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The Lara Miracle

May 1999.

Brian Lara has played one of the greatest innings in the history of the game. Certainly his match-winning and mouth-watering 153 not out at Kensington Oval was the best innings of its type it has been my privilege to watch.

Perhaps it was the best of any sort.

Throughout a long, hot fifth day, played in a frenzied atmosphere against fierce opponents and before a packed and expectant crowd, the Trinidadian kept his head and his wicket. He showed impeccable judgement and remarkable calm as he took his team to a famous victory in the most exciting and draining Test match I’ve seen.

Lara finished unbeaten on 153.

Cricketer Brian Lara

Brian Lara batting for West Indies against India at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados. © Ukexpat [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Lara’s efforts surpassed his magnificent 213 in Sabina Park since this time the Australians were on their toes – besides which it was a fifth-day pitch and there was a match to win. Arguably that innings in Jamaica was set a little too high because the bowling was patchy, the pitch friendly and circumstances less intense. Lara’s latest effort also outstripped his 277 in Sydney, a scintillating innings that seemed to mark the arrival of a phenomenon but an innings that otherwise had little consequence as the match petered out.

This time the game was afoot. The West Indians had been in dreadful trouble at 98 for 6 as they chased Australia’s 4990. A fortnight earlier they had been bowled out for 51, and a few months before they’d been beaten 5-0 in South Africa. By turning all of these things upon their head Lara re-asserted himself as a man. It was the innings of a truly great batsman and of a leader who had put aside his youthful yearnings and taken up his responsibilities as captain.

Of course, Lara did not work alone. Even in defeat in Trinidad a re-invigorated spirit could be detected in his side. Solid men had been found, old lags like Sherwin Campbell and Jimmy Adams, and fresh faces like Nehemiah Perry and Ridley Jacobs. Nor could the unity of the team be missed and credit must be given to Dr Rudi Webster, not so much a psychologist as a cheerful mentor who has helped to restore happiness in the team by encouraging players to reach towards the better parts of themselves.

Lara tore into the spinners, thrashing them to leg or else through the covers.

Even the public had responded by singing the anthem, Rally Round The West Indies, and by wearing red and white on the opening day. Everyone was fed up with losing. Patently South Africa was the low point. People cared too much to allow it to continue. The greatness that lies within was tapped and the most gifted cricketer of them all responded.

From the start of that nerve-jangling last day Lara took charge of the match. He set himself out to conquer his opponents. Mindful of defeats and controversial dismissals, he had been waiting to beat the Australians for a long time. Now he put himself to it with batting that combined composure and brilliance. Lara played late cuts of remarkable delicacy and force, pulls that almost broke the boundary boards, sumptuous off-drives and even a one-handed sweep. Between times he defended carefully, especially against the fast bowlers whose efforts were unflagging.
Once the pacemen rested, though, Lara tore into the spinners, thrashing them to leg or else through the covers. All too soon the imbalance of the Australian attack was made plain. Nor could the decline of Shane Warne be hidden.

Those last few minutes were agonising because Lara was exhausted and the impossible was within range

Lara’s assault continued until a bare handful of runs were needed. All he required was a little help from his friends and it came from Jimmy Adams and Curtly Ambrose. At the end Courtney Walsh lent a hand, somehow keeping out a yorker and his captain to greater heights. But those last few minutes were agonising because Lara was exhausted and the impossible was within range. He fidgeted, flirted and flashed, he edged and escaped and could hardly lift his bat. Suddenly a no-ball and a wide came along and the scores were level whereupon Lara lashed another cover-drive and raised his bat in celebration as colleagues and supports rushed pell-mell from the stands.

It had been a magnificent effort and it’s hard to recall a better innings or a more stirring match. It was a game dominated by its great players, Waugh, McGrath, Walsh and Lara. That Steve Waugh scored 199 and Glenn McGrath took nine wickets in the match and bowled 44 overs on the last day, and still finished on the losing side, shows the magnitude of their efforts and the weaknesses uncovered in their team. Sadly, Ian Healy and Warne, previous pillars of strength, are struggling to recapture their former glories. But Ricky Ponting and Sherwin Campbell played the innings of their lives and better days lie ahead for them.

Nonetheless this match belonged to one man and his team, Lara took us all on a journey, a voyage that became a statement of his own maturity and exceptional ability. Few batsmen in the game’s history could have summoned such an innings at such a time. IT was an extraordinary day. People who have ignored each other for years ended up as bosom pals. Pettiness was put aside. Lara had transcended all of that.
Afterwards thousands of spectators stood around the pavilion to voice their happiness and support. The match wasn’t supposed to be seen on local television but at noon the Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, issued a decree permitting coverage. Spectators and viewers saw a wonderful match played on a superb pitch. The umpiring, too, was imperturbable and impeccable. If this does not bring West Indian youngsters back to the game, nothing will. Not that cricket in the West Indies seems in serious trouble. The obituaries have been written a little too early.

Lara has turned away from the self-indulgence of recent years and proved himself as a captain and as a batsman. If he can continue working in this way for the next few years he will be respected and fondly remembered. He will not always score runs and West Indies will not always win, but this series has been his coming of age, as a brilliant and apparently forsaken talent finally found glorious expression.

This article was originally published in The Cricketer in May 1999.
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