A phenomenal run for two craftsmen

TED CORBETT

WE Anglophiles went to Lord's, to Trent Bridge, to Headingley and to The Oval prepared to admit that Sachin Tendulkar was the greatest of any generation and came away certain that another great - perhaps even greater - Indian batsman was in our midst.

REUTERS

Our only consolation was that an Englishman also outshone Tendulkar; and none of us thought we would write - or read - that sentence when the series began.

Rahul Dravid was not just the Indian batting star of the series but head and shoulders above India's batting phalanx. It could hardly be claimed that such an unassuming cricketer had thrown down a challenge to Tendulkar while the little master was carving out his own permanent niche at the summit. But there is no doubt about his place in the hierarchy now.

He left behind an impression of belonging to such a superior class that Englishmen who had been watching all their lives thought they had seen no-one better since Peter May and Ted Dexter demonstrated their glorious strokes 40 years ago.

Luckily for the home side there was an Englishman to match Dravid shot for shot, run for run, defensive skill for defensive skill; thus ensuring that the series ended as a draw.

We began the summer by wondering if Michael Vaughan could keep pace with Marcus Trescothick and if this opening partnership would be cemented together or crumble. By the time India flew off to the ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka we knew that not only had England put in place one of their finest first wicket pairs but that Vaughan had joined a tradition going back more than a century.

It was a partnership of equals but opposites; beefy Trescothick alongside urbane Vaughan; a phlegmatic West Countryman with an exciting Northerner; both with a flair for attack that lives well with the 21st century penchant for hitting the ball hard whenever the opportunity occurs.

Dravid's rise to the top has always been predictable, just as the wise always believed that Vaughan must one day be England's first among his peers. This summer Dravid fixed that forecast in stone and Vaughan made his claim to greatness.

Dravid began with an undefeated 73 as India beat England in the one-dayer in the NatWest series at The Oval, 82 off England at the Riverside before the rains set in and 62 at Edgbaston in another win over Sri Lanka.

He was also the wicket-keeper but, as if he had been given a special dispensation from tiredness, he never once hinted that his extra duty was too much.

Injury forced him to miss the Bristol game against Sri Lanka and he played little part in the victory rush against England in the final at Lord's. Was he saving himself? That is too fanciful but his runs in the Test series made us forget previous failures and every single made his admirers wonder what he might have in store for the World Cup.

Judging by what followed his 46 and 63 in the first Test at Lord's were simply the starters ahead of the main meal and he struggled for an hour to put together 13 in the first innings at Trent Bridge. But in the second innings we saw the real Dravid; composed, determined and relentless, taking full advantage of the pitch that, 50 years after Cardus sang its praises, still lives up to its reputation as a batsman's friend.

His 115, spread across more than five hours, played its part in saving the match and turning the tide of the series. He forced England to concede victory and from that moment the series belonged to India.

What more can you ask of a batsman?

If the Nottingham innings was the instrument that drew the game, the Headingley innings was one that even he described as special. His 148 opened up at 15 for one when the going was tough, when the ball swung and the English bowlers expected to continue their triumphant path. From that position India made a heady 628 for eight declared and won the match.

"Your best batsman goes in at the fall of the first wicket," said Don Bradman and by the end of the series there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Dravid, elegant through the onside, resolute in defence, caressing the ball through the covers, was in his right position.

AP

At the Oval, when India had the momentum, he was close to beating Sunil Gavaskar's overseas record when he was run out at 473 for seven. Once again he had reached the crease with only 18 runs scored; by the end even Gavaskar smiled.

Compare Dravid with Vaughan and you will find if difficult to split their status or their value to the team.

In the last 100 years four men have batted for England as if they were hewn from the same block of Yorkshire limestone. Now a new name has been added to the pantheon and threatens to be the greatest of them all.

Wilfred Rhodes began the Yorkshire and England saga at the turn of the last century when, although he had made his name as a slow left-arm bowler and began as a No.11 batsman, he established a formidable partnership with the legendary Jack Hobbs.

Rhodes retired to the quieter waters of county cricket - where he took 4,187 wickets with his teasing spin - but Hobbs batted on with Herbert Sutcliffe, who used a limited number of shots to acquire a Test batting average of 60.73.

