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Lara marks Test return with dazzling ton

West Indian preparations may well have been bedeviled by poor weather and injuries, but that did not hinder the performance of star batsmen Brian Lara, who announced his return to Test cricket with a brilliant hundred on the opening day of this three-Test series against Sri Lanka at Galle on Tuesday.

Number three batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan and star player Brian Lara frustrated Sri Lanka in enervating heat as they added 145 for the third wicket to leave West Indies well placed on 316 for three at the close.

Sarwan played diligently and well to score 88, particularly in an afternoon session that saw 125 runs scored. Lara's innings, though, overshadowed that of the promising Guyanan, who missed out on a first Test century.

Coming to the crease after the fall of opener Daren Ganga, with the innings poised on 95 for two, Lara sped to a 71 ball fifty full of sublime strokes and tilted the game firmly towards the West Indies.

The 32-year-old Trinidadian then marched on, despite the loss of Sarwan and with a certain sense of inevitability, to his 16th Test century, which he completed off just 150 balls, before finishing the day unbeaten on 117.

For Lara it ended a long wait. International runs had not dried up, but his big scores had. It was 11 months since he scored a ton - the last being 182 he scored against Australia in Adelaide last December - and it was his first in 16 innings.

Lara, included in the squad despite still suffering from a long-standing hamstring injury, showed no signs of not being fully fit and, temporarily at least, silenced critics who believe he is a spent force, with too much ego and too little heart.

It was great innings in very taxing conditions. Modestly, he said afterwards that he had "enjoyed the sea breeze" but conditions were tough, with temperatures in excess of 30 C and 90 per cent humidity levels. He also had to contend with master off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan.

Unlike in Colombo, when he had scratch out 43 and looked a shadow of his former self, he batted fluently, clearly determined to be positive against the Sri Lankan spinners.

He hit 12 boundaries in all, some of which were simply dazzling, including a trademark one-legged flick through mid-wicket of Vaas, a dancing lofted drive off Jayasuriya and several vintage cover drives.

He was reprieved twice by the Sri Lankans, who had a day to forget in the field. Wicket-keeper Kumar Sangakkara dropped a difficult chance off Sanath Jayasuriya when the left-hander had scored 31 and then also failed to get his glove to an edge (it was an even harder catch) when on 93.

Speaking afterwards, he said: "I have been working on a few things in the last six weeks and I am looking to try and play a bit straighter. It' is nice to go out there, work on something, and eventually get the results.

The only bowler to consistently test Lara was Muralitharan, who toiled away for 40 overs, picking only one wicket, but still bowled with plenty of variation, guile and control.

"Muralitharan is a very good bowler and I enjoyed the competition," he said. "I think you have to keep him thinking. He is going to keep you under pressure if you just look to stay there, so I think you need to keep scoring.

"It's a very good position but it is very important that the second innings is not a very important innings. We need to get 500-600 runs and put Sri Lanka under pressure. We cannot allow them to get back into the game."

Ominously, the man who holds the record for the highest Test and first class score, also added: "I'm very happy now, but I am going to come back tomorrow and look for something really big."

Sri Lanka had picked three frontline spinners in the team, hoping that the Caribbean batsmen would come unstuck on a biscuit dry pitch tailor made for their slow bowlers. Such hopes soon evaporated after they lost an important toss and realised just how good a batting pitch it was.

Chaminda Vaas bowled well with the new ball, producing a jaffa to dismiss a surprisingly diffident Chris Gayle, and then accounting for Ganga after lunch. But thereafter only Muralitharan threatened.

Earlier in the day the Sri Lankans had picked right-arm seamer Charitha Fernando for his first Test match and recalled left-arm spinner Niroshan Bandaratillake and middle order batsman Russel Arnold.

West Indies played a second frontline spinner, slow left-arm bowler Neil McGarrell, apparently after deciding the pitch would favour the spinners, but most probably because of Reon Kings suspected hernia.