West Indies v India, 2nd Test, St Lucia, 5th day June 14, 2006

Lara too has his learning curve

It was probably Brian Lara's slowest innings but one crucial for his team © Getty Images

It might have taken 19 innings, and a little less than two-and-a-half years, for Brian Lara to manage a fifty in the second innings, but he couldn't have chosen a better stage to change that record. Unlike his previous 31 centuries this one was crucial in his side's bid to save the game, keeping them alive in a series that could have easily stood at 2-0.

Lara's previous second-innings fifty, back in early January 2004, was also a match-saving knock. Curiously, considering his average of 53 in the second digs of victorious campaigns, it was the only previous instance when Lara made a noteworthy final-innings contribution towards earning a draw. It would be fair to say that the cricketing world was yet to see Lara, arguably the greatest batsman of the modern age, produce the defining match-saving gem.

The stats tell a story. It was definitely his slowest innings between 100 and 200 and, in all probability, his slowest hundred; before today, he'd never made a century where he stroked less than 11 fours (today's figure was 10); and, this is the staggering bit, it was his slowest innings when he'd crossed 50. It had basically taken him just two balls more to make 202 at Cape Town in 2003. He still managed it in about two sessions, which says something about his usual pace. Lara was basically in uncharted territory and, as he was to himself admit later, learnt a lot about his batting out in the middle.

It couldn't have been easy. To curb one's instinct, when the natural course is to attack, requires some assurance. Lara ensured he covered his bases - stood well outside the crease and pushed well forward while handling the spinners. For most of the knock, he shelved his full-blooded drives; instead he cashed in on the fast bowlers targeting his pads and deflected rather than imposed.

He might have been lucky to have got so far - on 42 he was struck in front by Irfan Pathan, and on 69 he had a similar shout against Anil Kumble - but they shouldn't diminish the quality of his innings. Ironically, he got the raw end of the stick when he was finally adjudged lbw but he'd done enough, taking a cue from the Soca Warriors, to fight out a hard-earned draw. A little piece of trivia - it was the third successive time that Lara had been adjudged lbw while batting at Asad Rauf's end. Plain coincidence or poetic justice? Actually, it doesn't matter.

Unlike Antigua, there was hardly much India could do here. They will look back at the washed out fourth day and maybe ruminate over some umpiring rejections. Rahul Dravid tried his combinations. On a pitch such as this, he probably knew that waiting for mistakes was the best option, and it worked for most of the top order. Also, a fifth specialist bowler might not have made that much of a difference; Virender Sehwag managed four in the match to boot.

What they will require to fix is their close-in catching. Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif had tough chances, but did those chances appear tougher because those two moved too much while standing there? India suffered for their poor close cordon at Mumbai, and Dravid himself admitted that they needed to start "taking those half chances to win close games". He remains India's best short-leg option but whether he would be able to captain from under the helmet remains the question. The slips too aren't inspiring too much confidence - Dravid and Wasim Jaffer grassed one each, though both were at the fag end of the day and might not have really made a difference to the outcome - and India would need to urgently address this issue if they harbour to finish off Test matches.

Apart from this, though, it would be unfair to criticise a team that stamped its authority from the first over. India will know that they are just a few inches away from glory; it's West Indies that have to do most of the pondering before the clash at St Kitts.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo