July 19, 2012

The big one double oh

Hundredth Tests used to be no great shakes; they then became all the rage, and now they're back to being ho-hum again

India and Pakistan have never been known for playing exciting Test cricket against each other. There was just too much to lose. Invariably pitches were prepared accordingly, to facilitate safe play. Imran Khan was one captain who wanted to change this state of affairs, and wanted sporting pitches. By the time India went to Pakistan on the 1989-90 tour, the two sides had played out 29 draws in 40 Tests.

Indian players remember two green tops in the first two Tests, in Karachi and Faisalabad, where they were bowled out for under 300 in both their first innings, before showing resilience in their second efforts to draw the matches. Why wouldn't a fast bowler captain want green tops when he has - apart from himself - Wasim Akram blossoming into a fine bowler and debutant Waqar Younis drawing blood? When the series reached Lahore for the third Test, though, Imran saw a bare pitch, and his annoyance was obvious. It went completely against the general plan.

Then again, there was another plan at work. It was Javed Miandad's 100th Test, at the same venue as his first. Miandad had scored centuries in both his first and 50th Tests, and was obsessed about scoring one in his 100th too.

Sanjay Manjrekar, who got first use of the pitch and scored 218, recalls, "We were surprised when we saw the wicket, and we heard that Javed had had a quiet word with the groundsman." When he walked out to bat, Miandad was whistling a tune, singing songs, chirpier than usual. "That was perhaps his way of showing he was not nervous at all," Manjrekar says.

Of course, the century was duly scored. Perhaps he was spurred on by the occasion the first Test of the series had been: Kapil Dev marked becoming the first bowler to 100 Tests with a seven-wicket match haul and a follow-on-saving 55. Also, Waqar and Sachin Tendulkar made their debuts.

Lahore was perhaps the pinnacle of cricket's fixation with the landmark of 100 Tests. Miandad was only the tenth man to the mark. It had taken more than 91 years for somebody to play 100 Tests. It took another 13 for the feat to be emulated. Eight other players, including Miandad, joined the club over the next eight years. Now, during the much-awaited series between England and South Africa, barring injury, Graeme Smith and Andrew Strauss will become the 52nd and 53rd men to the mark.

If the number of caps is a test of a player's longevity, surely 150 is now the equivalent of what 100 earlier was. Allan Border was the first to 150, and Mark Boucher would have been the seventh had he played this series.

It wasn't always like this, though, and when Colin Cowdrey became the first man to play 100 Tests, at Edgbaston in 1968, it was a huge achievement. It had taken him 13 years and 228 days. While that wasn't the longest journey to 100 Tests, it was military medium when compared to Mark Waugh's record blitz - eight years and 342 days.

Even though Cowdrey was the first to a long unprecedented mark, the Test didn't come with the fanfare that 100th Tests brought later.

Ian Chappell was a member of the opposition back then. "There might have been a mention in the press, that's about all," he says. "There was no presentation or anything. I recall being aware of it before the match, but that's only because there must have been something in the press about it. I am pretty sure there was no official celebration of it."

The first man to make his 100th truly memorable was Clive Lloyd. It was West Indies' 100th home Test, and Lloyd capped it by becoming the first man to win his 100th Test

Cowdrey set the precedent for Miandad, scoring a hundred in his 100th Test. "I remember it very well," Geoffrey Boycott, a team-mate then, says. "Colin Cowdrey made just over a hundred. When he was batting he pulled a muscle, I had made 36 and had got out, and I was called by Tom Graveney to go run for him. I said, 'You're kidding.'

"He said, 'Geoffrey, it has to be somebody who is out.' I said, 'You're kidding. I have got to run for somebody else?' You can imagine I was thrilled to bits to go out there. When I got sent in, he hadn't made many runs - 19 or 20. He made another zillion. Going out there and watching somebody else bat forever, and run their runs. Oh yeah, that was a really thrilling Test match. You can tell. I have got very good memories of it."

Boycott himself did his back during the Test, and was out for a couple of months, but he laughs and says, "I remember running for him even more than hurting my back." Something must have rubbed off while Boycott ran for Cowdrey: he was the next man, 13 years later, at Lord's, to 100 Tests. MCC presented him with a decanter with the silhouette of the famous Lord's pavilion engraved on it. Boycott cherishes it very much, but playing 100 Tests was never a fixation for him.

