RUINATION TO RESURRECTION: PART I OF BRIAN LARA'S CARIBBEAN TRILOGY
"In its context, with due deliberations and apologies to George Headley, Sir Garry Sobers and a host of other greats, I cannot identify a single innings by any West Indian batsman in our 71 years of Test cricket of such significance." - Tony Cozier
Michael Holding called the decision to keep Lara as captain ranks with the, "worst the WICB have made, and they have made some big mistakes over the last year". Colin Croft thought Lara should have "stepped down from the captaincy after the embarrassment of South Africa". Trinidad & Tobago Express ran the line "From 501 to 51; what a difference a zero makes!!". Only King Richards gave a word of solace and felt "Removing him now would be more detrimental than remedial.".
Walsh & Ambrose did their jobs in the first test at Port of Spain. They took 12 of the 20 wickets to fall to restrict the powerful Aussie batting lineup to totals not in excess of 269. In response to a sub par first innings total, the home team were prettily placed at 149/3. Things were looking up after the the debacle in Mandela country. But West Indies completely fell apart. Even in South Africa, the first 3 days of the series were very competitive. The Proteas had a lead of just 7 runs on the 3rd day of the 1st ever test for West Indies in South Africa but went on rout the Caribbeans 5-0 in tests and 6-1 in ODIs. A repeat seemed imminent as WI lost their last 7 wickets for just 18 runs. In the 2nd innings Australia humiliated the home side by placing all 10 men in the slips and a 312 run evisceration followed.
Walsh & Ambrose continued their good work picking up 5 wickets and young Pedro Collins took 3, including the prize wicket of Tugga for an even 100. The visiting side were subdued for yet another low total of 256 but given the brittle batting of West Indies it seemed that each run was worth at least 5. It took just 27 balls for McGrath & Gillespie to bring the troubled captain, on probation, to the crease. From the moment, Lara was run out by Langer for a boundary laden (11 4s) 62 in Queen's Park Oval, West Indies had lost 19 wickets for 74 runs. 5/2 became 17/3 and 34/4. Lara spent a very scratchy hour at the crease but survived to close the day on 7 runs with the nightwatchman Pedro Collins for company.
It was Lara's 27th innings since his last 100. He had scored just 7 50s in this run. His average plummeted from 53 to 49. It was a run that made god-awful form look like a purple patch. McGrath had sorted him out and nailed him 7 times in 20 innings. Expecting the pitch to turn Steve Waugh had picked a 2 pacemen, 2 spinners bowling lineup. A fully rested McGrath & Gillespie began in full flow. Lara always believed in giving the first hour to the bowler. He scored just 12 runs in the first hour. He picked up the pace after the drinks break to go into lunch on 44. Pedro Collins had retired earlier in the day and Jimmy Adams had joined his captain.
After surviving a tough chance to Junior at slip, he quickly brought up his 50. It had come off 140 balls and took 200 minutes. He was circumspect. He was scratchy. He struggled. But the time spent in the crease paid off. All the scratchiness and mistiming was quickly replaced by fluency, impeccable timing and that unteachable artistry to surgically pierce the field. Waugh's decision to pick MacGill & Warne was proving to be costly as Lara punished them without mercy. Eight 4s and a massive 6 over long on quickly took him to 99. Gillespie steamed in from around the wicket and cramped Lara with an incoming short ball. The Prince was deep in the crease but stood on his toes to turn the ball towards short midwicket. Blewett flew in and broke the stumps with unerring accuracy and Bucknor called for the 3rd umpire.
But the Jamaican crowd desperately yearning for success after the South African debacle impatiently broke through the security cordon to mob their Prince and all hell broke loose. The son of Jamaica, Walsh, the gentle 6'6" giant, had to step in to protect his captain from the crazy fans desperate to hug their treasure. The mob in its impatient avarice had run in to celebrate a 99. After the securitymen cleared the horde, Lara waited with bated breath for the TV umpire's signal. Bucknor was blocking the stumps from the only available camera and it was impossible to determine if Lara had made it. Two years of śani suddenly evaporated and it was śukra's time now, as the benefit of doubt went Lara's way. He had had his first 100 in 27 innings. He lifted his arms and hugged Walsh. The first 50 took 140 balls. The second just 55.
The job was a long away from being done. Lara & Adams were the last recognized pair and WI still trailed by 58 runs. In the previous test, Lara's run out saw WI capitulate. This time Lara would make no mistake. He scored 69 runs in the post-lunch session after scoring just 37 runs in the first session. West Indies went to tea just 29 runs behind and the light at the end of the tunnel was getting brighter by minute. With the obdurate Adams for company Lara broke free in the final session of the day. His four main bowlers were overworked and Tugga brought Blewett on for relief. Short ball pulled to midwicket, short and wide upper cut towards third man, length ball lofted over mid-off, another length ball and Lara hit the hardest shot in cricket, the on-drive for four 4s in a row to move from 183 to 199. He duly brought his 3rd and best double hundred off Warne and ran straight into the dressing room to avoid the crowd.
The last 150 runs came in just 177 balls studded with 22 4s and 3 huge 6s. 99 of those runs came in the post-tea session as Lara, having given the bowlers the first hour, took back runs with interest like an esurient loan shark extorts his victims. West Indies had scored 340 runs in the day as McGrath, Gillespie, Warne & MacGill, a combined then 620 wickets between them, went wicket-less the whole day. From the deepest pit of hell, Lara, with able assistance from Padams, soared to the skies like garuḍa to give his side a massive 121 lead at the end of day's play. It would be the first time he scored 200 runs in a day. He would do it a further 2 times in his career.
He was out early next day with the addition of just 1 run to his overnight score. Before Lara, WI had scored 5 runs. After Lara, WI scored 53 runs. 213 priceless
runsgems out of the 373 total runs scored during his 468 minute vigil at the crease. He had broken the Aussies like śrīrāma broke rudra's divine bow. The mighty Aussies were so dispirited that they subsided to the harmless of off-spin of debutant Nehemiah Perry. They narrowly avoided an innings defeat thanks to a 10th wicket partnership of 18 runs between MacGill & McGrath. The Caribbeans needed just 3 balls to score the 3 runs required for the win early on day 4. A turnaround of epic proportions inspired by "the deep concentration of a George Headley and the breathtaking flair of a Rohan Kanhai." said the Guyana's Stabroek News.
The Prince of Trinidad was once again the toast of the nations. Only a man whose "scale of talent was way outside of my understanding" according to Michael Atherton, could have gone from "This could be the last time I do this" during the toss to Trinidad's party leaders interrupting parliamentary affairs to say "Your leadership is refreshing and inspiring" in the space of 96 hours. He fought personal demons, excessive press & selectors pressure, a fractured dressing room and, above all, opponents of incalculable might to compose one of the most memorable triumphs in the history of West Indies cricket.
If it were any other cricketer, he could not have bettered an innings like this but phenomenal Brian Charles Lara bettered this rāmāyaṇa with an even more epic mahābhārata just 16 days later.