Brian Lara’s 400* was historic, but so selfish I left the ground

West Indies captain Brian Lara is greeted by teammates while passing through of an arch of bats at lunch break after beating the world's highest score in test cricket during the third day of the fourth and final test against England at the Antigua Recreation Ground in St. John's, Antigua, in this Monday, April 12, 2004 f
This week marks 20 years since Brian Lara broke the record for highest Test score, which stands to this day - AP/Randy Brooks

On April 12, 20 years ago, Brian Lara swept England’s off-spinner Gareth Batty for a single to bring up the first individual score of 400 in Test cricket, the only quadruple to date.

Lara, without much question, was the most brilliant batsman of the post-war era, certainly among left-handers, and arguably the closest that any has come to genius. He raised his bat to the vertical, like Excalibur, before bringing it down to strike. Lara even exceeded David Gower for beauty of stroke, his footwork more precise.

Lara was supreme against almost every type of bowling. Has anyone batted more brilliantly than Lara against the world Test champions Australia in early 1999? Nobody has mastered the leading wicket-taker in Test cricket, Muttiah Muralitharan with his 800, like Lara did. He scored 688 runs in six innings of a series in Sri Lanka, dancing down the pitch as if it were Carnival in his native Trinidad.

But when England toured the West Indies in the spring of 2004, for a four-Test series, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff were everything that Lara did not fancy: fast, tall and making the ball rise steeply into his rib-cage. Having grown up in Port-of-Spain on an ample diet of spin, Lara, side-on, would play what locals called the “get-away-from-me” fend.

England had not won a Test series in the West Indies since 1967-8 but, in 12 days’ play, they went 3-0 up. In those first three Tests, Lara scored exactly 100 runs. Michael Vaughan had Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones to unleash in addition to Flintoff and Harmison. Lara made two consecutive ducks for the first time; his highest innings was 36. Harmison dismissed him thrice, the others once each.

Matthew Hoggard of England celebrates taking the wicket of Brian Lara of the West Indies during Day 4 of the 1st Test between West Indies and England at Sabina Park on March 14, 2004 in Kingston, Jamaica
Lara struggled for runs in the first four Tests in the 2004 series vs England in the West Indies - Getty Images/Tom Shaw

Into Antigua England rolled for the fourth and final Test, along with thousands of supporters still celebrating the result of the series. They were greeted by a Recreation Ground pitch which Vaughan described picturesquely in Calling the Shots: “West Indies had prepared a pitch which would counter any thoughts of us getting a whitewash. A pancake could not have been flatter had a ten-ton steamroller gone over it a thousand times.”

But then most batting records have been set and surpassed in friendly conditions when the bowling side has been suffering from injuries. England’s first-choice spinner Ashley Giles had to be replaced by Batty; Hoggard fell ill after 18 overs; and Steve Harmison was barred from bowling for running on the pitch, though Lara was 359 at the time. But Australia were short of bowling when Len Hutton scored his 364 at the Oval in 1938; and Pakistan were down to three bowlers when Garfield Sobers scored his 365 in 1957-8; and when Lara trumped Sobers by scoring his 375 against England 10 years earlier on the same ground in Antigua, the pitch had been equally docile. As for Australia’s Matthew Hayden, he had set the world record of 380 against Zimbabwe.

And every large innings contains at least a sliver of luck.

Lara, at number three, was facing up to Harmison, and had yet to score, when he tried a tentative drive at a ball that went through to the wicketkeeper Geraint Jones.

To this day Batty, now Surrey’s head coach, recalls his instant reaction. “I was at point and I’m 100 per cent that he nicked off against Harmy.” England’s keeper and slips were adamant too: Lara dismissed for nought again. Tony Cozier, the West Indian commentator, was not so sure, nor was the Australian umpire Darrell Hair. In Wisden Cozier recorded: “Hair shook his head, and television replays indicated he was correct.” The racehorse had bolted.

Cricket - West Indies v England Fourth Test - The Recreation Ground, St.John's, Antigua
Lara seemingly had little intention of winning the Test match in Antigua - Action Images/Jason O'Brien

On such a flat pitch, time to bowl England out twice was of the essence – if West Indies were to win a face-saving victory. Lara chose to bat first, and to bat until the third afternoon. It became increasingly obvious that his personal goal, of reclaiming the world record which Hayden had seized six months earlier, was paramount. A quick double-hundred would have been more useful to West Indies, followed by a declaration then bowling England out and batting briskly a second time, before giving England the last day to survive against refreshed bowlers.

One England player was fated to field throughout both marathons, Lara’s 375 and his unbeaten 400: Graham Thorpe. “He was, quite simply, the best batsman I played with or against, ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, in that order,” Thorpe said in his autobiography, Rising from the Ashes.

Batty still remembers his feeling of powerlessness. “I didn’t enjoy being on the receiving end but wow! If he wanted to hit me for a four or a six in an over, I was powerless to stop him. I finally found his outside edge when he had made 280-odd I think.”

Lara batted on, regardless. He was nearly caught and bowled on 293 but such was his hand-eye coordination that run-scoring seemed to take little out of him. The batsman who had destroyed Muralitharan allowed Batty, on the flattest of pitches, to concede no more than three and a half runs per over for 52 overs, before sweeping a four to overtake Hayden, then the historic single to bring up 400. The president of Antigua marched on to the field to congratulate Lara, to England’s delight too as it took more time out of the game.

“He [Lara] had actually done us a favour because if he’d wanted to win the match he would have declared long before he did,” Vaughan wrote. Australia’s captain at the time, Ricky Ponting, was even more critical: “Their whole first innings might have been geared around one individual performance, and they could have let a Test match slip because of it. They ran out of time in the game. That’s not the way the Australian team plays.”

England were still 44 runs behind, with five wickets left in their second innings, when time and the series expired. As with Lara’s world record in first-class cricket, his 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham, the outcome was a bore-draw.

Put it this way. Once it was obvious what Lara’s game plan was, I voted with my feet and flew home while history was being made.