"It's the media," he says, when talking about the anticipation that subsequent players reaching 100 Tests brought. "That's not derogatory or criticism. There's more talk about cricket than there has ever been. There's more seen on television. Radio is much bigger. Television goes all over the world. In '68, when Cowdrey got his hundred, you were lucky if you knew what a player looked like. Never mind television. You knew [just] the name, you knew the facts and figures."

Chappell played with only one man who would go on to play 100, Border. To Chappell, the legend of 100 Tests grew a bit like the legend of the baggy green. Back then they didn't care about what headgear they wore in the first fielding session of a Test match, but many teams now make it a custom to come out in uniform baggy caps when they first come out to field. It became a ritual. Even if 99 were enough to prove your longevity, you tried to make the 100th memorable.

The first man to make his 100th truly memorable was Clive Lloyd, who took 17 years and 132 days (the longest time taken; Tendulkar had played 132 Tests in the same time span), to reach the mark. It was West Indies' 100th home Test, and Lloyd capped it by becoming the first man to win his 100th Test. West Indies' next captain, Viv Richards, brought up his 100th catch in his 100th Test, a nine-wicket win in Brisbane. Kapil was the first to be Man of the Match in his 100th Test. He was later joined by Shane Warne, who was the first man to take a five-for in his 100th , and Ricky Ponting, who is the only man to score two centuries in his 100th.

Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart were true brothers in arms, reaching the mark in the same Test, with Stewart scoring a century to boot. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis are the only other pair to have done so; Stephen Fleming's reaching his 100 in the same Test was the icing, though Fleming became only the third man to bag a duck in his 100th Test.

Others have had such mixed feelings. David Gower was the first man to lose his 100th Test. Ian Healy played his 100th wearing a black armband, a week after his father died. Dilip Vengsarkar became the first man to score a duck in his 100th, a 136-run defeat to New Zealand at the Wankhede Stadium.

The Wankhede hasn't been kind to centurions: Rahul Dravid brought up his 100th here; he put England in on a pitch that had juice for the seamers, and saw poor batting from India squander the series lead. It ended with him smashing a chair in the dressing room. At the same ground, Carl Hooper became the first West Indian to lose his 100th Test.

Steve Waugh, a man you'd imagine would care about this a little more than the next centurion, had the misfortune of trying to defend the honour of his 100th Test after Hansie Cronje's revelations made South Africa's then spin consultant Ashley Mallett raise a retrospective stink about South Africa's strategy and collapse in that game. "If that was cricket that wasn't played at 100%, then I'm a real bad judge," Waugh said. "I know after that game I had sore ribs, a sore wrist and sore legs from the battering that Allan Donald gave me."

By the time Justin Langer reached his 100th, at the Wanderers in 2006, Australia had a custom of letting such players lead the team onto the field. Langer also took first strike, and the first ball of their innings hit him on the back of his head as he ducked. He walked off bleeding, retired-hurt for no score. In the second innings he was ready to come out and bat, but to his and Australia's relief, the ninth-wicket pair took them home to a two-wicket win.

Langer was one of eight players to reach their 100th in 2006, a bumper year for the landmark. The 2000s were clearly the decade, with 29 100th Tests, to add to the 20 before. An indicator of how much cricket is played nowadays is that only nine of the 51 players who have played 100 Tests debuted as teenagers. Only one of those teenagers has played 150 Tests. Twenty-eight of the 51 captained their side in a minimum of 20 Tests, which may or may not have got them a few more Tests than they would otherwise have.

Thirty-four are primarily right-handers, making it a neat 2:1 ratio. Batsmen obviously dominate the list: 37 are primarily batsmen (ten openers), 12 bowlers (four spinners) and two wicketkeepers. Eleven Australians lead the way, followed by eight each from India, West Indies and England.

Cricket has sort of come full circle when it comes to the landmark. From its being no big deal when Cowdrey reached it, to becoming an obsession in between, to the understanding that 100 is perhaps no longer the gold standard and thus not that big a deal again.

Then again, spare a thought for those who came close but didn't make it. The drop that told Adam Gilchrist the time had come to leave at 96 Tests. Rod Marsh's retiring on the same number, bidding farewell along with his mates, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee, saying 100 Tests bore little consideration when compared with family. Mohammad Azharuddin, stranded on 99. Or how Nasser Hussain retired on 96 so he didn't block the way of a certain youngster, who will play his 100th in less than a month's time at Lord's, with Hussain commentating. A Boycott-style decanter with the silhouette of the pavilion should do just fine.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo