Brian Lara pulls
© Getty Images

The Jury's Out

The greatest counter-attack

From wizardry in Jamaica to an uprising in Pakistan: our expert panel pick their favourite backs-to-the-wall classics

Brian Lara, 213
West Indies v Australia, Kingston, 1999
By Tony Cozier

On its own, Brian Lara's 213 against Australia in the second Test of the 1999 series appears as simply another in the long list of exceptional performances by a batsman as brilliant as any the game has known. For a host of reasons, it was much, much more. "In its context, with due deliberations and apologies to George Headley, Sir Garry Sobers and a host of other greats, I cannot identify a single innings by any West Indian batsman in our 71 years of Test cricket of such significance," I was moved to confidently assert at the time. Nothing since has changed my judgement.

No captain had ever been under such pressure; never had West Indies cricket been in such a state of crisis. Lara had been placed on probation for the first two Tests by the WICB, which warned that he needed "to make significant improvement in his leadership skills". The trouble could be traced back to four months earlier, when Lara and his team had remained ensconced in a London hotel, refusing to leave for their momentous first Test series in apartheid-free South Africa until they sorted out their grievances over pay and terms with the WICB. On their insistence, board president Pat Rousseau flew in from Jamaica to hear their complaints. After stripping Lara of the captaincy and planning to pick an alternative team, Rousseau backed down so that the tour proceeded, if a week late.

At the toss in the second Test, Lara told Steve Waugh, "This could be the last time I'll be doing this." By the close of the first day, another trouncing appeared inevitable

West Indies were thrashed in all five Tests and six of the seven ODIs. Lara, already established as the most exhilarating batsman of his time, averaged 31 in the Tests and 11 in the four ODIs he played. A month later, in the first Test against Australia at the Queen's Park Oval, his home ground, his fate seemed sealed when he was dismissed for 3. West Indies were swept aside for 51 in the second innings and thrashed by 312 runs.

At the toss in the second Test, Lara told Steve Waugh, "This could be the last time I'll be doing this." By the close of the first day, another trouncing appeared inevitable. After restricting Australia to 256 in their first innings, West Indies limped to 37 for 4. Lara survived; he was on 7 as he carried nightwatchman Pedro Collins with him into the next day.

What followed was sheer wizardry. Overnight, Lara was seemingly touched by some magic wand that transformed the timidity one had seen in South Africa into the assertive self-belief that had been his hallmark. Against bowling spearheaded by his long-time adversaries Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, he was in command throughout the next day, moving past his first hundred for 27 innings and carrying on to his third double.

Witness to the resurrection: fans invade the pitch after Lara's double-century

Witness to the resurrection: fans invade the pitch after Lara's double-century © Getty Images

Lara reeled off strokes of every variety in all directions; there were three sixes and 29 fours. At each of his landmarks, an invasion of the ground by dozens of jubilant spectators sent him scampering for escape - at 200, all the way into the dressing room. The Australians didn't claim a wicket in the 90 overs. Collins kept going for an hour until a blow to his midsection from McGrath caused him to retire. Jimmy Adams replaced Collins and remained Lara's virtually anonymous partner to the close. Lara ended the day on 212. Adams, his fellow left-hander, on a vital, if hardly noticed, 88.

Inspired by their captain's mastery, West Indies would not be denied. They scuttled the shocked Australians for 177 the second time round; three runs fewer would have ended in an innings defeat. Mike Coward wrote in his Wisden report: "Lara seduced the people of a bankrupt nation, resurrected his career as a batsman of rare gifts and reignited cricket throughout the Caribbean." It was, he added, "by universal consent one of the great Test innings".

In only one respect was his judgement premature. Two weeks later, at the Kensington Oval in Barbados, Lara's unbeaten 153 clinched victory by one wicket and sent West Indies ahead in the series. It was by universal consent even greater. But it was the 213 that sparked the counter-attack.

Tony Cozier is a veteran writer and commentator on Caribbean cricket

Doug Walters, 104 not out
New Zealand v Australia, Auckland, 1974
By Ian Chappell

It wasn't unusual for Doug Walters to disrupt a captain's thinking; he could do it with a practical joke fuelled by his latest purchase from a Carnaby Street magic shop or simply by turning up late for a day's play in a Test match. On this occasion Walters did it with his bat, the "Dungog Dasher", counter-attacking with his team in trouble.

