The Lara Crunch Innings Urban Legend

Posted on December 6, 2010 by

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The thousands of man hours spent debating which one is “greater” – Lara or Tendulkar, far outnumber the thousands of runs both those men have scored. And the debates continue. As they would for a qualifier as subjective as “greater”. Both men are inarguably legends, demigods not only in their own countries but throughout the cricketing world. They have given us many memorable moments or enchanting strokeplay and sheer genius. Which one of them is greater is less an argument that starts from first principles and ends on a conclusion, and more a rhetorical exercise that starts with a favored conclusion and goes on to provide supporting facts.

There is one side-show in the Lara-Tendulkar debates that has become somewhat of a pet peeve of mine. Many, indeed most cricket fans I know, including some extremely knowledgeable ones (and including some hardcore Sachin supporters), seem to take it as a given that Lara was a better fourth innings batsman than Tendulkar. Very often, someone will fling a variant of that claim my way. And it has me nearly frothing at the mouth, because it is at best a cherry-picking of facts, and at worst, an urban legend.

Let me first say that I absolutely LOVE Brian Lara. I have watched almost all his centuries live on television, whenever academics and work permitted. In terms of the sheer orgasmic delight of watching an elegant craftsman at work, it is my (admittedly subjective) opinion that Lara is miles ahead of Tendulkar. If I were forced to watch the recordings of only one batsman’s innings for the rest of my life, it’d be Lara by a wide margin. But we’re not talking elegance. We’re talking 4th innings miracles. We’re talking to people like a very good (and knowledgeable) friend of mine who wrote to me in an email – “Sachin’s 4th innings record is decent, but does not match up against Lara’s many 4th innings epics”.

“Many” 4th innings epics? How many epics did Lara score? In fact, forget epicworthiness. How many 4th innings centuries did Lara score? Take a guess.

Two. 2. Do. Dos. Only two of his 34 centuries came in 4th innings. One of them, undoubtedly an epic, is probably the source of this urban myth. I remember my parents’ indignation at my ignoring my first year engineering studies as I stayed up late nights watching every moment of that absorbing test series between West Indies and Australia. After Australia had garnered a healthy first innings lead in the Barbados test (the series in balance at 1-1), those two crafty men – Ambrose and Walsh, bowled with hostile intensity to dismiss the Aussies in under two sessions for something around 150. West Indies were set a shade over 300 for victory with ample time.

Lara walked in towards the end of the 4th day’s play, at the fall of the 3rd wicket (nightwatchman). It was 85/3 at stumps, already a precarious position. Two more wickets fell within half an hour on the 5th day leaving West Indies at 100 or so for 5, still 200+ away from victory. And then that stubborn stonewaller Jimmy Adams stepped up. He crawled along, guarding his wicket against McGrath, Gillespie, Warne, and McGill for almost three hours, allowing Lara at the other end to unleash a dazzling but cautious array of strokes. There was a lot of drama. Lara and McGrath seemed close to coming to blows after a bouncer hit Lara on the back and McGrath seemed intent of following it up with some lip. Gillespie went off the ground after another one of his frequent niggles. And there was a lot being said all around; definitely one of the most sledging-heavy matches ever, with Lara frequently responding to the Aussies’ taunts. But what spoke louder was Lara’s bat as he played what is for me the best innings of his life (forget the 277, 375 and 400). During that partnership, he must have scored at a strike rate of at least 80, unleashing his full array of strokes. Vicious pulls and precise drives. Lara brought up his hundred with a lofted on drive off Warne. All seemed to be going well.

With Adams looking solid and Lara looking imperious, the target was now less than a 100 runs away. My mom woke up for a glass of water, approached me with the intent of chastising me for being up this late watching cricket and not studying, but was drawn into the drama. A few minutes later, we both groaned in disappointment as McGrath managed to break through Adams’ stubborn defense, with a delivery that cut away, knocked back the off-stump and went to the slips. Just as Ridley Jacobs started showing promise, McGrath trapped him in front, with one that straightened almost miraculously. Nehemiah Perry fell on the very next ball with the ball cutting the other way. After Ambrose survived the hattrick, my mom told me to go to sleep. The match had all the makings of a typical West Indian chokefest, she said. Just watch the highlights tomorrow. I ignored her and kept watching. More out of recalcitrance than actual hope. 60 runs to get with only Ambrose and Walsh for company? Yep, the writing was on the wall.

I watched, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it took a while. Ambrose hung around, even collecting a couple of boundaries. Lara kept going fluently. the Australians grew even more irksome and vocal. Lara was harsh on Warne, alternately stepping out to hit him down the ground and leaning back to drive him through the covers. Even Ambrose joined in the fun, changing his stroke mid-shot to cut a wide McGrath delivery to the point boundary, The Barbadians were going insane. Calypso music was blaring so loudly, at times it drowned out the commentators.

