95 days gap between two consecutive tests, since the last test (March 5th in Cape Town) is the longest absence of Test Cricket that doesn’t involve an ODI World Cup since 1973…!
It has been a real long wait for the ones like me, who actually love to follow the TEST Cricket. In the frenzies of the T20 world cup and the IPL, it appeared that all the cricket lovers had just forgotten the existence of this vintage form of the game, and were lost in the blitzkrieg T20 format.
The game is all about asking for nothing, giving nothing away, and hanging in there till you break the opposition.
And that is why it has got its many qualities and names….
The great leveler, the game of uncertainties, Chess played on the field, the mind game, and what not.
And now, that brings me to the subject of this article.
When any cricket follower is asked to name the all-time great batsmen of cricket, the list will inevitably consist of the names of Trumper, Clem Hill, Wally Hammond, Sir Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Sir Len Hutton, Peter May, Tom Graveny, Sir Garry Sobers, the 3 Ws, Clive Lloyd, Sir Viv Richards, Ian & Greg Chappel, Doug Walters, Sunil Gavaskar, GR Vishwanath, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Mark Waugh, Mohammed Azharuddin, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jaques Kallis AB D’Villiers……
All of them, either very attractive stroke makers, or explosive batsmen who could tear any bowling attack apart. No doubt, that they all have been greats of the game, very attractive to watch when they batted, and had a very long lived consistency of performances to go with it. Yours truly is in no less awe of these names, then anyone of you ardent cricket lovers are!
However, looking at the more recent test matches (more recent would mean the ones which took place since the start of this millennium it has been observed, that a breed of batsmen, which are not the ones to be the apple of the eyes of the spectators, appears to be on the way to extinction. They are called the stonewallers, the one who fight tooth and neck to save their wicket, concentrate amongst the frustrated bowlers and fielders of the opposition and would even wither body blows and still hang in there, but not get out. They are the guys who are actually the glue which holds the entire woodwork of an innings together. They may not be attractive to watch, they may not be scoring always at a brisk pace, but the mere presence of these guys at the wicket makes the opposition feel that they have no chance of getting a wicket at their end. They were the epitomes of concentration, resilience, grit, and the never say die spirit, which actually are essential ingredients of good test cricket.
And in this list would feature a lot of batsmen, who don’t have a bad record, either, in terms of the runs scored, batting averages, and centuries and fifties (if they are any measure of greatness). The batsmen of this variety are, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, Jack Hobbs, Ken Barrington ( who, in the mid fifties was described as the most attractive stroke maker in 1955, and then in 1962, as the slowest crawler on the cricket field), Bill Lawry, Conrad Hunte, Basil Butcher, Chris Tavare, Geoffrey Boycott, Mohinder Amarnath, Allan Border, Steve Waugh (whose career also progressed much like Barrington), Rahul Dravid, Shivnariane Chanderpaul, Gary Kirsten….. All dour, boring, hard on the eye, but very difficult to get rid of !
Just to dwell a bit on what value these batsmen brought to the table, without being essentially entertaining, and many a times boring the spectators to sleep, a few things come to my mind. And thinking about this, what surprised me is, that how close these qualities are, in order to achieve success in life too. If were to look at these qualities ..
Hanging in there: These batsmen, come what may, would hang in there. They may be beaten repeatedly, get edges, offer chances, be hit on the body, be sledged at, be the constantly ridiculed by the media, but when on the field, what mattered to them was only the red cricket ball coming towards them. It could be bouncing awkwardly, could be spinning viciously, swinging wildly or hurrying them for pace, these batters would simply stand there with the primary motive of keeping it out of their wicket. And thereby, provide their team with immense assurance, that at least at their end, wicket won’t be lost. They were keen on surviving.
Looking at the broader picture, and not brief flashes of Glamour: These batsmen never had a problem playing the second fiddle to their more entertaining partners. When a Sehwag was blazing all guns at one end, you would essentially see a Dravid grafting, and making sure that he doesn’t lose his wicket, and thereby relieving Sehwag of any pressure that would curb his fearless stroke play. Same applies to many Great partnerships between the pairs like Lara and Chanderpaul, Tendulkar and Dravid, and many more. If you would go into the match situations of many great partnerships over the nearly 140 years of test cricket, you would see that in many a partnerships, Bradman wouldn’t have able to dazzle like he did, without support from Jack FIngleton, Ponsford, Woodfull, Sid Barnes all of whom were stonewallers. The fact that the stonewallers batted that way didn’t essentially mean that they were incapable of strokeplay, instead it meant that they were able to curb their rush of blood in the interest of the team most of the times. You can’t say that Rahul Dravid couldn’t play attractive strokes and score at a brisk pace, just take a look at his ODI record and strike rates. Similarly, Chanderpaul’s 69 ball hundred in the epic chase of 418 for West Indies against Australia belies the man’s reputation of being dour, uninteresting and ugly. Also not to forget the replies the normally sedate Mohinder Amarnath gave to the bowlers, when bouncers were hurled at him. However, exceptions to the stonewallers always putting the team’s interest before their glory do exist in Boycott and Barrington, who were dropped from the England side for “selfish batting” while eyeing personal milestones. Boycott, incidentally had scored 246 n.o. against India, and was dropped in the very next test.
Resilience: Many of the innings off these batsmen have been match saving innings, rather than match winning ones. This would show that, these were the guys to rely on, when the chips were down. They would not give their wicket away, and due to their cool heads, would have the best chances of averting defeat, and if they then would see any light at the end of the tunnel, scoot along to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The example of innings of such quality is the 180 and 281 scored by Dravid and Laxman on the Eden Gardens against the mighty Australians in 2001. They first batted to save innings defeat, and then went on to build an innings for India, where they could only win, on that turning Kolkata track.
It has also been seen that at least a few of the batsmen featured in the above list of flamboyant stroke makers, as their game matured, and they grew older, had come to value their wicket more, than playing to the galleries. They did open up and please the eye, but only when they were well set. They realised over the time, that to thrive, one must survive….. Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis are very good example of that. A few of the innings which come to the mind of these players are, the 9 hour 172 scored by Gavaskar at Bangalore in 1979 to tire the Pakistan Attack of Imran Khan, Sikander Bakht, Abdul Qadir, and Iqbal Qasim into submission, Sachin Tendulkar’s 241n.o at the Sydney Cricket ground, And Kallis’ twin centuries in South Africa against India in 2011.
This proves a point, that whatever these batsmen did, was of big, lasting value for their teams. And hence, I wouldn’t make a request of sparing a thought for the contribution of these guys, but would ask people to recognise what these people have done for their teams and the flamboyant stroke players therein to flourish….
And yes, in the new breed of batsmen too, there are guys of this variety turning up for teams. There are Ken Williamson, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hashim Amla, on the scene, who, in spite of being capable of exquisite, explosive strokeplay, are prepared to scrap, hang in there and provide security to their teams’ batting line ups.
To conclude, I would borrow and modify a line from James Henry Leigh Hunt’s poem Abou Ben Adhem, which was a part of my school curriculum and say,
“May their Tribe Increase…..”
They are extremely essential for the survival and growth of test cricket, and cricket as a whole….
Special thanks to Sanjeev Sathe , who is an avid cricket fan and a dear friend of ours for contributing this wonderful article.