No early declaration needed when Dougie's at the crease

No early declaration needed when Dougie's at the crease © PA Photos

It was Auckland 1974 and the last of a three-Test series. Australia trailed one-nil after a loss in Christchurch. I arrived at the toss to discover a pitch drowned by a hose, and when the flick of the florin favoured New Zealand captain Bev Congdon, I uttered a familiar four-letter expletive. Feeling no need for sympathy, Congdon was unmoved and asked us to bat first.

My intention was to attack from the outset with a view to declaring at lunch to ensure New Zealand had to bat with the pitch still wet. However, this ploy put us in early trouble and when Walters entered the fray we were 37 for 4. Undaunted, Walters was still there at lunch and he was the reason I didn't follow through on my intention to declare. His partner was Rod Marsh, so I reasoned that any runs we got after lunch would come quickly and I would declare once one of them was dismissed.

Walters was a wonderful on-driver, utilising his "come-to-attention shot", where he abruptly brought his back foot up to meet the front one, as though clicking the heels of his army boots

However, I reckoned without Walters' brilliant counter-attacking abilities. He was facing a decent New Zealand attack; the tall and awkward Richard Collinge, a cagey fast-medium Dayle Hadlee and his younger brother Richard, who was a tearaway at that early stage of his career, having recently supplanted Bob Cunis, whose bowling was once humorously likened to his name in being neither one thing nor the other.

New Zealand probably expected Walters to start quietly, have a look at the bowling and assess the conditions, but he unnerved them by playing his natural game. This was one of his greatest assets - the temperament that let him play the same way no matter the situation, and his ability to focus on the next ball and forget the previous one. He had the perfect disposition for a No. 6; he could sit around and wait for long periods, smoking and playing cards but always with an eye on the game, and once he donned the pads the 52-pack was put away.

Bad pitch? Batting collapse? Walters knew only one way to play

Bad pitch? Batting collapse? Walters knew only one way to play © Getty Images

Walters was a great cutter and on this pitch where the ball bounced steeply but slowly, he employed the shot regularly. He was also a wonderful on-driver, utilising his "come-to-attention shot", where he abruptly brought his back foot up to meet the front one, as though clicking the heels of his army boots.

It's rarely mentioned but Walters was also a great runner between wickets. Earlier on that tour he scored a century in a session (not an uncommon feat for him) against Northern Districts and in doing so only hit one four; taking advantage of deep-set fields he manufactured twos. His running between wickets was also a feature in Auckland, where he made 104 off just 138 balls, including 15 fours. Marsh contributed 45 with a few lusty blows and tea was taken when Australia were dismissed for 221. By stumps New Zealand, batting on a pitch that was still damp, were 85 for 8. Australia went on to win the match by 297 runs, as Ian Redpath carried his bat for 159 in the second innings.

Walters' counter-attack, mounted with Australia in a parlous position, turned the match and wrested the initiative from a rampant New Zealand team. Just one of many occasions when Walters' aggressive play from No. 6 helped Australia win a Test.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel Nine, and a columnist

Kamran Akmal, 113
Pakistan v India, Karachi, 2006
By Osman Samiuddin

By the time a ninth Test in less than two years came around, the overriding sense accompanying the India-Pakistan rivalry was that it had reached a point of saturation. It was great the two were playing again, but already they were playing too much too often.

In 2006, Akmal was a remarkable cricketer capable of remarkable feats

In 2006, Akmal was a remarkable cricketer capable of remarkable feats © Associated Press

The preceding two Tests, in Lahore and Faisalabad, had not helped this sense of overfill. There were too many runs, too many boundaries, and no real action. When the tour arrived in Karachi for the final Test, it felt like that first evening of Eid, when the time comes to recognise the futility of the day's culinary excesses and regret it. To what end all that sugar?

In Karachi there were clouds, and unusually for a coastal city, it stands immeasurably improved with clouds. They give it the grandeur a city of its size and type deserves (they do not, as a general habit, give rain). At the National Stadium there was also grass on the pitch. In micro terms the combination meant swing. In the bigger picture, it meant the rivalry had a heartbeat, a renewed purpose.

By the time Kamran Akmal walked to the crease on the first morning, with Pakistan 39 for 6, 10.3 overs had produced more meaningful cricket than the entire series had done. Irfan Pathan's deliveries were hooping elegant curves through the air. His companions were not as consistent but were still threatening.

Akmal scored hundreds for fun and he did it with such baby-faced innocence that it was impossible not to get giddy at the prospects of a great future

Nearly a decade on, the memory can lull you into believing Akmal played only one kind of shot that day, all innings long. Crisp as they were, the few cuts, a pull or two and even some straight drives were ultimately lost against the geometrical interplay of his cover drives.

