West Indies' dreams end at the Oval

LONDON, AUG. 21. The Oval is not so much a stadium of dreams but a ground where dreams end as they did, poignantly, for Brian Lara, captain of West Indies, and much abused champion cricketer, today. They ended abruptly for his team too, beaten by ten wickets and whitewashed 4-0 inthe series.

We thought he might show us one last great innings, perhaps even stave off defeat in the fourth and final Test against England for at least 24 hours. He showed his serious side when he refused to use a night watchman at the end of the second day.

On Saturday he took his innings to 15 before James Anderson made the ball skid across his groping bat and Marcus Trescothick picked up an ankle high catch at first slip.

Lara has always walked and on this occasion he turned on his heel and strode ten yards before he remembered it was his last innings in England. His cricketer's soul is West Indian but his sporting spirit is English. Like Bradman in 1948, like Steve Waugh, like Alec Stewart, each revered in their own way, he gave a first wave of his bat which brought the crowd to their feet. They cheered and waved and clapped him all the way to the dressing room.

The Oval is a fine place to say farewell since it has a long staircase through the stand that gives focus to the departing hero. Today, by design or by accident, Lara's progress was given a Hollywood touch by the guard of red-coated security men. It was a departure in style, a moment for the sentimental sports fan - and sentimental sports writer - to treasure. I make no bones about my admiration for his batting; he is the finest.

Sadly, he leaves with too much baggage, a record number of defeats and too many enemies. Some are ex-cricketers who should know better; men from the glory days of West Indies. Their harsh words may make him quit as their captain of the ICC Trophy side so you may think he was saying farewell to more than those of us who have cherished his batsmanship for 15 years.

Soon after Lara went Chris Gayle completed his century off 80 balls and then gave a sharp catch to Andrew Flintoff off Anderson. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now so far round that his right shoulder almost points to square leg. The first ball after the drinks interval had Bravo lbw to Hoggard for 54 and just before tea Chanderpaul went for 32.

An hour later the game ended with West Indies all out 318, leaving one run needed for victory. England were celebrating seven victories in the summer for the first time since 1928, ten wins in their last 11 Tests and still expecting their Ashes dream to come true at the Oval a year from now.