By 1934, when he returned from the Bodyline series, Sutcliffe wrote a book in which he declared that all Yorkshire and England hopes would soon be concentrated on his protege Len Hutton, who went on to set a world record with 364 scored off the 1938 Australians at The Oval, to be England's first professional captain and average 56.95. Can't you just see Vaughan hitting the same mark.

Soon after Hutton laid down his bat Geoff Boycott added his name to the Yorkshire roll of honour. He was more defensive than the other three but when his reign ended he had hit 22 Test centuries.

In this last three months Michael Vaughan has risen to the top as inevitably as Boycott forecast he must; and as England prepare to contest the Ashes they have not held for 13 years his opening partnership with Marcus Trescothick contains the key to success or failure.

Whereas Rhodes was a solid workmanlike batsman, Sutcliffe happy to nudge his runs, Hutton an all-round great player, able to attack and defend as the situation demanded, and Boycott difficult to dislodge in the extreme, Vaughan is by nature an attacker; particularly since he has cured himself of his old habit of plunging into a forward shot, often unwisely.

He began this summer with a Test average of 32, his place not yet confirmed and bowlers thought they easily pin him on the back foot.

Seven Tests later, Vaughan is the complete batsman: controlled, assertive and often so dominant that the Indian bowlers were looking bewildered.

He was on the verge of an unprecedented fifth Test century in an English season when rain cut his innings short at The Oval. His first class average for the season is 75.07 and his overall Test average 47.50.

At 27, he is the England batsman of the moment, perhaps their next captain and being urged to devote more time to his offspin; a neat contrast with the Rhodes experience. Already he insists his finest moment came when he bowled Tendulkar through the gate. That feat sent him on a joyful run around the field but it is more important that Vaughan has brought England damaging runs.

There is one way in which Vaughan is completely different from the other four. Rhodes came from a typical industrial town in the West Riding, Sutcliffe and Hutton were born within a few miles of one another just outside Leeds and Boycott lived for the first 35 years of his life in a typical Yorkshire mining village and still resides just ten miles away.

In their days Yorkshire did not pick men from outside the county even though Lord Hawke who started the tradition was born in Lincolnshire. A change of traditional thinking has brought Tendulkar, Richie Richardson, Michael Bevan, Darren Lehmann and Fleming to their team. And Michael Vaughan.

Vaughan started life on the other side of the range of hills called the Pennines in Lancashire, a word Yorkshiremen are apt to spit out as if it carried a bad taste. The two sides have been at one another's throats since the Middle Ages civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses. Cricket has continued the long term enmity. Naturally, Vaughan was first drawn to Old Trafford but his second net at the Lancashire headquarters led him to believe he might be better off elsewhere and he swiftly signed for Yorkshire who were at that time drawing on men from outside the county for the first time.

He was a shy lad with a quiet smile but like many other great players his shyness is deceptive. A rod of steel runs alongside his spine, just as it did in David Gower whose blond good looks camouflaged a gritty determination and in Colin Cowdrey whose sleek figure hosted a toughness that once led him to bat for England with a broken arm.

By 1999, aged 25, Vaughan had impressed the selectors sufficiently to be included in the first Test at Johannesburg. He was listed at No. 4 but 15 minutes after the start, four men were out for two runs, the innings was already doomed and the course of the match settled.

If ever a batsman needed a hard core and a phlegmatic nature it was at that moment. To his everlasting credit Vaughan survived as the onslaught from Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock faded and a great Test career was set in motion.

Of course, as he is reminded day-in, day-out, his most exacting test is still to come. The bowling of Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar may need watchful eyes but it is hardly any more than a first rehearsal for the fire contained in Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee backed by the most hostile fielders on the planet.

Batting against the Australians is a particularly vicious form of torture. It begins with a brutal physical assault and continues with cricket's equivalent of an examination in three disciplines - let us say advanced mathematics, brain surgery and flying a jumbo jet - simultaneously.

Vaughan will experience the vilest sledging, throat balls by the score, yorkers unlimited; and death by 1,000 touches from Shane Warne the greatest leg spinner who ever flicked the ball casually from hand to hand.

Dravid has already passed that Australian examination but if Vaughan bats as brilliantly as he did to make his four centuries this summer there is no doubt that they will both shortly lay claim to a place among the greatest batsmen of any era.