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LARA'S MAGIC

IT MIGHT SEEM ironic that the most celebrated batting record in the 127-year history of Test cricket — the highest individual score — should have been reclaimed, for the first time ever, by a West Indian during a fortnight when sportswriters round the cricket playing world were composing obituaries on the game in the Caribbean. But then, when you consider that the hero is none other than Brian Charles Lara, things fall in place. In a career of Martian highs and abysmal lows, the outrageously gifted Trinidadian left-hander has shown a sublime capacity to scale the heights. After a lean spell with the bat that saw the West Indian captain make a mere 100 runs in six innings as England ran up a series-clinching 3-0 lead, Lara suddenly reinvented himself as the world's best batsman in the fourth Test. Over three days, in almost 13 hours at the crease, the great West Indian worked his magic to become the first batsman in Test history to score 400 and, in the process, reclaim a record that had been in the hands of Australia's Matthew Hayden for a mere 185 days.

When Hayden made 380 against a weak Zimbabwe attack in Perth last October to pass Lara's divine 375, made against England in Antigua in 1994, few might have believed that the Australian opener's record would be as short-lived as it has turned out to be; and fewer still might have anticipated that a 34-year-old Lara would reclaim the record in such quick time. For the odds were formidable. Before him only one batsman in the entire history of Test cricket — Don Bradman — scored two triple hundreds in Tests. West Indian cricket seemed in terminal decline with the team losing Test matches in three or four days and plumbing the depths with innings totals of 47 and 94. Against this background, Lara's triumph acquires a regal glow. "Records are made to be broken," remarked Sir Garfield Sobers, the greatest all-rounder cricket has seen, "and Brian is the type of individual who sets himself targets and goes after them. To do something of this magnitude twice in 10 years is absolutely magnificent."

Lara raises the art of batsmanship to an exalted level that few contemporary cricketers even aspire to. What makes the left-handed genius' big innings all the more exciting is the fact that many of them have come against all expectations. Three years ago, even as the sports press in the Caribbean was calling for Lara's retirement from the game, the great man left for Sri Lanka and hit up 178, 40, 74, 45, 221 and 130 (although the West Indies lost the series 3-0). Now, a few days after losing the first three Tests to England, Lara has come up with his magnificent marathon. But then, this is a class of batting that is not overly dependent on conventional form. In terms of technique and consistency, Sachin Tendulkar may be marginally ahead of the West Indian. But not even Tendulkar can offer the sort of jaw-dropping pleasure that Lara does each time he is on song. Ironically, at a time when Lara's heroism dominates discussion wherever cricket is played, the West Indies is ranked above only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in the International Cricket Council's Test rankings. The emperor may have reclaimed his throne but the once-great empire is a shambles. Those who realise how important Caribbean success is for the health of the game will hope that youngsters in that scattered chain of islands in the Gulf of Mexico will find inspiration from Lara's unbeaten 400, an innings fuelled largely by the two great West Indian virtues — pride and self-belief.

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