A passage to greatness
From Viswanath to Gavaskar and the modern masters Tendulkar and Dravid, Mukul Kesavan traces the history of Indian batting and its discrete eras in the light of Wisden Asia Cricket's Greatest Indian Innings list.
When Wisden.com's hundred best centuries of all time didn't find room for any of Sachin Tendulkar's tons, the Indian cricket public wanted to know why, and thus began its education in the methods of modern statistics. Wisden.com's innings were assessed by weighted criteria and ladder-ranked: judged by those yardsticks, Tendulkar's innings didn't measure up. Gundappa Viswanath was there, Sunil Gavaskar was there, VVS Laxman was right up there (the fourth-best innings of all time), Brian Lara was severally there, but not Tendulkar.
One reason given for his exclusion was that his big innings didn't win matches for India against good opposition, and the Wisden.com rankings set great store by victory. Laxman's Kolkata double-hundred was fresh in our minds, a textbook example of what Wisden.com's statisticians valued: a big innings, against a great side, in seemingly hopeless circumstances, which turned the match and set up an improbable victory. That it had been recognised as one of the best innings in the history of Test cricket helped soften the blow of Tendulkar's exclusion and legitimised Wisden.com's methods.
But for the Indian fan, the weight given to victory is problematic. For us, the trouble with using victory as a touchstone for great batting is that the cricket we've watched (or followed over the radio) has been generally framed by defeat. If losing the Test match radically devalues individual performances, most of the innings that made us bite our nails and pace the floor and cover our eyes, turn out to be dross.
In countries like Australia, which have historically won more matches than they have lost, there's a better fit between individual achievement and team performance. Australian memories of a great innings by Bill Ponsford or Don Bradman or Greg Chappell or Steve or Mark Waugh or Adam Gilchrist are unlikely to be diminished by subsequent defeat; whereas Indian fans have spent their lives salvaging individual innings from shipwrecked Tests. In the whole of our Test match history there have been two or three brief periods of success: Ajit Wadekar's team in the early seventies, Kapil Dev's series win in England in the eighties, then this combative phase under Sourav Ganguly, which already threatens to come to an end. This is the sum of our winning streaks. Winning sprinkles would be more accurate.
So a celebration of Indian batsmanship that concentrates on winning performances will exclude most of our cricket history, most of our batsmen and most of our memories. That can't be right. And the reason it doesn't seem right is related to the nature of cricket, not just our local predicament as supporters of a team that loses more often than it wins.
Cricket, it's worth repeating in these star-obssessed times, is a team game. And not only is it a team game, it's a team game played out over five days and two innings. To grade a single batting performance out of a possible 22 (11 batsmen, batting twice) in the light of victory and defeat, is to place on it a burden that it shouldn't have to bear. Worse, such a judgment is untrue to the moment and to the experience of contemporary spectators. Innings that subsequently seem decisive more often than not begin and end with the issue unresolved and the match in the balance. Subsequent performances by others in the team - bowlers, batsmen and fielders - build on the promise of the innings or betray it.
Since we began with Tendulkar, we can use three first-innings centuries by him to illustrate the point. In March 2001, Tendulkar scored a dour, attritional century in India's first innings against Australia at Chennai. India won by two wickets; if it hadn't been for a composed 60-odd by Laxman in the second innings, India would have lost. Six months later, on the first day of the first Test in South Africa in 2001, India batted first and Tendulkar scored 155 in 184 balls with 23 fours and a six. It was an innings of exhilarating aggression against the best fast bowling attack in the world, with wickets falling all round him. India lost. A little over two years later, in Sydney, Tendulkar scored an unbeaten 241. It was a patient knock, notable for Tendulkar's refusal to off-drive. India pressed Australia hard but failed to bowl them out on the last day and the match was drawn. The best of the three in terms of the quality of the attack and sustained brilliance in stroke production was the Bloemfontein knock and we lost. The highest score of the three, made in Sydney, was an anonymous knock, utterly uncharacteristic of Tendulkar in his pomp. The Chennai hundred was workmanlike and purposeful. And while the batsman making these last two scores was recognisably Tendulkar, the innings themselves weren't Tendulkaresque. Ken Barrington could have played them. The only one of the three innings that made full use of Tendulkar's genius was the one at Bloemfontein, where he did everything he could to set India up but we lost. So which of these three innings should we commemorate?
Wisden Asia Cricket's list of the 25 greatest knocks by Indian batsmen provides one answer. While Tendulkar has three innings listed in the 25, the three I've mentioned don't figure. I can reveal that the Sydney innings was the only one of the three above to make it to even the longlist. I guess the size of the score helped it past the Chennai knock, even though the latter helped India win. The century at Bloemfontein, one of the great attacking innings of modern times, doesn't get a mention, sunk by the all-round awfulness of the team's performance. Judging batsmanship by the match result can be a tricky, misleading business.
But overall, WAC's is a very good list, closer to the nature and spirit of the game than Wisden.com's top 100 because it doesn't fetishise winning. Of the top 10 innings, five didn't lead to victories. Three of those five were played in Test matches that India lost. Gavaskar has three mentions in the top 10 and not one of those innings helped India win: the two double-centuries resulted in draws, while the great 96 he made against Pakistan in Bangalore, his last Test innings, wasn't enough to stave off defeat. And this is as it should be. After that first spasm of success under Ajit Wadekar, for the rest of his career Gavaskar spent a lot of his time in the middle fighting heroic rearguard actions because India didn't have the batting depth to set up victories. The 221 he made at The Oval chasing 438 to win illustrates India's dependence on him. He was out with India within reaching distance of the target, only to see the batting collapse and India fall short by nine runs, barely achieving a draw.
