Lara's return to form inspires West Indies

After three Tests where, by and large, everything came fairly easily to England's bowlers, they found the going far harder on a pitch devoid of pace and bounce

West Indies 208 for 2 (Lara 86*, Gayle 69) v England

Andrew Flintoff jumps for joy at trapping Daren Ganga lbw © Getty Images
After three Tests where, by and large, everything came fairly easily to England's bowlers, they found the going far harder on a pitch devoid of pace and bounce. By the close of a rain-interrupted first day in Antigua, West Indies were cruising on 208 for 2, and Brian Lara was looking broodingly dangerous, unbeaten on 86. He has plenty of scores to settle.
The loss of the entire afternoon session after a downpour during and shortly after the lunch break robbed proceedings of any real momentum, and overall the day had something of an end-of-term feel to it. The crowd was slow in arriving - there were still plenty of empty seats midway even by lunch - and the atmosphere inside the Rec was decidedly flat. This most compact of grounds only came alive during the rain delay, with the sound systems in the Double Decker stand loud even by their standards and the dancing frenetic. Only the resumption of the match stifled the fun.
England's pace quartet realised early on that this wicket had been custom-made for batting. Lara briefly flirted with putting England in - heavy rain had left the surface damp - but his decision to bat was vindicated as England's hitherto lethal attack huffed and puffed with little reward. Geraint Jones spent most of his first day in Test cricket taking balls dying on him.
The morning belonged to Chris Gayle. He took half an hour to dust off the cobwebs, but when he did he unleashed some trademark drives and cuts through the covers, although there were still enough wild slashes to keep the bowlers interested. He lost Daren Ganga - who had once again failed to look as if should be opening the innings - on the hour when Andrew Flintoff produced the classic fast bowler's one-two. First he dug in a bouncer, and then the next ball was pitched up, Ganga was caught back in the crease, and was comprehensively leg-before for 10 (33 for 1).

Back on song: Brian Lara on his way to 86* © Getty Images
Enter Lara, under pressure, out of sorts, but on a ground which holds happy memories for him. Before he had scored, he survived a hugely confident shout for caught behind from Stephen Harmison. There was a noise - but no visible deflection - and the celebrating Harmison was well past the batsman before he looked round to see Darrell Hair shaking his head. Harmison - with 22 wickets coming into this game - was due an off day, and this was it. He was warned in his second over for running down the pitch, and rarely rekindled the menace he has shown so far.
With Gayle's confidence increasing, Lara was initially content to play second fiddle. As Gayle's run-rate rose, England quite deliberately slowed the pace, with blatant time-wasting to try and rattle him. But what did unsettle him was the introduction of Gareth Batty - a late replacement for the unwell Ashley Giles - in the final over of the morning. Conscious that he had to be sensible with the break looming, Gayle, on 69, was caught in several minds, and he tamely chipped Batty's fifth ball back to him. It was a limp ending to an entertaining innings (98 for 2).
After a four-hour delay, play resumed and it was almost uninterrupted one-way traffic as West Indies chugged along at over four an over. Lara grew more assured, although Ramnaresh Sarwan was suffering in a crisis of confidence of his own at the other end. Lara's timing, indifferent at first, returned and he brought up his fifty with a sweet pull off Simon Jones, and then smacked him through the covers for good measure. It might have come two or three Tests too late, but he was three-quarters of the way to being back to his best.
Meanwhile, Sarwan's problems were compounded when he was struck amidships by Batty; he collapsed as if shot by a sniper, and took about as long to recover as if he had. He then edged Jones, who was struggling with his run-up, to second slip, but that fielder had been removed to stem the flow of runs, and the ball bobbled for four. In the final overs his inside-edge off Harmison somehow missed his off stump and earned him another boundary. He ended the day on 41, and for once the luck was with West Indies.
The pitch at St John's usually lasts the duration, and it will take some good bowling or bad batting for either side to force a result, especially given that the forecast for the next four days is for more heavy showers. It would be very much a case of after the Lord Mayor's Show, were it not for Lara.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo.