Rewind – When Lara ruled the world, again

Six months after losing his world record, The Prince of Port-of-Spain was back leading redemption over England to the small tune of 400 not out.

Photo credit: AFP
Photo credit: AFP

When Brian Lara broke Sir Garfield Sobers 36-year-old world record Test score in 1994, he achieved something all of us could only ever dream of. When he regained his own record ten years later, he achieved greatness.

It was the Easter weekend of 2004; War-torn Iraq was implicated in more conflict as it marked the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s fall as president, Nepal witnessed protestors lining the streets of Kathmandu pleading against the suspension of democracy and Phil Mickelson celebrated victory in the 68th Golf Masters at Augusta.

Meanwhile over in Antigua, Brian Charles Lara, a month shy of his 35th birthday, was once again being hailed as the saviour of West Indies cricket. Maybe it was fate. How else can you explain the freaky circumstances in which he regained the world record Test score? It was ten years to the week since he first achieved the feat, at the same ground and against the same opposition.

Much had changed in West Indian cricket since Lara made 375 in 1994. They entered that series a domineering presence under the guidance of Richie Richardson, however just a year down the line they began a steady decline towards the lower reaches of the cricketing hierarchy, which was now dominated by the Australians.

Revisiting a young Lara back in 1994 and it was already abundantly clear that here was a batsman destine for great things. Already four years into his international career, he was certainly no stranger to big scores. His maiden Test hundred, in early 1993, was a monumental 277 against a strong Australian attack in Sydney and his appetite for batting long and scoring heavily was already evident among those in the game.

This was eminently underlined during his epic 538-ball knock in Antigua, an innings that was compiled against a solid English attack including; Angus Fraser, Andrew Caddick, Chris Lewis and Phil Tufnell. It shot the talented Trinidadian to instant international recognition and fame, and just two months later he followed it up with another record marathon innings.

Batting for county side Warwickshire against Durham at Edgbaston, he belted an unbeaten 501. Twenty years on and Lara still remains the only player to pass 500 in the history of first-class cricket. An individual innings of half a thousand runs still defies belief, even in a day and age when batting usually tips the balance of fairness in the sport.

Lara’s highest Test score record of 375 would go on to last for 3,464 days before it was eventually broken by Australian Matthew Hayden. The powerful Queenslander contrived a brutal 380 against a weak Zimbabwean attack at Perth in October 2003.

The 2004 Brian Lara vintage was a markedly different proposition to the model of 1994. The classy southpaw had endured a decade of West Indian decline that was intertwined with board interferences, heavy expectation and several difficult stints as team captain and spokesman.

In early 2004, they came up against a quickly improving English outfit. Under the relatively new stewardship of Michael Vaughan, the English were at the start of their 18-month ascendency towards the top table of Test cricket.

After three heavy defeats in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, West Indies cricket was in complete chaos. Never had the Windies been whitewashed by the mother country, however this was now a realistic proposition heading into the fourth and final Test in Antigua. Furthermore it coincided with Lara being in the midst of a rare barren patch, with his six previous innings yielding just a combined 100 runs.

Stephen Harmison had the wood over Lara and the West Indians. His 7-12 had destroyed the home side for just 47 at Kingston, and he returned to contribute heavily to English success in Port-of-Spain, this time dismissing Lara for two single figure scores. While the West Indies captain improved his form at Bridgetown, hitting a pair of gutsy 30’s, he was still looking a far cry from the fluent strokemaker we had become to expect.

But that was all to change at the Antigua Recreation Ground. Lara would be no Easter bunny for Harmison and co on this occasion. Instead he would unfurl misery on a tired English attack and send the streets of the Antiguan capital into utter jubilation. In the process he became the first man to pass 400 in 127 years of Test cricket history.

***

Good Friday April 10th 2004 – Antigua Recreation Ground, St. Johns, Antigua

Brian Lara strolls out to bat at the fall of the first wicket as opener Darren Ganga is dismissed an hour into the fourth and final Test of the series with the score on 33.

He looks calm and determined, as if to say: “Today is gonna be my day!”

