IF I’VE TO BOWL TO SACHIN, I’LL BOWL WITH MY HELMET ON.HE HITS THE BALL SO HARD
THE DESTROYER: In Chennai, when the Australians managed to squeeze a tiny first innings lead, Sachin Tendulkar walked up to coach Anshuman Gaekwad and said India could have a sniff at victory if somebody scored a quickfire 80.The coach agreed. “Question is, who will score it?” Gaekwad asked Tendulkar, who had hit all of four runs in the first essay. Sachin tapped his chest and said, “Him Man!”—jargon he picked up last year in the West Indies. “He promised 80 and went on to score 155. He is stupendous. I don’t want to run out of adjectives describing him,” says Gaekwad. Sachin puts it better: “This is a game of situations, not averages.”
THE CREATOR: There were titters in the Delhi hotel when the team for the 1996 England tour was announced and Ganguly was in. “Tee-hee-hee,” went the assembled journos mocking at his disastrous debut four years earlier. Today, as the Bengal Tiger’s Bradmanesque appetite for runs assumes man-eating proportions, Ganguly has the same journos and commentators eating out of his hands. “Saurav is a gem,” says the doyen of cricket writers K.N.Prabhu. “With his sinuous grace that is part of the Eastern mystique, he is in the mould of the great stroke players like Ranji and Duleepsinhji.”
THE PRESERVER: On the Caribbean tour last year, Sachin had trouble as most batsmen coping with Curtly Ambrose. “I was finding it difficult to read him,” Sachin told Amrit Mathur. “So I told Rahul (Dravid) we will keep rotating the strike so that he doesn’t get to bowl at any one batsman for too long.” Dravid, India’s #1 all-track player, did so with aplomb. Little wonder when the selectors dropped Rahul for the one-dayers, Kapil Dev asked: “How can they? He’s the find of the century.”
IGNORE, for a moment, the stunning second-innings collapse and defeat in Bangalore. And pan back, instead, to Sachin’s breathtaking assaults in Chennai, Calcutta and Bangalore;Saurav’s silken grace in England, Toronto, Dhaka and Sharjah; and Rahul’s rocksolid phlegmatism against all-comers in the last two years, and you’ll begin to appreciate why the Awesome Threesome are awash in adjectives. Why millions of worshippers are flocking for a darshan of The Trinity.
Together with Navjot Sidhu and Mohammed Azharuddin, they have totted up an astounding average of 61.83 runs per Test. Together, they have hit 17 centuries in the last 15 matches. No other No. 3 batsman in the solar system, including Brian Lara, has an average higher than Rahul’s. At No. 4, only Aravinda de Silva scores more runs per Test than Sachin. And at No. 6, only Azhar Mehmood is marginally ahead of Saurav. It’s Middle-order Terrorism.
Sure, Indian batsmen have justifiably earned the tag of being tigers at home, running up obscene scores in high-yield matches. But this is the first time in 20 years that a top order has turned in such consistently good performances over a 15-month period in Tests and one-dayers, at home and away. Sachin has fared well in England Rahul has hit “In form and focus, they’re the best just now. Their only competition is Pakistan,” says Mike Coward, a columnist of The Australian.
But, more than the numbers, it’s the brutal manner in which the world’s least hyped side took part the world’s most successful one, notwithstanding Bangalore, is what has fans, fanatics and—let’s admit it—critics and cynics yearning for more. “We have never ever approached a series like this,” says veteran cricket writer Raju Bharatan. Quips offspin legend Erapalli Prasanna: “This is the most tenacious line-up I’ve seen.” And probably the most balanced: the West (Sachin), South (Rahul) and East (Saurav) holding up the hopes and aspirations of a nation with the North (Sidhu) and Centre (Azhar) as axis.
But it’s Sachin who’s getting all the plaudits just now, for it was he who made the difference between the two sides in the series just gone by. For writing the first draft of Azhar’s fairy tale with a double ton in Mumbai’s encounter with the visitors which set the scene for the butchery. And then for implementing it with a brutal alliance of power, timing and precision in all three Tests.
Hitherto held back by a suspected lack of meanness—determined rather than ruthless—Sachin did to Shane Warne what he has been doing to Ranji bowlers for a decade. Result: India’s wunderkind who’s been used to nothing but applause has become a veritable trap for adjectives.
- “Dennis Lillee said the other day that if he had to bowl to Sachin he would bowl with a helmet on. He hits the ball so hard. Lillee says Sachin’s the best player he has seen in 10 years.” —ESPN commentator Harsha Bhogle.
- “The more I see of him, the more confused I’m getting as to which is his best knock.” —M.L. Jaisimha.
- “There was Sunny. Then there was Kapil. Sachin is beyond both. He’s something else.” —Ajay Jadeja.
- “I always felt C.K. Nayudu was the best. I now think Sachin has the honour of being the most outstanding batsman of all time.” —cricket historian Vasant Raiji.The firangis, of course, are ecstatic:
- “Sachin’s the best. I’ve had this view since I saw him score that hundred in Sydney in 1992. He’s the most composed batsmen I’ve ever seen.” —Mike Coward.
- “Don Bradman says that Sachin’s the one batsman who bats like he used to. It’s been a privilege to watch his innings in Chennai and Bangalore.” —Ian Chappell.
- “Tendulkar is the supreme right-hander on the planet, a focused technician who offers a counterpoint to Brian Lara’s more eye-catching destruction.” —Mike Selvey.
- “Sometime back I had written a piece that said Sachin is the master and Lara a genuis with his head high up somewhere. That’s it.” —Peter Roebuck.SAURAV’SAGEM,ABAT SMAN OF SINUOUS GRACE IN THE MOULD OF RANJI AND DULEEPSINHJI
BUT it’s not what Sachin alone achieved in the series in tandem with Sidhu and Azhar but what he can achieve in tandem with Saurav and Rahul that has everyone cock-a-hoop.”Sunny was saying the other day that these guys don’t believe in weathering the bowling,” says Bhogle. It’s bat and belt from the word go.
Their arrival has all the classic elements of modern-day India. When Sachin got a berth for Pakistan, Tendulkar Senior had to sign the BCCI contract because Sachin was still a minor. Saurav had to inch his way back after he was initially dismissed as an upstart riding the back of his influential father Chandi. And Rahul, as always, had to grind his way up.
But having converged, it seems there’s no stopping the trio whose contrasting batting styles, too, offer a range of possibilities that no emerging batting middle-order in the world does. The naked devil-may-care aggression of Sachin, the phlegmatic solidity of Rahul and the easy grace of Saurav. “Batting numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6 are the players that really count and no other team in the world has this kind of depth,” says Prof Ratnakar Shetty of the Bombay Cricket Association.
Ideally, says Bhogle, the top six should have a batsman who can bowl: “With Saurav, India can develop that option.” What’s more, adds Roger Binny, at No. 6, “Ganguly can play off the second new ball as well”. It’s a win-win all the way.
Saurav may have been oddly off-colour this time, batting way down after the stars had blazed across the greens, but make no mistake, the next big knock is always around the corner for the sweetest timer of the red cherry. With the applause growing for Sachin, there is an apprehension that the other two might feel just a bit overawed, but Saurav doesn’t bother about that: he just tries to do a better Saurav.
“You can’t try to do what somebody else is good at but you aren’t. That’s a recipe for failure,” says the southpaw. Such level-headeness comes easily to the three. Dravid knows he lacks the power of Sachin and the touch of Saurav, so he plays to his strengths, not weaknesses.
Sachin and Saurav are already being compared to the best their cities have had to offer. “The best-ever batsman from Bengal?” Raju Bharatan asked in The Hindu and said Ganguly was even better than Pankaj Roy although “there are still grey areas in his onside play that he is in the process of shading white”.
But Rahul’s hardboiled approach defies any parallels with the skill and touch of his townsman: G.R. Vishwanath. Where Vishy was the ultimate touch artiste, who revelled when the chips were down and found it tough to find motivation when India were sailing along, Dravid is all focus, grinding his way in match after match, whether it’s 10 for 1 or a 100 for 1.
Says Peter Roebuck: “The Indians regard him as their own Steve Waugh, a fighter, resourceful and effective, who looks like one of those stern and reclusive monks, to be found in mountain retreats, whose wicket must be prised.” Adds Indian coach Gaekwad: “Rahul’s more like Sunny. Picks the right balls to hit. He’s also the best leaver of a delivery.”
Rahul’s so far played uncomplainingly in five batting positions, from No. 1 to 7, but as Harsha Bhogle wrote in The Sunday Times of India, that’s only to be expected of a man obsessed with the game: “He once walked up to a TWI producer with an unusual request. Not for a video cassette but for a t-shirt. It had written on it, ‘Cricket is Life. The rest is mere detail.'” A t-shirt Dravid now sports in those Pepsi ads.
Dravid’s only known weakness—besides his great ability to find very ingenious ways of getting out—is his even greater inability to convert his 50s into 100s. In the last two years, he has been dismissed four times in the 90s, and twice between 80 and 100. Sachin’s problem is even curiouser: an inability to convert his 150s into 200s! Twice in two years he has been dismissed after reaching 175 (Bangalore and Trent Bridge).
Few doubt that this is the core of the Test team for the early 21st century. But the one-dayers are far from a cinch. Where Sachin and Saurav have struck up a fruitful partnership at the top, the selectors are finding it difficult to accommodate Rahul in the middle in spite of his outstanding record.
Says Raju Bharatan: “I approximate Dravid’s position with that of New Zealand’s Glen Turner who too took a while to mesh with his side’s one-day plans but did so very well after a stint on the English county circuit. Dravid will no doubt do so as well but he needs to be picked for the one-day side more often.”
