2004 May 3, 2014

Lara reclaims his record

Six months after losing his record for the highest Test score, Brian Lara faced England in Antigua. And rewrote history

In the previous Rewind we looked back to 1994 when Brian Lara broke the world record for the highest Test score. Ten years later he was at it again.

When Brian Lara pulled Chris Lewis through midwicket to break Garry Sobers' 36-year-old record at a packed Recreation Ground in Antigua in 1994, there seemed no end to what he might achieve. But ten years later to the week when he returned to the ground for the Test against England both he and West Indies were in a very different place.

West Indies were in a steep decline that Lara, for all his brilliance, was powerless to prevent. When he made his international debut in 1990 he joined a side that was able to brush aside all comers. But as the old guard retired, their replacements were simply not in the same class. In 1994, England arrived in Antigua relieved to have avoided a whitewash by winning the fourth Test in Barbados; a decade later West Indies were facing being whitewashed after defeats in the first three matches of the four-Test series.

Lara, too, was a different player, weighed down by internal politics, the pressure of expectation and of captaincy, and off-field distractions. He was also one month shy of turning 35. In the first three Tests he had scored exactly 100 runs with a best of 36. His failures ripped the backbone out of the side, and his own confidence suffered so much that he even dropped himself down the order. Graham Thorpe, who was on the field throughout both Lara's Antigua records, said: "For the first time I could remember Lara's footwork became unsure and he was hopping around in discomfort."

With fortress Bridgetown now anything but, Antigua was where West Indies could make a stand, the last citadel of what their game had been. A year earlier at the Rec they had avoided a whitewash at the hands of Australia by scoring 418 for 7 to win the final Test, breaking a world record in the process.

In the build-up Lara admitted another loss would cost him the captaincy, while local hero Viv Richards sent out a clear message: "You cannot allow yourself to be disgraced."

On a pitch prepared by another Antigua legend, Andy Roberts, Lara won his third toss of the series and batted. "[Roberts] couldn't bear the prospect of a Windies whitewash," wrote the then Wisden Cricinfo editor, Steven Lynch, "so came up with just about the most benign pitch spotted outside the drier parts of India." Few expected anything other than a flat, unhelpful track aimed at allowing West Indies to salvage some pride. None envisaged quite how flat.

Chris Gayle's dismissal on the stroke of lunch, after he had given West Indies a breezy start, meant Lara was due to bat on the resumption but a heavy storm delayed that. When he did get out in the middle he had to survive a raucous fourth-ball appeal for caught behind off Steve Harmison. Darrell Hair - who had also officiated when Lara made his 375 - was unmoved and replays suggested he was right.

Let's be honest, Roy Orbison could have scored 400 not out on that pitch
Article in the Sun

Thereafter, with the pitch offering nothing and the seamers unable to get any movement in the air, Lara, who had been sublimely dominant a decade earlier, looked as unlikely to get out, but whereas before the hyperbole had known no limits, now more often words like "relentless" and "unruffled" were brought out by the media. "He was more calculating than extravagant," was Wisden's verdict.

By the end of the first day he had made 86 out of 208 for 2; by the end of the second he was on 313 out of 595 for 5. His concentration was all the more remarkable given he later admitted to Thorpe he had struggled to sleep and only managed a couple of hours each night.

As they had done all series, England's quick bowlers aimed at Lara, cramping him for room and generally roughing him up. On Roberts' surface, those tactics were far less effective once the new ball started to soften.

There were minor alarms. On 127 he had to wait for the third umpire to rule he had beaten Matthew Hoggard's throw from third man; there was also a heart-stopping moment when there was a loud appeal for a catch behind off Gareth Batty after a loose swish when he was on 373.

As Lara approached the record on the third morning he was partnered by Ridley Jacobs, two years his senior, a marked contrast to 1994 when he had been calmed by an old head on young shoulders - 19-year-old Shivnarine Chanderpaul. He was thankful Jacobs held up his end, given the brittleness of the tail during the series.

Lara's job was also made easier in that England's attack lacked Hoggard, who was back in the hotel with a stomach bug, and Harmison, barred from bowling by Hair after he ran down the pitch once too often. (Harmison looked far from distressed at the umpire's ruling.) With Simon Jones barely able to find the cut strip, England were left with Batty, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan to share the duties alongside the indefatigable Andrew Flintoff.

Twenty minutes before lunch Lara hoisted Batty into the Viv Richards pavilion to equal Hayden's record. The next ball was swept for four and the record was his again after it had been only 185 days in Australia. He jumped in the air and knelt to once more kiss the pitch.

Pandemonium and a pitch invasion followed the record-breaking shot in 1994. This time the crowd raucously rose to their feet but stayed in the stands. Perhaps the fact the English contingent made up a large proportion of the spectators accounted for that. And whereas before Sobers had made his way through jubilant spectators to the middle to offer his personal congratulations, this time Lara had to make do with the opportunistic new prime minister of Antigua, Baldwin Spencer.

When play resumed Jacobs reached his own hundred - he had been bowled by Vaughan when on 87 but reprieved by a no-ball call - and then after lunch Lara became the first man to reach 400 in a Test. He had batted two minutes shy of 13 hours, faced 582 deliveries and hit 43 fours and four sixes.

The praise rained down on Lara in the day or two after his achievement, but unlike in 1994, it was not unqualified. Some were openly critical, especially in Australia, where his effort was labelled as being selfish.

"It's generally not the way we play our cricket," Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, said. "Their whole first innings might have been geared around one individual performance and they could have let a Test match slip because of it. They ran out of time in the game - that's not the way the Australian team plays."

Tony Greig was, unsurprisingly, even more outspoken. "I'm certainly not raving about the innings. I have to praise it for the sheer fact that he stayed in for so long but it wasn't an innings that you could be in awe of. It was clear he had the record in mind and was just going to keep on grinding it out until he got there. As far as I'm concerned that is not a good way to play the game, especially when you're the captain. It shows that Brian Lara is not a very good captain."

Commentator Jim Maxwell was perhaps the most balanced. "It gives cricket fans there the chance to be euphoric for a while but there are big problems in cricket over there," he said. "There's a lack of discipline, a lack of talent, and the wrong people are in charge. Lara has been an inconsistent performer as leader. He's 34 and this innings will give him more time, that's all. It's a shame because there are a lot of people over there who love cricket. But it's fallen apart."

A weary England side were bowled out for 285 - Flintoff making an unbeaten 102 - and followed on 466 in arrears. But West Indies lacked the firepower to bowl them out again, and after Vaughan made 140, the match drifted to a draw, with England 422 for 5.

The records and plaudits were Lara's but the series was lost. As he said after the match. "I am very happy, but at the end of the day my spirit is still dampened by the series result."

What happened next?

  • Lara's relations with the board continued to be strained, even as he too often became all that stood between West Indies and defeat. He retired after the 2007 World Cup, remaining a massive crowd favourite.
  • Lara remains the record holder for the highest Test and first-class score (501 not out v Durham in 1994)
  • In the 18 Tests between the two sides since Antigua in 2004, West Indies have won only once while England have 11 victories.

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