always a vibrant cauldron of enthusiasm and noise, was packed to the rafters and buzzing. Extra reporters and TV cameras were present and every vantage point, inside and outside the compact venue, was taken.

Lara was one of the calmest West Indians around. "He was probably the most focused I have seen him," Chanderpaul said. "He mentioned the record while he was in the dressing room and he was getting a lot of phone calls about it, but he always remained focused."

Unsurprisingly, Lara had a disturbed night. "I woke up, and couldn't get back to sleep for nerves," he said, admitting that at 4am he had been standing in front of a mirror practising his shots. He played nine holes of golf early in the morning to occupy time and relax, and when play resumed he was tired and for the first time he looked to be having to work for every run.

A wretchedly slow outfield did not help, sure-fire boundaries often becoming run twos. "As the enormity of it all combined with his natural weariness, he needed shepherding through the final stages by the impressively mature Chanderpaul," Wisden noted.

At one point Lara was becalmed on 347 for more than 20 minutes and Fraser beat his outside edge with successive balls. "I don't suppose I can call you a lucky bleeder when you've got 347," he muttered. Lara smiled.

England plodded on, aware there was little they could do and long since relegated to a bit-part role. The field stayed back until Lara cover-drove a boundary off Andy Caddick to bring him level with Sobers.

Lewis was bowling next at Lara and Phil Tufnell said he ambled over and told him to make him work for the record. Lewis, never one to adhere to a plan, tried a short one that sat up and begged to be hit. Lara, who said, "I knew he was going to bowl me a bouncer", obliged. The ground erupted and hundreds of spectators rushed on, the police who were supposedly keeping order celebrating as much as anyone else.

"The whole place was rocking," Fraser said. "There were people climbing over the fences and running onto the field doing cartwheels and headstands. As a fielder, you take your cap off because you know it's a good souvenir and you don't want somebody to run past you and nick it off your head."

In the Independent, Martin Johnson wrote: "When Lara finally staggered out from beneath the vast rugby scrum of spectators, film crews and security police that had enveloped him almost before he had raised his bat in triumph, he went down on all fours and planted a kiss on the pitch. This was part emotion at the realisation of what he had done, and part relief at the realisation that he was still alive. Had he done it in his native Trinidad, where he is comfortably the most idolised figure on the island, they would probably have torn off little bits of him in the desperate search for a souvenir."

Lara relaxes in the dressing room and reflects on his achievement © PA Photos

"It was difficult to get near him to celebrate with him," Chanderpaul said, "but he came to me and then we went off to meet Sir Garry."

"It meant a lot to have Garry coming on like that," Lara said that night. "Ever since the Australian tour last year, he has been encouraging me. He said I would be the one to do it."

What had been missed by almost everyone was that as Lara had swung round to complete the shot he flicked the stumps with his foot and the off-side bail jumped in the air and back into the slot. Russell had seen it and was relieved the bail stayed out and he had not had to appeal. "I thought to myself that if I do I won't make it home," he said. "I'll be lynched. The bail didn't fall off in the end but it stayed slightly out of its slot."

It took six minutes for calm to be restored and play to resume. When it did, Lewis, back at his mark, asked where the ball was. It was found resting where it had trickled into the wall on the leg-side boundary.

Emotionally and physically drained, Lara only lasted a few more minutes before edging a tired drive to Russell off Caddick in the last over before lunch. He had batted 766 minutes - 14 minutes shy of 13 hours - for his 375, and scored 45 fours. Drained, he headed off to be met at the side of the pitch by his team-mates holding their bats aloft to form a guard of honour for him to walk under.

"Times have changed, though," Johnson observed, "and when Hutton made his 364, and Sobers his 365, neither of them was hijacked by a satellite television interviewer before being allowed to get off the field."

As Lara relaxed in the relative sanctuary of the dressing room, Sobers told reporters: "I could not think of a better person to break my record. He is the only batsman today who plays the game the way it should be played - with his bat. He never uses his pads, and it is always a pride and joy to watch him play. I had to break someone else's record [Len Hutton's] to break the record, and records are always there to be broken."

What happened next?

  • In the euphoria afterwards, Trinidad's prime minister announced that he had bought Lara a house. Johnson added: "Half the island was renamed after him, and there then followed an orgy of motorcades and personal appearances that left Lara a good deal more knackered than batting for 709 minutes."
  • In the UK, new spread-betting firm Sporting Index got things badly wrong, having offered Lara to score 375 runs in the series. Punters in the know piled in to go higher and by the time he strode out to bat in Antigua he already had 423 runs - every run during his record-breaking innings cost the firm £1500 - £562,500 in all.
  • Two months later Lara again entered the record books when he scored 501* for Warwickshire against Durham at Edgbaston. He remains the only man to pass 500 in first-class cricket.
  • Lara's Test record was broken when Matthew Hayden pummelled a poor Zimbabwe attack for 380 in October 2003. Lara, however, reclaimed it six months later when, almost exactly ten years after his 375, he scored 400 not out, also against England and once more at Antigua's Recreation Ground.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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