April 12, 2004. Brian Lara had walked out to bat with West Indian cricket and his own form wallowing in the lowest depths. He ended up scoring 400 not out. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the day which saw the legendary left-hander become the first man history to reclaim the world record for the highest score in Test cricket.
When he walked out to toss, Brian Lara was pensive. That he was approaching his 35th birthday was more apparent than ever from the increasing thought-lines on his face.
The Antigua Recreation Ground at St John’s held the sweetest of memories. But that spring of 2004, they seemed echoes of days long gone. In 1994, almost exactly 10 years before the current match, Lara had swivelled to hook Chris Lewis, and when his right foot had come down it had been on the top of the cricket world. The boundary had taken him past the 365 posted by Garry Sobers. The 375 runs he had scored that day had heralded a new legend of world cricket, full of bustling promise of youth and talent, a new addition to thelong line of West Indian greats, yet another glittering star added to a splendid team.
A decade down the line, things had changed drastically. The one time great team of Caribbean cricketers had been reduced to embarrassing plight.
In 1994, when Lara had walked out at St John’s and hammered 375, England had already surrendered the series 1-3 to the might of Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Winston Benjamin and Kenny Benjamin. Now, the home team tottered on the brink of a humiliating whitewash at the hands of the same opponents. The pace attack was almost laughable in comparison, with Pedro Collins, Tino Best, Fidel Edwards and Corey Collymore hardly ever hurrying the English batsmen in the series.
The score-line read 3-0 in England’s favour going into the fourth Test. Lara was no longer the carefree youngster riding on the crest of his brimming potential. He was now the captain, weighed down by the pedestrian performance of his team. His own form had been pretty abysmal, with just 100 runs from six innings in the series. Critics had been slashing at his credibility with poison-tipped pens, voicing for his removal over malicious microphones. Besides, 183 days ago, his world record had been rewritten with Australian opener Matthew Hayden, who notched up 380 against Zimbabwe at Perth.
Day One: Struggling back to form
Exactly after an hour’s play, Lara walked out into the middle. The wicket was a featherbed, but the Windies batting of the day could be counted upon to collapse on concrete pitches. Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff , Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison — especially Harmison — had made the home batsmen hop throughout the series. Another batting debacle was never far from the cards.
There was a scare even before the skipper had scored. Harmison’s delivery sneaked past the famous bat. There was a noise — tell-tale and chilling. The ball went straight into the gloves of debutant Geraint Jones. The bowler was celebrating, already past the batsman, elated at another cheapfall of the mighty one. And then Harmison turned to see Darrell Hair shaking his head. The controversial Australian official had stood at the ground 10 years ago when Lara had hit 375. Was it a confluence of fate? Whatever it was, Lara survived and Harmison lost his rhythm.
Hesitant, patchy, the famously sonorous timing masked by jarring off-key mishits, Lara slowly played himself back into groove. As long as Gayle was there striking the ball, he was content to play second fiddle. But once Ramnaresh Sarwan had joined him, and rain had kept the players off the field for long, he was back near his best. A vintage pull off Simon Jones took him to fifty, and the drive through covers that followed signalled return to form. He was unbeaten on 86 at the end of the day and West Indies had progressed to 206 for two from the 52 possible overs. The islands slept somewhat better. Lara was looking good once more.
Day Two: Punching the air three times
The next day, the signs of age slowly started vanishing from his bearing. The eyes lit up in sparks of inspiration that foretell feats of genius. The first ball of the day was pitched up by Hoggard and it was smacked through the covers. The hundred was up within twenty minutes of play.
Gareth Batty, the off-spinner in the side as a late replacement for Ashley Giles, ran in and pitched up. Lara skipped down the pitch and caressed him through the off-side — one of the most fantastic strokes witnessed in the ground. The runs flowed freely, and Batty was a special favourite, milked and spanked alternately according to the whims of the champion. The only hiccup was when a Hoggard direct hit very nearly cost his wicket. That was perhaps the only way England could have dismissed him.Before the morning session was over, the left-hander had brought up his 150. And soon after the break, he slammed Batty straight, down the ground, over the stands, into the car park for the first six of his innings.The stroke took him to 195. The next ball was swept for four. And a single brought up the double-hundred. Lara’s reaction made it clear that all the frustration of the past month was finding a vent at long last.
There followed a patchy period of playing and missing, but Batty came to the rescue yet again. A fierce drive down the ground followed by an impeccable hit through the covers took him to 250. The celebrations were subdued. Lara had obviously got the whiff of something enormous in the offing.
The blade had become broader and broader with time spent on the crease. The uncertainties reared their head only for a brief period in the 290s. A sweep soared somewhat precariously off the top edge before falling in no-man’s land. Next a drive, fluent and full-blooded, burst through Batty’s desperate grasp for four. The last stroke was perhaps the only chance of the innings. Lara dabbed the off-spinner in front of the wicket to scamper the single that took him to the second triple-hundred of his career. For the third time in the day, he vigorously punched the air.