Dravid may not have done his chances much good for the triangular series and the Sharjah tour with his pedestrian batting in the second innings in Bangalore but fans will only point to his blitzkrieg against Alan Donald in South Africa, when the chips were down, to rest their case. ”
I would put Dravid ahead of Azhar any day,” says veteran cricket writer Dicky Rutnagur. “Dravid can score on all tracks. Azhar can’t. He doesn’t even show an inclination to try. He just goes and hits wildly. If it comes off, well and good. But so far it’s clicked only four-five times: Adelaide, Lord’s, Cape Town, Calcutta.”
But in quibbling over their respective strengths and weaknesses, we may be missing the big picture for the statistics. Point is, no other contemporary side has three young batsmen of such variety, depth and calibre to bank on. The West Indies has Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul but Carl Hooper is but an ageing warhorse. Australia has Greg Blewett and Ricky Ponting, but their failure here should invite questions about their competence against spin. Aravinda de Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillekaratne are all in the same age group.
Only Pakistan, as cricket writer Rajan Bala of The Afternoon Despatch & Courier points out, has comparable batting reserves as India’s: with Inzamam-ul-Haq and Azhar Mahmood and Mohammed Wasim and Yousuff Youhana and whoever else that country’s selectors may throw into the ring in the next week/month/year. Says Bala: “Anwar, Sohail and Inzamam are better players of pace. We only have Sachin and Rahul.”
Also, in spite of the horribly high average of the top six in the past 15 months, India’s success rate remains a poor 50 per cent, having just won only two of the 15 Tests under review. Injuries to Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, lack of form of Anil Kumble and Rajesh Chauhan, ill luck (bad light, rain, stodgy last-wicket stands) have accounted for a few losses. Yet, in a game where statistics can often lie, they tell the horrible truth: Remember this is the team that scored 66 in South Africa.
As former manager Madan Lal, who watched the same boys fail to score 120 runs in Bridgetown, Barbados, points out: “To qualify as a good batting side, you’ve to score runs abroad as well. The Indians had a good time here because the Australians had a weak bowling attack. Warne in India is a 3 for 150 bowler, not 3 for 30 that he’s in Australia.” Adds Rajan Bala: “I don’t see this same team going to Australia and winning.”
Admittedly, cricket-frenzied Indians have seen so many hyped “Teams of the ’90s” go to pieces, so many defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, so many hopes turn to despair that it’s difficult to accept the gung-ho optimism that this side exudes with equanimity.
“What decides and places a player in the superlative bracket?” asked Sridhar Manyem of Dallas in The Melbourne Age before the Australia series began. “It’s how many victories he has helped his team achieve. Sachin might have saved matches but in 10 years, there have been only 10 instances in which he has scored over 50 in an innings and India has won a Test, and all but two of them have been in India. In one-dayers too, it’s happened only on 33 occasions.”
With his latest exploits, Sachin may have transgressed such transcontinental carping. But Saurav and Rahul are aware of the hopes they carry on their young shoulders. At man-of-the-match ceremonies, their refrain is painfully familiar: “I’m glad with what I did with the bat, but I’d have been happier if India had won. ” In Dhaka, two months ago, when Hrishikesh Kanitkar hit the 316th run, Ganguly placed his 124 below Kanitkar’s four!
The real, sterner Tests lie ahead—that too, abroad—but as Raju Bha-ratan points out, this series marks a kind of coming together of an evolving side. Adds Ratnakar Shetty: “I have seen the trio up close. Their dedication and commitment shows there is a great future for India. The appointment of a full-time trainer has also pleased them because their abilities are being raised to the highest potential.”
Praise, like criticism, comes easily to us Indians, eager to bury the humiliating defeats of the not-so-distant past. “Remember, you were the guys who dismissed The Class of ’96,” a player tells Outlook. And as Azhar’s boys wallop the Aussies, we forget Sunil Gavaskar’s lonely battles in the middle, and that super-strong team he moulded in ’84-85: SMG, K. Srikkanth, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath, Azharuddin, Ravi Shastri, Sandeep Patil, Syed Kirmani, Kapil Dev.
“Gavaskar and Co had more mental strength,” says Bishen Bedi. “For Gavaskar it was a matter of proving to the world that Indians were as good as the best. These guys don’t have to cross that road-block thanks to him.” Adds Robin Singh: “If we just take the middle order leaving out Gavaskar, I think Sachin, Azhar and Ganguly are stronger than Vengsarkar, Vishy and Amarnath because they can score at match-winning rates.”
The sudden upbeat atmosphere however is symptomatic of a nation that enjoys the game, celebrates victories, denounces defeats, and then prepares for the next match. Yet, as Mihir Bose reminds us in The History of Indian Cricket: “A new cricket reign, glorious with promise and gold is ‘always’ about to emerge, a new dawn ‘always’ seems ready to burst forth, only for the blackest of clouds plunging the whole scene into utter, terrible gloom.”
For the moment, though, it’s time to sip the champagne. As bowlers around the world dread the thought of facing Sachin after the hammering he gave Warne, they can draw a small lesson from Detroit Piston, Dennis Rodman. Faced with a similar situation against a rampaging Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan, Rodman says they let him have his 40 points but shut the others up.