Brilliant Lara punishes Pollock's profligacy

Close West Indies 363 for 6 (Lara 178, Ganga 60) trail South Africa 561 by 198 runs

A quite superb hundred from West Indies captain Brian Lara was all that stood between South Africa and a substantial first-innings lead on the third day of the first Test at The Wanderers. There weren't that many runs - certainly precious few from anyone other than Lara - and only five wickets, but it was gripping stuff for the 10,000 crowd from start to finish. West Indies ended the day on 363 for 6, avoiding a follow-on that a tired South Africa probably would not have enforced anyway in the final over.

The main contest was between South Africa's four quick bowlers and Lara, and the balance of power ebbed and flowed session by session. Lara was subdued in the morning, imperious in the afternoon, but the real drama came after tea when he was struck several painful blows and yet, bloodied but unbowed, showed he was still in charge by savaging 28 glorious runs - 4,6,6,4,4,4 - in the penultimate over of the day from the hapless Robin Peterson. It was the most runs taken off a single over in Test history (click here for details) and completed a miserable day for the umimpressive Peterson.

In three full sessions West Indies scored 276 runs, of which Lara's contribution was an unbeaten 178. Of the other batsmen only Shivnarine Chanderpaul (34) gave any sustained support in a fourth-wicket stand of 125, and Vasbert Drakes struck a breezy 21 at a time Lara was being worked over by Andre Nel.

The turning point of the day came after an hour when Lara had scored 15. Makhaya Ntini, in the middle of a hostile opening spell, worried him with a vicious bouncer and then, two deliveries later, induced an edge off an overpitched awayswinger. The ball flew to first slip, where Shaun Pollock palmed it, juggled it four times while he contorted and dived, before finally spilling what was a bread-and-butter chance. By the end of play the real cost of that drop was all too clear.

Lara arrived in the fifth over when Pollock made the breakthrough, trapping Ramnaresh Sarwan (21) back in his crease to a ball that lifted, an edge from an indeterminate prod giving Mark Boucher the easiest of catches (94 for 2).

Lara, his early nervousness revealed by his jittery footwork, gradually begun to show glimpses of his vintage self, with two clipped leg-side fours - off Nel and Jacques Kallis - standing out in the morning. But generally he was largely subdued, and clearly determined not to throw away his wicket. After the break he came out of his shell, unleashing a series of sublime cuts and drives, mainly off the back foot through the off side, and offering only one half-chance to a full-stretch Peterson in the gully when he was in his sixties.

Nel and Ntini bowled excellent spells, Ntini repeatedly testing the several left-handers with balls angled across them which he defied them to leave alone. Nel relied more on aggression and attitude. His duel with Lara in the final session was absorbing, and for three overs Lara barely survived, ducking, being struck twice, but eventually coming out on top with two searing boundaries. Nel snarled boorishly after almost every ball, but Lara repeatedly turned his back and let his bat do the talking.

At the other end to Lara it was South Africa's day. Daren Ganga flailed and slashed with no result, somehow surviving through until lunch to add 11 to his overnight 49. Five balls after the resumption he aimed one ill-advised slash too many at Ntini and skyed the ball to Peterson at square leg (141 for 3).

That ushered in the best period of the day for the West Indies as Lara hit out and Chanderpaul gave him solid support. The partnership was ended when Ntini got the stroke of luck his efforts deserved, pinning Chanderpaul on the back foot, his angled defensive shot spinning back into his off stump (266 for 4).

That wicket quietened Lara, and spurred on South Africa. Ridley Jacobs was undone by the ball slanted across him to give Ntini his third wicket (278 for 5) and then Drakes's counterattack was ended when he was trapped leg-before by a tired Kallis (314 for 6).

Lara, pinned down for almost an hour by Nel and Ntini, then opened up to end the day at his rampant best. His brutal assault on Peterson ensured that West Indies ended with the psychological high ground, but the mediocre performance of the other batsmen, allied to the dreadful first-day showing by the bowlers, means that they have far more to worry about in the long term.

Although the wicket remains good - only the odd ball misbehaved all day - South Africa still have the advantage and if they can take quick wickets in the morning and then score quick runs, they have every chance of forcing a win. Surely lightning Lara can't strike for a second time ... can it?