Greeting The Prince to the crease is his nemesis Harmison.

The wicket looks as flat as a pancake, typically with the Recreation Ground of late; England needs to strike while the ball is still hard and newish.

After an early optimistic LBW shout from Harmison, he has Lara nicking off fourth-ball. Or so he thought. So convinced is Harmison that the batsman has feathered through to the keeper, he doesn’t even turn around to check Darrell Hair’s finger go up before celebrating.

Hair, an umpire who would go on to surround himself with controversy in later years, is having none of it and duly rebuffs the bowler’s pleas.

Lara turns away and looks suspiciously back at a despondent Harmison and England’s chances of a second dismissal have disappeared.

Typically with such passages of play, the very next ball is put away through backward point. Lara is away with his first boundary.

He begins toying with the English bowlers, regularly cutting them to the vacant third man boundary before and after a rain delay scuppers the start of the second session until just after 4pm.

A fierce cut shot is slashed through the covers as Lara begins to show more authority in moving through the 30’s

He canters to a half century just moments later with a crushing pull through midwicket from his 61st delivery. Simon Jones is the bowler taking the punishment on this occasion.

As the twilight closes in on the picturesque Caribbean venue, play is abandoned for the first day with a relieved Lara trudging off with 86 unbeaten runs to his name.

 

Saturday April 11th 2004

A healthy crowd gathers into the ground as Lara begins day two greeting Matthew Hoggard with a dreamy off drive down the ground. One ball in and Lara moves into the 90’s.

He moves along to 98, bisecting midwicket with a clip off Hoggard and a 25th Test hundred follows shortly with a couple into the offside against the same bowler. Lara raises the bat with a brief smile – but you can tell he’s not nearly satisfied with just a hundred.

One hundred runs in and already comparisons are being made amongst the commentators of Lara’s previous record on this ground; there is a resounding sense that something special is once again unfolding.

With Lara on 127, this notion is briefly forgotten as Hoggard fires in a direct hit from the deep. For a moment it looks as though his innings will be cut short. Lara doesn’t show the mannerisms of a worried man, but direct hits are often closer than they first appear to the batsman…

Turns out he was in by an inch, maybe two inches.

Another Hoggard throw, this time much more wayward, brings Lara a bonus five runs and the two-hundred-run partnership is soon brought up between himself and Ramnaresh Sarwan, its shortly followed by 150 for the skipper.

Like the first ball of the morning, Lara starts the afternoon session by dispatching Hoggard to the fence, this time through point.

His first six of the innings is a supremely timed straight hit down the ground off spinner Gareth Batty. It was vintage Lara, all majestic high back lift and whistle clean follow-through – it pushes him into the 190’s.

Just two balls later and Lara is leaping for joy as a clip into the legside takes him past two hundred for the seventh time. This one comes off just 260 deliveries.

With England now a bowler short after a stomach bug struck down Hoggard; they are forced into using the military medium bowling of Marcus Trescothick, alongside the even friendlier offerings of captain Vaughan’s offspin.

Flat-pitch, dead rubber and a bowler light – if ever there were at time to make hay as a batsman, it was now.

And Lara duly delivers by blazing his second maximum – a near on replica of his previous effort against Batty.

The procession continues as he begins to sweep everything the spinners have to offer into submission. At one stage he his strike rate is over 150.0 while playing such strokes.

Two hundred and fifty comes and goes, with Batty bearing the brunt of the carnage once again. This time Lara shimmies down the track before backing away to leg and driving inside out over the covers.

He takes 12 off an Andrew Flintoff over including consecutive boundaries, the first a pull in front of square and the second a textbook square drive. Three hundred approaches.

Just seven runs shy, Lara blasts a fierce one through the fingertips of Batty. To call it a chance would be to shameful. It was simply too fierce.

A quick single brings 299. The great Martin Crowe once made 299, so did Sir Donald Bradman. Crowe never made a triple hundred. Bradman made two.

Lara makes sure he joins The Don; a second triple century is secured. Another single brings the elation. It takes him just 404 balls.

He celebrates a third hundred with a third six to finish the day – Vaughan the unfortunate soul this time around. 313 not out.

