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Lara, Sydney and a modern masterpiece

31 December 2017
Our voices

The Prince of Trinidad recounts his maiden Test hundred, widely considered one of the great innings of the past few decades

About the Writer:
 @ARamseyCricket

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

An unmistakeable whiff of beckoning history hung in Sydney's heavy, humid January air when 23-year-old Brian Lara ambled to the wicket to begin what would become a defining cameo in his cricket life, and beyond.

Lara was one of the brash young guard expected to honour and maintain the cult of invincibility that the West Indies had so ruthlessly created over the previous 12 years, during which time they had lost just a dozen of their 96 Tests played and not a single series either at home or on the road.

But arriving in Australia for the 1992-93 summer that lustre was ever-so-discernibly dimming, with Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Jeffrey Dujon and Malcolm Marshall all having called time on their gilded careers since they tangled with Allan Border's men in the spiteful Caribbean campaign of 1991.

While a fast-bowling arsenal boasting Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson and Ian Bishop was always going to make batting problematic for any opposition, Border believed there was fallibility in the tourists' top-order that would rely heavily on ageing heroes Desmond Haynes and skipper Richie Richardson.

The sense that Australia might finally get their hands on the Frank Worrell Trophy – albeit a replica model, the original still secreted (unbeknown to all) in the garage at former Bajan quick Wes Hall's mother's house – galvanised after the first two Tests of '92-93.

Only Richardson's resolute 66 in almost four hours enabled his team to escape with a draw in the series opener at the Gabba, where the West Indies' 1988 win remains the most recent by a visiting Test team.

And then another 23-year-old, leg-spinner Shane Warne, announced his genius on the final day of the second Test in Melbourne with then-career best bowling of 7-52 to send Australia one-up heading into the third match at the SCG.

Warne's World: Flipping excellent

The only venue on the Test circuit where the West Indies had suffered multiple losses (one on each of their previous Australia visits in 1984-85 and 1988-89) during the dozen years they indisputably ruled the cricket world.

Even Lara, in his recent interview with cricket.com.au, acknowledged that Australia eyed the Sydney Test as the one of that campaign's five they felt most likely to snatch.

So when Australia batted first and, under increasingly threatening skies on a pitch that proved far less foreboding, ground their way to 9(dec)-503, Border dared to dream.

Ever more so when the tourists lost openers Haynes and Phil Simmons before the tourists' total reached 50, which meant only Richardson and Carl Hooper stood between the buoyant Australians and the 'new boys' brigade of Lara, Keith Arthurton and Jimmy Adams.

But history of an altogether different tone was to unfold over the ensuing two days.

Despite carrying a Test record only four matches old, Lara was not unfamiliar to the Australians.

Four years earlier he had captained the West Indies down under in the 1988 World Youth Cup (as the under-19 World Cup was previously known) in a tournament that also featured future Test captains Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sanath Jayasuriya.

At age 21 and already welcomed as 'The Prince of Trinidad' in many of Port-of-Spain's lively bars and nightclubs, Lara was part of the West Indies squad for that 1991 series but did not play a Test and spent much of the tour hanging out with Australia bowlers Greg Matthews and Mike Whitney.

By that stage he also bore the burden of becoming his country's first truly great Test batsman.

The oil and gas-rich dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago had produced accomplished players the likes of Jeffrey Stollmeyer, Deryck Murray and Larry Gomes over the decades, but no superstar scorers to rival the other Caribbean countries that make up the loosely affiliated West Indies.

Such as the three Ws (Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes) as well as Garfield Sobers from Barbados, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd from neighbouring Guyana, Richards and Richardson from tiny Antigua and – perhaps the best of them all – George Headley (the 'Black Bradman') from Jamaica.

It was perhaps with an eye to that legacy as much as the ongoing dominance of the region's Test team that Murray – manager of the West Indies team for the 1992 World Cup in Australia, of which Lara was part – approached his friend and former foe Ian Chappell to provide some pointers to the rising young star.

Mix Tape: The brilliant Brian Lara

Chappell, who holds a long-held belief that coaches are about as useful to international-standard cricketers as are pockets in underpants, had seen enough of Lara before and during that tournament to know there wasn't a lot he could offer such a shimmering talent.

