Indian batting: then and now

It can be argued that Gavaskar & Co. made their runs in conditions tougher for batting and against a more skilful and fierce bunch of pacemen, but Ganguly's men deserve their share of credit for a brand of batsmanship that has been attacking and entertaining, writes S. DINAKAR.

THE night flight from Kolkata had been delayed and it was a long wait for Sourav Ganguly.

Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid have taken Indian batting to new heights. — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

The year was 1997, and Ganguly, selected as The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year, was at the Chennai airport to receive his wife Dona, flying in to attend the function.

Ganguly is an engaging conversationalist, and it was hardly surprising that he touched upon a fascinating subject even as he kept a careful eye on his watch. "I think we now have a batting line-up, Sherry (Navjot Singh Sidhu), Sachin (Tendulkar), Rahul (Dravid), Azhar (Azharuddin) and myself, that can compare favourably with the famous Indian line-up of the 80s." Comparisons can be hazardous for they never quite provide the complete picture; the dynamics of the game keep changing, so do the conditions. But then, Ganguly has always been bold with his words.

Little would Ganguly have realised then that seven years down the line, the team he would be captaining successfully in Australia would lay strong claims to being the best ever batting line-up fielded by India.

Strokes have boomed from the blades of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly in Australia — it has been high-octane, often captivating batting from the Indians. Despite the thunder down under, is this bunch the best ever?

There are several line-ups of the days gone by that demand attention. In the early and mid-50s, India glittered with riches what with Vinoo Mankad, Pankaj Roy, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Hazare, Vijay Manjrekar and Dattu Phadkar carrying the fight to the enemy camp.

Then, in the 60s, in fact during the 1961-62 home series against England, India fielded what would go down as an extremely strong line-up, having both depth and character. M. L. Jaisimha, Nari Contractor, Vijay Manjrekar, Nawab of Pataudi (jr), Umrigar, Chandu Borde, Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer, and A. G. Kripal Singh being the men in the eleven. Kripal was a pleasing stroke-maker and he walked in at No. 9!

K. Srikkanth and Sunil Gavaskar_ fire and ice at the top of the order. -- Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY-

The Indian batting constantly struggled on foreign soil though as the ball swung and bounced. There was a refreshing change in the beginning of the 70s, when India registered back-to-back away series wins in the West Indies and England.

Sunil Gavaskar made a stunning entry into Test cricket in the West Indies, Dilip Sardesai scored heavily in the middle-order, while Gundappa Viswanath, that match-winner at No. 4, showed signs of heady things to come.

But then, Sardesai left the scene soon and for most part of the 70s, the Indian batting became increasingly dependent on Gavaskar and Viswanath.

The scenario was different in the 80s though, and in the mid-80s, India possessed a batting line-up that can also lay strong claims to being the very best.

Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar_ artists in the middle-order.-- Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY-

The formidable Gavaskar and the swashbuckling Krishnamachari Srikkanth walked up to open the innings, the solid and fearless Mohinder Amarnath surfaced at No. 3, and the often majestic Dilip Vengsarkar, and Mohammed Azharuddin of wristy elegance followed.

What added weight to this fine line-up was Ravi Shastri, a competent player of pace bowling and Kapil Dev, as explosive as they come, arriving after the top five. There was considerable depth in batting.

It is no coincidence then that India enjoyed its most profitable phase away from the sub-continent after 1971 during this period(1985-86), dominating the proceedings in Australia — it was a series where the Indians, with a little luck, could have triumphed 2-0 — and crushing England 2-0 in a three-Test series.

Interestingly, the conquering of England in '86 remains the last occasion when the Indians have registered a Test series victory outside the sub-continent.

Without taking anything away from Ganguly's men, it must be said that the quality of bowling around the world was much better in the 70s and 80s.

There was no shortage at all of big, mean fast bowlers who could produce `chin music' at will, and not brag about it, unlike the present times, when there appears to be more of the talking, in an attempt to whip up hype, and less of the lethal stuff in the middle.

The West Indians boasted of a menacing four-pronged pace attack then, with predators in Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, not to mention Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel, and almost every side had a worthy pace attack.

When the Indians toured down under in 1985-86, the Aussies had two fine pacemen in Craig McDermott and Bruce Reid; the former who could seam the ball around at a sharp pace with a dash of aggression thrown in and the latter, a slim, tall paceman, extracting steep lift from over the wicket.

The Indians' run of scores in the series was quite astonishing — 520 in Adelaide, 445 and 59 for two (Melbourne), and 600 for four declared (Sydney), where the top three, Gavaskar, Srikkanth and Amarnath notched up hundreds.

A glimpse at the Indian batting line-up reveals that contrasting strengths went into the building of a solid unit. At the top of the order was Sunil Gavaskar. With his impeccable technique, limitless patience, great strength of mind, and remarkable powers of concentration, Gavaskar carried an enormous burden on his shoulders, without wilting under the weight of expectations. He was the long distance man who could wear the best of bowlers down, winning battles and breaking records.

Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri - committed all-rounders. -- Pic. ADRIAN MURRELL/GETTY IMAGES-

Srikkanth's hand-eye coordination and spirit of adventure made him an exciting player to watch, though he provided the bowlers with more than a hint of a chance with his methods. In several respects, Srikkanth was a trendsetter in limited overs cricket. But the dasher had his moments in Test cricket too; his run of scores in the 1985-86 Test series down under was — 51, 86, 38, 116.

At No. 3, Mohinder Amarnath had the heart of a lion. A fine player off the backfoot, Amarnath remains one of the best batsmen of pace bowling produced by the country — his stirring exploits against the Caribbean speedsters in the West Indies in '83, and his handling of Imran Khan's deadly pace and swing in Pakistan, '83, speak for him. Composed under pressure, Amarnath was secure in defence, and when the need arose, met fire with fire, hooking and pulling the fiercest of fast bowlers.

Dilip Vengsarkar was a hesitant starter at No. 4, and at least in the first half of his career, was not the most accomplished of batsmen while dealing with short-pitched deliveries from the quicks, but once he got his feet moving, he was one of the finest drivers in the game, beautifully balanced and in firm control. As his career progressed, he dealt better with the `throat balls' and was a highly accomplished batsman in the mid-80s.

Mohammed Azharuddin entered Test cricket making bold headlines, producing a hundred in each of his first three Tests, at the expense of the English attack at home in 1984-85. Here was a touch artist with a fine temperament, adding much to the team. On the flip side, Azhar was not too comfortable against lifting deliveries on juicy surfaces.

A tall man, Shastri was dogged in defence, played within his limitations, and provided the side much solidity in the lower middle-order. By the end of the 80s, he moved up to the opening slot and performed a fair job there as well.

Kapil could swing games in a hurry, his blistering ways against both pace and spin making him a major threat to the bowlers. It is his presence at No. 7 that provides the Indian line-up of '86 a distinct advantage over the 2003-04 batting line-up.

On to Ganguly's boys now. The explosive Virender Sehwag has technical limitations, but for someone who has been made an opener, he possesses a worthy Test record (1513 runs in 20 Tests at 45.84). He also has Test centuries as opener in South Africa, England and Australia. These are early days yet in Akash Chopra's career, but there is an element of steely determination in the Delhi opener's batting.

Rahul Dravid is now in a rarefied zone at No 3., blending caution with aggression, rock-solid against pace, at ease while coping with the spinners, making a mountain of runs and getting them in the right way, and with great style. The man is at the peak of his powers now.

The greatest tribute to Tendulkar would be that even when he was going through one of his worst career slumps, he could still respond with a double hundred in Sydney.

Sourav Ganguly has had his problems against deliveries climbing into him, but at least he has shown a willingness to work on this chink and fight back. The captain's counter-attacking hundred in the first Test at Brisbane was one of the defining moments of the series. The knock lifted the Indian morale, down until that point, and soon it was pay back time.

V.V.S. Laxman, as we have seen in Australia, is out of the ordinary with his wristy stroke-play, ability to find the gaps, and conjure shots of stunning beauty off good deliveries. But his tendency to play away from the body does make him vulnerable in conditions where there is lateral movement for the pacemen.

The 2003-'4 line-up has the ability to rattle up runs at a fast clip, but the side has had its share of problems on seaming pitches with bounce, as we saw during the New Zealand tour last season, where the Indian batsmen cut a sorry picture in the Tests.

On a wickedly seaming pitch, Gavaskar, Mohinder, Vengsarkar (if he survives the early phase) and Shastri have a better chance of surviving than the present batsmen in the Indian team, save Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. Dravid's century at Leeds (2002) on a cloudy first day would rank high on the scale of difficulty.

The Indians were not really up against a frightening battery of pace bowlers, but had to counter adverse conditions during the tour of England in '86. A case in point would be the second Test in Headingley, where there was sufficient encouragement for the pacemen and to make matters worse for the batsmen, the pitch was double-paced.

In Graham Dilley and John Lever, England had bowlers adept at making the most of the conditions too. India made just 272 and 237 in the Test, yet ran out a 279-run winner. Vengsarkar scripted innings of 61 and 102 not out, and the second innings effort was a lovely mix of sunshine and steel. England was shot out for just 102 and 128!

It does appear that the present Indian batsmen are far more comfortable when there is some bounce, but not excessive movement for the pacemen; the on-going tour of Australia is a good example.

The pitches over the world are slowing down too, if the surfaces in Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies are any indication. These, ironically, are the countries that produce a majority of the pacemen!

It can be argued that Gavaskar & Co. made their runs in conditions tougher for batting and against a more skilful and fierce bunch of pacemen, but Ganguly's men deserve their share of credit for a brand of batsmanship that has been attacking and entertaining.