13 Hours at the Stumps: Brian Lara's Record-Breaking Test Innings

One of the coolest, most stylish cricketers of all time, Lara hit 400 not out when England came to Antigua. For some, however, his innings came to represent the West Indies' collective decline.

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Apr 14 2016, 4:35am

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If you were to ask Brian Lara to pick his greatest moment in cricket, he'd have something of a selection dilemma. When he scored 277 against Australia in January 1993, at only 23 years of age – that must have been a good one. When he set the record for highest individual score in first-class cricket a year later, smashing 501 runs for Warwickshire in 474 minutes off only 427 balls – that must have felt pretty special, likewise. When Wisden rated his 153 not out against Australia in Bridgetown during the 1998/99 season as the second greatest innings of all time – that must have been sublime.

But what about his record-breaking Test innings against England in 2004? Would he rate his whopping 400 not out – still the highest individual score in a Test innings – as the ultimate highlight of his career?

Well, no, probably not.

Born the second youngest of seven brothers and four sisters in the lush valley of Santa Cruz, Trinidad, Lara's family enrolled him in the local Harvard Coaching Clinic at only six years of age. It was there that he first learned how to hold a cricket bat. By the time he went to Fatima college – a Roman Catholic boys' school in his nation's capital, Port-of-Spain – his prodigious talent as a batsman was plain for all to see. At 14, he hit 745 runs in the schoolboys' league, with an average of around 126 per innings. Unsurprisingly, this caught the eye of Trinidad's youth selectors. He earned his call up to the under 16 team that very same year.

By the time he was 15, Lara was representing the West Indies at under-19 level. After leaving school, he worked in the marketing department of Angostura Limited – the Trinidadian rum distiller famous for producing Angostura bitters – and played in Trinidad and Tobago's junior football and table tennis teams. Nonetheless, his focus never strayed from cricket. Having broken his first batting record with an unprecedented 498 runs at the 1987 West Indies Youth Championships, he captained Trinidad and Tobago to tournament victory. His first-class debut came in January 1988; his first selection for the full West Indies team followed hot on its heels.

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Though Lara's West Indies debut was delayed by the death of his father, he made a belated first appearance for the team in 1990. At only 20 years of age, his ODI debut came against Pakistan – scoring a modest 11 runs – and then his Test debut against the same team, scoring 44 and 5. Looking back on his career in hindsight, it's hard to believe he ever recorded such low scores.

That's no insult to Lara's early performances, of course. The fact is, his batting over the next decade would be so composed, so magnificent, that there was hardly a bowler on the planet who could stop him.

The young Lara must have taken inspiration from his teammates. In the early nineties, the West Indies were the undisputed kings of both Test and One Day International cricket. When Lara first joined the team, he linked up with such iconic players as Richie Richardson, Courtney Walsh, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and, indeed, an ageing Viv Richards – widely considered to be the greatest batsman ever to have lived.

In those early years, the team were majestic. In 1994, when England toured the Caribbean, they were slaughtered in the first three Tests. A win in the fourth Test in Barbados stopped Mike Atherton's side from suffering the ignominy of a total whitewash, but the West Indies' superiority was obvious. Indeed, their stylish victory was epitomised by one player's Test record score of 375 in the last match of the series. That player was, of course, Brian Lara.

That was the first time Lara would set the highest individual score in a Test innings. The second, a decade later, was achieved in a very different context. As the nineties progressed and a whole host of West Indian legends called time on their careers, Lara was left to carry a team in almost terminal decline. He continued to rack up individual accolades, continued to produce glorious batting performances, but couldn't stop their collective slump. With Lara captaining the side in 1999, the West Indies even suffered their first ever whitewash – a merciless drubbing at the hands of South Africa.

By the time England came to tour the West Indies once more in 2004, Lara's team had been irreversibly damaged by pay disputes, internal politics and increasingly poor performances. Their 1999 World Cup campaign had ended at the group stages; in 2000, England won a series against the West Indies for the first time in 31 years. Lara and co. suffered another whitewash defeat at the turn of the millennium, this time to a rampant Australia. Chopping and changing of the captaincy didn't help, with a succession of losses sending the West Indies plummeting to eighth in the world rankings – below all the other established Test teams.

The captaincy was returned to Lara for the 2002/03 campaign, and Test victories against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe seemed to stem the tide. Nonetheless, they lost their next Test 3-0 to South Africa. To add insult to injury, Australian batsman Matthew Hayden surpassed Lara's 1994 Test innings record with 380 against Zimbabwe on 10 October 2003.

When England arrived in March 2004, the West Indies imploded. The visitors won the first Test in Jamaica by 10 wickets; they won the second, in Trinidad, by seven wickets; they won the third, in Barbados, by eight wickets. Their victory was assured.

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When it came to the fourth Test at the Antigua Recreation Ground, Lara clearly decided that the West Indies' fans deserved a spectacle. At almost 35 years of age, tired of watching his team's inexorable deterioration, he took matters into his own hands. He'd clearly taken the words of Viv Richards to heart, after the legendary batsman had publicly told the team: "You cannot allow yourselves to be disgraced."

Lara would not allow it. On 10 April, on a flat, agreeable surface, he won the toss and elected to bat. After Chris Gayle was caught just before lunch – and after a delay for stormy weather – Lara strode out to the wicket. What was to ensue was a masterclass in cool, calculated batting; a one-man show in lieu of collaborative success.

Four balls in, there was a loud appeal for caught behind off Steve Harmison. Quite rightly, the umpire refused to raise his finger. From there, Lara proceeded to make 86 runs on the first day. The West Indies were 208 for two.

By the end of the second day, Lara was on 313 out of 595 for five. There had been more half-hearted appeals for his dismissal, but to no avail. By the third morning, he was approaching Hayden's six-month-old record. Partnered by the veteran Ridley Jacobs, Lara made mincemeat of England's deliveries. A weak ball from Gareth Batty was hit for six, equalling the innings record of 380. Another delivery was stroked for four.

The crowd rose to their feet. Lara punched the air, then knelt down to kiss the wicket.

After lunch, Lara became the first man to reach 400 in a Test. After 13 hours at the stumps, 582 deliveries, 43 fours and four sixes, he had made history. It didn't secure victory for the West Indies, however. As England chased their massive run total, the Test lost its impetus. The adrenaline rush of Lara's heroics had worn off. The match ambled to a draw, with England 422 for 5.

Though there was plenty of praise for Lara in the aftermath of the match, there was also criticism from those who perceived him as prioritising the individual record over the collective win. Former England captain Tony Greig said: "It wasn't an innings that you could be in awe of. It was clear he had the record in mind and was just going to keep on grinding it out until he got there. As far as I'm concerned that is not a good way to play the game, especially when you're the captain. It shows that Brian Lara is not a very good captain."

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Ricky Ponting, Australia captain at the time, concurred: "Their whole first innings might have been geared around one individual performance, and they could have let a Test match slip because of it," Ponting said afterward. "They ran out of time in the game. That's not the way the Australian team plays." This all seemed rather uncharitable, especially since Matthew Hayden called it "a truly amazing effort."

Moreover, there was a sense in which the critics were missing the point. With the West Indies in such a poor state, Lara restored the team's – and the fans' – pride with his individual heroics. Whatever the criticism from outside, he was lionised for his efforts by cricket enthusiasts from Trinidad to Saint Lucia, Jamaica to the Grenadines. They, not Greig and Ponting, were the people who mattered.

Set as it was to the backdrop of the West Indies' decline, Lara must look back on the record with mixed emotions. Still, whatever he feels about it, his innings was a proud act of defiance – one that resonates with people to this day.

@W_F_Magee