In just over an hour, the 300 was up. Less than ten runs needed. Oh wow, I thought to myself, they might actually do this. But a fear lingered, arising from a two-month old memory. The memory of India falling short of Pakistan’s significantly easier target in Chennai so recently, after Tendulkar’s dismissal against the run of play. Just as I was thinking about that heartbreak and Sachin’s back, Gillespie who had returned after nursing his back, pitched one back of length on middle moving away. It seemed to happen in slow motion – Lara went for it, edged and it flew to Healy. I let out a sigh of relief as Healy, very uncharacteristically, flubbed it. Bullet dodged. But there was now a growing sinking feeling in my stomach that my mom might be proved right.

That sinking feeling in my stomach turned into a crater as just moments later, Gillespie bowled a similar delivery, and Ambrose, perhaps looking to repeat his point boundary, went for it, handing an easy catch to 3rd or 4th slip.. In came Courtney Walsh who back then either held or was close to capturing the record for most ducks in test cricket. Next ball – a no ball. It brought the target down to 5, but also meant that Walsh would have to survive an extra Gillespie delivery. He kept a straight bat and played out 3 deliveries. McGrath to Lara. 5 to get. Surely it would end happily in the next over. Kensington Oval seemed set to celebrate. Even Gary Sobers, watching from the stands, had a smile on his face.

The next delivery, the smile all but disappeared from West Indian faces. McGrath bowling round the wicket and wide off the crease sent down an incoming delivery. Lara brought his bat down, and the ball flew off the outside edge. Luckily it flew just wide of a diving Warne at first slip and was headed to the thirdman boundary before it was intercepted. Another narrow escape, and 2 more runs shaved off. Then, a sure sign that the pressure was getting to the normally unflappable McGrath as he delivered a bouncer outside off that went for a massive massive wide. 2 to win. Then another bouncer, this time well directed. Lara swung his bat hoping for a boundary, but didn’t connect very well. Just a single. Scores tied, with Walsh on strike. Walsh now had to either score the winning run or defend against McGrath. If he fell, the two teams would have yet another tied test.

Luckily, McGrath was off target and Walsh survived. Lara back on strike, facing Gillespie with one run to win. The ball was decent, almost identical in length to the one that almost gave Gillespie Lara’s wicket 2 overs ago. But this time, Lara moved perfectly, and unleashed that beautiful cover drive he’s known for. The ball raced away. I roared in unison with the Barbados crowd, making my parents wake up. Lara, having completed a famous win, hugged his teammates.

See how awesome that epic was? I set out to describe it in a few sentences and ended up rambling on and on. Well, it was THAT special. It also came with some luck, as we saw. But in the end, Lara scripted a saga that was memorable and magical. And magical enough to build an entire urban legend – of his 4th innings winning expertise.

Barbados 1999 is where the 4th innings expertise begins and ends. Two years later, he seemed set to repeat his triumph against South Africa, but fell to Kallis short of a century, and West Indies ended up losing comfortably. Two more years later, chasing 400 or so against Aussies, he made a fluent century but fell with West Indies miles and miles away. A couple of seasons later in South Africa, set 450 to win in 100 overs, he scored an entertaining 80-odd but fell with almost 2 sessions to go, leaving Sarwan, Hinds, and Smith to grind out a face-saving draw.

All these other near-misses and failures do not show him as a 4th innings failure per se, but don’t make him a 4th innings god either. Certainly does not make him “way better” than Sachin in the 4th innings. Sachin has some near-misses himself, the aforementioned Chennai century being the most famous one. But he also has two famous successes. The first such being of course, famously, his maiden test century. An unbeaten century coming in at No. 6 to salvage a draw at Old Trafford. The other being his last ball hundred at Chennai against England two seasons ago.

Even in terms of pure numbers, there’s little separating the two greats when it comes to 4th innings performances. In fact Sachin’s 4th innings average at 38.77 (49 innings) is higher than Lara’s at 35.12 (46 innings). Sachin has 3 centuries, Lara has 2. Sachin has 5 half centuries, Lara has 7. And, interestingly, Sachin has 3 4th innings duck, and Lara has 7. These numbers don’t speak strongly for either of the two gentlemen.

All things considered, both Lara and Tendulkar are neck-to-neck in this regard – 4th innings records, as they are in most other regards when it comes to debating which one is greater. I am writing this post not to claim that Sachin was better, but to say that it’s too close to call.

So the Lara myth comes from that magical nail-biting century in the Barbados win. You saw how I waxed lyrical about it. It was unforgettable. But so was Sachin’s Chennai century against Pakistan just two months before. Sadly for him, the chance he offered with victory in sight was taken. And that century is associated with a painful failing, not a famous win. In a parallel universe, Sachin’s catch was dropped, Lara’s was held, and people are touting Sachin as the 4th innings master, and Lara as the choker.

Thus ends this rather self-indulgent exercise in mythbusting. The next time someone says, “Sachin is great, but Lara’s 4th innings record was much better” throw this post in their face. And if you were one of those who used this to bait Sachin fans, worry not. Let me give you another name. Let’s see…. let me think of some random name – Smith sounds as random as any. It’s very common and is often chosen as a fake name. So go with Smith. Tell them, “Sachin is great, but a dude named Smith has a much better 4th innings record”.

P.S.  Seriously, Graeme Smith has an awesome 4th innings record. So does Ricky Ponting for that matter.

 

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Article by Gaurav Sabnis