After all, here was a kid who had debuted for his country as a teenager in the Caribbean's first-class competition and, in his second match, went into bat at 2-14 against a Barbados attack led by Marshall and Joel Garner where he batted almost six hours to score 92.

"The only thing I'll say is you hit a lot of very good shots," Chappell told Lara when they met during the Cup campaign, less than a year before the left-hander returned to Australia as part of the West Indies Test outfit.

"But you hit them straight to fielders, you've got to hit them into gaps otherwise you're wasting a lot of energy plus, more importantly, you're wasting a lot of runs."

The most striking change noted in Lara's batting in his first two Tests in Australia, in which he scored a pair of 50s but fell to his old mates Matthews and Whitney three times out of four – was the ease with which he appeared to guide the ball between fielders.

As ambitious as he was talented, Lara had taken Chappell's words to heart and, despite the daunting scoreline when he headed out to bat on a grey Monday morning at the SCG in 1993, he felt his game was in good shape even if the faltering world heavyweights were not.

He also carried with him no lack of motivation.

His controversial dismissal in the first innings at the Gabba – when he was adjudged stumped off Matthews even though subsequent replays indicated Australia keeper Ian Healy did not have the ball in his right glove when the stumps were broken – became the start of an often fractious on-field relationship with Australia's players. 

On a drizzly Sydney day that rendered the outfield slow and the ball tough to grip for Australia's spinners Matthews, Warne and Border (who had been expected to thrive), Lara caressed his way to the first of what would ultimately become 34 Test centuries.

A list that contains the then-highest individual Test score (his 375 against England at the old St John's Recreation Ground in Antigua in 1994), and the game's current benchmark – an unbeaten 400 against the same opponent at the same venue a decade later.

A rain delay soon after reaching that initial milestone at the SCG saw him return to the West Indies dressing room to receive the congratulations of teammates and some advice from Kanhai, then the team's coach, that was to propel Lara to the individual feats for which he is best remembered.

Kumar Sangakkara names his batting GOAT

"He (Kanhai) said to me 'congrats, but set your stalls out'," Lara told cricket.com.au when in Australia recently.

"I said to him 'what does that mean?' and he said 'well your next innings starts on zero', and that for me just told a story.

"It sort of carried me through my career.

"I never felt comfortable with a hundred, I never actually played to get a hundred.

"Every time I got to a hundred I marked my crease and felt 'I need to keep going' because I just wasn't satisfied."

When he resumed his innings the following morning, Lara again showed how quickly he absorbed advice from his peers.

As Richardson prised out a stoic hundred at the other end, Lara re-set himself and handled Australia's bowlers with such controlled contempt that nobody left the SCG that day in any doubt as to the significance of the prowess on display.

His authority is underscored by the comparative contributions on day four of the match, which Lara began unbeaten on 121 and pushed onwards to 277 to ensure a drawn result that the West Indies would then convert – to Border's anguish – into a memorable series win at Adelaide and Perth.

West Indies nail-biter at Adelaide

As his teammates Richardson, Arthurton, Hooper and Adams all struggled on the sluggish pitch and slower outfield to compile 74 runs between (with five boundaries) throughout the dank day, Lara helped himself to more than double that amount – 156, which included 23 strokes that reached the fence.

"I can hardly remember my hundred," Richardson noted with a smile at game's end.

"It's difficult playing and being a spectator at the same time."

His opposing captain Border was just as complimentary, if not quite so ebullient.

"It was just a phenomenal knock, for a bloke who's so young to show that maturity," said Border in the wake of the Test, still clinging to genuine hope that he might at last taste success against a team that had caused him so much physical and mental pain over the previous decade or more.

Brian Lara mic'd up batting with Ricky Ponting

"He was just relentless in that he never hit the ball over the top.

"You feel that when you get well into the hundreds you start looking to hit over the top – he never did.

"Just for sheer crisp hitting of the ball into the gaps, it was as good as you'd ever want to see."

So special did Lara consider his inaugural Test hundred that grew into the first of his nine knocks of 200-plus, when his first daughter was born in 1996 she was christened Sydney.

And following a visit to the venue that inspired her naming with her famous father in 2016, she now holds honorary membership at the SCG where her dad adorns the honour board in the visitors' dressing room.

Thereby ensuring his relationship with the city where he emerged as, in the assessment of many shrewd judges, the pre-eminent batter of his time will endure indelibly and unconditionally.

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