Bold Lara dazzles England

Swashbuckling 179 allows Richardson to breathe easy and puts Atherton's men on the back foot
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The Independent Online
THE drought may have officially ended last week, but, until yesterday, there has been little sign of a break in the deadlock between these two wearying sides. Since the Old Trafford Test at the end of July, where the series became settled at two apiece, neither team had appeared willing to make a decisive move. That was until Brian Lara strode to the crease and mesmerised a capacity crowd at The Oval by unleashing yet another century of dazzling strokeplay, his third in as many Tests.

By grasping the last hardy nettle of this series, Lara's attempt to turn a game that has even softened the hardened English sceptics relaxing into complacency, was a marvel of calculated boldness. However, his dismissal late in the day, for 179, is still unlikely to prevent the match from being drawn, unless his skipper Richie Richardson, still there on 87 and playing as he did before the pressures of captaincy eroded the raw potency of his batting, can give his team a lead of 250 or more and put England under pressure.

The pitch has not helped matters and it is about as friendly as a game- show host. Surfaces such as this do not provide for an even contest between bat and ball. When players such as Lara are wafting the ball to the distant corners of the largest ground in England, it can make things frustratingly difficult.

So far, the bowlers have spent nearly as much time in mid-pitch with hands on hips bemoaning their lot as they have watching the ball smack disconsolately on to the middle of the bat. The protracted anguish Angus Fraser showed after an early morning edge by Campbell sailed teasingly through a vacant third slip, spoke ominously of the long hard toil ahead.

England, despite an overnight lead of 404, started the day cautiously, unsure if Dominic Cork would be able to bowl, and if his fitness test, accompanied by constant grimaces was anything to go by, none of the other frontline bowlers would have have been confident in searching out a comfortable spot in the outfield from which to enjoy a lengthy rest.

At his best, Cork can fizz and spit malice like an alley cat, but he seems to have a pain tolerance level closer to that of a domestic pussy- cat and he later left the field apparently suffering from a virus. However, apart from rivalling Dermot Reeve as a walking repository for all known ills, he still takes wickets and on replacing Devon Malcolm at the Vauxhall Road End, he soon had the nightwatchman Kenny Benjamin, caught by Atherton at third slip as he pushed forward to one that bounced.

With another few coats of varnish, he might have had Lara first ball too if a wild slash had found the edge. But once Lara tightened up his concentration, so the unforced brilliance of his strokeplay unfolded, as it has done unfailingly since his hundred at Old Trafford. His century, coming from a single to mid-wicket, was given due recognition by a full house, which rose to its feet full of rapture and appreciation at the feat.

Lara has now scored 765 runs in the series, and no England bowler was able to apply the slightest bit of pressure or decelerate his innings in even the mildest form. That left Mike Atherton with the thankless task of plugging the gushing dyke.

Under the conditions, neither Fraser nor Malcolm could have bowled much better, although the latter missed a simple return catch off Carl Hooper that may prove expensive. Apart from what luck there was going the batsmen's way, the other missed opportunity was when the Trinidadian was nearly run out on 30 just before lunch. Watkinson's throw from mid-on just missed the stumps as the batsman dived back to make his ground.

The only other option that Atherton should perhaps have employed was when Lara first came in. Instead of bowling Jason Gallian, he could have brought Watkinson on to bowl from the Pavilion End to exploit the rough outside the left- hander's off stump. Gallian may do a decent job for Lancashire, but on this surface, his gentle seamers merely allowed Lara to have a gentle net before cutting loose after lunch.

It was an opportunity missed, and when Watkinson finally did make an appearance, somewhat puzzlingly half an hour after lunch, Lara was well set and immediately brought up his 50 by late-cutting the off-spinner's second ball for four. The stroke, which was employed every time Watkinson's line and length wavered around off stump (which was often), has a gliding grace, with supple wrists uncoiling to speed the ball away from any fielder optimistic enough to chase it.

At Trent Bridge, Lara overtook Campbell's studiously lengthy stay in a flash, but here the opening batsman was, if anything, just as punishing. Cutting and off-driving with great power, Campbell contributed exactly half of their hundred partnership for the third wicket, which came off just 137 balls.