He was being fed by three left-arm pacemen, pitching full for swing and wide to exploit a natural angle across him, or to bring one back. So getting driven through cover made the geometry of this battle complete. There was such purpose in those shots. Again and again each ball sped to that same area, as firmly convinced as a young ideologue that its destiny lay there and only there.

Early on he did not lunge at the ball, unlike the others before him and unlike himself later in his career. Akmal let the ball come to him, so that it seemed as if it was swinging to his command and not the bowler's. After a while the swing lessened and Pathan, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh loosened their holds. Rahul Dravid was still fairly fresh in the business of captaincy and maybe more proactive than the end-days Sourav Ganguly, so the fields were inviting.

A geometrical progression: Akmal repeatedly drove through the covers during his Karachi century

A geometrical progression: Akmal repeatedly drove through the covers during his Karachi century © Associated Press

But all this simply felt like the inevitable consequence of Akmal's counter, because around that time he was emerging as a remarkable cricketer capable of regular remarkable feats. His keeping was at its peak, safe to both pace and spin and capable of the spectacular. Two months earlier he had dived around the stumps and at Marcus Trescothick's feet to catch the ball left-handed after an attempted sweep hit Trescothick's foot and popped up.

Not only was he scoring hundreds for fun - this was his seventh international hundred in a year - he was making all kinds of them. Less than a year before Karachi, he batted nearly 60 overs to help Pakistan draw a Test in Mohali. In Lahore in the opening Test of the series, he made an 81-ball 102. There were also three ODI hundreds as opener, including one in Australia. And he did it with such baby-faced innocence that it was impossible not to get completely carried away and get giddy at the prospects of a great future.

In Karachi, an older innings was recalled: Moin Khan's 70, made seven years earlier, in Calcutta. That was from a worse position - 26 for 6 - and Moin too was a wicketkeeper, but his was an old-style rearguard and took four and a half hours. This day Akmal scored 113 of the 197 runs Pakistan added while he was at the crease and it was over in less than three and a half hours. By day's end, Pakistan were already on top. It was a counter-attack in its purest sense - as Australians see it. It enhanced the rivalry but also ended up transcending it.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket

Tom Graveney and John Murray, 217-run partnership
England v West Indies, The Oval, 1966
By Rob Steen

At its peak of expression, the cricketing counter-attack has no sporting equal. Momentum can be fiendishly hard to reverse, especially when contests consume the best part of a week, but once it does - witness Graham Dilley and Ian Botham's despairing let's-give-it-some-humpty assault at Headingley in 1981 - the collective intoxication can mesmerise us for days. Yes, defence, concentration, patience and obstinacy can all loosen the opposition's grip, but the sudden, thrilling charge, riffing on risk and reaffirmation, disdaining the diktats of the scoreboard, can alter the balance of power with spellbinding speed.

The counter-seduction: Graveney and Murray gently pile on the runs against West Indies

The counter-seduction: Graveney and Murray gently pile on the runs against West Indies © Getty Images

My choice meets precisely none of those requirements.

Friday, August 19, 1966. Guided by a Grinch of a grandfather and the BBC TV commentators, a ten-year-old Test virgin winces as England, replying to West Indies' dead-rubber 268, sink to 166 for 7 against the diverse might of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers. At the end of a summer of virtually ceaseless woe, the virgin is informed, consolation is off the menu. Faith in the judgement of his elders would never recover.

Joined by wicketkeeper John Murray, Tom Graveney, nudging 40, sets about repairing the damage with an assurance that re-poses those endless questions about his years in the wings - or so the Daily Telegraph would reveal the following morning. To that most poetic of cricket correspondents, Alan Ross - the virgin would subsequently discover - here was "a player of yacht-like character, beautiful in calm seas, yet at the mercy of every change of weather". How serenely and beautifully he sailed that afternoon. Yet so handsomely did Murray progress, proclaimed EW Swanton, the biggest compliment he could pay was to confess that he found it virtually impossible to tell the partners apart.

Aggression was unseen, unsensed; artistry and impassiveness ruled. The score mounted to the sound of metronomic clicks and deeply satisfying plinks

The only spectator sport the virgin had previously been exposed to had been effball, though this had acquainted him with the counter-thrust, unforgettably so: Everton storming back from 2-0 down to beat Sheffield Wednesday and win the FA Cup, then England rallying from both an early deficit and a last-minute equaliser to beat West Germany and lift the World Cup. This was different in almost every respect.

