Tony Cozier: Lara steps up to fight the dying of the light

Brian Lara yesterday chose a familiar course to show that widespread reports of his demise may be somewhat premature.

Dismissed for 5, 0, 1 and 1 from the 23 balls he received in his preceding four innings of the series against New Zealand, Test cricket's highest run-scorer and owner of most of the available batting records chose to move one place up the order to No 3 in the third and final match here.

It was a bold decision. West Indies were sent in on a pitch which was underprepared after three days of persistent rain that delayed the start by almost three hours and which was expected to favour New Zealand's seam and swing bowlers, who had embarrassed Lara in Auckland and Wellington. It was also a calculated move. He has not batted so high since he amassed his unbeaten record 400 in 2004, against England in Antigua, an innings which also followed a run of unusually low scores.

Three balls after he replaced Chris Gayle, caught at short extra-cover for 30 from a loose drive off Chris Martin, Lara was confronted by Shane Bond. New Zealand's high-class spearhead had removed Lara with the only ball he bowled to him in each innings of the First Test but had missed the Second with a virus.

It was a confrontation worthy of the attention of more than the few hundred spectators scattered around under dark skies. Bond aimed the first delivery at the leg stump, just as he did in Auckland, when Lara was bowled round his legs, but this time the left-hander was not quite as far across his stumps.

For the next hour and a quarter, Lara batted with increasing assurance and was unbeaten on 28 when fading light halted play after only 27.2 of the allocated 47 overs. It was just the start he needed to rediscover his touch.

Daren Ganga was 31 not out and the tourists has reached 95 for 1, an encouraging start to their quest to halt a sequence of eight consecutive Test defeats.

Lara was still short of his best and could not have complained had the South African umpire Ian Howell granted Nathan Astle's lbw appeal when he was 14. But his intensity was obvious, stirred by some adverse headlines. "Lara: Prince now the pauper", proclaimed the Dominion-Post after the Second Test. "Special powers desert ageing Lara," stated the New Zealand Herald.

Conjecture over whether it is the first sign that time is catching up with Lara has not been confined to the New Zealand media. He is just over a month away from his 37th birthday and is Test cricket's oldest current player. The manner of his dismissals, to Bond in the First Test and to the lesser lights of James Franklin and Astle in the Second, raised the doubts. Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand captain and premier batsman, cited a lack of preparation. At his own request, Lara has cut down on his one-day matches and only arrived in New Zealand a week before the First Test.

"New Zealand is one of the most difficult places for batsmen to get acclimatised to," Crowe said. "Even the greatest players, like Garry Sobers and Viv Richards, couldn't come to terms with conditions." Sobers' highest score in seven Tests in 1956 and 1969 was 39 and his average 13.10. Richards played only three Tests here, in 1987, with a best of 38. Lara's only hundred in five previous Tests here was 147 in Wellington in 1995, when West Indies amassed 660 for 5.

Two more innings remain for Lara to prove that Old Father Time has not yet caught up with him - if the weather allows.

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