Lara leads Windies to magical win

By Tony Cozier in BRIDGETOWN
Stabroek News
March 31, 1999

KENSINGTON has witnessed a host of sensational matches and nerve-jangling finishes through the years. But the famous old ground has never hosted a Test as consistently fluctuating and close and surely never a day as tense, exciting and emotionally draining as yesterday when the West Indies completed victory by one wicket over Australia in the third Test.

It is also certain that it has rarely seen an innings as brilliantly skilful and positively crucial as captain Brian Lara's unbeaten 153. Virtually on its own, it was responsible for the completion of one of the most stunning turnarounds in the history of Test cricket. Australia were all but invincible after their first innings 490 and the West Indies hopeless when they were 98 for six in reply on the third morning. But Lara's revitalised team refused to buckle under the pressure, as it frequently did only a few months back in South Africa, and doggedly fought their way back into contention. Even so, they were set the demanding challenge of scoring 308 for a result that would earn them a 2-1 lead in the series and place a firm grip on the Frank Worrell Trophy that has been in their opponents' possession since 1995. Two weeks ago, Lara, then under a two-match probation from the West Indies Board following a disastrous tour of South Africa, scored a dazzling 213 in the second Test in Kingston that inspired a series-levelling win for his beleaguered team and renewed their--and his own--shaken self-belief. Under the demanding expectations of faithful, never-say-die fans who filled their favourite Kensington and Eric Inniss stands with their flags, their whistles and their optimism from early morning, he was ready for the challenge again. He batted through from first ball at five past 10 to the last at 26 minutes past four when he stroked the winning boundary, his 19th, a flourishing cover-drive off Jason Gillespie. It gave immediate release to the strain felt throughout nearly six and a half hours by everyone on the field, not least himself, the 14,000 or so who filled the stands to overflowing and the millions following on radio and television.

As with all great batsmen, he made a difficult task look easy. It never was. He had to withstand the yeoman efforts of fast bowlers Glenn McGrath and Gillespie to convert Australia's advantageous position into the result that had seemed in their grasp so frequently over the five days. He had his luck, offering a stinging, unaccepted return catch to leg-spinner Shane Warne when he was 101 with 70 more needed and three wickets remaining and a more straightforward chance to wicket-keeper Ian Healy off the persevering Gillespie when 145 with seven required and two wickets to fall.

To the noisy backdrop of the enthralled fans, hundreds of them Australian, and the constant calypso and reggae beat from the huge speakers under the Greenidge and Haynes Stand, he engaged in a stirring battle with his old adversaries, McGrath and the leg-spinner Shane Warne. The indefatigable McGrath, who had 27 overs on another day of sweltering heat, snarled and growled and cussed as usual every time he passed the edge or failed to persuade the umpires on lbw decisions.

When Lara ducked into a McGrath bouncer with the second new ball just after lunch and got up to complete a leg-bye off the helmet, he and the bowler exchanged words before Lara's level-headed partner, Jimmy Adams, arrived from the opposite end as peace-maker. Lara and Adams, his trusted fellow left-hander with whom he had shared a partnership of 322 in the second Test, checked an early Australian breakthrough with a sixth wicket stand of 133 that carried the West Indies to within 70 of their imposing target of 308.

Lara had to battle through a compelling opening hour from McGrath and Gillespie in which Gillespie accounted for opener Adrian Griffith, lbw without adding to his overnight 35, and Carl Hooper, caught behind driving at an outswinger for 6.

He spent 47 careful balls over his first 10 runs but, once the two fast bowlers were rested, his approach changed. He danced on his feet and opened his shoulders to launch a withering attack on the two leg-spinner, the out-of-sorts Warne and Stuart MacGill He greeted MacGill with three boundaries in his first over, pulled Warne onto the Shell sign on the roof of the Greenidge and Haynes stand and forced Steve Waugh to recall McGrath for more work than was good for him in the sunshine. It might also have finally persuaded him that his policy of sticking to such an unbalanced attack is folly.

The last 90 runs on his way to his 12th Test hundred--and his first at Kensington--needed only another 121 balls. Adams was characteristically restrained and his only scoring shot off his first 47 balls was a single off MacGill. As at Sabina, he gradually picked up the momentum with drives on both sides of the wicket against the unthreatening spinners.

A back strain that kept the impressive Gillespie in the pavilion half-hour before lunch was another constraining factor for the Australians. Under the regulations, he was unable to share the new ball with McGrath right away so Warne used it instead, starting with a wide and conceding 11 off two overs before he could hand over to Gillespie. McGrath came back later to change the course of the game in his fourth spell. He conjured up a perfectly pitched off-cutter that passed Adams' defensive strokes on the outside to hit off-stump for 28 and gained umpire Eddie Nicholls lbw verdicts against Ridley Jacobs and Nehemiah Perry with successive balls in the space of 10 runs.

The sudden collapse left Lara with the two veteran fast bowlers, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, to gather the 60 runs still required as best he could. By now, the crowd was in a frenzy, the previously muted Australians now on their feet, happily displaying their stuffed kangaroo again, the neighbouring West Indians shouting advice to the middle, arguing points among each other, cheering every run as if it was the winning one.

As Ambrose loped to the wicket, the DJ's speakers blasted out Bob Marley's refrain. "Don't worry 'bout a thing, every little thing's going to be all right". For the next hour and 20 minutes, every little thing was all right as Ambrose remained with Lara while the score moved to within six runs of the goal against several changes of bowling.

Gillespie, the tall, slim South Australian, was the most threatening Australian bowler, in spite of his back problem and when he returned from the pavilion end, he immediately had Lara dropped by Healy, wide to his left. It was a decisive error by Test cricket's most successful wicket-keeper who has had a shocking series.

Undeterred, Gillespie removed Ambrose to a third slip catch at the same score so that Lara remained to carry through his mission with only Walsh as company. The great Jamaican fast bowler has closed off several close West Indian Test victories throughout his career but none with the bat. His 32 ducks are a comfortable Test record, a statistic that was of no comfort to those around the ground willing him to hold on. He did, with no difficulty, for five balls as the nervy Australians conceded two runs with a no-ball from Gillespie and a wide from the tiring McGrath in his 44th over.

Lara tied the scores with a hooked single off McGrath and fittingly completed the match at the opposite end with a trademark cover-driven boundary off Gillespie, triggering a stampede of sheer joy across the ground and celebrations well into the night. It was a day and a match no one who followed it will ever forget.