On the 30th anniversary of one of the great Test series played in Australia, foxsports.com.au sat down with West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara for his reflections.
In the second of a three-part series, Lara recalls making 277 at the SCG; arguably the best Test innings ever by a visiting batter in Australia.
In the wake of Shane Warne’s first Test masterclass 30 years ago, the West Indies were suddenly feeling vulnerable.
For so long the dominant force in world cricket, the West Indies’ veneer of greatness had started to crack.
West Indies’ legends were riding off into the sunset, including Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall, while more big-name departures were soon to come.
And here was Australia — a nation it had only lost six of 33 Tests against since 1978 — unearthing a devastating spin talent that had exposed its Achilles heel.
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Making matters worse was that the West Indies were already down 1-0 in a five-Test series, and heading to Australia’s best surface for spin, the SCG, for the third Test.
One of the calmest men in the room, however, was a 23-year-old Trinidadian who had only played four Tests.
“I remember being on the flight from Melbourne to Sydney, and I told the manager not to worry,” Brian Lara told foxsports.com.au.
“I’ll handle Shane Warne’.”
PART ONE: Inside Warne’s ‘ridiculous’ arrival as Lara reveals moment that made Test giant ‘panic’
FIRST TEST: Aussie first Test XI revealed as cult hero snubbed for homecoming
Lara’s confidence was not ordinary for a young player yet to play a full Test series — but Lara was no ordinary cricketer.
You know how the story goes in broad strokes.
The left-hander makes 277 at the SCG to help save a draw, thus turning the tide of the series, which the West Indies go on to win 2-1.
Lara, meanwhile, marks himself as one of the world’s brightest batting prospects — a label he lives up to by finishing his Test career with 11,953 runs at 52.88, including the highest-ever score of 400 not out.
Now, and surely forever, Lara stands as one of the titans of modern cricket with Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and, indeed, Shane Warne.
But 30 years ago, after two years of limited opportunities in Test cricket, nothing was guaranteed for Lara.
He had only played two Tests before that summer’s Frank-Worrell series, before making 58 and a duck at the Gabba, and 52 and four at the MCG.
In Melbourne, Warne took 7-52 to announce his own arrival to the world, and to put the fear into the West Indies camp, Lara said.
“Heading to Sydney, (it was) a Test venue where West Indies normally don’t play very well, or Australia have the upper-hand because it’s a spinning venue. The likes of Bob Holland, Allan Border, Murray Bennet got wickets against us,” Lara said.
“There we were with a bit of a dilemma. Shane Warne, Greg Matthews — Allan Border was there as well — all waiting to take a 2-0 lead in this five-Test match series.
“I know for a fact there was this sort of nervousness going around the dressing room.”
Lara recalls Warne’s breakout moment | 03:55
Lara said his insistence that he could “handle” Warne was not out of arrogance. Instead, the confidence was owed to his upbringing in the south of the Caribbean.
The 53-year-old hails from Trinidad and Tobago, where about 40 per cent of the population is of Indian descent.
Lara said that the demographics of his island home led to him facing more spin than other parts of the Caribbean, which were known for being a fast bowling factory.
“The reason I said (I’ll handle Warne), it might sound a bit arrogant, but the reason I said it is … we play a lot of spin,” Lara said.
“We have a lot of back-of-the-hand spinners, a lot of off-spinners, a lot of left-arm spinners. The majority of spinners who have played for the West Indies came from these two islands (Trinidad and Tobago).
“I felt that even though I didn’t have the opportunity to face much of him (in Melbourne), I’m accustomed to playing that back-of-the-hand stuff. So I was looking forward to the challenge.”
Having won the toss, Australia batted West Indies out of the third Test over the best part of two days, posting 9-503d.
The West Indies then lost openers Desmond Haynes and Phil Simmons early to bring Lara to the crease alongside captain Richie Richardson at 2-31.
A 2-0 deficit was staring the team in the face, meaning it would have to win consecutive Tests in Adelaide and Perth just to tie the series.
It would’ve been a humbling result for the West Indies who hadn’t lost a Test series since touring New Zealand in 1980, and hadn’t lost to Australia since 1975.
But Lara and Richardson had other ideas.
The pair bedded in at the SCG together, frustrating the Australians — Warne included — in a 293-run partnership that put the Test back in the balance.
