Cricket / Second Test: Lara leads march of centurions: England's hopes of levelling series are blunted as the West Indies forge ahead with blades flashing

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The Independent Online
THE first two days of this Second Test provided all the ebb and flow required of a classic encounter. But yesterday Brian Lara swung the balance of power firmly towards the West Indians with an audacious century of rare power and, at the close of play, the home side were 165 runs ahead with four first innings wickets in hand.

With a virtuoso performance of strokeplay, Lara knocked the stuffing out of England before Jimmy Adams, sharing in a fourth-wicket stand of 126 with the local favourite Shivnarine Chanderpaul, put paid to English ambitions of levelling the series by weighing in with a century of his own.

Despite a late flourish with the ball, when Ian Salisbury took two wickets in successive deliveries, the best England can now hope for is a draw, and even that may prove difficult without the return of some heavy rain. Like all routes west out of Georgetown, they are on a road to nowhere.

Adams, who has impressed on every outing of this tour, is the pivot the West Indies have missed since the retirement of Larry Gomes in the mid-1980s. The way he dovetailed with Lara by not taking too much of the strike, and the manner in which he helped and encouraged young Chanderpaul, who scored a fine 62 on a potentially nerve-racking debut, marks him out as a special player indeed.

Ice cool in a crisis, yet not so absorbed in his own game that he is impervious to the needs of his partners, he is the kind of team man that most professional team sports have long discarded. At 26, it might not be too late for him to be a future West Indies captain and it should not be long before he leads Jamaica.

As Atherton watched his side's runs being devalued faster than the Guyanese dollar, however, it was Lara's breathtaking strokeplay that made England's attack look as innocuous as a toothless piranha.

At the other end, Desmond Haynes, having been completely overshadowed, began to find the gaps. But just as their century partnership threatened to break into full bloom, Salisbury made the breakthrough. Haynes, having lunged at the ball, held his ground for what seemed an age before the umpire Venkataraghavan finally gave him out caught behind, a decision Haynes accepted without complaint.

Lara continued unfazed, despite losing Keith Arthurton to another contentious (from the batsman's view) decision, again off Salisbury, though this time caught by Thorpe at silly point. Lara struck the ball cleanly with ballistic power and, with that wristy flourish, he gets enormous bat-speed through the ball. Nobody was spared his flashing blade and in one wounding over, Igglesden was twice struck for straight fours, the two drives being generously split by a savage pull over mid- wicket. By now, the batsman was picking the length as quickly and as surely as a scrumper pinching apples.

His century, which came off only 123 balls, is only his second in Test cricket, and his first - a double century in Sydney in December 1992 - has already been hailed as one of the great Test innings.

When Adams joined him, the score was 203 for three. Providing the level-headed foil to Lara's extravagance, Adams kept his end ticking over with some well-placed drives off the spinners. With the new ball due, it came as some surprise when Atherton did not bring back his opening bowlers. Instead he continued with the part-time off-spin pairing of Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick.

Presumably this was a damage limitation exercise; at lunchtime their combined bowling figures amounted to 16 overs for a total of 39 runs, which was commendable considering some of the carnage that had gone before. However, after two full tosses from Hick had been summarily dispatched for 10 runs by Lara, Atherton finally took the new ball and recalled his opening bowlers.

In the end, it was a combination of Lara's fatigue and impatience that brought about his downfall. Not content with getting behind a straight ball from Lewis, he tried to force it through mid-wicket where he succeeded in only finding Atherton's hands, and the England captain joyfully accepted the error. Lara left to a standing ovation, though the acclaim that greeted Chanderpaul was no less intense. It was a politically shrewd selection, and the sizeable crowd came alive as the teenager cut and hooked two boundaries. Not since Elquemedo Willett made his debut in 1973 has a teenager emerged in West Indies colours and looked so assured on his first outing.

Salisbury, bowling round the wicket, eventually claimed the wicket of Chanderpaul, the teenager aiming an optimistic pull shot. England's joy was not exactly overflowing at this point, but Salisbury's next ball was a perfectly pitched googly which easily had the beating of Junior Murray, the batsman shuffling across his stumps to be lbw. That brought a bounce back to the weary legger's step as he ended the day with four expensive wickets.

On a pitch where the bounce became increasingly erratic, Jack Russell was uncomfortable, especially standing up to the spinners. He missed two stumping chances - Lara on 120 just before lunch and Adams on 97 - and in the context of England saving this game, they may prove crucial.

(Photograph omitted)