Roasted alive by King Richards long, h

Graeme Wright recalls the long, hot summer of '76 when England arrived at The Oval only to find a West Indies player in an even hotter streak of form
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The Independent Online
As the song said, those were the days, my friend. Endless summer days of sunshine, accompanied by water shortages and hosepipe bans. Bleached bare landscapes providing natural cover for sheep, and the cut-price pound keeping British holidaymakers on British beaches. Lightning-fast outfields and lightning-fast West Indian bowlers. It was the summer of '76, the driest since records began in 1727, and the living was anything but easy for England's cricketers. Plus ca change and all that, except for the differences.

This time England go to The Oval with the series level and with the opportunity to win the Wisden Trophy for the first time since 1969. In 1976 they went there two down in the series, and only pride to play for. Even that was blown away by the magnificent Michael Holding's 14 wickets on a dry, dusty featherbed of a pitch that should have been England's salvation.

It was always going to be a graveyard for the England bowlers, but that was a price worth paying after the bruising and battering of the earlier Tests. For while it was the summer of non-stop sunshine; it was also the summer of unremitting fast bowling by the West Indians. Rolled over by Australia the previous winter, they had steamrollered their way over England with a strategy that was not a game plan so much as a battle plan.

Almost two decades on, the names have changed but the West Indian game remains effectively the same. It seems almost inconceivable that there was a time, albeit 45 years back up the track, when West Indies won their first series in England by virtue of two spinners, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. At The Oval, where they clinched the rubber, Valentine took 10 wickets for the second time in the series, and if it had not been for Len Hutton their margin of victory would have been greater than an innings and 56 runs.

Hutton batted throughout the England first innings, carrying his bat for a chanceless 202. Against the wiles of Ramadhin and Valentine he took four and a quarter hours to reach three figures, but with his century came a freedom expressed in cover drives that blazed across an outfield less parched than The Oval will be tomorrow.

Not content with having spin, they also had rain in those days, and an overnight deluge, followed by a warming sun, left the uncovered pitch treacherous when Hutton resumed on the fourth morning with 160 against his name.

He had begun his innings on the second evening. Such conditions were not so much an examination of a batsman's technique and temperament as an inquisition. Hutton, rarely venturing out of his crease mastered it with the patience and discipline displayed by the queues that wound around the ground on Test match mornings. But with 10 runs needed to avoid the follow-on, he ran out of partners. Second time around, England managed only 103 and were beaten with a day to spare.

At the time Hutton's 364 against Australia at The Oval in 1938 was the highest innings in Test cricket, and tomorrow the current world record holder graces another England-West Indies Test at the famous ground. There the similarities end. It is not just that Brian Lara is left-handed and will wear a helmet where the right-handed Hutton wore a cap pulled firmly down over his forehead.

Hutton's batting, A G Moyes wrote of his world-record innings, "was a model of defensive morality". Milton (John, not Arthur) would have been comfortable with it. Not so with Lara's. His 375 against England in Antigua last year was the batting of a Crown Prince, not a Protector.

Not for Lara the patient wait for the loose ball that could be dispatched safely. Out of nothing but the sureness of his eye, the speed of his footwork and the confidence of his genius he conjures strokes or breathtaking audacity and enviable simplicity. The momentum with which his score mounts is as awesome as it is wonderful.

Lara comes to The Oval trailing behind him innings of 145 and 152 in the previous two Tests. After an uncertain start the runs are rolling ominously, rather as they were in 1976 for Viv Richards, whose place Lara has filled in the West Indies team. Lara made his debut in Pakistan in 1990 in Richards' absence and he did not play another Test until April, 1992, by which time Richards had retired.

If Lara had been touched with genius, Richards at The Oval on those August days of 1976 appeared to have been touched by the gods. Parnassus, not Port-of-Spain, had sent him forth to play with the mere mortals. He had already scored 232 and 135 against England that summer, but even more remarkably his 291 at The Oval was his seventh century in 10 Tests. It took his runs from his four Tests in the series to a record 829 - Lara has 586 so far in five Tests - and extended his total of runs in the calendar year to 1,710, still a record in Test cricket.

On the first two days of that final Test, with the gates closed on a capacity crowd, Richards was as remorselessly brilliant as the sun burning in the cloudless sky. So effortlessly did he whip the bowling over or through mid-wicket, so powerful were his cover drives, that Garry Sobers' record 365 looked as much for the taking as the England bowlers. Every shot in the book was at his disposal. But it was not to be. Lara, instead, claimed Sobers' crown, and the courtiers gathered round with their wheels and deals and mobile phones. He has become a superstar, but back in the summer of '76 Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was simply superlative.