Six of the best
VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid: are they part of the greatest top six ever?
As India handsomely worked their way to a record score, spoiling Steve Waugh's farewell Test match in the process, it dawned on some of us that this might be as strong a top six in the batting order as ever visited Australia - or perhaps even as strong a top six as the world has seen.
At first it seemed a slightly far-fetched conjecture. However, we are here not just talking about a top three (Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, or Barnes, Morris, Bradman, or Greenidge, Haynes, Richards) but a complete specialist batting order, No.1 to No.6. The manner in which this Indian side toyed with the bowling of the world champions (who helped by grassing 15 catches in the four Tests) suggests that it deserves a very high rating indeed. Australia were admittedly without Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, but the legspinner's record against India (29 wickets at 55.44) has been moderate, while the injury-stricken McGrath is nearing the end of his prolific career. One of the startling achievements of this series was that India's highest individual scores at the four Test venues played have all just been raised (by Ganguly - 144 at Brisbane; Dravid - 233 at Adelaide; Sehwag - 195 at Melbourne; and Tendulkar - 241 not out at Sydney).
When one digs into the annals of Test cricket one finds, of course, several extremely impressive line-ups. Legendary England offspinner Jim Laker wondered what he had done to deserve a couple of days under a baking Caribbean sun, bowling on a shiny surface to Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott. There have been few to match that West Indies line-up, which also featured the elegant Jeff Stollmeyer and solid Allan Rae opening the innings.
Think, too, of Australia's top orders - Victor Trumper, Reg Duff, Clem Hill, Joe Darling. Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, Don Bradman, Stan McCabe. And more recently, Matt Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, and the Waughs.
Statistics can mean everything, or nothing. Pitch and weather conditions, opposition strength, freshness or fatigue, the luck of dropped catches, players just past their best or with their best still to come: mix all this into a computer and still there is only the next ball, which could be fatal, or be hit for four, or let go through to the keeper. What really counts is the inherent worth of a player. And in the case of these Indian batsmen, the high quality of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman is patently obvious.
It is preposterous to suggest that the Sehwag-Chopra partnership rates (as yet) anywhere near the likes of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Greenidge and Haynes, Simpson and Lawry, and other pairings. But taken on recent evidence, their potential is quite apparent. I was particularly impressed with the way Chopra, in an inconsequential period of play near the end of the tour match in Hobart, fine-tuned his defensive armoury for over an hour before bothering to open his score. With great mental strength he cocooned himself exactly as Geoff Boycott or Sunil Gavaskar might have done.
Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag try another sport
The best top six? How can it be proved, even by those confounded statistics? If that is to be the chosen means of deciding, then given another year or two Ganguly's current top six may erase all doubts. I saw the signs on India's last tour of England. Dravid and Ganguly, the young newcomers who had taken Lord's by storm in 1996, were now fully developed. And I recall with great pleasure Tendulkar's maiden Test hundred, at Old Trafford so many years ago. Then, he had the voice of a child and the batting technique of a veteran. He is now comfortably assured of immortality in cricket terms and is recognised as the nearest thing to Bradman since The Great One hung up his bat.
For my money VVS is the most pleasing to watch. Then, controlling the middle order, comes Ganguly, with his penchant for taking the ball on the helmet and for displaying an aloofness that would have delighted England's Golden Age aristocrat AC MacLaren. Of the six, Sehwag is the most daring and unpredictable, and therefore exciting. And then there is "Boycott" Chopra.
Some six. Maybe as good as any in the past. I don't really care. They were simply wonderful to watch in this Australian summer, when the balance of power began to shift.
David Frith was editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly from 1979 to 1996.
This article was first published in the February 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. Click here for further details.