Campbell's confidence has grown this series, as has his stature, and he appears to feel more secure in his role. The reckless slashes that were his downfall in the early Tests have all but disappeared, and he fully deserved to go 11 runs better than his 89. He was caught down the leg-side by Russell as he swivelled and gloved a harmless looking leg- side delivery from the hand of Fraser.

Just after tea, when the score reached 302, the second hundred partnership of the innings was posted by the West Indies, but this was almost all Lara, who passed 3,000 Test runs with a languid cover drive for four off Hick. As he tired, though, the nature of his strokeplay became coarser, and three successive boundaries off Gallian, one of them a towering six into the Bedser Stand, were close to slogs.

When he was out, well caught by a tired Fraser at mid-off, Richardson was able to take up the scoring tempo with those murderous scything square drives of his. At stumps, he was within sight of another Test century, and if everything continues to plan and the West Indies bat on at least until tea, England's Sunday could turn out to be bloodier than envisaged.

Scoreboard from The Oval

(England won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings 454 (G A Hick 96, R C Russell 91, G P Thorpe 74, J P Crawley 50; C E L Ambrose 5-96).

WEST INDIES -First Innings

(Overnight 50 for 1)

S C Williams c Russell b Malcolm 30

(Gloved to wicketkeeper, pulling bat away; 47 min, 40 balls, 7 fours)

S L Campbell c Russell b Fraser 89

(Gloved to wicketkeeper down leg-side;219 min,152 balls, 17 fours)

K C G Benjamin c Atherton b Cork 20

(Thick edge to third slip;79 min, 44 balls, 3 fours)

B C Lara c Fraser b Malcolm 179

(Smashed drive to mid-off; 265 min, 206 balls, 26 fours, 1 six)

*R B Richardson not out 87

(221 min, 152 balls, 9 fours, 1 six)

C L Hooper not out 5

(45 min, 27 balls)

Extras (lb11 w1 nb2) 14

Total (for 4, 442 min, 103 overs) 424

Fall: 1-40 (Williams) 2-94 (Benjamin) 3-202 (Campbell) 4-390 (Lara).

To bat: S Chanderpaul, C O Browne, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh.

Bowling: Malcolm 24-4-95-2 (w1) (12-4-42-1, 3-0-17-0, 5-0-19-0, 4-0-17- 1); Fraser 29-6-111-1 (5-3-10-0, 9-3-24-0, 5-0-35-1, 4-0-20-0, 6-0-22- 0); Watkinson 2-1-50-0 (1-0-8-0, 3-0-16-0, 8-1-26-0); Cork 18-3-70-1 (nb1) (6-1-32-1, 4-1-17- 0, 5-0-14-0, 3-1-7-0); Gallian 10-1-49-0 (nb1) (4-0-13-0, 3-1-6-0, 3-0-30-0); Hick 10-3-38-0 (6-3-14-0, 4-0-24-0).

Progress: Second day: 50: 56 min, 12.4 overs. Close: 50-1 (Campbell 17, Benjamin 2) 13 overs. Third day: 100: 138 min, 30.4 overs. 150: 177 min, 40.3 overs. Lunch: 153-2 (Campbell 59, Lara 37) 41 overs. 200: 218 min, 51.5 overs. 250: 261 min , 60.5 overs. Tea: 279-3 (Lara 105, Richardson 24) 71 overs. 300: 318 min, 71 overs. 350: 369 min, 87.2 overs. New ball taken after 90 overs at 378-3. 400: 409 min, 95.1 overs.

Campbell's 50: 154 min, 104 balls, 9 fours. Lara's 50: 81 min, 72 balls, 10 fours.100: 152 min, 123 balls, 16 fours.150: 240 min, 189 balls, 23 fours.

Richardson's 50: 148 min, 102 balls, 4 fours, 1 six.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and V K Ramaswamy (Ind). TV Umpire: J H Hampshire.

Match Referee: J R Reid.

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