Photo Credit: AFP
Photo Credit: AFP

Easter Sunday April 12th 2004

An electric buzz enriches the ARG on this fine Sunday morning. Anticipation is high and the excitement is one of a nervous kind.

The 330’s are an intriguing beast in cricket.

Hanif Mohammad, Walter Hammond, Mark Taylor, Graham Gooch, Chris Gayle and Bradman – are all names who have never gone on beyond the 330’s. Perhaps there is a curse.

As Lara reaches the 330’s on this occasion he is greeted with a bouncer brigade from Harmison armed with the third new cherry.

As he breaks through the curse of the 330’s, he now has his sights set on 350. This is achieved 494 balls and 681 minutes into his innings with a couple through the onside.

The atmosphere begins to anticipate further. The locals can touch the tumbling records. Sir Leonard Hutton’s 364 is next in his sights. The field now has an ODI feel to it, there are ones and twos aplenty.

He goes past Sobers again, and then toys with Vaughan’s mind and the field once more.

Now the nerves begin to set in. On any other given day, he could well have nicked Batty to the keeper, on this day he missed it by a whisker.

It must then have been simply nervous energy/tension when he launches Batty downtown for a fourth six – 380 not out. He equals Hayden’s record.

A sweep, a beautiful sweep down to the fine leg boundary and HE’S DONE IT. Brian Charles Lara has retained his world record highest Test score.

The ARG erupts. Lara is greeted on the field by the great Sir Vivian Richards and Antiguan Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.

He fist bumps with partner Ridley Jacobs, but this isn’t over, he wants 400.

England’s bowlers are understandably spent by now. Harmison is forced out of the attack after repeatedly running on the pitch, while Hoggard is back at the team hotel trying to convince the doctors he’s still unwell.

It is quite fitting in a way when Lara finally brings up his 400th run with another well timed sweep off the unfortunate Batty.

Five hundred and eighty two balls later and Brian Lara is 400 not out.

***

What happened next?

  • Upon reaching 400, Lara duly declared the innings in a bid get the game moving along, but despite following on, England clung on for a draw to win the series 3-0.
  • Lara received criticism from some quarters, including Australian captain Ricky Ponting – who claimed he was selfish in batting too long instead of pursuing victory for his side.
  • Lara would go on to play international cricket for another three years before he retired from all formats after he captained the WI during a home World Cup in early 2007.
  • His record of the highest Test score is still intact, with Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene since coming the closest to breaking it with 374 against South Africa in 2006.

Disappointment for fringe players as Bangladesh tour postponed

Tour cancelled due to security concerns, leaving the newcomers to wait a little longer for an opportunity.  

banglasedsh

It was being billed as the start of a new era in Australian cricket. The Ashes were gone, but not all was lost as new skipper Steven Smith was given an almost-blank canvas in which to begin his reign. However, in the end safety concerns put pay to the tour of Bangladesh, with the questions still far outweighing the answers.

The wait for a new beginning in the Australian Test setup will have to wait a little longer. Their next fixture isn’t until the start of November – when they host the first of three Tests against a strong-looking New Zealand outfit at the Gabba in Brisbane. Nevertheless a lot can happen in cricket in the space of a month – Could there be mass changes when the squad for that series is announced in a couple of weeks?

Other questions remain too. Where do people like Cameron Bancroft and Andrew Fekete now stand within the setup with the likes of David Warner, Josh Hazelwood and Mitchell Johnson due back into the side against the Kiwi’s?

Bancroft, it seemed, was vying for an opening berth alongside the more experienced pair of Shaun Marsh and Joe Burns. While Warner’s broken thumb was to rule him out of contention for the Bangladesh tour – meaning two new openers were to be found to fill the void left by Warner and the newly-retired Chris Rogers. Now when Warner, if as expected, regains full heath for the New Zealand series – only one other opening spot will be vacant.

