Cricket: History as seen from 22 yards away: Derek Pringle talks to the four men who witnessed Lara's record at close hand

IN COMMON with many who set out to achieve the seemingly impossible, Brian Lara's assault on the highest individual score in first-class cricket depended on more than just his own indomitable spirit and technique. As Edmund Hillary needed Tenzing Norkay to conquer Everest, so Lara needed solid, unstinting support during his innings of 501 not out against Durham last Monday.

From the moment the Warwickshire recruit took guard at Edgbaston at the fall of the first wicket, his monumental effort was sustained, and given occasional impetus, by four players at the non-striker's end; Roger Twose, Trevor Penney, Paul Smith and Keith Piper. So what was their view of history in the making?

Apart from the sheer willpower and concentration needed, one of the most astonishing aspects about Lara's knock is that he scored 390 runs in a day. That is good going for an entire team, let alone an individual. However, in contrast to the run bonanza on the last day, Lara had begun scratchily, half an hour before tea on Friday. As Twose confirmed: 'It was his worst start of the summer. Apart from being bowled behind his legs from a no-ball and nearly dragging on a few times, I even managed to outscore him. He was clearly annoyed with the way he was playing. At tea, he went straight into the indoor nets for 15 minutes.'

Had Chris Scott, the Durham wicketkeeper, held a straightforward chance offered by Lara immediately after the break, such an exercise would have been pointless. This occasional fallibility and a poor one-day record this year have ensured his team-mates do not take him for granted.

Twose is adamant that having Lara at No 3 does not give him and his opening partner Dominic Ostler licence to be reckless. 'Actually, we both play as we've always done,' he said. 'Both of us want to bat with him so we can watch him from 22 yards rather than 122 in the pavilion. Being a left-hander, I like to see his shots from close-to in the hope they might rub off on me. It's great when he comes down the pitch after you've played a good shot and biffs gloves. It makes you feel Caribbean for a few seconds.'

Twose was impressed with Lara's precision in shot placement. One of the strengths all great batsmen possess is near-perfect shot selection. Lara takes this a stage further. Having decided what shot to play, he then chooses the moment to hit the ball. By making split-second decisions to take it early or play it late, he can maximise the cost-effectiveness of his strokes, by finding the gaps. Bob Woolmer, the team coach, marvels at how late he plays the ball, while still managing to get his hands through the shot.

Lara's partnership with Twose was worth 115 runs and lasted 107 minutes. Twose faced 85 balls for his 51, while Lara had faced 84 and was 46 not out when Twose was dismissed.

Much has been made of the West Indian's compact stature (he is 5ft 8in tall) being an advantage. Shorter men appear quicker on their feet and this may allow better balance and a stable platform. Trevor Penney, the Warwickshire No 4, partially agrees. 'His footwork is incredible. It gets him out of trouble when the ball moves. Against Leicestershire he'd shape to hook, then change his mind and defend by springing into line when the ball hit a crack. His hands are the key. He holds his backlift high, but moves his hands into the shot late. I remember one shot off the Durham spinner, David Cox, who was bowling into the rough. Brian went down the pitch, but was nowhere near the ball. Instead of panicking, he just checked his shot. He still smashed it for four.'

After Saturday's wash-out, play restarted on Monday. As Durham were not interested in making a game of it, Lara resumed his innings, having been stuck on the dreaded Nelson (111) all weekend. It was also the moment his team-mates reckon various records started crossing his mind. Judging by the pyrotechnics that followed he was obviously aiming for the sky.

During the morning session, between overs 56 and 78, he scored 149 runs (off only 83 balls). 'It's the best I've seen him play,' Penney said. 'He just smashed Simon Brown, who'd changed ends. He hit him for 20 in one over. I'd just faced the bloke and thought, he's bowling well. You can't imagine how he hits it like that. When he decides to whack a six, it's gone. It wasn't slogging, just clean hitting. The opposition were speechless and in awe of him.'

It was during this session that Lara received another 'life', when Cummins dropped a hard-hit chance at mid-on. Apparently he never lets such things worry him and he rarely tries to tinker with his game on the field. He concentrates solely on the positive and forbids any negative talk by his partners when out in the middle.

The Lara-Penney partnership yielded 354 runs in 186 minutes. Penney scored 44 runs in 126 balls; Lara hit 251 off 193 balls.

Just after lunch, the Trinidadian was joined by Paul Smith. Smith did not stay long, but long enough to see that Lara has very special eyes. 'At Somerset, Brian got two beamers from Graham Rose. Instead of hitting the deck or flapping his gloves at them, he watched them almost on to his nose before flicking his head aside.'

Further revelations about his eyesight came when the team were walking around Taunton. Stopping at a poster shop with several 3D stereogram posters - abstract patterns containing hidden images of animals - Lara pointed to each one and told his colleagues what the animals were. 'Nobody else could make out head nor tail,' Smith said, 'and that was before we went to the pub.'

In the middle, Lara is a man of basic truths and even fewer words, his favourites being 'Fight it' and 'Concentrate'. Smith rates him as destructive as Viv Richards and Ian Botham, without the brutality of those two heavyweights. 'At Lord's he hit Emburey for 4, 4, 6, 4. The six hit the flagpole on the top of the pavilion. When one of England's best spin bowlers turns round and asks if there is any chance of playing this game normally, you know you are in the presence of something special. Before the start on Monday, once it became known Durham weren't interested in making a game of it, Brian asked me what the highest score in first-class cricket was. It was one I happened to know, so I told him. He didn't say anything, he just smiled. But you could see it was going through his head.'

The Lara-Smith partnership realised 51 runs in 34 minutes. Smith scored 12 runs off 34 balls; Lara 39 runs off 25 balls.

Dermot Reeve, the skipper, was nursing a groin injury so Keith Piper came in next, with Lara on 336. 'Honestly,' Piper said, 'I didn't think about Brian getting 500. All I was concerned about was my own game and getting a place in Tuesday's Benson and Hedges semi-final.' But he admitted to being inspired by Lara, and he went on to score a now destined to be forgotten, career-best 116 not out.

Time was running out for Lara. With the game going nowhere, the last session was scheduled to end at 5.30pm. Lara timed it to perfection despite taking five balls of the last over to score the boundary he needed to overhaul Hanif Mohammed's 499, set in 1958-59 in a club game in Pakistan. 'I had to remind him that the umpires would draw stumps at the end of the over,' Piper said. 'But other than that, his concentration never looked like flagging. Also, he never once asked me to give him the strike. He just told me to keep going and get myself a big one.'

Lara was visibly tiring, for he was nearly run out twice as he neared the record. As Reeve put it, when I asked him about possible weaknesses: 'Well, on the evidence of last Monday, I would say he gets very nervous in the 490s.'

Lara and Piper put on 322 runs in 162 minutes, Lara scoring 165 off 125 balls and Piper 116 off 151 balls.

Some observers have pointed to a gaping disparity between Lara's one-day runs and his Championship scores. Lara may be about to rectify that, as proved by last Tuesday's 70 against Surrey, which secured Warwickshire a berth in the Benson and Hedges Cup final. One thing is certain: no record is safe while this man remains hungry.

(Photographs omitted)

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