Sobers at the Gabba in 1960; Brian Lara and Carl Hooper in Bridgetown in the opening session of the epochal 1995 Worrell Trophy showdown; Davy Warner taming Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in Adelaide in 2012; Ben Stokes and Joe Root defusing Trent Boult and Tim Southee at Lord's five months ago: counter-offensives all. Here was a counter-seduction.

Aggression was unseen, unsensed; artistry and impassiveness ruled. The score mounted to the sound of metronomic clicks and deeply satisfying plinks. As the boundaries flowed, gentle applause rippled from the screen. Every four was a small but significant victory, yet emotion there was none. No cavorting or leaping into each other's arms; no chants or supportive roars from the terraces; merely a faint hum of joy and a growing feeling that everything might just be all right.

Tom and John: artistic and impassive

Tom and John: artistic and impassive © Getty Images

By stumps the total had almost doubled. "Bloody brilliant," declaimed England's grateful third captain of the season, Brian Close. Graveney ran himself out the next morning for 165, the alliance worth 217, whereupon John Snow and Ken Higgs cheekily plundered 128 for the last wicket - and Snow even had the audacity to call for a new bat. The ten-year-old had lost his virginity in style.

Two days later, picking up the Daily Express in the departure lounge en route to a family holiday in Spain, he read the news (oh boy!): England had romped home by an innings. To him, the score was starker: Logic 0, Possibility 1. First impressions don't get much more indelible, reliable or perfect.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

VVS Laxman, 109
Australia v India, Sydney, 2008
By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

When VVS Laxman strode into the sun-bathed Sydney Cricket Ground on a gorgeous Thursday afternoon early in 2008, the overall mood was in dire need of uplift. India had been outclassed in the first Test, in Melbourne. Their batsmen were badgered outside off stump and had no answers to Australia's funky field settings. Anil Kumble admitted that the top order had been shackled and urged them to express themselves in Sydney without fearing the consequences.

VVS Laxman: glorious in the gloom

VVS Laxman: glorious in the gloom © Getty Images

The first day at the SCG pointed to a fightback. Australia were limping at 193 for 6 when Andrew Symonds, their last recognised batsman, edged to the wicketkeeper. The snick cut through the burble. Ishant Sharma didn't bother to appeal; he was already into his celebration. The Test had been thrown open. The series had caught fire. Except, Steve Bucknor pricked the giant bubble of excitement with a gentle shake of the head. Symonds went on to 162. And the match, and series, was Australia's for the taking.

Laxman joined his chum Rahul Dravid with India at 8 for 1. It is unclear if they hatched a plan but over the next three and a half hours they undertook vastly different journeys. Dravid was stuck in a blind alley, searching for his timing, unable to beat the field, his struggle so apparent he received a rousing ovation when he sneaked a single after spending 46 agonising minutes on 18. Laxman soared, crunching square drives, the sound of bat on ball silencing the crowd, the sight of it speeding to the fence evoking gasps.

When Laxman batted with such glorious abandon, he was not merely changing the course of a Test; he was clearing the cobwebs from his team-mates' minds

Dravid was desperate to seek out the gaps in the field; Laxman couldn't find the fielders if he tried. At one stage Mitchell Johnson had two extra covers, a short mid-off and a point. None of them mattered. Laxman caressed two fours through the cordon, picked off a brace through cover, cracked another four, through cover, and then, as if delivering a punchline to an elaborate joke, walked across his stumps and flicked to square leg.

When Laxman batted with such glorious abandon - as he did at several points in his career - he was not merely changing the course of a Test; he was clearing the cobwebs from his team-mates' minds, infusing them with belief, stirring them to join in his revolt. He had constructed a monument seven years earlier, waltzing down the track and driving Shane Warne inside out in Kolkata; and he worked another miracle in Adelaide in 2003, partnering Dravid in a 303-run stand. Here he inspired a listless line-up to amass 532. And gave India a chance to draw level.

Fielders? What fielders?

Fielders? What fielders? © Getty Images

Eventually it would not be enough to avoid defeat. The ugly scenes at the end of the Test - possibly the most rancorous since Bodyline - would consign the innings to a mere footnote. The endless post-mortems would leave no space to get our heads around such a wondrous innings. Which is more of a reason to remind ourselves that for those few hours on the second day in Sydney, with India on the rack and the series on the line, Laxman found a way to make the loudest of statements with the most delicate of touches. Some counter-attacks need gunfire; some only need a paintbrush.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA

 

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