On this day: Lara becomes first man to reach 400 in Test cricket

On this day in 2004, Brian Lara slammed 400 not out against England to set the record for the highest individual score in a Test innings.

Brian Lara jumps in celebration after getting to 384 runs to beat the world's highest score in Test cricket.   -  AP

The elevating effect of Brian Lara's remarkable, unbeaten 400 could be witnessed all around the Antigua Recreation Ground the moment it was raised by the left-hander's delicate sweep for a single.

For the first time in the series, West Indian faces were wreathed in smiles, their voices no longer drowned out by the deafening, triumphal chants of the Barmy Army and their travelling accomplices.

Over in the open section, adjoining Independence Street, the national flags of the several independent nations that somehow manage to find unity through their cricket team waved happily as Lara inevitably reclaimed the Test record score just where he had established it 10 years earlier before advancing to his scarcely comprehensible 400.

He was so composed, so utterly in command, so invincible that he surely could have carried on to 500 and, for that matter, 600 if he was so minded.

The euphoria throughout the small, cricket-playing countries scattered across the Caribbean Sea and as far as Guyana on the South American mainland was swiftly confirmed in congratulatory messages from the great and the humble, from Presidents and Prime Ministers to the public.

The hastily scribbled sign on the popular side that stated "our wounds have been healed" was stretching the point if it was suggesting that one innings, even as monumental as Lara's, had suddenly put right all the problems that bedevil West Indies cricket. But it was understandable.

Things have taken such a turn for the worse in recent times, but more especially in the series against England, that the passionate fans have turned to nostalgia for solace.

In Barbados, the 50th anniversary of Sir Garry Sobers' Test debut was celebrated during the third Test. A bust of Malcolm Marshall was unveiled at his old school. England played at the Three Ws Oval.

Brian Lara is congratulated by Andrew Flintoff after achieving 400 runs.   -  Getty Images

In Antigua, the Sir Vivian Richards Foundation was launched. An exhibition of memorabilia was opened at the St. John's museum.

References to the glory days under Richards and Clive Lloyd had helped sustain the enthusiasm against the indignity of 47 and 94 all out and the defeat in the first three Tests.

In all the depression that has enveloped West Indies cricket, even before England arrived with their hordes of fans, there was the pride engendered by the status of Lara's 375 on the same ground five years earlier and Courtney Walsh's 519 wickets as Test cricket's two greatest personal achievements.

Then Lara's highest Test score was trumped by Matthew Hayden's 380 in Perth last October while Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan closed in on Walsh's mark. Soon there would be even less to hold on to.

Lara has now ensured that the most celebrated West Indian of the present generation is again on top of the world and is likely to be there for some time.

As he did five years ago, Lara once more transformed a situation of deep personal, and team, crisis into one of critical revival and triumph.

The sheer statistical weight of his 13 flawless hours and the unimaginable 400 runs speak for themselves.

The bland facts and figures — and they are inevitably copious — cannot reveal is the immense pressure that had to be borne to fashion them.

When he walked to the middle at the early fall of the first wicket on the first morning, Lara's own fortunes, and those of West Indies cricket, were at a lower ebb than they have ever been.

England, an old enemy for reasons beyond cricket alone, had heaped humiliation on Lara and his team. The embarrassment had been compounded by the cheers and the taunts of the England supporters, who filled as much as three-quarters of the stands at Kensington Oval, once the impenetrable fortress of West Indies cricket where the collapse to 94 all out opened the way to the victory that retained the Wisden Trophy for England.

So, as Lara took guard, England were on the verge of the unthinkable, the first clean sweep of a series in the Caribbean by any visiting team.

As for his captaincy, Lara's tactics, always unconventional, were now widely seen as simply illogical. His second tenure as captain was proving even more disastrous than his first and calls for his replacement were becoming more widespread and strident.

He himself, the team's only batsman fit to be ranked among the best of the day, indeed of all time, had been dismissed cheaply in the six previous innings.

He had jumped around uncertainly at the crease in a vain effort to counter England's fast, bouncing bowling on fast, bouncing pitches. For the first time in his career, he had been dismissed without scoring in two successive innings.

At his home ground, the Queen's Park Oval, he had slipped himself down to as low as No. 6 in the second innings, describing it as a "tactical" decision but transmitting to England a leader abrogating his responsibility.

It was an error he recognised for he was back at No.3 in the following Tests, his natural place but one he had not filled for three years.

The burden he carried into the match was, therefore, greater than any West Indies captain could ever have known — except he himself.

As he acknowledged, he was once more drinking in the last chance saloon.

"The next five days are very important in terms of my future as captain," he said prior to the match. "No captain, no team, wants to go down for the first time in their history as losing all their Test matches at home."

But he had travelled the same rocky path before and he knew the way out.

In the second season of his first spell as captain, his leadership was roundly and publicly criticised by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) after the ill-starred 1998-99 tour of South Africa where all five Tests and six of the one-day internationals were lost.

The failure was compounded by Lara's failure against the pace of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock that left him without a hundred in either form of the game, a modest average in the mid-30s in the Tests.

The Board accentuated its censure by renewing Lara's captaincy for only two Tests of the ensuing home series against Australia. He was, effectively, on probation and when a team even weaker in batting than it is now, collapsed to 51 all out to lose the first Test by a mile, his position hung on a thin thread.

The burden was as intense at the end of the opening day of the second Test in Kingston as it was in Antigua this time.

The West Indies were 34 for four, replying to Australia's 256, and yet another collapse to defeat seemed inevitable.

What followed was the stuff of dreams.

In spite of — or, more probably, because of — his own and his team's crisis, Lara amassed 213 and followed with an unbeaten 153 in the second innings of the next Test, still arguably his finest Test innings, that virtually single-handedly sent the West Indies into an implausible 2-1 lead in the series.

He reeled off a third hundred in the last Test but it was not enough to prevent Steve Waugh's desperate team claiming victory that earned them a share of the spoils.

In the final Test against England, the series was already gone but as much was at stake. Each time, his performance rekindled the confidence and assuaged the anguish of people to whom cricket is all but life itself.

In 1999, the revival was short-lived. Within a year, Lara was resigning the captaincy, citing "modest success and devastating failure" during his stewardship and taking a break from the game.

Only time will tell whether the impact is of more lasting significance but, for the time being, West Indians are relishing the reflected glory of the greatest batting achievement in Test cricket history.

(The article was published in the Sportstar magazine dated April 24, 2004.)