Cricket: Smith back in the mood to do business: Luck is with England as Atherton leads attempt to save the Lara Test. Martin Johnson reports from St John's

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The Independent Online
THE historic stroke that took Brian Lara past Sir Garfield Sobers' world record, and the subsequent six-minute pitch invasion, even brought a lump to the throat of the England team manager. 'Quite an emotional moment, wasn't it, Keith?' a journalist ventured shortly afterwards. Fletcher pondered for a second or two, bravely fought back the tears, and said: 'Yeah. . .but it didn't half bugger up our over-rate.'

Fletcher is not often given to overstatement (for example, he described Chris Lewis's totally lifeless bowling performance as 'a bit under par') and it is this kind of cold, detached, practical approach that is now required if England are to finish this match, and their tour, with a draw. Their 185 for 2 is a decent enough start, but another 209 runs are still required to avoid the follow-on, and England batting collapses are not exactly unheard of.

In addition, they have already used up most of the luck that usually balances out over the course of a match, beginning with Michael Atherton surviving Curtly Ambrose's lbw appeal to the first ball of the innings. The regulations stipulate that the batsman should be given the benefit of the doubt in these matters, but on this occasion the only real doubt was whether the ball would have gone on to pluck out one stump or two.

Atherton has also survived two dropped catches, one off a no-ball, and the West Indian bowlers' scarcely credible capacity for the illegal delivery in this series also rescued Robin Smith when he spooned Courtney Walsh to mid-off. Smith has also been dropped in the covers by Winston Benjamin off the left- arm spinner Jimmy Adams, and he now has the chance to end a miserable tour on a high note.

Smith resumes on 68 not out this morning, but it is a measure of his contrasting performances at home and away from home that another 32 runs will bring him only his second overseas Test century compared with seven in England. However, he has always previously performed well against quick bowling, and had he scored only half the runs that were expected from him on this tour, it is by no means inconceivable that England would not have lost this series.

There have been a number of theories advanced for Smith's loss of form (143 runs in the series at an average of 18 before this Test), among them the idea that he has not responded particularly well to his new role - now that Allan Lamb, David Gower and Graham Gooch are gone - as England's senior batsman.

To watch Smith bat when the mood is with him, you would never guess that he is an essentially nervous character, and the sort whose confidence rapidly drains away after a couple of poor scores.

Another reason may be that he has taken over from his old mate Lamb as the team's entrepreneur - if not quite an Arthur Daley, then certainly a Mr Fixit. With one or two exceptions, cricketers are not paid enough to make a handsome living without having fingers in as many vaguely related pies as possible, and Smith's digits (with all its related distractions) are encased in more pastry than most.

Fletcher thinks Smith's various business interests are a distraction, as he indicated yesterday: 'There are lots of fringe things that can affect players, and I think they are affecting Robin.' Asked 'what sort of fringe things?', Fletcher replied, 'like making money'. Smith, though, does not agree. He is, he says, taking natural steps to ensure his family's security after he finishes playing, but for now 'cricket is everything in my life. I find these sort of suggestions hurtful.'

Smith and Atherton have so far put on 115, but however this match ends, it will forever be remembered for the incredible feat of one man. England first came across Lara in a representative game in his native Trinidad on the 1990 tour, where, on a perfectly horrible ground in a place called Pointe-a-Pierre, Lara took everyone's minds off the noxious smell drifting across from the adjacent oil refinery with a century of such effortless class that no one doubted his potential to become one of the batting greats.

He entranced the Australians in Sydney last winter with an innings of 277 that was only ended by a run- out. Until he was finally out edging Andrew Caddick to Jack Russell, England's best chance of getting rid of him - given the amount of times he punched gloves with his partner in mid-pitch - had seemed to be retired hurt with bruised knuckles.

Had he made 377 instead of 375 he would now have a series average of exactly 100, and with a total of 798 runs so far, Lara has scored more runs in a series than any other West Indian bar Viv Richards. If England bat well enough to allow him a second innings, another 32 will be enough to overtake Richards, and Lara is already well on the way towards being talked about by future generations in the same breath as Richards, Sobers, Walcott, Worrell, Weekes and Headley.

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