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Old Guest Column

I was there!

Simon Cambers enjoys Brian Lara's 400 not out

Roving Reporter by Simon Cambers in Antigua

Deja vu: another guard of honour for Brian Lara in Antigua © Wisden
In the words of Max Boyce, I was there.
I almost wasn't, but that's another story entirely. Let's just say that taking a bus in Antigua is not quite the same thing as hopping on the No. 9 in the middle of London. If you make it to your destination without any broken bones, job done. What's a couple of bruises between friends?
But I did make it to the ground an hour before the start of play, and the tension was already clearly evident. Could Brian Lara achieve the impossible ... again?
The atmosphere inside the ground was strangely subdued. It was almost as if the capacity crowd was holding its collective breath, barely believing that Lara was on the verge of creating history for the second time. Ten years after eclipsing Sir Garry Sobers' record of 365 here, Lara suffered the ignominy of seeing his record taken away by the bludgeoning bat of Matthew Hayden just six months ago. To regain it, having been at one of the low points of his career coming into this match, almost beggars belief.
I have been lucky enough to witness some of the great sporting moments of recent years - Goran Ivanisevic's emotional Wimbledon victory in 2001, England's World Cup victory over Argentina in 2002, Cathy Freeman's 400-metre triumph at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But watching Lara carve the England attack to shreds a second time almost took the breath away.
At times, the debacle of West Indies' batting and the dominance of England's bowling in the first three Tests was almost forgotten as Lara reminded everyone just how good he really is. OK, so the pitch looked so good that even Phil Tufnell, part of the England bowling attack battered by Lara ten years ago, might have fancied a bat on it. True, the series was already done and dusted after the third Test, with West Indies a pitiful shadow of the side that dominated the sport in the 1980s and '90s. But still, to bat for more than 12 hours and for more than 200 overs in searing heat takes incredible concentration and no little fitness. And to do it after making just 100 runs in his six previous innings, and after being pilloried by the local media, is an outstanding achievement.
Lara was a little bit edgy in the 350s - we all know what that's like - and the crowd gasped again as England appealed for a catch behind the stumps off Gareth Batty. But Lara survived and then, in epic style, smashed Batty out of the ground to equal Hayden's record.
The new record, brought up next ball with a sweep for four, was as much a relief as anything. Lara leapt in the air, kissed the middle of the pitch, and was congratulated by all the English players, half the crowd and the Antiguan prime minister. The crowd gave him what must be one of the longest standing ovations ever seen in sport, and it's a mark of respect that the English supporters, in a huge majority once again, rose to acclaim Lara's genius.
Even Hayden and Sachin Tendulkar might just admit now that Lara once again deserves the tag of best player on the planet - although the sad few who jeered and began a slow handclap when West Indies came out to continue batting after lunch might disagree.
A couple of killjoys were even heard to say that Lara only produces his best when the pressure is off, but to believe that you'd need a heart of stone. The celebrations when he reached his 400 were more muted but, once again, Lara showed the world that he has a talent very few people could ever hope to enjoy. Browbeaten and battle-weary, Lara proved that there's life in the old dog yet.
And if I survive my bus journeys over the next few days, I'll be able to tell everyone that I was there.
Simon Cambers is covering England's tour of West Indies for Reuters.