April 20, 2014

Lara's peaks

Brian Lara's 375 had a sense of inevitability to it, while the 400 came amid a backdrop of strikes and the threat of a whitewash

During his 375 in 1994, Lara looked fresh, never noticeably stressed © PA Photos

It is the season of special anniversaries for two of cricket's true giants - kindred spirits, both West Indian, both left-handers.

March 30 marked the start of Sir Garry Sobers' exceptional Test career in 1954 and its end exactly 20 years later.

Last Friday was 20 years since Brian Lara's 375 against England at the Antigua Recreation Ground eclipsed Sobers' Test record score of 36 years. On June 6 that year, Lara proceeded to another unimaginable epic, 501 unbeaten for his English county Warwickshire against Durham; it remains the first-class game's distant summit.

On April 12, ten years later, his unbeaten 400, also against England at the ARG, implausibly reclaimed the Test standard temporarily acquired a few months earlier by the powerful Australian Matthew Hayden.

As incongruous as it appears, these were not Lara's greatest innings, in the same way that Sobers' unbeaten 365 against depleted Pakistan bowling at Sabina Park in 1958 wasn't his.

One of the ARG's many characters, Mayfield, always had a collection of expendable vinyl discs ready to be demolished at the next certain record. Apart from those destroyed for Lara's exploits, he cracked several others over the years.

The unpretentious little ground on the edge of the capital, St John's, was that sort of place. There were 57 hundreds in its 22 Tests, among them Chris Gayle's 317 against South Africa in 2005, and Viv Richards' off 56 balls, the quickest in test history, against England in 1986.

Given such circumstances, Lara created others more significant than his ARG peaks - his 277 in Sydney on the 1992-93 Australian tour, the first of his 34 hundreds that emphatically announced his arrival as a special one; his 213 in Kingston and 153 not out in Bridgetown at the lowest point of his turbulent career, which led to West Indies' victories over Australia in 1999 after six heavy, successive defeats; and his classical mastery of Muttiah Muralitharan's mysteries in Sri Lanka in 2001, when 688 runs in six innings fulfilled his stated aim of carrying his faltering overall average back above 50.

His 375 was out of West Indies' 593 for 5 declared. England matched it, run for run, with hundreds from the captain, Mike Atherton, and Robin Smith. Ten years on, Lara declared at 400 with the total 751 for 5.

Even with such considerations, neither innings could possibly be dismissed lightly. No one else in the game's long and colourful history has ever registered, as Lara did, single, double-, triple- and quadruple-hundreds in Tests or a first-class half-thousand.

One of the ARG's many characters, Mayfield, always had a collection of expendable vinyl discs ready to be demolished at the next certain record. Apart from those destroyed for Lara's exploits, he cracked several others over the years

Recalling his 375 to the BBC last week, England's wicketkeeper Jack Russell said "the ball never looked like missing the middle of his bat". Graham Thorpe, also in the England side, acknowledged: "There was an inevitability about it all."

Over dinner in Barbados last week, Atherton confirmed left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell's story that he had told Atherton that the way Lara was batting, he could break the record. According to Tufnell, Lara was about 60 at the time.

"To be honest, we felt powerless to stop him," Atherton conceded.

Watching from the media area the 538 balls he faced in the 12-and-three-quarter-hours marathon, I was struck mainly by two things - how fresh he remained throughout, never noticeably stressed, never perspiring, and by the fact that, while there were 45 fours, there was not a six.

There had been unmistakable signs earlier in the season that something exceptional was in the offing.

In the regional first-class Red Stripe Cup leading into the Test series, Lara's 715 runs in five matches was the new record. Successive innings of 180 against Jamaica, 169 against Guyana and 206 against Barbados carried him past Desmond Haynes' 654 three years earlier.

