Five-man army: best in the business?

Without attaching any bit of history, and strictly on the basis of the recent performance in Australia, India's batting looks the strongest on the circuit, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

BATTING made all the difference during the recent series in Australia with India playing to its potential and matching the home team in every area of the game. India's batting wealth stood out even though Sachin Tendulkar excelled only in the last Test. That, to many observers, was the defining feature of India's performance. The team, for the most part, did well without any substantial contribution from Tendulkar and this augurs well for the future.

V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Australia. Surely the formula for sizzling cricket. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES.-

On the eve of the tour, former great Mohinder Amarnath, a champion batsman on difficult pitches and especially overseas, had commented that India needed to bat to its potential to realise its dream of winning a series in Australia. "We have the best batting line up in the world," he had proclaimed. He was proved right to a large extent.

The fabulous five — V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag — delivered when it counted. There was an unsung performer in Akash Chopra too, but the batting revolved around the trusted five.

An element of authority marked the performance of these five as they tackled pace and spin with a flourish so refreshing to the purists. If the Australians succumbed it was because of the relentless pressure that came from the tall scores the Indian batsmen posted. As Javagal Srinath noted, "it was the batting that showed the way. I have always maintained that bowlers need adequate targets to defend and see the difference once the team attained its batting potential."

Srinath's was a very pertinent observation. The team meetings in the Australian camp were mostly on how to stop the Indian batting brigade, but they met with little success. India's batting grew in strength with every outing, with a brief aberration at Melbourne, and reached its zenith at the Sydney Cricket Ground when the team recorded its highest ever score in Test cricket. A series win should have been the appropriate finish for India given the difference between the teams.

Various arguments have been put forward after India's excellent showing in Australia. These pertain to the state of the pitches — slow and low; the decline of Australian bowling; and the tremendous form of the five aforementioned Indian batsmen who aggregate 25293 runs in 328 Tests collectively. The fact remained that India thrived on the basis of its improved batting show.

Sachin Tendulkar found form late down under, but he made his presence count. — Pic. REUTERS-

So, would these five constitute the best batting strength in international cricket? To some extent they would. Given the recent display Down Under, India can claim to have found the way to tackle Australian supremacy. But then the stark reminder that India did not win the series puts things in a different perspective. How did such a strong batting line-up, with consistency as its forte, crash twice at Melbourne against an attack that was not at its best? A limping Jason Gillespie, a rusty Brett Lee, and a raw Brad Williams and Nathan Bracken did not quite make a lethal attack as most have claimed.

Considering the track record of India overseas, there were doubts about this batting combination standing up to the Aussies. Did not the same fabulous five come a cropper in New Zealand before the World Cup on green and seaming pitches? The World Cup saw the Indian batsmen in great form, but then this Australia tour was expected to be different. And how different it turned out to be.

"I thought the boys batted brilliantly. Laxman was outstanding. I have not seen such quality batting for long," gushed Kapil Dev, who had been the coach of almost the same lot with the exception of Sehwag when India toured Australia four years ago and lost all the three Tests. "Give credit to the batsmen," stressed the great all-rounder.

Credit to the batsmen was forthcoming from all quarters. Sunil Gavaskar was a proud man as he watched India raise visions of a series win; Greg Chappell wrote glowingly on India's sensational batsmen; The Australian media went to town describing the aesthetic beauty of India's batsmanship. It was heady stuff for the Indian camp indeed, but the `inexperience' factor of the Aussie bowling contributed towards the overall standard and progress of the series.

Without attaching any bit of history, and strictly on the basis of the recent performance in Australia, the Indian batting looks the strongest on the circuit. Once again, we need to remind ourselves that the batting success came against the best team in the world and not necessarily the best attack in the world. Under no circumstances do Lee, Williams, Bracken and MacGill count as the most incisive attack in the world. The credit for that ought to go to Pakistan, which has a young but effective bowling strength on any surface.

