Lara is the undisputed king of the Queen's Park Oval

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The Independent Online

There is a condition in Trinidad which makes men, women and children lose control of their senses. The disease sits dormant for long periods of the year but it is highly contagious. Outbreaks are generally confined to the Queen's Park Oval when a diminutive left-hander from Cantaro, Santa Cruz, steps into the arena. Fortunately for Michael Vaughan and his team it cannot be contracted by those born outside the island. It is called Laramania.

There is a condition in Trinidad which makes men, women and children lose control of their senses. The disease sits dormant for long periods of the year but it is highly contagious. Outbreaks are generally confined to the Queen's Park Oval when a diminutive left-hander from Cantaro, Santa Cruz, steps into the arena. Fortunately for Michael Vaughan and his team it cannot be contracted by those born outside the island. It is called Laramania.

Brian Lara has his critics in the Caribbean but here, in Trinidad, he can do no wrong. On his home island he is royalty. After scoring 375 against England in 1994 the little genius was given a plot of land by the Trinidadian Government on a hill overlooking this capital. During the next four years he had a wonderful mansion built on the site.

When England returned to the West Indies in 1998 the first Test in Jamaica was abandoned. In an attempt to fit in five Tests, everyone rushed to Trinidad where back-to-back matches were arranged. In the build-up to the first Test, Lara invited the England team to his house for a barbecue and a few rums.

We arrived at the gates in our minibus and made our way up a winding drive to his house. With big pillars at the front and a swimming pool the shape of a cricket bat in the garden we were all gob-smacked by the property. Noticing our dismay he asked whether we would like to be shown around.

The house was still in the process of being decorated and while giving us a guided tour he pointed to rooms. He told the squad, with Andrew, myself and Phil present, that he was thinking of calling one area the Caddick Suite, another area the Fraser Wing and naming the kitchens after Tufnell. This, he said, with a smile on his face, was in appreciation of the money he had earned on the back of us bowling at him when he broke the world record in Antigua.

The Queen's Park Oval, with an official capacity of 25,000, holds 7,000 more spectators than any other ground in the West Indies. Some believe it to be the most picturesque ground in the Caribbean. The Northern Hills give the stadium an impressive backdrop but the concrete cycle track which surrounds it makes the ground far less intimate than others.

Two thirds of the ground is dominated by covered double-decker stands which rise from the track. The other third is filled by an open-terraced, double-decker stand. And it is here, in the cheapest seats, where most of the noise is generated.

At big matches spectators spread on to the cycle track, but at smaller games this becomes the perfect place for vendors to walk around selling nuts, souse (pickled chickens' feet) and anything else you want to eat or smoke. It is also the spot where West Indian supporters blow into their conch shells.

To get to the ground from their hotel both teams have to travel around the Savannah, a roundabout with a circumference of approximately two-and-a-half miles. This huge expanse of grass is a hive of activity in the evenings. Joggers and walkers make their way around it and countless games of cricket, football and rugby are played in the middle. After dark, however, it is a place to avoid. Tourists take a short cut across it at their own peril.

For three days of the year the Savannah is the most popular spot on the island because Trinidad hosts - after Rio - the second biggest carnival in the world. Trinidad sits within touching distance of South America and this gives the country a Latin feel. It is also the home of calypso and steel bands. The Carnival is a crazy time but, for some reason, it has never coincided with the England team being on the island.

Because of its size, the ground, before Lara arrives at the crease, is not as noisy as others. But when their hero comes out to bat the whole ground erupts. With the flags waving and the whistles blowing this is a wonderful sight, but the pressure that comes with such expectation is yet to bring the best in Lara. In ten Test matches on his home turf he has only scored one hundred and his average - 40.95 - is lower than at any other venue in the Caribbean.

The reason behind this has more to do with the nature of the pitch than the skills of the world's leading batsman. The pitch here is the poorest in the Caribbean.

Teams have posted big scores on the ground but the majority of these were in the 1950s and 1960s.

Before 1954 matches were played on matting. This involved the groundsman rolling out a hard, flat piece of clay and then tightly stretching a mat over the surface. During this period there were always claims of skulduggery. Sides would complain that the mat had been loosened overnight making it a better pitch to bowl on but more runs were scored then than in the 1990s when the pitch picked up its reputation.

During the nine Tests played here in the 1990s, teams scored over 300 on only three occasions but during this period there were eight scores of under 150.

The most famous of these came in 1994 when England were bowled out for 46. For three days England had controlled the match and the West Indies started the fourth day 67 ahead but with only five wickets in hand. Graeme Hick dropped Shivnarine Chanderpaul at slip and the left-hander went on to score 50 and guide his side to a lead of 193.

England still had a chance to win but this evaporated in the first over. Michael Atherton was trapped plumb in front to the first ball of the run chase and Mark Ramprakash was run out in the same over. With the crowd behind him, Curtley Ambrose then produced one of the finest spells of fast bowling in modern times. Stumps were sent cart-wheeling out of the ground and batsmen walked off in a state of shock. Jack Russell was so dumbstruck that he attempted to catch rather than hit one delivery as it whistled past his nose.

The dressing room, a tiny room at the back of the pavilion, was a scene of desolation as batsman after batsman came in and sat with his head in his hands.

The pitch at Queen's Park may be poor but it has produced four of the most intense and tiring games of cricket I have played in. The weather does not help. Trinidad is in the tropics and it is the combination of heat and humidity which makes it a debilitating climate to play in. With runs always hard to come by, bowlers cannot afford to bowl a bad spell because it could cost their side the game.

England have had mixed fortunes here in the last 14 years. The 1990 Test, in which Devon Malcolm took 10 for 137, ended in controversy when the West Indies wasted time and slowed down the over-rate to such an extent that England had to come off for bad light.

The back-to-back Tests in 1998 produced two classic matches. Both games could have gone either way but the results were shared. Ambrose and yours truly dominated both and we took 36 wickets between us.

The best bowling display by an England player came in 1974 when Tony Greig took 13 wickets. Geoff Boycott's 99 and 112 in the same match helped England's cause but it was Greig's wickets which allowed England to claim a narrow victory.

The 1968 Test will be remembered for many reasons. It is a result for which West Indian supporters have never forgiven Sir Garfield Sobers. With the game going nowhere, the West Indian captain suddenly declared and set England the small total of 215 for victory. This they achieved for the loss of only three wickets. It proved to be the Test which allowed England to claim their last series victory in the Caribbean. It is unlikely that Lara will be quite that generous tomorrow.

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