When it comes together like it did today, it is as irresistible as it is beautiful. The Indian batting line-up, for some years now, has been one of the most imposing teamsheets around. Even without Virender Sehwag, who will no doubt be back when the Sri Lankans come to India in a week, the top three batsmen in this team bring to the table 35003 one-day international runs and 75 centuries. In some cases whole teams don't boast such numbers. And when even two of the three fire, forget about all three backed up by some serious firepower at the death, big scores are inevitable.
In Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly India are fortunate to have, at the same time, three of the finest one-day batsmen of all time. In a World Cup year, this becomes especially relevant, for the temptation is to leave the big picture, the long-term, alone for the moment, and concentrate on winning the big prize, at all costs. And when the run buffet is as sumptuous as it was in Baroda, as a consumer you have to just cut loose and enjoy it.
Robin Uthappa may be the flavour of the fortnight, imposing himself with some barnstorming innings, but it was the calm, cool elegance of Ganguly that inspired confidence. There was an air of been-there-done-that to Ganguly as he picked off a couple of early boundaries, and then really signalled the kind of touch he was in with a lofted four off Marlon Samuels. Moving to leg slightly, Ganguly freed his arms, and could have hit the ball with all the strength in his torso, but instead, he gently coaxed it along, timing the ball perfectly, using the bat not so much to propel the ball but to direct it over mid-off to the boundary.
When Uthappa fell, Dravid joined Ganguly and the runs came with a minimum of fuss. Almost without a chance 101 runs were added for the second wicket, off only 113 balls, and when Ganguly jumped down the pitch and was stumped, India were going along at almost six, giving Tendulkar a buffer to settle in. But Tendulkar wasn't about to waste his time at the crease. Although he did not exhibit the same ease of boundary hitting as Ganguly, the intent to pick up singles was heightened, and the scoreboard was ticking over, the runs swelling.
Dravid, the rock of conventional middle-order ODI batting, helped himself to 78, with seven boundaries, but it was the man at the other end who was driving the crowd to distraction and making the connoisseurs purr with delight. Tendulkar's cover and square-driving were of the highest quality - the balance perfect, the weight transfer immaculate, the ball seldom going in the air. Dravid's dismissal, attempting to heave Samuels over midwicket, barely caused a blip, and brought on a roar from the crowd, not because it was time for him to go, but at 266 for 3 in the 44th over, it was MS Dhoni time.
Tendulkar, on 67 when Dhoni walked in, did not seem to realistically think he would make it to three figures, and was simply content turning the strike over and letting Dhoni loose on the bowlers. Dhoni certainly didn't mind, and proceeded to whip the bowlers to all parts. Long off, long-on, midwicket, the corporate office of Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited just outside the ground - nothing was spared as the ball disappeared to all parts.
Dhoni's hitting reached such a fever pitch that the crowd actually rumbled their discontent when Tendulkar was on strike. Perhaps spurred by this, perhaps because he simply thought the time had come, Tendulkar unfurled his first big hit, a slog-sweep for six that took him to 83. Just two runs later Brian Lara did the unthinkable, putting down a straightforward offering from Tendulkar at mid-off, allowing an inside-out hit to somehow spear through him and run away to the boundary. On 91, Tendulkar was put down again, this time on the midwicket boundary by Dwayne Smith, and then it became clear that it was his day. Tendulkar's 41st one-day hundred was on its way, and off the last ball of the innings he pinched a single, taking his score to an even 100, off only 76 balls, and India to 341.
If there was still a chance, after India had posted such a tall score, then it evaporated when Ajit Agarkar delivered the prize wicket of Chris Gayle early on with a peach that curled away from the bat and Shivnarine Chanderpaul lobbed one to square-leg. All that was left, with the result not in serious doubt, was for the crowd to get one last look at Lara on Indian soil. They got one glide to third-man, and one whip off the hips before Lara, at the non-striker's end, was run out, backing up too much as a straight drive from Samuels ricocheted off Irfan Pathan onto the stumps. The crowd roared when the third umpire signalled the fall of the biggest West Indian wicket about, but perhaps they shouldn't have, for they'd just lost the last chance to savour a Lara innings in the flesh.
And yes, the time will come soon to see the back of Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly, not far apart from each other, and Indian crowds will then be left sampling what riches the next generation of batsmen have to offer. For the moment, though, in the approach to the World Cup, fans would do well to treasure the occasional pearls that they drop, instead of wondering whether these stalwarts are past their use-by date.
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