While it’s hard to guess which of the three mentioned above is ahead in the selector’s mind, one suspects that Joe Burns could be given first refusal after he was chosen to open the batting in the recent ODI series in England. Burns performed admirably in his two Tests against India last summer and was unfortunate to be excluded from the winter tours to the Caribbean and the United Kingdom, and now could be his chance to solidify his place in the side. A lot could now also depend on how each batsman performs in the upcoming Matador Cup.

The selection of Melbourne-born Fekete for the Bangladesh series surprised many. The 30-year-old has only played two summers of first-class cricket in his short career with Tasmania and his subcontinental inclusion somewhat echoes that of the horses-for-courses selection of New South Wales’ seamer Trent Copeland for Michael Clarke’s first tour in charge in Sri Lanka four years ago. Copeland played three matches on that tour and was never seen in a Baggy Green again.

Will Andrew Fekete get another opportunity to make his Test debut?
Will Andrew Fekete get another opportunity to make his Test debut?

Fekete isn’t a bad bowler of course. He was the leading quick in last season’s Sheffield Shield campaign where he took 34 wickets at 24, and his versatility and ability to find reverse-swing on dry pitches impressed the selectors during the recent A tour of India enough to warrant his inclusion for Bangladesh. That all being said, it seems unlikely, with other younger and faster options available, that he will be in the squad for the first Test of the summer at the Gabba.

The postponement of the tour is also disappointing for the likes of batsman Adam Voges and wicketkeeper Peter Nevill. With Warner out injured, Voges was appointed vice-captain for the tour, and due to turn 36 in the next few days, he will know that his opportunities to lay stake to a regular berth in Australia’s middle order aren’t going to last forever.

Nevill’s case is different, unlike Voges he has more time on his side. The 29-year-old made a solid if not spectacular start to his international career after replacing Brad Haddin one match into the Ashes series and would therefore have looked at the Bangladesh series as one where he could really nail down his spot in the side with Matthew Wade hot upon his heels after an impressive showing in the ODI series that preceded the Ashes.

On a whole the series would have been a great opportunity for a young and regenerating Australian side to test themselves against a fast improving Bangladeshi outfit in difficult conditions, but in the end common sense had to prevail with the safety of players and support staff taking precedence.

The wait will have to continue a little longer.

Australia set to miss Rogers/Warner association

Investec Ashes 2015

Both Warner and his country will feel Rogers’ retirement.

As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, for Australia and David Warner, the same could be said of the brief, but successful Test career of Christopher John Llewellyn Rogers.

“Bull” and “Bucky” have enjoyed a fruitful two-year opening partnership together for Australia.

On the first day at The Oval, a day when Test cricket returned to its former self, wickets were earned and the run rate hovered at under four-an-over again, Australia were reminded what they will miss when opener Rogers calls it a day upon the conclusion of this match.

The 37-year-old only made 43, just one run higher than his Test average, but it was a typical Rogers innings, made alongside his opening partner of two years Warner, that laid the bedrock of the Australian batting effort after two first innings capitulations at both Edgbaston and Trent Bridge.

While much has been made of Captain Michael Clarke’s decision to retire at the end of this match, Rogers’ own retirement has gone somewhat under the radar – much like his career as a whole, but one man who will surely miss “Bucky” when he is retired is Warner.

The hole left by the veteran left-hander will be a significant one for Warner. Alongside Rogers, he has enjoyed the most prolific batting form of his career. His career was beginning to spiral out of control after he was suspended for an altercation with Joe Root in a Birmingham bar before the adjacent Ashes tour two years ago before he found a perfect ally at the top of the order. His first association with Rogers started later on that same tour as the pair recorded their first hundred stand together in a narrow defeat at Chester-le-Street.

The impact that Rogers has had on his younger partner’s game has been substantial. Since opening alongside Rogers, Warner’s batting average has increased from 38 to the 46 it is currently. But it’s not just the numbers that mean everything in this alliance. Warner’s stint alongside Rogers has coincided with a greater maturity in not just his game but also in his general life.

Warner was named as Steve Smith’s new Test deputy this week as a sign of his greater maturity and understanding of the game in the past year. While much of that greater maturity and responsibility in his game has stemmed from his new calmer lifestyle – coinciding with his marriage and the birth of his first child, some credit must also go to Rogers, who has been a calming influence from 22-yards for the past two years.

In a fairly brief but plentiful affair, the pair has added 2053 runs together in 41 innings, spanning across Africa, Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom, all at an average partnership of 51.32. Sitting alongside Bill Lawry/Bob Simpson, only Matthew Hayden/Justin Langer (14) and Michael Slater/Mark Taylor (10) have tallied more than their nine century opening partnerships for Australia.

Since they came together, their 2053 runs in unison for the opening partnership is miles ahead of the next best pair among their contemporises with Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva second best, having combined for 944 runs with just two hundred stands.

While Australia’s batting has on average been hugely disappointing this series, effectively losing them the third and fourth Tests, if it not for the Rogers/Warner association at the top of the order then it could have been even worse. The pair has contributed 514 runs together at an average of 62.77 – This stacks up favourably against England’s problems at the top of the order, where Alastair Cook and Adam Lyth’s opening partnership has added just 128 runs at 16.

The left-handed pair walk out ,for what could be the final time together, during The Oval Test.
The left-handed pair walk out, for what could be the final time together, during The Oval Test.

Although they are diverse figures, with personalities that could not be much different – Rogers enjoys crosswords and Warner more confrontation – their contrasting batting styles have been married successfully. Rogers is a blocker, who in general likes to nudge and nurdle the ball around for ones and twos, while occasionally branching out with boundaries through the off side when set. His fellow comrade Warner is a man brought up through the T20 era of heavy bats and big muscles – a “see-ball-hit-ball” opener in the mould of Virender Sehwag.

The fascinating part of their relationship though is their different personalities. Never huge ones to socialise much away from the field as Hayden and Langer famously did on many occasions, there has been wide of the mark media talk during this series that the pair don’t particularly get along away from the middle. Such talk was soon shot down by Warner as he posted a picture of the two together on his Instagram account.

Nevertheless, Rogers has stuck to his guns by announcing his widely expected retirement at the conclusion of this series, which leaves the Australian selectors with an opening post to fill before their series with Bangladesh in October. Suggestions are that Joe Burns will be given the first opportunity to stake claim to the opening spot vacated by Rogers.

The 25-year-old, from Queensland, has been given the nod, ahead of Usman Khawaja, to open alongside Warner in the ODI series that follows the Ashes and will see the opportunity as a opening to secure his place in the Test side. Another candidate is Western Australia’s Cameron Bancroft. A young opener in the Langer and Rogers mould, Bancroft has had success on the recent A tour of India and could be given a run in the side as Australia’s batting overhaul is set to continue.

But before all that can begin, Australia will look to cherish the careers of both Clarke and Rogers with a victory at The Oval as they look to finish a series of farewells on a positive note.

For Rogers, originally brought into the side as a short term stop gap with experience in English conditions, he can be quietly satisfied with his two-year 25 Test career, in which he has amassed 2006 runs at an average of 42.87 – Australia and Warner will be sad to see him go.

Ajmal absence makes Australia favourites

Just a day after announcing their limited overs and Test squads for the upcoming tour of the UAE, the Australian’s received the best possible news.

Ajmal's career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.
Ajmal’s career is now in serious jeopardy after his bowling action is deemed illegal.

Pakistani mystery spinner Saeed Ajmal has been given an indefinite bowling ban by the ICC.

The 36-year-old had been ordered to the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane for expert tests after his action was deemed to be illegal for all of his repertoire of deliveries. He was reported by umpires Ian Gould and Bruce Oxenford during the first of his side’s two Tests in Sri Lanka last month.

The news of course comes as a massive blow to Pakistan. Ajmal has been the world’s leading wicket taker across formats in the last three years and is the spearhead to his side’s commonly spin orientated attack.

Although the PCB could have appealed the decision to the ICC straight away, it could have risked inducing a longer ban on Ajmal in the long run. Instead the spinner is set to begin work with former Pakistan favourite Saqlain Mushtaq next week in an attempt to rectify his action with a hopeful timescale of 3-6 weeks being muted.