Virender Sehwag doesn't like to open, but as an opener he has taken the fight to the enemy camp. Skipper Sourav Ganguly can be a nasty customer at No. 5 or 6. — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

Rarely has an Indian batting line-up performed as consistently in the past as this bunch of committed men. Often Tendulkar would bear the brunt of batting along with Dravid, who has performed the best when overseas. But the trend changed quite pleasantly on this occasion despite the fact that India once again had an experimental opening pair in Sehwag and Chopra. It was their consistency that gave the batting a new direction. It must be recorded here that Sehwag excelled with a very disciplined approach, often putting his head down, even if with a lot of discomfort. It must also be documented here that the Delhi strokemaker, given a choice, would love to relinquish the responsibility of an opener.

In the given circumstances, the Indian batsmen did extremely well. Like a true leader, Ganguly showed the way with a brave century on a lively pitch at Brisbane. His knock saw India take the first-innings lead and with that came a lot of confidence. Ganguly's century motivated the rest and there was no looking back once Laxman decided to stamp his class on the series.

Laxman's divine form with the bat was the key factor in India's success. He left the Aussie attack in a shambles with a very calculated approach. His ability to punish the loose ball stood out, as India prospered from his brisk scoring pattern that gave the bowlers a chance to have a go at the opposition at Adelaide. If one had to pick the most significant player in India's success, it had to be Laxman, who made batting appear so ridiculously easy with his sensational drives on the front foot. Even Dravid, a pillar of strength as far as the team was concerned, admitted to being inspired by the presence of Laxman at the other end. So did Tendulkar; so did Ganguly and Sehwag; not to forget the coach, John Wright, who raved when it came to discussing Laxman's majestic form. If Dravid was organised and disciplined as usual, Laxman lent a touch of aesthetics so rarely seen in modern day cricket. He never hit the ball; he just stroked it.

Compared with the rest, this Indian batting line-up looks the most complete and definitely the most compact. The self-belief that the team acquired during the Australian tour went a long way in boosting the image of Indian cricket. The batsmen learnt to contribute collectively, drawing strength from each other's presence in the middle. Tendulkar struggled, but latched on when the opportunity came his way at Sydney. For a change, the master was left admiring his colleagues for their batting brilliance. Credit to Tendulkar for conquering his longest bad patch, also the most discussed spell of non-performance, with his most compelling statement, lifting himself session per session. What a remarkable comeback by a champion who knew best how and when to raise the bar!

Where does India's batting strength stand in international cricket? Zimbabwe and Bangladesh do not count in this race to identify the strongest batting line-up. Sri Lanka's batsmen are aging with Sanath Jayasuriya providing the sole impetus. The same applies to England with Michael Vaughan the only consistent performer even though Graham Thorpe's return provides solidity. New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies are in the process of rebuilding and that leaves us with India, Australia and South Africa competing for the top slot.

South Africa has emerged strongly with a batting strength revolving around Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, quite a dynamic opening pair. With Gary Kirsten in the twilight of his career the responsibility on Jacques Kallis and Jacques Rudolph increases manifold. On current form, the South Africans would need to be judged on the basis of their performances this season.

Australia, after the series, lies closest in the race to possess the strongest batting line-up currently in the game even as it prepares itself for the post Steve Waugh era. Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist, all with the quality to bat long and fast, aggregate 20,844 runs in 286 Tests collectively and form a very experienced challenge. Their strength lies in their positive approach with an emphasis on sticking to their natural game. It can lead to trouble as it did at Adelaide when they paid the penalty for scoring too fast. But then the Australians are not known to make any compromise and this quality gives their cricket a very distinct image.

It is this image that the Indians chased and challenged — of performing on all kinds of surfaces.

The series in Australia drove home the point that India has the potential to rule the cricketing world. In his farewell interaction with the media as Australia's skipper, the dynamic Waugh made a telling observation that "India will be the team to watch in times to come." He had obviously based his statement on India's growing batting strength.

Any team would prefer the tag of being the best, rather than stop at having the best batting line-up. A few more peaks remain to be conquered for this Indian batting line-up to be hailed as the best. Team India sure has a future.

Also, is the present batting line-up the best ever in Indian cricket history?

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