Brian LaraPhoto AllsportAust
It says something about the state of West Indies' ill fortune on this tour that, after a series of crushing defeats at Australian hands, now the country's weather is conspiring against it too. Even when Brian Lara (116*) produced a magnificent century to partly threaten Australia's hold on a game over which it had previously exercised command, so Sydney's skies released a furious downpour of rain that proved even more menacing. The result of it all - at the end of match four of the Carlton Series here at the Sydney Cricket Ground - was a twenty-eight run win for Australia under the Duckworth/Lewis method.
To suggest that the West Indians were finally headed toward instigating a break in their cycle of defeats is possibly as fanciful as it might have been to believe that the combination of a gloomy forecast, cool weather and grey skies at the start of the afternoon carried with it hopes that a full one hundred over contest would be played out. At a score of 8/211 after 42.4 overs as they pursued Australia's imposing tally of 4/277, it would have required something of a miracle for them to breast the finishing tape in a winning position.
But there are few batsmen who can alter the course of a match as easily as Lara. And there have been few times on this visit - maybe none at all, in fact - when he has played as well as he did here. Only inches and inconclusive television replays separated him from the fate of trudging back to the pavilion when his score sat at just thirteen. At backward point, Mark Waugh might well have taken the catch that a loose cut at an Andrew Symonds (1/55 off nine overs) off break had seemed to invite; it was impossible to tell for certain, though. For the next two hours, the enigmatic left hander made the most of his brush with premature death and produced a breathtaking performance.
There was a modicum of assistance from Sherwin Campbell (23) - from his new position at number three in a remodelled order - and from Ricardo Powell (28) lower down. But never lasting support. It only served to add further lustre to the manner in which Lara generated the flurry of strokes that took him to a fourteenth one-day international hundred from the mere matter of ninety-seven deliveries.
Theatrically, Lara registered his century with a magnificently cover driven six from the bowling of Symonds in the forty-first over of the West Indian innings. It was one of ten boundaries and two sixes in his hand overall and it brought a sellout crowd of 39540 to its feet. Sadly, neither he nor they were ultimately allowed anything but an anti-climax. He continued to cleverly manipulate the strike to thrash shots over and through the field. But, at close to the height of his powers, even he was powerless to conquer the torrent of rain or to force the floodwaters rapidly developing around the ground to recede.
Alongside the pure magnificence of Lara's batting, it was something of a day of theatre overall. Australian openers Waugh (58) and Adam Gilchrist (40) set the early tone with another rollicking stand (this time of ninety-eight) after they had been invited by rival captain Jimmy Adams to bat first. Ricky Ponting (93) made the most of two more appalling faux pas from West Indians attempting to clutch simple catches. Fast bowler Nathan Bracken (2/21 off seven overs) bounced back after two patchy efforts at the start of his one-day international career and there were more wickets and a spectacular catch for Shane Warne. There was even a typically irksome ground invasion from Peter Hoare, a despised figure in Australia following intrusions at a World Cup soccer qualifier; the funerals of singer Michael Hutchence and horse racing trainer TJ Smith; the Melbourne Cup; the Australian Open; and the South Australian Parliament.
As it transpired, it was probably the two dropped catches - to continue a debilitating run in the field for the West Indians - which proved the most significant among that list. Today, it was the turn of Nixon McLean and one-day international debutant Colin Stuart to show solidarity with their teammates, spilling crucial chances at short fine leg and mid on respectively when brighter things potentially beckoned for the tourists. Ponting was on seven when he casually dragged a Marlon Samuels (1/39 from ten overs) delivery to McLean at around waist height and at comfortable speed. He was on fifty when he hit a Marlon Black (0/49 off eight) offering down Stuart's proverbial throat.
Ironically, he was spectacularly caught in the end by Adams when he attempted to pull a McLean (2/45 off ten) delivery over the leg side in the forty-seventh over. But, by that stage, he had already raced into the nineties from just seventy-five balls in total. As many as forty-three runs were crashed from his bat from the twenty-two balls that followed Stuart's miss alone.
Lara matched Ponting's onslaught in kind when his own chance came. With a maximum of forty-four deliveries remaining; sixty-seven runs still left to chase; and only two wickets in tact, the match was undeniably still tilting firmly Australia's way by the time that his innings was ended. But another ten or twenty minutes of Lara brilliance might just have been enough to provide a thrilling twist in the tail.
As it transpired, there was no twist, there was no tail, and there was certainly nothing thrilling about the conclusion. Just as the Fat Lady was resting her vocal chords and contemplating a late night for once, so Mother Nature stepped in to quickly terminate the contest.