By S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
Truly great and enduring Test teams like Lloyd's West Indies of the 1980s and Steve Waugh’s Aussies of the 1990s were a unique combination of great batsmen and great bowlers. India climbed to the top largely because of its legendary batsmen. The magnificent heroes, after a decade of stirring exploits that helped India reach the top, are at the end of their illustrious careers.
And so we need to begin all over again. It is going to be arduous and painful; we will slip further down before we can climb again. And the Indian fan, impatient and mercurial, will add more pressure and heat than anywhere else.
How difficult this is going to be can be gauged from the fact that in the 80 years since India started playing cricket, we have only 14 batsmen with an average of over 40 and at least 2000 Test runs. Six of these 14 batsmen - Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman, Gambhir and Ganguly – as though by some divine benediction, came together at the same time in the last decade.
Very interestingly, today’s situation has a parallel with the late sixties. As Manjrekar, Pataudi, Borde, Sardesai, Jaisimha and Durani (all fine batsmen but none with an average of over 40) were ebbing away, Vijay Merchant – as bold a selector as he was conservative as a batsman – threw in a slew of youngsters into the team for the home series against New Zealand and Australia and later for the tour to West Indies.
Viswanath, Solkar, Chauhan, Ambar Roy, Gandotra, Ashok Mankad, Mohinder Amaranth, Gavaskar and many more were tried out in a frenetic hurry. In that stampede, some got washed away after a couple of chances, others like Viswanath, Amarnath and Gavaskar, clicked and stayed on to be counted among India’s and the world’s finest.
Obviously, one need not go down that path of Russian roulette but we must be able to identify a set of batsmen and give them a decent run. Give them the assurance and security and hope they vindicate that trust. Yet, how long is fair enough? How short a run is unfair?
We decided to massage data on Test batsmen to see if we can answer the questions and our analysis showed some pretty interesting results:
1. There are just 34 batsmen in test history with an average of over 50 among those with over 2000 test runs. 29 out of these 34 batsmen showed very early signs of greatness - within their first five or at best 10 tests they were averaging above 40. Of the five batsmen whose initial 10 tests were not so productive, three had at least a century to show.
2. Those five batsmen who did not set cricket grounds on fire with their batting in their first ten tests were Sobers, Kallis, Sangakkara, Steve Waugh and Hayden. Of these, remember, Sobers, started as a bowling all-rounder and Sangakkara as a wicket-keeper batsman. Therefore only Kallis and Steve Waugh truly are the exceptions. Hayden, as cricket followers may remember was dropped for a few years after an unsuccessful start and his career only took off from his massive scores in India in 2001.
3. If a batting average of 50 is too steep a cut off, let us bring the bar down to 45. That allows 47 more batsmen to join the fun and games with this analysis. But here again, these fine batsmen did not need a prolonged series of chances to prove their worth. 24 of these batsmen had an average of over 50 in their first 5 or first 10 tests and 38 (80%) had an average of over 35 in their first 10 tests.
4. Admittedly, the list of nine batsmen who had relatively modest starts contains some stunning names: Inzamam, Kanhai, Laxman, Amla, Simpson, Hassett, Martin Crowe, Langer and Gary Kirsten. Of these nine batsmen who had relatively slower starts (less than an average of 35) four had a century to show that they had promise. The truly slow starters among them with averages in the 20s and no century to show were, Kanhai, Simpson and Laxman. Indian readers, with justification, will point out that Laxman was a middle order batsman forced to play all his early tests as an opener; after he reverted to middle order, success came his way.