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The Spin | ‘Impossible to bowl to’: Brian Lara’s record feats still stand out 30 years on
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The Spin | ‘Impossible to bowl to’: Brian Lara’s record feats still stand out 30 years on

St John’s Recreation Ground, Antigua. At 11.46am on 18 April 1994 – 30 years next week – Brian Lara pulls a Chris Lewis short ball to the legside boundary and cricketing history is written. Garfield Sobers’s record Test score of 365 runs had stood firm for 36 years, a “North Wall” of batsmanship seemingly insurmountable. That is until a 24-year-old Lara scaled and surpassed it in only his 16th Test.

The scenes and stories that followed have become indelible: the jubilant crowd spilling on to the pitch, Sir Garry strolling through them to anoint the new record holder and crown prince of West Indian batting, Lara kneeling to plant a kiss on the biscuit-coloured wicket. The off bail, unnoticed by all except the wicketkeeper, Jack Russell, resting just outside of its groove after Lara had grazed his own stumps while swatting Lewis away. “I remember the dilemma as if it was yesterday”, Russell recalls with a chuckle. “‘If it falls off I’m going to have to appeal, here.’ I don’t reckon I’d have made it off the island.”

The ball, remarkably, was also left untouched and ignored, resting by the advertising hoardings until play resumed some 20 minutes later. Aptly perhaps, as this moment was all about the dominance of the bat. The genius of Lara.

Lara seemed to arrive in Test cricket fully formed. In only his fifth Test he scored 277 against Australia in Sydney. His emphatic periscope backlift allowing him to hit the ball with the power of a trebuchet, he possessed Swiss-Clock timing and the seeming ability to hit the ball exactly where he wanted at will.

Mike Atherton, the England captain during the 375 innings in 1994, tells a story about taking slip out for the first time when Lara was on 291 only for Lara to edge the ball through the vacant area the very next ball. “He could quite conceivably have been taking the mickey … I wouldn’t know because the scale of his talent was way outside my understanding.”

Brian Lara sweeps during his epic knock at AntiguaView image in fullscreen

Angus Fraser and Chris Lewis bowled a collective 76 overs at Lara during the innings; they agree with Atherton, each explaining that Lara was a nightmare to bowl to because he could hit a carbon copy delivery to seemingly any area of the ground that he so desired. Fraser – his trusty flannel tucked into the back of his trousers giving him the air of a harried waiter at the best of times during bustling and lengthy spells for England – says bowling to Lara was an altogether new level of frustration. “His level was unfathomable” he remembers, “just impossible to bowl at and he could make you look a fool.”

The 375 innings changed Lara’s life. Increased attention and riches duly followed. He was gifted a prime plot of land by the Trinidadian government to build a house. Amusingly, Fraser remembers that four years later Lara invited the touring England side up to the awe-inspiring property for a drink and a tour.

The nomenclature of the rooms raised an eyebrow. “As we walked through it he pointed out the rooms, ‘This is the Tufnell Suite, this is the Fraser Wing, these are the Lewis kitchens and this is the Caddick lounge.’ He’d named areas of his house after the England bowlers who had ‘allowed’ him to earn the money to build such a beautiful place.”

As well as fame and fortune, something even more intangible followed the 375 knock: form. The next day after the completion of the match in Antigua, Lara was flown to England where he signed a £40,000 contract to play for Warwickshire. It was a sum a modern player could make while blinking in the Indian Premier League but a huge fee at the time. Lara didn’t disappoint. What followed was a wellspring of runs, a purple patch of batting that remains one of the greatest the game has ever witnessed.

Take a deep breath. On 29 April, in his first innings after Antigua, Lara hit 147 runs from 160 balls against Glamorgan. The following week he scored 106 and 120 not out against Leicestershire. Next up, 136 off 72 balls against Somerset. Lara had now made five hundreds in five innings – only Don Bradman, CB Fry and Mike Procter had made six in six. It seemed fated Lara would join and then surpass them to stand apart.

Middlesex’s Richard Johnson had other ideas. He dismissed Lara for 26. “I’d love to say it was part of a plan, in truth we had no plans at all for Brian, how could you?” laughs Johnson, now head coach at the county. The former seamer was only 19 at the time, with only a handful of first-class games under his belt. What of the delivery? The one that stopped Lara in his century-making tracks?

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“It isn’t that glamorous I’m afraid to say! It was a legside strangle … he somehow nudged me behind and was caught. I’d love to say I nicked him off, that it was a great piece of bowling, but it wasn’t.”

Brian Lara, wearing his Warwickshire kit, poses in front of a scoreboard showing his record Test score of 375 in the museum at Lord’s.View image in fullscreen

Johnson’s abiding memory is of the circus that surrounded Lara at the time, “The following day The Sun’s back page had a picture of me and Lara with the headline ‘Tricky Dicky Makes Lara Sicky’. My mum’s got that one framed somewhere.”

Johnson’s wicket made Lara mortal but it was only a blip. In a way it made what happened next all the more remarkable. Lara scored 140 in the second innings against Middlesex and then headed back to Edgbaston to play against Durham.

Four days later he had scored 501 not out. In less than eight weeks Brian Lara had the highest score in both Test and first-class cricket. Thirty years on, he still does.

Source: theguardian.com