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How does one define greatness in an innings?
November 16, 2008
Great batsmen do not play great innings all the time, while even the most ordinary batsman is capable of one great innings that becomes a part of the folklore of the game. Sport has debased the word "great" through overuse; it is convenient, crisp, and to the great delight of headline writers, has only five letters. As a bonus, it rhymes with other sporting staples such as "fate", "late", "rate", "wait" and so on.
What makes a great innings? Lots of runs, obviously, made against top bowlers bowling on a track helpful to them, with the team in desperate trouble and while overcoming a physical handicap. You could throw into the mix such qualities as perfection of shot selection and execution, the impression the batsman gives of playing "on another planet" from the rest of his team-mates, the manner in which the batsman seems to transcend the technique of the game as well as the laws of physics. Needless to say, the more the entries in the criteria column, the fewer the candidates for the "great" innings.
In Ralph Barker's Ten Great Innings, many of the above conditions are met, even if not all of them in the same innings. There is the story of Eddie Paynter returning from hospital with tonsillitis, refusing a runner, and making 83 for England in four hours. There is mention, too, of Stan McCabe's magnificent 187 not out in the Bodyline series, and his even more magnificent 232 in the opening Test against England in 1938.
A similar modern list would include VVS Laxman's 281, which helped India win a Test in Kolkata after following on against Australia (a Test that also threw up a candidate for the best supporting role by an actor in a drama: Rahul Dravid with 180). That knock was anointed by Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, as the finest by an Indian.
Left out of the list of attributes, sharp readers might notice, is the result of the match. Not all great innings lead to team victories. That is in keeping with one of the conceits of the game that the result is incidental when the performance is transcendental. In his Great Innings, Peter Roebuck throws the net further back, and comes up with 50 innings. There's Arthur Shrewsbury of 1886 vintage, McCabe is there too, as are modern heroes like Derek Randall.
A perfect innings (if such a thing exists) is not necessarily a great one. This leads to a whole new set of definitions, but I like best the one provided by Mohammad Azharuddin. Against New Zealand in Auckland in 1990, he made a charming 192. The outfield was a brilliant green, and the sight of the ball racing to the fence very short square boundaries, since the ground is shaped like a diamond will not be easily shaken off by those who were there. It was Azharuddin's eighth Test century, and he said at the end of it why he enjoyed it so much: "Every ball went where I wanted it to go."
Yes, but an ageing Richard Hadlee apart, it was not a great attack (Atul Wassan made 53 from No. 10), and there was little pressure. Azhar's 121 in his next Test, at Lord¹s, was, rightly, given a higher rating.
In the next series, an 18-year-old boy made 114 at Perth. Many still consider that the best of Sachin Tendulkar's 37 Test centuries; not great, but just a shade under, for it involved yet another criterion the age of the batsman. Tendulkar became the youngest player to make a Test century in Australia. The match was lost; many others that saw great innings were drawn.
Two of the best innings were played in different causes, one in a defensive draw, and the other in a run-chase. The first, Hanif Mohammad¹s 337 in more than 16 hours, held West Indies at bay after Pakistan had replied to their 579 for 9 declared with a miserable 106. The other, Sunil Gavaskar's 221 at the Oval two decades later, in 1979, brought India to the doorstep of victory.
One of the charms of the game is that it is impossible to compare great performances except emotionally. Yet the following, written by Len Hutton in Fifty Years in Cricket, says something: "Gavaskar's 221 at the Oval should, at the very least, be bracketed with Stan McCabe's 232 at Trent Bridge and Wally Hammond's 240 at Lord's."
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in the print edition of Cricinfo Magazine in 2006Feeds: Suresh Menon
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