The best ever: how Lara built the greatest innings in Test history

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The Independent Online

At 11.20am last Saturday the great Brian Lara received the fourth ball of his seventh innings in a wretched series. As the ball thudded into the gloves of the debutant wicketkeeper, Geraint Jones, the fielders went up as one to claim a catch.

For a fleeting moment, no more, England must have felt that they had bagged the main man before he had scored for the third time on the tour. The wry thought might have flashed through a few minds that Lara's poor sequence of scores in the Cable and Wireless Series had continued.

Darrell Hair, the umpire at the Factory Road End in the Antigua Recreation Ground, shook his head to reject the concerted, spontaneous appeal. Replays, for what they were worth, were inconclusive but suggested that Lara deserved the verdict.

More than two days later, embracing seven minutes short of 13 hours at the crease, in which time he faced 578 more balls, Lara called a halt to his innings on 400 not out.

The figure bears repeating with a kind of wonderment: 400 not out. Maybe not quite cricket's equivalent of the four-minute mile but not far off. It broke the highest individual Test score by 20 runs, and meant that Lara had reclaimed the most resonant of cricketing records, the only man ever to do so. His monumental 375 on the same ground in April 1994 had stood as the record for nine and a half years until last October when the Australia opener Matthew Hayden bludgeoned a hapless Zimbabwean attack to make 380.

Lara had it back after 185 days. In doing so, he became only the second man to score two triple Test hundreds and since the only other was the legendary Don Bradman, the measure of the achievement is immediately obvious. He did offer one definite, but ridiculously hard, chance when he had made a mere 293, and you probably would not need all the fingers of one hand to count the number of occasions he played and missed.

Nobody begrudged him this enormous feat and he could hardly have been more gracious.

"He is a real great of the game and although it is a very good wicket, I can't take anything away from Brian Lara," England's captain, Michael Vaughan, said. "I said at the beginning of the tour that there would be a period when he would get in, but I didn't expect him to get 400."

There was no proper sense of what was to come after the early escape. Lara was becalmed, partly because it was essential that the West Indies did not lose another wicket, partly because Chris Gayle was peppering the boundary boards.

Lara denied that he felt under any significant pressure despite having scored only 100 runs in the series. "I think that maybe my leadership was under scrutiny, maybe it still is, but as a batsman I always back myself to score runs. I never put myself under pressure."

Shortly after, Gayle, inevitably, was out there was a four-hour break for rain. It was the last thing Lara needed. He had spent time getting in, judging the pace of the pitch, and now he had to start all over again.

Yet on the resumption late on Saturday afternoon he seemed to recognise that this time all would be well. He was moving confidently in line with the ball and the circumnavigations of the crease he had tended to essay earlier in the series had gone. By the end of play on Saturday night Lara had passed his first 50 in 61 balls and reached 86.

"At the end of play, I knew the pitch was there for any batsman that wanted to apply himself," he said. "I knew that each new ball could cause problems but I also knew that if I batted well I would get a decent score." It was as though, even as early as Saturday evening, when he was still 295 runs short of overtaking Hayden, something was stirring within Lara.

Sunday dawned brightly, though there had been rain in St John's overnight. Lara declared his intention by driving his first ball, from Matthew Hoggard, for four. An on-drive for four off Hoggard took him to 98 and a cut for two brought up his 25th Test hundred.

Lara raised his bat diffidently. It was not that he did not care about such a minuscule landmark, it was that he knew that there was much more work to do.

Not long after, Vaughan began to sense the depth of his side's peril. "Around the time he got to 150, I felt I could see a twinkle in his eye." Vaughan did not stand idly by and allow Lara to dominate. "Throughout his innings we tested him with a few things. We brought long-on up and he slapped it straight back over our heads. We tried 7-2 and 8-2 fields." The cricketing gods might have intervened when Lara was on 127, but they swiftly withdrew, realising their place. Lara nurdled one to third man from where Hoggard made a direct hit on the stumps as the batsmen scampered two. Lara made his ground by six inches, but on another day he might have slipped, or Hoggard, in the first grip of a nasty stomach bug running through the team, might have reacted more quickly still.