To celebrate, in the final over of the day, Lara launched the part time spin of captain Michael Vaughan out of the ground. He remained unbeaten on 313. West Indies were 595 for five.
Day Three: Tumbling records
In a decision that raised quite a few eyebrows, Lara did not close the innings overnight. West Indies carried on, Lara and Ridley Jacobs continuing to stretch the innings. Lara hinted at going for 750, the highest England had ever conceded. However, to many it seemed it was Lara’s quest to reclaim his record. No one in the history of the game had ever taken the batting crown back after relinquishing it. Lara was well on his way.
At 332 there was a 22-ball scoreless period that strained the nerves of entire West Indies. There was a bit of uncertainty in the 350s, when a couple of balls beat him — a sight that had grown well-nigh unbelievable through the three days. At 370, he flirted outside the off-stump and the crowd gasped as Jones threw the ball up in mock celebration.
But, at 374, he passed his highest score and caught up with Hayden in exquisite style. Batty, once again in the annals of history for all the wrong reasons, flighted invitingly, and Lara launched him into the stands beyond long-on. The next ball was flat and down the leg-side. Lara swept to the fine-leg boundary for four. The world record score in Test cricket changed hands for the 10th time. For the first time it had been reclaimed. It had taken Lara just 185 days to snatch it back from Hayden. Lara leapt high in the middle of the pitch and kissed the wicket. Yes, he had to be grateful to the benign nature of the track. The strip, prepared under the supervision of the legendary Antiguan fast bowler Andy Roberts, had been true all along. Yet, 13 hours of batting takes some doing.
The crowd numbered over 10,000, but almost half were English supporters who had flown in to cheer their team. The other half cheered raucously, while the Englishmen clapped in subdued politeness, no doubt happy to have witnessed history instead of the expected whitewash. The fielders, to the last man, walked up to congratulate the legend. Play was held up for a moment as Lara was hugged on the pitch, by Baldwin Spencer, the new Prime Minister of Antigua and Barduba. The record had come in 546 balls, with 42 fours and four sixes. At the other end, Jacobs had played a solid hand.
At lunch, Lara returned on an unbeaten 390, passing through a guard of honour formed by his teammates.
The story was still incomplete. West Indies were still 16 short of the 750 run target they had set for themselves. After the break, Batty was in limelight again as Lara swept him for a single to become the first man to score 400 in a Test.
Jacobs cracked the next ball to the boundary to take the score to 751. Brian Lara closed the innings. He had batted for 778 minutes, faced 582 balls, and struck 43 boundaries and four sixes.
England were dismissed cheaply in the first innings, Pedro Collins accounting for four wickets and only Flintoff offering resistance with an unbeaten hundred. With a day and a half remaining, West Indies fancied their chances as they enforced the follow-on.
But, Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick batted 57 overs together to put on 182 for the first wicket. The England captainstayed put for347 minutes to score 140 and the visitors batted out the final day losing only five wickets.
The whitewash had been averted, the pride of the maroon caps restored to an extent with that landmark innings. There were, however, a few fingers that pointed accusingly at the great batsman —one from the far shores of Australia. Ricky Ponting was critical of his approach. The innings had been allowed to drag on for Lara to achieve the milestone. There had been no acceleration either. It had perhaps cost the team a victory. According to Ponting, Australians did not play cricket that way. However, the Australian skipper conceded that the world record for highest score in an innings was a special case. Even Australia had batted on to allow Hayden to get to the landmark against Zimbabwe at Perth.
Ponting’s opinion was echoed by Tony Greig. The former England captain told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I’m certainly not raving about the innings. I have to praise it for the sheer fact that he stayed in for so long but it wasn’t an innings that you could be in awe of. It was clear he had the record in mind and was just going to keep on grinding it out until he got there. As far as I’m concerned that is not a good way to play the game, especially when you’re the captain. It shows that Brian Lara is not a very good captain.”
However, the islands revelled in euphoria. It was a feat that had its own place in the game, lending it sheen of legend and glory. Brian Lara had kindled the Caribbean cricketing imagination yet again with his enduring magic
Brief scores: West Indies 751 for 5 declared (Chris Gayle 69, Brian Lara 400*, Ramnaresh Sarwan 90, Ridley Jacobs 107*) drew with England 285 (Mark Butcher 51, Andrew Flintoff 102*; Pedro Collins 4 for 76) and 422 for 5 (Marcus Trescothick 88, Michael Vaughan 140, Mark Butcher 61, Nasser Hussain 56)
Photo Gallery: Brian Lara’s epic 400 not out
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)