Antigua, 375, April 1994 & 400, April 2004: Scaling Everest… because it is there
“Awesome.” For Geoffrey Boycott, the former England opener, a single word suffices.
“Amazing,” Ian Botham concurs. “One helluva innings.”
“[I]ncredible physical stamina,” gushes David “Bumble” Lloyd, “a beautiful technical innings. Memorable. Magnificent.”
It is April 2004, exactly one year to the day last week Thursday. We are at the Antigua Recreation Ground where the reactions are flowing thick and fast. Brian Charles Lara has just contrived to climb cricket’s Everest—for the second time. The cricketing world is falling unabashedly at his feet, genuflecting, duly paying obeisance.
Angus Fraser, who had claimed figures of 2 for 121 in Antigua ten years before, is effusive, calling Lara’s unbeaten 400 ‘an amazing achievement for him and one of the greatest achievements in sport’.
“(…) he just methodically went about collecting each 50 runs, ticking another landmark off the list and beating Matty Hayden’s record.”
Matty Hayden’s record? Do you mean, Gus, the highest individual Test innings record that, according to espncricinfo, Hayden had ‘briefly borrow[ed] (…) from Brian Lara’?
The crown had not come easily to the Prince. He had had Australia on the ropes in Sydney in January 1993, looking impossible to dismiss until Carl Hooper called him for an equally impossible single and then sent him back.
He had been completely on top of the English attack in Guyana in mid-March 1994 until, in a rare moment of inattention, he followed one from Chris Lewis only to see Michael Atherton pouch the chance.
And then came Antigua. In early once again, at 13 for two, he had slowly got his eye in, relishing the conditions and making sure not to abandon circumspection. It took him more than 100 balls to get his first 50 runs and almost 200 to get to his century.
By the close of the first day, he had reached 164, chanceless; he was almost twice as far along by the close of the second, still chanceless.
“He seemed all the time to know exactly where he wanted to hit the ball and appeared always able to guide it through the gaps in the field.”
That’s AG Moyes describing a 1961-62 innings by Frank Worrell. Unadjusted, the observation fits the bill for Lara at the ARG in 1994. And again ten years later.
“Never was there such ease and certainty of stroke, such early seeing of the ball and such late, leisured play and such command by a batsman not only of the bowling but of himself.”
That’s CLR James admiring Garry Sobers in full flow in Brisbane in 1961-62. You’re forgiven for thinking he was describing Lara at the ARG.
“The stroke off the back foot,” James goes on, “that sent the length ball of the pace bowler past cover’s right hand. There was another stroke, behind point off a pitched-up fast ball. The ball was taken on the rise and placed behind point to beat the covers (…).”
Time after time after time, one might add.
“He never looked in any trouble whatsoever,” Tony Cozier observes about Lara in 2004. “He never looked exhausted, he never looked to be bored; he just looked as if he was going to make as many runs as he wanted to.”
Cozier sees serenity, Botham sees through it, pointing to the tremendous act of will needed to recapture “the record that he wanted so desperately.”
“For nine years,” Lara told Mike Coward in Australia in 2015, “that record was the bane of my existence…or maybe the saving grace.”
Either way, he was saying, once Hayden had wrested it from him in October of 2003, he knew he just had to get it back.
Ideally, the final word should have gone to Shivnarine Chanderpaul or Ridley Jacobs, who spent so much time at the other end in 94 and 04 respectively. It goes instead to a man who had had a ringside view of Lara’s first massacre of England’s bowlers in 1994,
“It all seemed,” remarked philosophically former England skipper Michael Atherton, “so inevitable.”
Indeed. Did not Sir Edmund Hillary admit to climbing Everest simply ‘because it was there’?
Sydney, 277, January 1993: A champagne double-century
Trinidadians often dance the night away at Old Year’s and compensate by sleeping well into New Year’s Day. But New Year’s Eve in Sydney is special, the big bash on the Sydney Bridge being a truly unique occasion, charming, spell-binding, intoxicating.
So it’s easy to understand why, as 1992 became 1993, a 23-year-old Trinidadian batsman on only his second overseas tour might have found his first experience of the gala affair daunting, too much to handle, overwhelming.
But that does not begin to explain why, within a couple of days, he contrived to unapologetically beat the daylights out of Allan Border’s bowlers in what was only his ninth Test innings.
According to Lara, the end-of-year festivities left him with a five-day hangover, including the first two days of the Third Test match, during most of which Australia batted.
Coming to the crease at 31 for 2 after the fall of Desmond Haynes’ wicket on the third morning, Lara looked in the mood right from the start. He ended the day unbeaten on 121, outscoring his captain Richie Richardson, who had come in at 13 for 1.
The next day, he made the Aussie attack, including Shane Warne, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Border and the Waugh brothers, Mark and Steve, look like they had been in the wars. He seemed poised for a really huge score until what Ian Chappell terms ‘a dopey call from Carl Hooper’ cost him his wicket.
“That’s the only way Australia would have got him out,” the former Aussie skipper reports, “run out; he did not look like getting out.”
Chappell reveals that, mere weeks before, he had seen Lara batting in a practice game and thought ‘that he had something’. What struck him, however, was how, although the little West Indian consistently stroked the ball very sweetly, most of his shots seemed to go straight to the fieldsmen.
Subsequently asked by then West Indies manager Deryck Murray to have a talk with the young left-hander, Chappell seized on the opportunity to point out what he thought was a major shortcoming. He was, he confesses, astonished at the change.
He says that, in the Sydney Test a few weeks later, Lara ‘hit 38 fours and he didn’t hit any sixes; he just kept hitting it along the ground and in the gaps’.
Elegantly. Unerringly. Consistently. Relentlessly. Frustratingly for Aussie captain Allan Border and his men. All the inexorable way to 277, his maiden three-figure innings in Tests; it more than doubled the 244 aggregate of his first eight innings.
So much had the youngster seemed in the zone that then West Indies coach Rohan Kanhai felt compelled to force his feet back on to terra firma.
“Remember, young man,” he reminded him, “your next innings begins at zero.”
The admonition arguably paid dividends. Garfield Sobers, Lara’s predecessor as the world record holder for the highest individual Test innings, had gone further with his first three-figure innings, his 29th, but he had never come back to better it.
The 1958 Sabina triple-century, also Sobers’ first Test hundred, crowned a king but left his celebrating subjects unscathed. A Trinidad Guardian columnist observed in January 93 that the Prince had ‘murdered sleep’, leaving much of his royal realm in a sort of drunken stupor after adding successive early January sleepless nights to their all-night Old Year’s revelry.