April 18, 1994. Brian Lara pulled Chris Lewis to the boundary to go past Sir Garfield Sobers as Test cricket’s highest individual scorer in an innings. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day when life in the Caribbean Islands came to a near stand-still as Lara knocked off the remaining runs required for the milestone.
When he walked out to bat on the third morning, Brian Lara stood on the brink of history, on the crest of the dreams of his countrymen in Trinidad, and in the centre of the deluge of excitement cascading across all the Caribbean islands.
A full house had assembled in the stands, enticed by hope and perhaps destiny. In the home team’s dressing room sat Sir Garfield Sobers himself. The great man had played a round of golf with the young West Indian star before the Test match, and had shared quite a few tips about both the sports. Sobers — with 8032 runs, the 36-year-old record of 365 and a single digit handicap when the balls became stationery — could afford to talk as an expert on both sports. Now he watched as the emerging master, eight days short of his 25th birthday, continuing from his unbeaten overnight score of 320.
The first ball of the day was bowled at 10:05 am. Lara had started batting six hours earlier that day, at four in the morning, in front of the mirror in his hotel room. “I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep,” he confessed late, adding. “My hands were bathed in sweat.”
Two days earlier, Lara had walked in to bat at 11 for one. A run later it had become 12 for two. With captain Richie Richardson and vice-captain Desmond Haynes both missing the match due to injuries, Phil Simmons and Stuart Williams had stumbled and staggered in their large shoes. Lara had proceeded untroubled. His mastery was evident from the outset, as the strokes flowed threaded the gaps with effortless ease. By the time he had posted his 50 on this most inoffensive of wickets, the record already looked somewhat under threat.
He had gone on to add 179 with Jimmy Adams, 183 with Keith Arthurton, and 128 so far with young Shivnarine Chanderpaul. He had ended the first day on 164, the second on 320. Change of partners, change of day, change of balls and change of weather bringing forth interruptions due to rain, but none of these had affected Lara — least of all the English bowlers. Lara had never looked like getting out.
Now, as the spilling stands at Antigua’s St John’s Ground looked on, awaiting the moment of history, uncertainty crept in. As the remaining runs and milestones on the way to the record were gradually ticked off, the enormity of the occasion merged with his weariness of nearly twelve hours of batting to create enough doubt in his mind, and dread in the thousands of gathered hearts that beat in hope. Thankfully, at the other end was Chanderpaul, all of 19 years old, playing his fourth Test match. Lara could not have asked for a better man to shepherd him through the final stretch. As a couple of rash strokes invited disaster and courted dashed dreams, the lad walked up and spoke to the maestro with serene calm.
A square-cut off Angus Fraser took Lara past Graham Gooch’s 333 and Don Bradman’s 334 together. And as Andy Caddick pitched up, Lara’s right foot shot out to the pitch of the ball, as if on coiled spring, and the drive crashed through the covers, propelling him beyond Wally Hammond’s 336 and Hanif Mohammad’s 337.
At 347, 20 long minutes were spent in fretting and flirting. Fraser beat him twice in quick succession. After the second ball had passed his edge invoking synchronous sigh around the stands, Lara stood outside his crease, as if carved of stone.The fast bowler met him there and said, “I don’t suppose I can call you a lucky bleeder when you’ve got 347.” Even through the trepidations, misgivings and stifling weight of expectations, this brought a chuckle out of the left-hander.
Nerves conquered somewhat, he edged past 350 and moved hesitantly to 361 before Caddick pitched up again. Lara’s blade came down from the high backlift, sending the ball scorching through the covers yet again. He had left Len Hutton’s 364 behind and drawn level with Sobers.
The capacity crowd stoodas one, the tangle of nerves unravelling around the arena. Lara calmed himself and took guard again.
Chris Lewis ran in now, and pitched short. Horizontal bat strokes towards the leg are accepted as the most risky in the artillery of a batsman. Few men would have essayed a pull at this juncture with the 36-year-old world record at stake. Lara did. “I knew he would bowl a bouncer,” he said later. The ball rushed across the outfield and into the fence. Lara rested on the peak of cricketing achievement, beyond the reach of the entire history of Test cricket.Deafening cheers reverberated across the ground as he raised his bat. And then the battlefield of his triumph was invaded.
Soon there was a pile up, of exuberant spectators, zealous security personnel, and dedicated television crew brandishing their cameras. Somewhere in that scrum-like formation was Sobers himself, trying hard to hand over his record to the new holder in a heartfelt hug.
After he emerged from the human stack of celebration, Lara got down on all fours kissed the pitch. It was perhaps euphoria mixed with the relief that he had not been suffocated, or had not lost parts of his gear and person to souvenir-hunters.
It took six minutes for the next ball to be bowled! After scoring six more runs, Lara edged a tired drive off Caddick. He had batted for 766 minutes, faced 538 balls and hit 45 fours for his 375.
England played out time with aplomb, without raising a sweat, Michael Atherton showing the way with a resolute 135, and Robin Smith following with 175. The visitors were all out after matching the West Indian total of 593 to perfection. The series already in their kitty, the West Indians did not resent only two innings being completed in the match — preferring to savour the moment of history.
Sobers could hardly contain his glee. “I could not think of a better person to break my record. He is the only batsman today who plays the game the way it should be played,” he gushed.
On his part, Lara hoped he could go on living ‘a simple life.’ Well, that proved somewhat difficult. We do know that greatness brings its own complications.
(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)