IT is the season of special anniversaries for two of cricket’s true giants, kindred spirits, both West Indian, both left-handers.
March 30 simultaneously marked the start of Sir Garry Sobers’ exceptional Test career in 1954 and its end exactly 20 years later.
Last Friday was 20 years since Brian Lara’s 375 against England at the Antigua Recreation Ground eclipsed Sobers’ Test record score of 36 years. On June 6, he proceeded to another unimaginable epic, 500 unbeaten for his English county Warwickshire against Durham; it remains the first-class game’s distant summit.
On April 12 ten years later, his unbeaten 400, also against England at the ARG, implausibly reclaimed the Test standard temporarily acquired a few months earlier by the powerful Australian Matthew Hayden.
As incongruous as it appears, these were not Lara’s greatest innings, in the same way that Sobers’ unbeaten 365 against depleted Pakistan bowling at Sabina Park in 1958 wasn’t his.
One of the ARG’s many characters, Mayfield, always had a collection of expendable vinyl discs ready to be demolished at the next certain record; apart from those destroyed by Lara’s exploits, he cracked several others over the years.
The unpretentious little ground on the edge of the capital, St. John’s was that sort of place. There were 57 hundreds in its 22 Tests, among them Chris Gayle’s 317 against South Africa in 2005 and Viv Richards’ quickest, off 56 balls, against England in 1986.
Given such circumstances, Lara created others more significant than the ARG peaks – his 277 in Sydney on the 1992-93 Australian tour, the first of his 34 hundreds that emphatically announced his arrival as a special one, his 213 in Kingston and 153 not out in Bridgetown at the lowest point of his turbulent career that led to West Indies victories over Australia in 1999 after six, heavy successive defeats, his classical mastery of Muttiah Muralitheran’s mysteries in Sri Lanka in 2001 when 688 runs in six innings fulfilled his stated aim of carrying his faltering overall average back above 50.
His 375 was out of West Indies’ 593 for five declared; England matched it, run for run, with hundreds from captain Mike Atherton and Robin Smith. Ten years on, Lara declared at his 400 with the total 751 for five.
Even with such considerations, neither could possibly be dismissed lightly. No one else in the game’s long and colourful history has ever registered, as Lara did, single, double, triple and quadruple hundreds in Tests or a first-class half-thousand.
Recalling his 375 to the BBC last week, England’s wicket-keeper Jack Russell said “the ball never looked like missing the middle of his bat”. Graham Thorpe, also in the England side, acknowledged: “There was an inevitability about it all.”
Over dinner in Barbados last week, Atherton confirmed left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell’s story that he had told him the way Lara was batting, he could break the record. According to Tufnell, Lara was about 60 at the time.
“To be honest, we felt powerless to stop him,” Atherton conceded.
Watching from the media area the 538 balls he faced in the 12 and three quarters hours marathon, I was struck mainly by two things – how fresh he remained throughout, never noticeably stressed, never perspiring and by the fact that, while there were 45 fours, there was not a six. The same was true ten years on, except he faced 44 more deliveries and indulged himself with four sixes, along with 43 fours.
There had been unmistakable signs earlier in the season that something exceptional was in the offing.
In the regional Red Stripe Cup leading into the Test series, Lara’s 715 runs in five matches was the new record. Successive innings of 180 against Jamaica, 169 against Guyana and 206 against Barbados carried him past Desmond Haynes’ 654 three years earlier.
There are those who witnessed his 180 at the Queen’s Park Oval (in an all-out 257), who still marvel at its sheer brilliance and wonder whether it is possible to play better.
Jamaica’s was by no means a weak attack – Courtney Walsh supported by the pace of Franklyn Rose and the spin of Nehemiah Parry and Robert Haynes, all soon to be in West Indies teams.
Lara initially bided his time, content to consume 18 balls before he got going. Once set and ready, he so dominated that he contributed 70 per cent of the 219 runs (including 18 extras) while he was at the wicket. On the second day, he accumulated 131, his four partners 12.
It was Lara’s inventive mastery that most vividly captured the imagination of knowledgeable observers.
“When they set the fielders out to block the fours, he was still finding the boundaries,” the late Joey Carew, the former Test opener and Lara’s early mentor, explained. “When they brought them in to keep him on strike, he chipped the ball over their heads, like a golfer would do. It was pure genius.”
David Holford, once Carew’s West Indies teammate and chief selector at the time, said: “He reduced the game to a farce. I’ve never seen anything like it.” And he had seen, first hand, the best of Sobers.
Lara carried his Red Stripe form into his 167 in the second Test against England; there was a brief slump before Mayfield was smashing more of his discs.
The background to the 400 ten years on was markedly different.
Troubled by a bodyline attack by England’s fast bowling quartet, Steve Harmison to the fore, Lara’s highest innings in the first three Tests was 36. In the second, at the Queen’s Park Oval, his home ground, he slipped himself down to No.6 in the order.
Entering the final Test at the ARG, England were one victory away from a clean sweep. Lara commented that “the next five days are very important in terms of my future as captain. No captain, no team, wants to go down for the first time in their history as losing all their Test matches at home”.
If there was concern about his psychological state, it was tempered by the recollection of his response to an even graver situation against the Australians five years earlier when a 5-0 drubbing in South Africa was followed by an all-out 51 and defeat by 312 runs in the opening Test.
After the next five days, the whitewash had been comfortably avoided, he had his record back and his captaincy was safe – at least for the time being. By the following year, his ever strained relations with the board and a players’ strike brought another disruption.
When he finally bowed out following the West Indies’ disappointing exit from the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007, once more as captain yet not entirely of his own accord, he put it to the crowd: “All I ask is, did I entertain?”
The question was rhetorical. The answer was obvious.