by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
Some of the best of cricket writing in recent times have been the essays about Dravid after he announced his retirement, each a genuine tribute to a man and cricketer who left the game richer than he found it. For Indian cricket, Dravid was their Horatius on the Bridge, the defiant hero whom India trusted the most when cricketing honour was at stake. Steely purpose, unwavering resolve, fierce concentration, limitless patience, courage, skill and above all that sweat on the brow – there was an entire lesson in life in his batting. Even as Dravid erected a barricade for his beloved India, his movements were always classical and graceful. When he unfurled the cover drive, it would be picture perfect; when he drove into the onside it was a sight for the gods.
Each country has their Horatius. Not all played the game as gracefully as Dravid or with his sense of fair play. Some were pugnacious, some ugly to watch but at the end of it what they shared with Dravid was that they simply refused to sell their wicket. They fought, scrapped and kept vigil to carry their country to safety when defeat threatened.
This essay is a tribute to these batsmen who like Dravid were trusted the most by their country. Our list of ‘who will bat for me when my life is at stake’ is not exhaustive but the fact that we want to name just a few implies that these are our first choices. The one departure from our earlier essays is that we will not go earlier in cricket history than the 1950s. In alphabetical order: Ken Barrington, Allan Border, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, Andy Flower, Sunil Gavaskar, Jacques Kallis, Kumara Sangakkara and Steve Waugh.
Andy Flower was all that separated Zimbabwe from a rout every time they played. Downturned lips that gave him a permanently peeved look and a ‘I have booked bed and breakfast on this pitch’ intent so plain for all to see, that fielding captains left him well alone and tried to dismiss batsmen at the other end. Flower has a much higher percentage of unbeaten innings than most batsmen, because he was left stranded at the end of the innings. Very deft and skillful, he was more the tragic last man standing than triumphant hero because Zimbabwe was the weakest team and went down often despite Flower’s fiercest defence.
Similarly, Chanderpaul was the lone man among the ruins more times than we can remember during the last decade for West Indies. When he made his debut against England, Ted Corbett wrote that the helmet was so big for his small head that it settled down around his ears. But he made fifty after fifty, every time he came to the crease. In many of India’s games against West Indies, Chanderpaul has thwarted them. Five centuries and 22 fifties in his second innings against the best of opposition show how he prized his wicket and fought tooth and nail. Today, he looks very ungainly, taking guard as though the bowler is delivering from mid–wicket but what the heck; he keeps notching up scores and many times twice the next highest score in his team. Chanderpaul came to test cricket two years before Dravid and still soldiers on.
A team usually loses a match if it fails in its first innings. After that it is an uphill defensive battle – to bat long hard hours in the third or fourth innings of the test match to prevent defeat on a wearing pitch. It is natural that our list would feature stalwarts who regularly put in sterling performances when the chips were down. Once in a few decades, a team will pull off an improbable win, and once in a century, conjure a victory like India did in Kolkata 2001. And if that reminds readers that Laxman is not on our list — well he is on the ‘very very special’ list of players who have snatched the most victories from positions of defeat. He is the Houdini, we are talking here of Horatius!
Sangakkara has a dozen centuries in his second innings – six on his homeland and six in opposition territory. His greatest innings was the 192 against Australia in Brisbane in November 2007. As Sri Lanka chased an impossible 516 runs in the fourth innings, Sangakkara almost raised visions of a victory till an error by umpire Koertzen ended his innings. At the end of match ceremonies, Koertzen apologised to Sangakkara, for he knew what Sangakkara might have achieved if he, Koertzen, had not felled him. Gifted with elegance and timing, Sangakkara is the best blend of style and substance. His batting average in the second innings on opposition soil is nearly 53 – which only a handful of batsmen in cricket history can boast of. He of course shares something very special with Dravid. Both are extremely well read and erudite. Dravid’s Bradman oration at Canberra in December 2011 and Sangakkara’s MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture in July 2011 are two of the finest ever speeches by cricketers in the long history of the game.
Kallis had an average of less than 23 in his first 10 tests but even then he had the calmness of a monk and such perfectly organised defence that it was obvious it would be most difficult for any opposition to prise him out. First innings or second, spin or pace, Australia or India, Kallis just grinds away and never ever looks like getting out. There is something so resolute and immovable about him at the crease that unless he is removed, victory for the bowling team is unthinkable. Six second innings centuries on every major cricketing opposition soil and a batting average of 56 which is nearly as good as his overall average of 57 is proof enough. His ability to soak up pressure and play the maximum number of balls as did Dravid blunted the opposition attacks. If one asked any opposing captain, whose wicket you most want, the answer would be K.A.L.L.I.S.
