“24 years ago, he gave us 501 reasons to love him and we haven’t fallen out of love since”.
First class cricket acquired official status in 1895, following a meeting of leading English clubs in May 1894. Our story begins exactly a hundred years later, on the 50th Anniversary of the historic D-Day Landings.
Dermot Reeve’s Warwickshire team had finished 16th in the County championship in 1993 and had initially looked to recruit a bowler, India’s Manoj Prabhakar, who failed a fitness test in the nets at Edgbaston after suffering a back injury. The vice-chairman of the county was dispatched to the Caribbean to find a replacement. He found Brian Charles Lara.
Not being otherwise engaged, 10-days before the Antigua Test match between West Indies and England, 25-year old Lara signed on the dotted line for £40,000. For Warwickshire, it would turn out to be a bargain like no other in its history.
Ten days later, Lara broke Sir Garfield Sobers’ record for the highest individual Test score with 375 for West Indies against England at St John’s in an innings that was astonishing in its perseverance and insatiable in its accumulation.
All of Warwickshire rejoiced in England’s misery. Never had a Vice Chairman delivered more for an English county.
Barely seven weeks and six centuries for his county in seven matches later, Lara would cause the smiles to widen.
The Britannic Assurance County Championship match at Birmingham did not have an auspicious start for Warwickshire. After all, chasing the leather on a beautiful June day in England, while enjoyable at the start can scarcely attract joy when the opposition scores at will. Fortunately, at 556 for 8, Durham decided to cut short the agony for the fielding side, declaring their innings closed.
If they had planned to dismiss Warwickshire cheaply, however, such fanciful designs would soon be kept aside as Brian Lara sashayed to the crease at the fall of the first wicket. Warwickshire was 8 for 1.It must be admitted that it was not as if Durham did not have their chances.
First, Lara was bowled by Anderson Cummins off a no-ball when he was on 12.
Then wicketkeeper Chris Scott dropped Lara when he had scored 18, making this the most expensive dropped catch in the history of cricket. Literally.
In the final few minutes before tea, Lara moved on to his back foot, played a hard drive at a ball that was swinging away from him. Scott recalls: “It was a catch I’d taken a million times before, a very healthy edge, but a very straightforward catch. Regulation. Suddenly I just froze. And then the ball was on the floor.”
His first words after the drop, Scott admits, are not fit for publication. Moments later, having had time to reflect, he turned to his slips and ruefully made a remark that must in hindsight rank very high in the list of understatements, even for a race as habituated to them as the English: “I bet he’ll go on and get a hundred now.”
Scott doesn’t remember all that much about what happened next. Only that it seemed to him that where Lara had barely been able to lay bat on ball in that first hour, after the drop, “he just hit every ball for four for a day and a half”.
Nightmarish as the experience was, Chris Scott also looks back on the time fondly. Later that month, Scott scored his maiden first-class century, against Surrey. Four weeks later he made another, against Yorkshire. Durham won four games that season and for the first time in their history, they didn’t finish last in the championship.
But back to Lara.
The Saturday was washed out. The Sunday set aside for a one-day game. On Monday Lara made 390 runs. In a day. On the way, he was dropped by Anderson Cummins when he had scored 238. Then he was dropped for the second time in a match by a wicketkeeper, this time his own. Warwickshire’s reserve stumper Mike Burns fielding at square leg as a substitute for the opposition was the culprit this time. Lara’s score was then 413.
Between those lives and after the last, he simply kept scoring, going past Graeme Hick’s 405, Bill Ponsford’s 429 and 437 and Don Bradman’s 452 until only Hanif Mohammad’s 499 for Karachi against Bahawalpur remained in the history books.
Dermot Reeve wanted to declare at lunch but Lara convinced him to let him play on. Keith Piper who had joined Lara at 448 for 4 stayed until the end with him. Lara was in a zone and oblivious to the time and overs. With his score at 497, Piper walked up to Lara to tell him there were only two balls of the last over left. Lara punched the next delivery through the covers to become the first man to cross 500 runs in a single innings, his quintuple century coming off 427 balls with 62 fours and 10 sixes. Warwickshire’s innings ended at 810 for 4.
Warwickshire went on to win the championship, Sunday League and Benson and Hedges Cup in their annus mirabilis, and Lara finished the first-class season with 2,066 first-class runs at 89.82.
Was it Lara’s best innings? Arguably not. His 277 at Sydney, 213 in Jamaica and 153 in Bridgetown spring to mind as innings of far superior quality of batsmanship and sublimeness of caresses of willow against leather. But none of those innings was monumental in nature as this one was.
Lara was his usual modest self once the deed was done: “This is a moment I will cherish forever… the first man to score 500 runs. But I don’t think I’m a great player yet. I am still only 25 and my aim is to keep up this consistency. When I get to a ripe old age then talk of me as a great cricketer.”
Lara would finish his first-class career with 22,156 runs at 51.88 helped on by 65 centuries. His 11,953 Test runs would incredibly come at an even better average of 52.88. He would go on to better his own world Test record by scoring 400 not out.
In another 330 days, Brian Charles Lara will turn 50. One doubts whether he will feel that he has now reached “a ripe old age”, but given his achievements, he has no choice but to accept the fact that he is one of the greatest cricketers the sport has been privileged to have.
24 years ago, he gave us 501 reasons to love him and we haven’t fallen out of love since.