It's ironic (and in an odd way appropriate) that Gavaskar's attacking innings and his match-winning efforts are overlooked by WAC's top 25 in favour of the heroic losing rearguards or, as in the case of the 221 at The Oval, the `nearly-there' epic. His blitz against a West Indies pace attack led by Malcolm Marshall in his lethal prime at Delhi, where Gavaskar scored 121 in 128 balls on the first morning of the match, was a truly great attacking innings, irrespective of the result of the game (a draw). But not only does the 121 not figure in the top 25, it doesn't even figure in the jury's longlist of 63. I can only speculate that the image we have of Gavaskar as the rock on which our cricket was built for 16 years is so powerful that it crowds out innings that don't seem in character. An even more interesting omission from the 25 is the century he hit to set the stage for our greatest away win, when India scored 406 to defeat West Indies at Port of Spain in 1976. His comrade in arms (and later his brother-in-law) Viswanath, who also contributed a century (120) to the winning total, similarly doesn't make the cut with that innings, though he is represented by two other knocks against West Indies in Tests that India won.
Examined carefully, these 25 innings disclose a pattern that describes the historical evolution of Indian batsmanship. Viswanath's debut in 1969 marks the beginning of Indian batsmanship's modern era. The mid-sixties were a thin time for Indian batting and Viswanath's arrival was a watershed. He scored a century on debut and went on to make many more, which laid a jinx to rest: till then no Indian who had made a century on debut had ever made another one. His batting record surpassed, in terms of runs scored and centuries made, that of any Indian batsman before him. He first and then Gavaskar with him, liberated Indian batsmen from the reputation of being rabbits against fast bowling. Viswanath's 97 not out is rated third in the list of 25 for a reason: it was made against a rampant Andy Roberts on a fast pitch in a total of 190. It helped that India won the match. With Viswanath and Gavaskar, Indian batting achieved respectability.
If we divide Indian innings into two epochs, before and after Viswanath, and map these 25 innings on either side of that division, some things become clear. Less than a third of the 25 come from the era Before Viswanath. The 35 years of Test cricket after 1969 produced 18 of the 25 innings chosen, while the first 36 years produced just seven.
That in itself isn't significant because there were many fewer Test matches played in the earlier era. What is significant is that none of those seven innings helped India win: India lost five matches and managed to draw just two. Which brings me back to my original point: For the first three and a half decades of Indian Test cricket, fine batsmen battled insuperable odds. To judge a great batsman like Vijay Hazare by the blunt measure of victory is to hold him responsible for the failings of the teams he played in. WAC's list of 25 best innings doesn't make that mistake; it understands Indian cricket's long romance with gallant defeat and makes room for it.
With the exception of Vijay Hazare, all of India's greatest Test batsmen belong to the later period, the era inaugurated by Viswanath. Vijay Merchant will have his supporters but he only played 10 Tests. Chandu Borde, Vijay Manjrekar, Dilip Sardesai, fine batsmen all, have wonderful innings to their credit, but modest career records. Polly Umrigar had a substantial career but there was some doubt about his ability against quick bowling.
On the evidence of this listing, and their careers, the four best Indian batsmen ever are Rahul Dravid, Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Viswanath. Close behind them follow Azharuddin and Vengsarkar, with Virender Sehwag entering a claim to future greatness. This second period, After Viswanath, itself divides neatly into two halves. The first two decades produced great all-round batsmanship with the accent on defence. Gavaskar, Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar were capable of fine attacking play, but more often than not they played with watchful orthodoxy. With Azhar and Tendulkar, Indian batsmanship switches to a more attacking register. Sound play is sometimes sacrificed to berserker brilliance: Azharuddin's sole entry in the list of 25, coming in at number 22, is a wonderful example of all-out assault in a losing cause - the 121 at Lord's in 1990, off 111 balls. Tendulkar lit up the whole cricketing world in the 1990s with his attacking genius. Azhar and Tendulkar between them created the space for the essentially attacking batsman to flourish. If Sehwag is Tendulkar's heir, Laxman is, just as clearly, Azharuddin's.
But even as everyone from Don Bradman to Richie Benaud celebrated Tendulkar's primacy in the modern game, from an Indian point of view, the new millennium saw the maturing of a cricketer who drew level with Tendulkar in the matter of consistency, and then surpassed him in the business of making big innings against powerful teams to help India win: Rahul Dravid. Dravid owns four of the 25 innings listed and every one of them was played in a match that India won. In some ways Dravid is a throwback to both Gavaskar and Viswanath - all technique and concentration on the one hand and wristy flourish on the other.
It's worth noting that all the innings in the list that were played in the new millennium (there are six) were played in matches that India won. Suddenly India's best batting is being used to win us matches, not just to salvage draws or provide silver linings to defeats. Also, it isn't a coincidence that, starting with Laxman's sublime 281 in March 2001, Indian batsmen have racked up five of the six highest individual scores in Indian Test history in the last three years. Laxman and Tendulkar have a big double-hundred each, Dravid's scored four, while Sehwag has managed a triple. It isn't a coincidence because India has, for the first time, four batsmen capable of greatness playing on the same team. This doesn't guarantee victory: in the recent series against Australia, all of the top-order batsmen, with the honourable exception of Sehwag, failed simultaneously It does mean, though, that India can consistently challenge for the top spots in Test cricket in a way that they have never done before.
Novelist and essayist Mukul Kesavan was on the jury that voted on the Greatest Indian Innings for WAC.
This article was first published in the December issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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