West Indies staring down the barrel

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.

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 began with a single behind him and, in half an hour at the crease, took his innings to 15. Then James Anderson, bashed unceremoniously for four the first time he bowled a delivery to Lara in a recent one-day international, 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 its feet. It cheered and waved and clapped him all the way to the dressing room.

A Hollywood touch

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 got out, also to a sharp catch at slip by Andrew Flintoff off Anderson. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now so far round in his stance that his right shoulder almost points to square leg, and tomorrow's man Dwayne Bravo staged a rearguard action until lunch at 182 for four, still 136 behind. Afterwards Bravo was hit on the back of the helmet by Steve Harmison but still struggled to fifty. The first ball after the drinks interval had him lbw to Hoggard for 54 and just before tea — at 274 for six — Chanderpaul went for 32, marking the beginning of the last rites for West Indies and the departure of one of their greatest legends.