Brian Lara shines again at Sinhalese Sports Club
West Indian morale was given a much-needed boost at a sun splashed Sinhalese Sports Club on Thursday, as Brian Lara made full use of a flat pitch to score his second century of the series.
West Indies, two-nil down in the two match series and facing the humiliation of a series whitewash, dominated proceedings, finishing the first day of the final Test on 327 for three thanks to Lara's brilliant unbeaten 178, his 17th Test century.
The 32-year-old left-hander rescued the innings after the early loss of both openers in a steamy first hour in a record 194-run partnership with Guyanan right-hander Ramnaresh Sarwan (69).
He then added 116 for the fourth wicket in the evening at nearly a run-a-ball with captain Carl Hooper (52*) as the Sri Lankan fielding became increasingly ragged.
Lara's innings followed scores of 178, 40, 74 and 45 in the first two Tests and brings his series tally to 514. Not bad for a player still suffering from a long-standing hamstring injury, who had long since been accused of losing his appetite for international cricket.
Like the first two Tests, he was controlled and disciplined throughout, eschewing the frivolous flamboyance of old in favour of a selectively aggressive approach that had produced 20 fours and one six straight six by stumps.
Crucially, he kept Muttiah Muralitharan at bay and took most of the strike against the master off-spinner, who whirred away all day without success. Reading Muralitharan's wrist and picking the straighter-ball he hardly played a sweep all day and was able to drive confidently straight down the ground.
After tea, he became the 6th West Indian batsmen to score 7000 Test runs, a milestone he was mindful of and acknowledged with a wave to the dressing room. With his enthusiasm for the game apparently revitalised and his technique in good order, he has Vivian Richards's all-time Caribbean record of 8540 runs in his sights.
It wasn't all plain sailing for the Trinidadian though. He was dropped by Kumar Sangakkara when on 85, as he flashed at an off-break from part-time bowler Russel Arnold, and then had a mighty tussle with Chaminda Vaas, who once again swung the old ball wickedly. On 99 he looked lucky to have survived an lbw appeal from Vaas.
His greatest misjudgment was when he ran out Sarwan, who had battled so hard for his 69 and was looking for his maiden Test century. Lara, anxious to pinch the strike against Muralitharan in the next over, pushed into the off-side and called for a quick run, but Sarwan was caught short after a lazer-like throw from Mahela Jayawardene patrolling in the covers.
The fall of Sarwan was followed by an increase in the tempo. As if trying to exercise his guilt, he pummeled Muralitharan's next two deliveries over top and raced towards his 150.
Hooper too played positively, more so than he had been in previous innings on tour, when he felt himself to be playing too watchfully. He cruised to a serene fifty off just 62 balls and was 52 not out at the close.
Both Hooper and Lara stressed afterwards that the job was far from complete. At the end of the first day in Galle the West Indies had been in the similarly good position of 316 for three and then 423 for four before collapsing to 448 and losing the Test match.
Earlier in the day, West Indies had won the toss and elected to bat first on a plum pitch, but were reduced to 17 for two as Vaas swung the new ball extravagantly in the opening overs.
Left-handed Chris Gayle tried to withdraw his bat from a perfectly pitched outswinger at the last moment, but failed to do so and was well caught by Sangakkara diving one-handed to his left.
Daren Ganga and Sarwan battled on for the next six overs, but eventually Vaas successfully honed an inswinger onto Ganga's pads and the 22-year-old right-hander was trapped lbw.
West Indies made one change to the side that lost in Kandy, including fast bowler Marlon Black in place of Colin Stuart, whilst Sri Lanka named an unchanged side.