The magic of Sabina Park and Lara's greatest inningsMonday, October 18, 2021
AS a Jamaican and a lover of the great game, Sabina Park is one of my favourite places. The island's lone Test-match venue is deeply immersed in the game's history. Most famously, perhaps, it provided the setting for Garfield Sobers' 365 in 1958 — a record that stood until 1994 when Brian Lara went past it in Antigua. If sport is “war minus the shooting” as George Orwell opined, then Sabina, with the scenic Blue Mountains hovering in the distance, has hosted a thousand battles, which, in turn, have spawned countless triumphs and countless disappointments.
Being a regular at Sabina I have witnessed performances and passages of play that have been reluctant to leave the memory. My very first time at a Test in 1983 allowed a viewing of the regal Viv Richards in all his magisterial resplendence, lording it over a hapless Indian attack. His 36-ball 63, the innings he rates as his best, conjured out of thin air an impossible victory in a game that seemed certain to end in a draw.
The best exhibition of front-foot driving I have seen came from Desmond Haynes one afternoon against the Australians in 1991. Their pacers repeatedly fed the West Indian opener the full delivery, which he gorged on by repeatedly finding the boundary in the arc between mid-on and cover.
Keith Arthurton's hundred against England in 1994 was a good innings, and I felt then, mistakenly it turns out, that the Nevisian left-hander would've gone on to have a long career. In that same match Brian Lara gave a sign of what was to come later in the series (375 in Antigua) with a stroke-filled 83.
There have been stirring fast bowling feats as well. Foremost in mind is England pacer Steve Harmison's heartbreaking 7/12 in 2004 that flattened the West Indies for 47. On par with that performance is hometown boy Jerome Taylor's 5/11 in 2009, as skillful a display as one could ever hope to see. Going farther back, I vividly recall stellar outings by Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop against India in 1989.
I could, of course, cite many other instances of high drama witnessed from the George Headley Stand. But there is one day that I foolishly chose not to be there that something extraordinary occurred.
It was the second day of the second test of Australia's 1998/1999 tour of the Caribbean. It was March 14, 1999, and it was the day Brian Lara scored the vast majority of his eventual match-winning, series-turning, maybe even career-saving, 213.
I was present on March 13. I was there for the first day of the game and had even bought tickets for the second. But by stumps, with the West Indies 37/4 in response to Australia's 256, I was so dispirited that I decided not to drive the almost two hours it took me to get there and so stayed home. It turned out to be a horrendous decision.
For context, let us go back a few months to the West Indies' tour of South Africa. Framed by a rancorous standoff between players and the board over pay that delayed the start of the series, a distracted team was humiliated 0-5 in the tests and 1-6 in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs). Following the team's miserable showing, and coming into the Australian series soon afterwards, Captain Lara was placed on a two-game probation by the board.
While Lara's batting spot was not in question, his hold on the captaincy was extremely tenuous and became even more so after a dreadful start to the series in Trinidad. Chasing 363 in the fourth innings, the Caribbean side fell in a heap for 51, blown away by Glen McGrath and Jason Gillespie.
The West Indies actually did well in dismissing Australia for 256 on that first day in Jamaica. Losing four wickets by the close was bad, but what caused me despair was the feeling that our batting was being completely overpowered. Nobody seemed capable of standing up to McGrath, who was at his snarling, skillful best.
I hardly think I need to state that there is no way I was including Lara in the group of overawed batters. We all knew he wielded the most dazzling blade in the game. But he wasn't showing purposeful form of late and I didn't expect much of a turnaround. Like a devout man who came to doubt his faith, I held out little hope, even with the game's best batsman in the ranks.
On that tension-filled first evening it looked like the giant Australian machine would crush everything in its path, and the end of play would only serve to delay the inevitable, which I had no desire to witness
Opener Suruj Ragoonath, playing in his second test after making 11 runs in his first, fell in the second over without scoring. As I saw Lincoln Roberts coming in at three, I felt certain he wouldn't last and lamented the poor judgement of those responsible for sending the young debutant into that cauldron at that time. Surely a player like Jimmy Adams was more likely to survive. Roberts lasted seven deliveries and didn't score. His first test turned out to be his last.
Another Test-cricket neophyte, Dave Joseph, was in his second test. Batting at three in Trinidad he made an impressive 50. Coming to the crease after Sherwin Campbell was bowled by McGrath for 12, he struck three boundaries in quick succession and seemed intent on beating back the rampaging Australians. He went hard at almost every delivery, and I remember thinking how pumped up he appeared. But McGrath, as clever as ever, bowled the perfect slower ball, and the batsman, totally engrossed in his forceful mindset, drove a fraction early and was caught, if memory serves, in the mid-off area. The West Indies therefore went to bed four wickets down, with Lara and nightwatchman Pedro Collins at the crease.
As I was leaving the venue, head down in frustration, I saw a friend from my neck of the woods. When he mentioned he'd be there the next day I enquired after his sanity. For some reason he was convinced, and tried to convince me, that the remaining West Indies batsmen would set everything right the next day. I wasn't swayed.
I never bothered to follow the action closely the next day, though I did take intermittent glimpses to see how the West Indies were progressing. At lunch the score was 106/4, with Lara 44 and Adams 11, which was a good start since it meant we hadn't lost any wickets, though Pedro Collins had to retire hurt. At tea, remarkably, it was 227/4, Lara 113. By stumps, unbelievably, the home team had rocketed to 377/4, Lara a staggering 212 and Adams 88.
The West Indies captain was dismissed early on the third day for 213. Adams fell for 94, and their 322-run union powered the West Indies to 431 and eventual victory by 10 wickets. Lara's even more masterful 153 in Barbados drove his side to another win, but Australia won in Antigua, despite the Trinidadian's quick-fire hundred, to square the series.
And so, a series that threatened to be a walkover was made into a thrilling contest by some of the finest batting one could hope to see. This is not to say Lara scripted the Jamaica and Barbados victories by himself – Campbell and Adams made important runs, while Walsh, Collins, Ambrose, and spinner Nehemiah Perry all took key wickets. But Lara not only scored over 31 per cent of his team's runs, he made them in a manner that mesmerised everyone watching and must have deflated the opposition.
Over the years I have resisted the strong urge to say that I was there at Sabina for Lara's epic. Mostly, I choose to keep quiet whenever the game or the innings comes up in conversation. Missing that great day has been a great regret.
Late West Indies commentating legend, Tony Cozier, a man who saw more West Indies cricket than any other, made the remarkable assertion at the time that Lara's Sabina Park innings was the most significant in our history. A bold claim indeed, considering Caribbean cricket's storied past.
It was certainly a dickens of a display. The seemingly unstoppable Australians were put to the sword by cricket's most exciting batsman. The “Prince of Port of Spain” was back to his exquisite best, mounting an insurrection against Australian domination and issuing a rejoinder to the Caribbean cricket authorities who had the temerity to reprimand him. Lara really showed them — and me.
Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.