Lashings of Lara

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The Independent Online
IN MANY ways, even without Brian Lara's sumptuous century this has already been an extraordinary Test match. England, have had two first- innings centurions; the West Indies are playing a leg-spinner; and at least one opening batsman in each side has scored at a rate of less than 13 runs per hour. Lara's scintillating 152 - his second hundred of the series - though by far the most inspiring moment of this match, was perhaps the least surprising.

We have come to expect so much from Lara that even before his century during the last Test at Old Trafford there was talk of him being burnt out. His runs had dried up as deals stimulated by his fame flooded in. Natural talent lacking the supporting corset of self-discipline will inevitably falter occasionally.

Lara's talent may have been obscured momentarily but it did not desert him and England felt the full force of its backlash yesterday as he passed 500 runs for the series. Despite his sweet carnage, the West Indies still ended the day on 334 for five, some 106 runs in arrears.

Arriving at the fall of Stuart Williams' wicket, Lara immediately upped the funereal tempo of the innings with two consecutive off-side fours, off Richard Illingworth, that clattered into the same boundary board. Both were played with such control that one wondered if the hoarding carried the name of one of his sponsors and that he had aimed them there deliberately.

Those boundaries meant it had taken Lara only 12 balls to draw level on 16 with Sherwin Campbell, who had been at the crease for 182 minutes and had faced 128 balls more than the Trinidadian. Campbell is having a good series, but the sluggish pitch, although it is a similar shade of beige to that at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, was not to his liking. But for a badly missed stumping by Jack Russell off Illingworth, Campbell should have been put out of his misery soon after making double figures.

Nevertheless he played the perfect foil to Lara as the left-hander went about dismantling England's theories on his perceived weaknesses. Angus Fraser, who had to wait until after lunch for his first bowl of the day, was treated harshly. Starting off with a limb-loosening maiden to Campbell, his next two overs were savaged for 21 runs as Lara cut him for five boundaries in the arc between cover point and third man.

Michael Atherton, the England captain, claims his side have spent long hours discussing where to best bowl at Lara. As Plan A seems to be, by consensus, "as straight as possible", it came as some surprise to see the seam bowlers in particular intent on giving him the width on which he thrives.

Even Dominic Cork, who has tested him more thoroughly than most in this series, was guilty of the same, and when Craig White arrived for his customary short spell - four overs costing 29 runs - a flurry of fours suggested that England were by now on a plan named after a latter letter of the alphabet. Lara went past a hundred for the second time in the series- off only 118 balls - scoring fours.

Such dominance can prove frustrating for the fielding captain and even when England tried to defend, Lara's ability to alter the power-precision ratio of his shot made the careful deep field settings virtually superfluous. Only an over-the-wicket spell into the rough, by Illingworth - whose spell of 27 consecutive overs was broken only by the lunch break - managed to slow the frenetic boundary count.

Despite a broken finger, albeit on his right hand, Illingworth managed to get the odd ball to turn and bounce. Apart from the missed stumping, Illingworth fully deserved the wicket of Williams, who was caught by Atherton at mid-off for 62 having failed to get his feet to the pitch of a ball he tried to drive.

If the morning had proved fallow for England, the session until tea proved just as difficult as England had to wait another 140 runs for their next success. This time it was Mike Watkinson, bowling his off-breaks from the Radcliffe Road End, who made the breakthrough when he had Campbell caught by John Crawley close in on the off-side.

As if to compensate for Campbell's turgid stay, Richie Richardson, sensing it was time to attack, fairly launched himself at the bowling. Employing his scything drive to lethal effect, he even made Lara take a back seat as the West Indies skipper contributed 38 to a rapid 50 partnership.

But just as his side were about to threaten England's pole position in the match, he guided a shortish ball from Illingworth that turned straight to Graeme Hick at slip. At that point, the West Indies who were 273 for three, began to slow things down, no doubt looking to start with as many wickets in hand as possible today.

With the bowlers clearly tiring, it proved to be a mistake, and they lost both Keith Arthurton - bowled leaving a ball from Illingworth that turned sharply out of the left-hander's rough - as well as Lara just before the close. Once again it was Cork who removed the Trinidadian, well taken by Russell, as he gloved a last-ditch bouncer from the opening bowler.

It was a vital wicket, as Cork's rabid delight showed. Earlier in the day Ladbrokes had quoted a West Indies win at 25-1, but half an hour of Lara had persuaded them to reduce the odds. At lunch they had fallen to 8-1. With his dismissal, normality was reinstated and with it the probability of a draw.