There are those who witnessed the 180 at the Queen's Park Oval (in an all-out 257) who still marvel at its sheer brilliance and wonder whether it is possible to play better. Jamaica's was by no means a weak attack - Courtney Walsh supported by the pace of Franklyn Rose and the spin of Nehemiah Perry and Robert Haynes, all soon to be in West Indies teams.

Lara initially bided his time, content to consume 18 balls before he got going. Once set and ready, he so dominated that he contributed 70% of the 219 runs (including 18 extras) while he was at the wicket. On the second day, he accumulated 131, his four partners 12. It was Lara's inventive mastery that most vividly captured the imagination of knowledgeable observers.

"When they set the fielders out to block the fours, he was still finding the boundaries," the late Joey Carew, the former Test opener and Lara's early mentor, explained. "When they brought them in to keep him on strike, he chipped the ball over their heads, like a golfer would do. It was pure genius."

David Holford, once Carew's West Indies team-mate and chief selector at the time, said: "He reduced the game to a farce. I've never seen anything like it." And he had seen, first hand, the best of Sobers.

Lara carried his Red Stripe form into his 167 in the second Test against England. There was a brief slump before Mayfield was smashing more of his discs.

The background to the 400, ten years on was markedly different.

Lara was troubled by a bodyline attack by England's fast-bowling quartet, Steve Harmison to the fore. Lara's highest innings in the first three Tests was 36. In the second, at the Queen's Park Oval, his home ground, he slipped himself down to No. 6 in the order.

Entering the final Test at the ARG, England were one victory away from a clean sweep. Lara commented that "the next five days are very important in terms of my future as captain. No captain, no team, wants to go down for the first time in their history as losing all their Test matches at home".

If there was concern about his psychological state, it was tempered by the recollection of his response to an even graver situation against the Australians five years earlier when a 5-0 drubbing in South Africa was followed by an all-out 51 and defeat by 312 runs in the opening Test.

After the next five days, the whitewash had been comfortably avoided, Lara had his record back and his captaincy was safe - at least for the time being. By the following year, his ever-strained relations with the board and a players' strike brought another disruption.

When he finally bowed out following the disappointing World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007, once more as captain, yet not entirely of his own accord, he put it to the crowd: "All I ask is: did I entertain?" The question was rhetorical. The answer was obvious.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • randolf on April 24, 2014, 2:10 GMT

    Darthkaten, I think that the only edge that Sachin had over the wizard, as most people called Lara was 'discipline'. Consistency, No - all said! For the 16 years that they competed, Lara scored over 1200 runs more than Sachin in less test matches; and less test innings. They both scored 34 hundreds. When Lara played his last test in 2006, he averaged 53+. Tendulkar was averaging just around 50. It was his exploits against inexperienced bowlers between 2008 and 2010 that helped him to get back to the 53+ that he finally retired with. I don't know which right handed batsman has more purity than a left hander. In any analysis, if one agrees that of two professionals of the same discipline, one is better than the other when they both are 'at their peaks', it does not need a rocket scientist to know who is genuinely better. And in every format, under any condition, Lara commanded the stage when he was at the wicket - against any bowler - any where any format of cricket was played. Not SRT

  • Chaitanya on April 22, 2014, 23:50 GMT

    @remnant Despite my post objecting to your 'beefing up' comment, I must agree with your central premise that both these batsmen did under-perform against top notch bowling. A few counterpoints/refinements to your premise then: You should note Sachin's performance against Ambrose/Walsh too (50+ avg), as also the performance vs. Steyn & Pollock (50+). Another nuance will be checking these corresponding stats home vs away....I suspect Lara's exploits will be home skewed... Still, I maintain Lara was superior Test batsman at his peak, while Sachin a more all-round batsman across formats and all-comers....