There was a bizarre interlude during the second session of the second day. Ramnaresh Sarwan, Lara's longtime partner, went without reaching his hundred. It brought in Ricardo Powell, a batsman who hitherto had been a one-day specialist. He had played 82 one-dayers and only one Test, five years earlier. The reason for the selectorial reluctance was clear. Powell was wafting at the ball like a dervish. When he was out, Lara shook his head quietly as they crossed.

It did not distract Lara from what was now his very deliberate course. Gareth Batty, the young off-spinner who never once shirked his responsibilities, changed ends. Lara instantly smashed him for six into the road, swept him for four and nudged a gentle single to bring himself to 200 in a hurry.

He was slightly more animated - but only slightly.

"As for when I first thought about it [the record], when I got to 200 I realised that there was a lot of the match left," Lara said. "It was still fresh and with the rate I was scoring at...." The 123rd over of the innings was perhaps the most serious examination of Lara's will. Harmison was fast and accurate, beating him twice and forcing him to hurry once. Lara finished the over, however, by pulling a four. For all Harmison's menace the sense of infallibility grew.

By now, even though he was 150 or so short, there were more than mutterings about what lay ahead. Lara clearly meant business and England were powerless, more or less, despite all that had happened previously in the series. But his real problem emerged when Ryan Hinds got out, chipping one back at poor Batty. It was suddenly possible that he would run out of partners.

Enter Ridley Jacobs. Time and again, he stole a single from the first ball of an over. It served the purpose of giving Lara the strike and irritating the hell out of the opposition. Lara reached 250 with two successive fours off Batty, but it was the off-spinner who almost caught him on 293. Lara stepped out and thumped a return drive which burst through Batty's hands. It went for four, Batty fell silently to his knees and held his head.

The triple hundred came on Sunday evening in 404 balls. It included two sixes and 27 fours. Lara went to bed on 313 not out. He played down his intended assault on the record. "It's nothing to rant and rave about," he said.

When he broke the record in 1994 Lara had been on 320 at the start of the third day. So there was seven runs' difference but the air of inevitability was exactly the same. A loud Englishman in a bar the previous night had posited the theory that he would be out in the first half hour but when asked precisely who was going to dismiss him shut up.

Lara began proceedings by pushing a single to cover and when the third new ball came he squeezed one past fourth slip for four. It was the height of English optimism for them to have a fourth slip. England largely employed negative tactics, giving him nothing to drive, bowling short, tempting him to hook. Lara was not for drawing.

He was hit on the shoulder and there was a desultory appeal but a little flurry of runs - a gloved single, two leg glances - took him past a host of greats in the 330s. There was one wild pull at Simon Jones but he was otherwise unmoved. When he was on 359, Harmison, Lara's nemesis this series, was warned off for running on the pitch. It was the last act of a true fast bowler who owed England nothing.

Vaughan brought himself into the attack again and Lara twice took to third man. He was accumulating no more.

"Throughout his innings he was so focused," said Vaughan. "He would suddenly have spurts and then settle down again." At 374, Lara was one short of his own 375 and six short of Hayden's 380. He had a spurt. He took two paces down the track and hit a six, his fourth, into the pavilion. Vaughan brought in a single saving field.

Lara swept for four. The record was his again.

The field was not quite the same as when he had first broken the record. But every England player shook his hand, as well as the newly-elected Prime Minister of Antigua, Baldwin Spencer. Presumably, having hosted a Test record innings so soon will win him yet more votes.

Nobody had ever gone to Test lunch on 390 before. Lara went unfussily to 399 and then swept Batty for a single. West Indies had 750. It was time to declare.

The Prime Minister of Trinidad rang him, Ernie Els, his golfing pal, rang him, Matthew Hayden rang him. His family rang him. "People will rejoice in the Caribbean," he said. "But I think it will be more appreciated if we can get a collective effort together. I think it will bring the team closer together [and] may bring the islands closer together. I hope this will provide the impetus to put West Indian cricket back where it belongs."

It may well be 773 minutes that changed the world. And Geraint Jones. He still awaits his first Test catch.