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Allan Border made his debut in a disintegrating Australian team. For six years, Australia battled to save test matches and Border was at the centre of them all. In describing Border’s heroics it is almost impossible to separate batsman Border from captain Border. Sleeves buttoned down, scruffy beard, an open shouldered stance, minimum back lift, a shuffle, ball dropped at the crease and ready for the next; almost similar movements, no flourish but the ball is put away to point boundary and he is ready for the next. Shepherding his flock, prodding them, growling at them, without Border that Australian team would never have climbed back so quickly. Border was less stylish than most of the left handers. But if there are two days to go in the test match, the target an impossible 445 runs and Marshall, Garner and Holding coming for the kill, whom do you want in your corner? Border always had to fight first innings and second innings. Here is a Border epic, the second test between West Indies, the world’s best team then and Australia at Port of Spain in March 1984. West Indies put Australia in to bat and knocked them over for 255. Border, came to the crease at 16 for three, batted nearly six hours and returned unbeaten on 98. Rain had taken out a day’s play, so when West Indies piled up 468 and declared they had a day and more to try and bowl out Australia. Border thwarted them with a century that occupied five hours at the crease and a draw was achieved with the tail-enders providing him rare and precious support.
Barrington was not the obdurate ‘stonewaller’ that he is most remembered as. He was actually a free stroke player, much like his jovial, happy self, off the field. But England in the 50s and 60s needed him to play the sheet anchor role and none could play that as well as he did. He averaged over 51 in his second innings outside England and had three hundreds, two of these in Australia. In dire circumstances, like in India in 63/64 he held an end up and ensured the rest did not have to pad up since they were all down most of the time with upset tummies!
Steve Waugh and Dravid’s mutual admiration is famous. Dravid sought Waugh’s advice throughout India’s tour of Australia in 1998/99 and later Waugh insisted that only Dravid write the foreword to his autobiography. Like Dravid, his average for the second innings is much lower than his first innings, but both have done the rescue act innumerable times in the first innings. Waugh’s transition to greatness began on the Australian tour to West Indies in 1995. He went there with glaring weakness against the fast bouncing ball. He won that battle – first with himself and then with the West Indian speedsters. Man of the series and a reputation as a warrior of the finest steel. Around 35% of his runs have come batting at No. 6 or lower at an average close to 50 and that is another sign of a battler who never said die.
And now to the incomparable Sunil Gavaskar, bare headed, five feet four inches, squaring up to Marshall, Holding, Roberts, Garner, Imran, Willis, Thomson and Lillee. How wonderfully organised he always was; never ever hit on the head; the classical straight drive, the clip off his legs, the quick single. Among the batsmen in our list, Gavaskar has the most staggering exploits. His second innings batting average on opposition soil is 61.45, while his average batting in the fourth innings is an almost Bradmanesque 72.21. Nine of his centuries have come batting second for India on foreign grounds with two double hundreds. India’s first ever series win against West Indies in 1971 was secured and protected by Gavaskar’s century in the fourth innings of the fourth test at Barbados and his double hundred in the third innings of the fifth test at Port of Spain denying the West Indians any chance of a comeback. If Gavaskar’s phenomenal debut is Indian cricket lore, his double hundred at the Oval in 1979 as India chased 437 to win and fell short by 8 runs is a story scripted in heaven. Gavaskar and fourth innings heroics are inseparable. The most poignant of them all is his last test innings. On a minefield of a pitch at Bangalore against Imran’s Pakistan, Gavaskar played one of the greatest fourth innings. India fell agonisingly short by 16 runs. Pakistan knew the match was in their bag when Gavaskar was eighth man dismissed, caught off left arm spinner Iqbal Qasim for 96. It was an innings of the greatest possible skill against the turning ball on a spiteful wicket.
“Perhaps heroism is at its best when it is futile — when a person is brave, makes sacrifices and is prepared to give everything-and all to no avail……Heroism is at its finest when there is nothing in it for the hero: only pain, humiliation and defeat. But the hero prefers to embrace such things, rather than take any of the easy options.” said Simon Barnes talking of Cowdrey in his ‘A book of heroes”. Some of the most heroic innings have been played by batsmen who have not figured in this essay. We owe it to them and not too far into the future shall write about the best of such innings in cricket history.