Sunday, April 22, 2007

Lara's last game is a thriller with a sad end

Consider this: you are playing in front of a packed Kensington Oval crowd, who have come to enjoy your team’s last game in the World Cup. They’ve all come to bid goodbye to the most resplendent batsman from your nation since the great Sir Viv Richards himself. He’s batting with you – your teammates before you have set up a foundation better than anything you’ve seen in this tournament before. The crowd cheers two delectable shots to the ropes from the retiring prince who accompanies you. And although you worry about that gigantic, awkward shuffle of his, you must say he looks in good knick.

Then you tap a ball to mid-on, call the prince for a run and instantly change your mind. The man of the hour tries to scramble back in his crease but comes up short. A hush falls over the crowd. The opposition celebrates like it has won the lottery. The prince begins a slow trudge back to the pavilion. Your blood freezes in its veins. What do you do from here on?

Samuel’s response
I know what I would: I would fervently pray for the ground to open up and swallow me entirely. But instead Marlon Samuels flung his bat around with abandon to collar the wanton English bowlers for 51 runs in 36 balls. It was a remarkable performance given what must have been on his mind after he ran out Brian Lara, in his captain’s final innings in any kind of international cricket. He gave his team the momentum they needed to put up a total of 300 runs on a wicket and their best chance of giving Lara and the crowds a memorable win.

A solid beginning
When England batted, they had an uphill task to salvage some prestige before the curtain came down for them. “Vaughn would be an all rounder” a sign held up by a fan said earlier when the English captain was bowling his part-time off-spinners “if only he could bat”. It was a humorous reflection on Vaughn’s inability to put up a good score of late. But Vaughn batted with a boldness thus missing from his play and when the pitch rewarded him by playing true, he quickly put England in the hunt.

After Strauss’ early dismissal, Ravi Bopara played an industrious innings – enough to suggest he should bat higher up the order and had only his misplaced enthusiasm to blame for his dismissal via a direct throw from Dwayne Bravo. Along with England’s best Kevin Pietersen, Vaughn added 53 runs in 66 balls for the third wicket. When Vaughn went at 153 for 3 in the 27th over, the game was evenly poised.

The wheels come loose for England
But things went horribly wrong for England at that point. Paul Collingwood – who had earlier held the catch of the World Cup to send back Devon Smith – cut one on his stumps, Andrew Flintoff called the curtain on his own painful innings by holing out to mid-on and Jamie Dalrymple ran himself out rather foolishly.

England teeter on the edge
At the other end Kevin Pietersen was motoring along quietly but was rendered impotent by the steady procession of partners. Now Paul Nixon joined him at the crease and Pietersen immediately found the pugnacious partner he was looking for. He revved his motor considerably, racing to his hundred and exponentially increasing England’s chances with each hit to the fence including the huge six over long on that brought up his second hundred of the World Cup. But when his repeat attempt met air and left his stumps shattered, England appeared to have lost the game. They were 269 for 7 and still needed 32 off 22 balls.

The West Indies bowlers lose the plot
Here West Indies lost the plot quite a bit. And it happened in the 48th over from Collymore during which Nixon swung his bat and found the midwicket fence three times. Tactically the West Indian bowlers should have kept it just short of good length to the tail-enders – who aren’t exactly great pullers or cutters of the ball. Instead they attempted to york them and ended up delivering full tosses – which even bunnies have no problems knocking around for singles and twos. With one wicket in hand, England kept their nerve to get the winning runs of the penultimate ball of their innings.

A solemn goodbye for Lara
It was not the way one wanted to see Brian Lara go. But the game was meaningless anyway – the winning team only got brownie points in the end. But the West Indian performance was symptomatic of what has driven Lara to retire from the game. If you aren’t good enough or aren’t having fun it’s time to go. Lara was easily good enough – but his increasingly furrowed brow every time he marshaled his meager resources seemed to indicate that the fun had long gone.

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