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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