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While Tim McIntosh was painstakingly putting his 74 together on Saturday, a few of the people mailing the Cricinfo commentators were moaning about his slow scoring. Then one of McIntosh's mates piped up that it was a five-day Test and this is how Test cricket should be played.
That “should” needs considerable qualification, but first-class and Test cricket are indeed the only forms of the game where long periods of defensive batting make good tactical sense – and McIntosh certainly did a useful job for New Zealand: building a platform and wearing down the bowlers on the way to an imposing team total.
I was brought up, so to speak, on batting like that. When I started watching, the England openers were very likely to be John Edrich and Geoff Boycott, who were both masters of the craft. Indeed, I'm not sure I've yet seen anyone better than Boycott at the pure business of batting for as long as possible – but as I grew up in Yorkshire, he was a childhood hero and that may introduce a certain bias.
The legacy of idolising Boycs is an enduring appreciation for the stonewaller in his various guises, though it has to be said he does not always make for riveting viewing. Often one is admiring patience, restraint, courage and stubborn determination more than the actual batting.
The sheer class of some asserts virtual supremacy – only someone who bowls as superbly as Boycott, Jacques Kallis or Sunil Gavaskar bat is going to get them out. You are watching a supreme technician at work, and even against the top bowlers, it is a tussle of equals. Every so often though, along comes a bad ball, and they play it to the boundary with a stroke of similar class. Boycott's cover drive, when he played it, was one of the finest you'll ever see; my enduring memories of Sunny include the sudden punishment of the cut or sweep after three solid overs of soft-handed killing of the spin. Shiv Chanderpaul follows roughly the same methods as those three, with about the same result, but without the functional elegance of their classical technique.
Then there are those who do not give off quite the same air of permanence: top-class bowling could easily dislodge them, one feels, although in practice they often stay in for ages. Michael Atherton, Marvan Atapattu and Dilip Vengsarkar all played great defensive innings, but somehow just weren't quite in the Boycott-Gavaskar class.
But they still had attacking strokes they could play. Gary Kirsten may have had them, but his main trait was invisibility. I know I sat in the stands and watched him compile at least two centuries, but I cannot remember a single scoring stroke. Even at the time I couldn't remember them: glancing at the scoreboard, there was 64 against his name, but I had no idea how he had accumulated them. Perhaps people just awarded him the occasional run without him actually having to hit the ball.
Then come those who really do just drop anchor and don't play any shots at all. Neil McKenzie, Brendan Nash and Thilan Samaraweera are prime examples of this wholly introverted style, but at least they seem to be doing it deliberately.
There are a few, however, who are teeth-grindingly tedious to watch. They may well have done a job for their team, but did they really have to do it like that? Zimbabwe's Trevor Gripper was awful. Worse still was Deep Dasgupta, whose hundred at Mohali in 2001 has to be the most mind-numbing I've ever seen – but he would surely not have earned that dubious distinction if Chris Tavare had ever reached three figures. Fortunately, Tav's career came fifty years too late for the timeless Test he would have needed to reach the mark. (There is, by the way, no truth to the story that umpire Gothoskar became so concerned by Tavare's immobility at Bangalore in 1981 that he insisted on checking his pulse to make sure he hadn't died at the crease.)
My favourite, though, is Rahul Dravid, who has a style even more reassuring than the Kallises and Gavaskars. The aforementioned masters would always make it clear that what they were doing was difficult, beyond the reach of mortal men. Dravid, however, seems to treat the most challenging conditions like a crossword puzzle which he is enjoying figuring out. He looks vaguely amused that the last ball was a real screamer which almost cut him in half; when a bowler delivers a relatively easy ball, Dravid peers back quizzically, as if asking why he bothered. That does not make him the greatest – my suspicion is that the title belongs to Len Hutton – but it does make him the most entertaining to watch.
I was going to say “long may he continue”, but it would be redundant. It's just what he does.
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