  • Dummy4 on April 22, 2014, 1:25 GMT


    In 1990 that first century at Old Trafford where he tore apart Botham & Willis, and then achieved an even more incredible feat at the fastest and bounciest track of 'em of all down under a few short months later, saw the coming of the most gifted Mozart-like cricketing prodigy ever -- no surprises guessing with a billion and more shouting aloud Sachin, Sachin, Sachin...what a Champion. And finally, announcing himself to the world in '93-94 and my personal favorite for no other reason than simply (IMHO) the greatest wizard of them all, one Brian Charles Lara. If Harry Porter played cricket no other batsman can represent his sprit closely as the Port-au-Prince himself period! If there comes a last match of test cricket forever nothing would be more befitting the occasion end this most glorious game of ours than to witness a final rendition of one of those Lara specials of epic proportions one last time

  • Dummy4 on April 22, 2014, 1:24 GMT

    @GreatInningsPart I: I started passionately following cricket as a schoolboy in the early 70's. Still recall Sobers' last hurrah at the Oval in '73, it left an indelible mark on me of such supreme and all natural flowing talent. Next stop '76-80 one IVA Richards took batsmanship to such a level brutal domination that left bowlers of all breeds pathetically hapless over all conditions never witnessed since the halcyon days of the Don. In between the little Indian master Sunny Gavaskar stood up tall whilst others weeped to face up to most athletic and fearsome pace battery ever assembled in all cricket history, that was Uncle Clive's 4-prong West Indian gigantic pace attack.

  • Dummy4 on April 21, 2014, 21:21 GMT

    To break the record not once but twice is no easy task; it was phenomenal! Lara was the best ---- the true Jedi Master.

  • Partish on April 21, 2014, 21:16 GMT

    Absolutely love the analysis of @remnant. What it shows is irrespective of whether it was Sachin or Lara, the real true greats are the bowlers - McGrath, Akram, Waqar and Donald. True legends in any era.... Their Average & strike rate compare across any era/generation.

  • Chaitanya on April 21, 2014, 20:16 GMT

    @remnant Sachin averaged 58 in 90s and 53 in 2000s...so your 'beefing' comment is unsubstantiated...It is in fact Lara, whose average went from sub-50 in late 90s to 50+ in 2000s. If you really want to see real beefing of averages, check out the number of batsmen who made merry in 2002-06 (post Ambrose/Walsh, Akram, Donald etc.)....Youhana, Ponting, Hayden, Dravid, Kallis etc. To the point of the debate, I'd say Lara had higher peaks in Tests, while Sachin was a better batsman across formats/conditions..

  • Chaitanya on April 21, 2014, 20:00 GMT

    Hate that it inevitably gets into a comparison with other players in the comments/forums. In my mind, at their peaks, Lara edged out SRT, but over the career, you'd have to give it to SRT....Celebrate them both - both geniuses in their own right! The thing Lara had going for him was the natural left handers' elegance and majesty; Sachin more discipline, purity and consistency....

  • ESPN on April 21, 2014, 19:32 GMT

    Great post by "remnant". Can you do the same for Gilchrist and Hayden? I think we will find something interestin!

  • Zam on April 21, 2014, 17:56 GMT

    These bowlers I mentioned really softened these batsmen up and that is reflective in the avgs.Both Lara and Sachin's figures indicate that. This is what fast bolwing is supposed to do.Only McGrath seems to have been tamed by Lara and that is reflective in the avg of 47 in 44 inngs as compared to Sachin who has 36,in 18inngs.You cannot forget that even Sachin never got hold of McGrath.For Pakistan with 2 Ws and Imran, again both avg. in early 30s,Sachin 32 in 11 inngs, he batted, and Lara avg 30 in 13 inngs. .Again with Donald Sachin avg. 32 in 20 inngs and Lara 34 in 20 inngs.Not exactly all time stuff.I wonder how these two would have fared during the 70s and 80s era.Let me tell you, I am a big fan of Lara's artistry, and even like Sachin, but can't stand the hyping up!Lara's was good against the Aussies back in the 90s. He played the 2nd all time best innings rated by Wisden vs Aus and was the difference in that series.