But the job was not done. Still trailing by nearly 200 runs, a cheap collapse would have opened the door to Warne late on day five.
Lara, who had never made a double century at any level of the game, knew he had to push on.
“I remember there was an electronic scoreboard at the SCG and with every boundary, or every five runs, there was some kind of record being broken. That also was kind of the impetus I needed to keep going,” he said.
“My coach at the time, Rohan Kanhai, he said to me during one of the rain breaks, ‘your next innings starts at zero’, which automatically means, ‘stay out there and bat for as long as possible’.
“And the team needed me to bat. Even though I got a hundred, we were still way short of what Australia put on the board and we didn’t want to lose that Test match. We wanted to come out unscathed and see what we could do with the remaining two.”
What was already one of the great breakout Test innings in Australia soon developed into an all-time masterpiece.
Anything that was marginally wide was pommeled through the covers, while Lara happily hit with the spin to punish anything too straight from Warne.
The way Lara would rock back deep in his crease, and then masterfully guide the ball in-between fielders, made it look like he had all the time in the world.
There was a power about his play, but in the most refined way possible. His 277 off 372 balls did not feature a single six, but included 38 boundaries that virtually all travelled along the ground.
Making the innings more special was that watching it all unfold from the middle of the SCG was Lara’s hero and Australia captain, Allan Border.
“I was so happy to be on the same field as Allan Border,” Lara said. “But I don’t think he was very happy I was out there doing what I was doing.
“I think coming out of that innings, I think I gained a lot of respect. I think a lot of the Australian players, they might’ve had a little bit to say at the beginning of the innings but, as my innings went on, I felt that they realised that I was there to stay and it was very difficult to get me out.”
After nearly eight hours at the crease, Lara had to get himself out.
The left-hander called Carl Hooper through for a quick single but was sent back and runout at the striker’s end to the elation of the Australians.
“He’d still be batting now if Carl Hooper hadn’t ran him out,” Border joked to CODE Sports.
“I’d never seen a guy hit the gap so easily.
“I got to a point where I would talk to the fielders and say, ‘Wherever I put you it’s your choice whether you move five yards left or right’. They’d subtly move and Brian being Brian just kept whacking it through the gaps.”
Lara’s 277 was the highest Test score ever made by a visiting player in Australia in 89 years, while it remains the third best total behind only England’s Tip Foster (287, Sydney 1903) and New Zealand’s Ross Taylor (290, Perth 2015).
His innings meant a draw was all but certain for the West Indies, giving the visitors the hope of coming from behind to retain the Frank-Worrell Trophy, and maintain its dominance over Australia.
Warne, meanwhile, finished with 1-116, with Hooper his only wicket of the Test.
Warne later said that Lara’s 277 was “one of the best innings” he had seen him play in a Test career that included 34 centuries.
“Brian, to me, if you had to send someone out and you needed 400 to win on the last day and you needed someone to make 200 to win, you’d probably want Brian Lara to be that guy,” Warne told cricket.com.au in 2016.
“He was flamboyant, he was wonderful to watch, he had a real flair about him.
“He always seemed to hit the gaps. His placement of the ball was always something I thought was pretty special.”
The following match in Adelaide saw the West Indies claim what is still the only one-run win in the history of Test cricket.
The heartbreak crushed the Australians, who crumbled for 119 and 178 in Perth to lose the Test by an innings and 25 runs, and the series 2-1.
Curtly Ambrose was player-of-the-series for his 33 wickets at 16.42, but Lara was the West Indies’ best batter with 466 runs at 58.25.
Despite victory, the 1992-93 series made it clear that the tide was turning against the West Indies.
Nonetheless, the series would change Lara’s life forever, putting the young gun on the path to greatness.
“To me, it was just great. I was young, excited about the whole thing. Really wanted to get my first Test hundred and then I blossomed into something much bigger,” Lara said.
“It taught me a lot about my game. You know, sometimes you have these major achievements of young boys scoring 300 or 400 in school cricket. I was one that played 30 overs, 35 overs, so I never really had the opportunity to bat long. It was actually my first double century in any form of the game.
“To get there and to see how it developed, I knew in that point in time I had what it took to be one of the better cricketers going around.
“It just gave me that confidence that I needed.”