With such a timescale being indeed optimistic for a full renovation of a bowling action and with Ajmal having to go through a thorough re-assessment process after modifying his bowling – It is now certain he will still miss the entire Australian programme, which starts in less than a month’s time and includes a T20I, three ODI’s and two Test matches.

For Australia the news must come as a huge boost. It is no secret that the current set of players, Michael Clarke and Steve Smith aside, have regularly struggled against slow bowling in helpful spin conditions and the absence of Ajmal will ease many a heart rate in the camp.

Although Pakistan still have solid spin options in fellow veterans Abdur Rehman, 34, Mohammad Hafeez, 33, Zulfiqar Babar, 35, Atif Maqbool, 32 and Adnan Rasool, 33, it was Ajmal, the current No. 1 ranked ODI bowler and a man also inside the top ten ICC rankings in both T20I’s and Tests, who was deemed their most potent weapon.

Without their key weapon to lead the line, Pakistan must now be looked at as very much outsiders especially in the two Test series. Apart from the five veteran candidates named above it remains to be seen who they will draft in to replace the mystery and nous of Ajmal – who has 67 Test wickets over 12 matches in the UAE.

The likes of 22-year-old left-armer Raza Hasan have been touted as the next spin sensation, but despite bursting onto the scene with impressive first-class and T20I form two years ago, injuries have taken there toll and he remains on the outside looking in.

The current Australian outfit have had a retched time against quality spin bowling on turning surfaces in recent times and their last Test tour of the subcontinent ended up in complete shambles with a 0-4 whitewash to the Indians 18 months ago.

The general theme of that series was the complete inept that the Australian’s played the trio of Indian spinners Ravindra Jadeja, Pragyan Ojha and Ravi Ashwin with. The tour famously ended with an injured Australian captain, three players being suspended for not doing their homework and it was also the beginning of the end for then coach Micky Arthur.

Such a low ebb of course brought about change and the appointment of Darren Lehmann has brought about a change in mentality and an improvement of team sprint and on field success. Despite all of this and the fact that Lehmann was such an aggressive and productive player of spin bowling in his own playing career, his sides struggles against the turning ball still remain.

Australia's batsmen stumbled against the spin of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.
Australia’s batsmen stumbled against the spin attack of Zimbabwe in their recent 3-wicket loss in Harare.

This was most recently highlighted in Harare last month – where the side were restricted to a total of 9-209 in an eventual 3-wicket ODI defeat to Zimbabwe.

The bowling quartet on that occasion wasn’t the likes of Ajmal or Ashwin it was the lesser known names of John Nyumbu, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller who each had the Australians in a stranglehold. They would go on to bowl 36 of the allotted 50 overs and claim impressive match figures of 36-3-117-6.

It was unsurprising that Clarke (68no) was the only player to truly get to grips with the Zimbabwean attack before he limped off with a troubled hamstring. Post match the captain was annoyed at the selectors decision to omit Smith for the starting XI that day and said that they had got the decision undoubtably wrong.

Clarke’s hamstring remains a problem, especially after a long haul flight, but he is set to arrive early ahead of the ODI and Test series in the UAE to allow himself extra time to recover.

One area in which CA have sought to improve their handling of spin bowling for the tour of the UAE is the hiring of former Sri Lankan off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan as a coaching consultant. Murali will not only be used as a net bowler and brain to the batsmen but also as a bowling mentor to Nathan Lyon and the freshly called up New South Wales left armer Steve O’Keefe.

O’Keefe’s call up is a deserved one. The 29-year-old topped the Sheffield Shield bowling charts last season with 41 wickets at just 20.43 and has been the leading spinner in the competition for the past two years during a career that has brought him 128 victims at 24.72.

Elsewhere, Clarke has been given a 15-man squad for the two-Test series, which seems to have all based covered. Alongside the spin duo of Lyon and O’Keefe the party includes all rounders Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh – who have both impressed in ODI and first-class cricket in the recent past.

So with a settled Australian side coming into the series on the back of series wins over England and South Africa, it’s hard to look beyond the baggy green’s against an unpredictable Ajmal-less Pakistan outfit.