India’s five-gun salute

Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir... batsmen bowlers fear.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

India reached the top of the totem pole in Test cricket thanks to its batting stalwarts living up to their reputation and a proactive captain making his presence felt. An analysis by Kunal Diwan.

It comes as no revelation that India’s ascent to the top of the ICC Test Rankings has been brought about largely by its traditional strength in batting. In the years spent battling for an identity in cricket’s white-collar hierarchy, India always possessed batsmen of exquisite skill who kept intact the tag of quality the team had gradually acquired. Now, an able captain, the prolificacy of the experienced masters and the gung-ho of the current crop has worked w onders in its rise to the summit. Here’s a round up of how the big guns fired in 2009.

Sachin Tendulkar: The first man on several cricketing moons, Sachin Tendulkar broke and created records with every swing of his blade. He breached the 17,000 runs barrier in ODIs, struck his 45th ODI and 43rd Test century, and collected in six Tests — at 67.62 — 541 runs that took him tantalisingly close to the 13,000 mark in the longer format. His 160 in Hamilton set up a welcome away win for India, while the breathtaking 175 against Australia at Hyderabad conveyed that there still remained in the little man vestiges of his belligerent past. With 30,000 plus international runs, more possibly than entire teams put together, Tendulkar had little to prove — his influence transcended the game, his presence assuming more of an emblematic presence in the scheme of Indian cricket. As proved by his spontaneous, schoolboy-ish celebration of every victory — and this season had several — the Mumbaikar’s greatest virtue remained his enduring love for the sport, despite 20 years in the harsh glare of the spotlight.

Rahul Dravid: For over a decade has this polite Bangalorean borne responsibility lightly. While Tendulkar eases towards sainthood and the younger lot basks in its fifteen minutes of Warholian fame, Dravid has gone about his business like an invisible cornerstone, buried under layers of lacquer, in an arch undergoing constant renovation. He emerged from 2009 with at least a fifty or a hundred in each Test he played, a fitting response to aspersions that were cast on his place in 2008 when he sequenced 76 runs in eight innings against Australia and England at home.

Unable to convert his four half-centuries in New Zealand earlier in the year into tons, he participated in the Ahmedabad run fest with a fluent 177 against the Lankans, becoming along the way the fifth batsman — and second Indian — to score 11,000 Test runs. Another century followed at Kanpur, not leaving room for speculations on retirement to creep in, and the trim and toned Dravid scarcely looked a man closing in on 37.

While Rahul Dravid, known as ’The Wall,’ has hastened his pace of run-gathering in Test cricket, Mahendra Dhoni, a dasher to begin with, has slowed down perceptibly to suit the needs of the Indian team, which he now leads.-K. R. DEEPAK

Virender Sehwag: There isn’t a scarier sight in contemporary cricket than that of a pre-delivery Virender Sehwag, soaking in vibrations at the crease like a water diviner who has found the perfect place to drill. Sehwag trephinated where others pinched and clobbered and, after a mediocre tour of New Zealand, used the seductive combination of featherbeds and gracious bowling at Ahmedbad and Kanpur to bat himself into form against Sri Lanka. The fifty at Motera was merely indicative, and even the breezy century that followed at Green Park did not prepare one for the assault in Mumbai, where he bored into the attack with the etiquette of a blunt-force injury. Seven runs adrift of leaving behind Don Bradman and Brian Lara as the only man to have scored three triple centuries, Sehwag popped a catch back to Muttiah Muralitharan to end on 293, his sixth score in excess of 200 — an Indian record.

Gautam Gambhir: With four hundreds from as many matches coming into the final Test of the year, the Delhi southpaw opted out of facing Sri Lanka in Mumbai, choosing instead to be at home for his sister’s nuptials. In the five matches he did play this season, Gambhir gathered 727 runs at 90.87, topping the runs tally in New Zealand (445 from three Tests at 89). His 137 in the second Test at Napier helped India to hang on to its series lead, while the 167 in Wellington shut out the host from the contest. Another 167, this time against Sri Lanka in Kanpur, gave India the perfect 200-run opening partnership in the company of Virender Sehwag. All year, the Delhi duo formed a deadly combination up front, and Gambhir, despite continuing successes in ODIs, moved further away from his original branding as a limited overs exponent. He was named the ICC Test Player for 2009.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni: India’s most successful Test captain in terms of winning percentage, Dhoni embodies a generation that has learnt to expect rather than hope. Once Sourav Ganguly had taught it to win unapologetically — setting it on an upward curve — the side needed a leader not afraid to assert himself, and found one in Dhoni after Dravid and Kumble performed creditably in the hot seat. Dhoni led India to series wins in New Zealand and over Sri Lanka this year, taking his men to the top of the ICC Test Rankings. His overall captaincy record stands at a spotless seven wins from ten matches with no losses incurred. Influential in his leadership, the 28-year-old also contributed runs, which although of dubious aesthetic value were no less functional. He averaged 92 in five Tests in 2009, scoring two hundreds against Lanka and getting a start in each of his three innings in New Zealand. Winning his second successive ICC ODI Player of the Year award, Dhoni was the highest run-getter, for India as well as overall, in the 50-over format.