Cricket: Cricket crowns a new prince: Brian Lara's 277 for West Indies against Australia last week was one of the finest Test innings ever played. Tony Cozier reports from Sydney

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The Independent Online
CRICKET'S centre stage has been left bare in the past few months as its greatest modern stars have taken their final bows. Viv Richards and Imran Khan, two of the outstanding players of their era, have gone. So have Malcolm Marshall and Gordon Greenidge. Ian Botham and David Gower are awaiting final curtain calls that now seemingly will never come.

It is time to change the names that illuminate the game's facade and already a few new ones have gone into place. Waqar Younis, Pakistan's devastating 21-year-old fast bowler, and Sachin Tendulkar, India's teenage batting prodigy, are already firmly established. A virtuoso performance at the Sydney Cricket Ground last week, widely hailed as one of the most exciting in memory, has now installed Brian Lara, a small, dapper West Indian, in their company.

Between quarter-past eleven on Monday morning and a quarter to six the following afternoon, under the leaden, damp skies of Sydney's apology for a summer, the left-handed Lara, 23, 5ft 5in and only in his fifth Test, fashioned an innings of 277 of such all-round brilliance that it is inconceivable anyone could ever have batted better for so long. On a slow, lifeless pitch on which Australia had taken 11 hours 20 minutes to grind out a first-innings total of 503 for nine, Lara dominated the bowling utterly.

Statistics are often an inadequate measure of cricketing achievement. In this instance, a few are pertinent. Lara scored at the remarkable rate of 74.4 runs per 100 balls (35 runs an hour), and his 38 boundaries represented 54 per cent of his total. On the second day, while he added 156 and struck 23 fours, his three partners managed 74 and five fours between them.

There was something for everyone in Lara's extraordinary display. 'It was just a phenomenal knock, for a bloke who's so young to show that maturity,' the Australian captain Allan Border observed. 'He was just relentless in that he never hit the ball over the top. You feel that when you get well into the hundreds you start looking to hit over the top. He never did. Just for sheer crisp hitting of the ball into the gaps, it was as good as you'd ever want to see.'

Richie Benaud, the former Australian captain and now television guru, wrote: 'All the great players have had the ability to move their feet well in either attack or defence, and generally they also had the frustrating ability to ease the ball away from fielders, as Lara did.'

Rohan Kanhai, the former West Indies captain and now team coach, said it was 'one of the greatest innings I've ever seen. Back foot, front foot, timing, placement, against spin bowlers and fast bowlers alike, he was marvellous.'

By happy coincidence, Sir Gary Sobers, to whose lofty standards all left-handers aspire, was in Sydney at the time. Enthralled by the first 35 runs of Lara's innings before lunch on the third morning, he was moved to telephone the dressing-room just to tell him: 'This is your day, keep on batting.' It was a timely and appreciated gesture.

Lara did not forget the message, although he had to be reminded by his partner, the West Indies' captain, Richie Richardson, to keep thinking of the team score, rather than his own, once he passed 50. In each of his previous three Tests, he had passed the half-century mark without going much further.

To those watching the live television transmission or listening through the night to the radio commentaries back in Lara's native Trinidad, it was only a matter of time. Here, finally, was spectacular culmination of the heady expectations held for Lara since he was a boy at Fatima College, in Port of Spain.

Unlike the other territories, Trinidad has never produced a great batsman. Jamaica had George Headley, Guyana Kanhai and Clive Lloyd, Barbados any number from the Three Ws and Sobers to Gordon Greenidge; even modest Antigua gave the world Richards and Richardson. Trinidadians have said for some time that Lara was destined for that list.

One of 11 children from the village of Santa Cruz, his potential was recognised by his elder sister, Agnes, who took him every Sunday from the age of eight to coaching clinics at Harvard Club. At Fatima, the former West Indies opening batsman and selector Joey Carew, a former pupil, spotted the same exceptional ability. He became Lara's mentor, bringing him to his club, the famous Queen's Park, and into his home where Lara lived for some time as a member of the family.

Consistent high scoring earned him a place in the island's under-19 team at 15. Before he was 19, he was in the senior team. In his second match, he came in at 14 for two to face a Barbados attack led by Marshall and Joel Garner. Undeterred and unflinching, he stayed five and three-quarter hours in making 92 before Garner had him leg before. Here, indeed, was something special.

Quite apart from his batting talent, his maturity and knowledge of the game were also evident. In 1988, he captained the West Indies team to the youth World Cup in Australia. A year later, aged 20, he led the West Indies B team to Zimbabwe ahead of players with Test experience such as Carl Hooper, Patrick Patterson and Tony Gray. When he returned, Trinidad and Tobago followed the lead and chose him as their youngest captain ever for the 1990 season.

For many, it seemed too much too soon. They wondered what effect it might have on his cricket. But they did not have long to wait for their answer. Trinidad and Tobago finished bottom of the table and Lara averaged 22 for the season without a 50 in eight innings.

Revelling in the challenge, Lara was crestfallen when they dropped him from the captaincy. 'I was captain of several teams before that and always got runs, and no one ever said it was too much for me then,' he said. 'It was just a matter of having a bad trot like all batsmen have.'

Few doubt he will one day lead the West Indies. Marshall and Desmond Haynes have both said they believe he is a future Test captain, and the team manager, David Holford, likens his batting flair and his reading of the game to those of Sobers.

Lara has other similarities with Sobers. He is a brilliant catcher at first slip who in just five Tests has pocketed 10 catches and 18 in 34 one-day internationals. Like most of the great batsmen, his eyesight and reflexes contribute to his sure-handedness in the field.

Again reminiscent of Sobers' rivetting good looks and infectious smile, he has a face that reflects enjoyment of everything he does. Two like-minded Australians, Mike Whitney and Greg Matthews, dubbed him 'The Prince' as he ushered them through the night spots of Port of Spain during their 1991 tour of the Caribbean, holding court wherever he went.

Two incidents last year raised doubts over whether he could handle stardom. A dressing-room altercation with the Trinidad and Tobago captain, Gus Logie, brought him a TTdollars 500 fine. Another with a drunk while on a night out with the Aston Villa footballer Dwight Yorke ended up with a trip to the police station and a warning from the sergeant on duty. Those who know Lara dismiss these as aberrations, the first caused by genuine disagreement over tactics that should not have got as far as it did, the second by a persistent pest at a bar.

Yet he will need the kind of inner strength not usually vouchsafed to the young to withstand the intense public adulation he has received since his Sydney innings. The cameras have been trained on him wherever he goes. He has been inundated with messages of congratulations, from his country's Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, to the hordes of female fans who have found an instant pin-up replacement for Imran Khan. Soon he will be fighting off agents eager to sign him up for everything from county cricket to contract modelling. But nothing yet suggests he will lose his focus.

After his innings he was quick to quote Kanhai's advice to him: 'Don't forget your next innings starts at zero. This one is over.'

To put things in perspective, he volunteered that the pitch was 'a total batsman's paradise' and that he had had the advantage of the spinners being unable to grip a ball made greasy by drizzling rain. And just to emphasise there was no false modesty, he matter-of-factly disclosed that when he got to 263, he started counting down to Sobers' record Test score of 365 not out - the only one of which he was conscious. Finally run out, he was denied the chance.

He may never get as close again, but it will be worth watching him try.

(Photograph omitted)