It is a privileged club

It was a long night and Martin Crowe did not sleep easy. An opportunity of a life-time had come and gone, much like the fleeting glimpse of an elusive dream.

S. DINAKAR

Matthew Hayden (second from left) is congratulated by his teammates and officials after his world record-breaking performance. -- Pic. AP-

It was a long night and Martin Crowe did not sleep easy. An opportunity of a life-time had come and gone, much like the fleeting glimpse of an elusive dream.

No, Crowe was not troubled by a lack of runs. In fact, he was in prime form during the New Zealand summer of 1990-91, dismantling attacks in that upright, authoritative manner, so typical of his style.

Yet, Crowe, according to his own admission, was a shattered man. Triple centuries do not surface often in Test cricket and he had missed the milestone by the narrowest of margins, falling for 299 after dominating the Lankan bowling at Wellington's Basin Reserve.

"It was like climbing Mount Everest and pulling a hamstring with only the last stride remaining," the Kiwi recalled later. Words that mirror his anguish.

To comprehend the feeling of triumph that envelops the special men conquering the peak, the agony of those who fall at the doorstep of triumph will have to be understood. Crowe knows that pain only too well.

"You get only one chance to make a Test triple hundred," said Crowe ruefully. Of course, there is a glorious exception in Sir Donald Bradman, who was once dismissed for 299, yet enjoys a pride place as the only batsman with two three-hundred plus knocks in Test cricket. But then, there can be only one Bradman.

When the dominant left-handed opener Matthew Hayden first went past Bradman's (and Mark Taylor's) Australian record of 334 and subsequently surpassed Brian Lara's world mark of 375, dismissing the Zimbabwean bowling ruthlessly at Perth, he had sliced a chunk of cricketing history. The 31-year-old Queenslander was now at the acme.

Ever since England opener Andrew Sandham broke the 300-barrier in the 1929-30 Test against the West Indies in Kingston, the feat has been performed on only 16 more occasions in Test cricket.

They say you make the first hundred for yourself and the rest for the team and batting through sessions can make extreme demands on a batsman's concentration, fitness levels, and desire. A batsman's talent with the willow notwithstanding, his strength of mind is the aspect that has to pass the stiffest of tests.

Astonishingly, Sandham, a gritty opener from Surrey, was 39 years old when he made 325 at the expense of the West Indies attack, leaving behind the previous highest individual Test score of 287 by countryman R. E. Foster. Sandham's record lasted only three months before a rampant Bradman conjured 334 at Leeds.

Sir Gary Sobers congratulates Brian Lara after his 375 against England at the Recreation Ground in St John's, Antigua in 1994. Lara surpassed Sobers's record of 365, which stood for 36 years. -- Pic. BEN RADFORD/GETTY IMAGES-

In this elite league are five Englishmen, and an equal number of Australians, three West Indians, two Pakistanis and a Sri Lankan. There are some gleaming names in the list, but the Indian batsmen are conspicuous by their absence.

Interestingly, Hayden has become the third successive left-hander to hold the record for the highest individual Test score, after Lara and the legendary Gary Sobers, ending a 45-year-old West Indian stranglehold on the record.

West Indians on top

It was a triumphant moment for West Indian cricket when a precociously talented 21-year-old Gary Sobers, surpassed the formidable Sir Len Hutton's 364, achieved against the Aussies at The Oval in 1938, with an unbeaten 365 laced with the left-handed grace and brilliance at Kingston in 1958. Indeed, the Pakistani attack suffered as Sobers became the youngest 300-plus man.

Thirty six years later - Sir Gary held the record for the longest period - another southpaw, a gifted diminutive batsman from Trinidad, put the English attack to the sword, while constructing a mammoth 375 at St. John's Antigua. Brian Lara, of that Caribbean flair and dash, had waltzed his way to the very top. Now Hayden is sitting on an even higher perch.

The dominance of the left-handers

Four out of the last five three-hundred men - Matthew Hayden, Sanath Jayasuiya, Mark Taylor and Brian Lara - have been southpaws. Not to forget that the man with the most number of runs in Tests — Allan Border — happens to be a left-hander.

There is a theory gaining ground that, in a game that originated and evolved around the right-handers, the left-handed batsmen have prospered and thrived, more so in recent times. They may have some inherent advantages too.

For instance, the principal wicket-taking ball for a right-arm paceman is the away going delivery to a right-handed batsman. To a left-hander, he will have to shift his line (not always easy), and even this is only possible if he possesses an off-cutter or an inswinger. Quality pacemen such as Glenn McGrath and Javagal Srinath have angled the ball across the southpaws, however, this is a difficult delivery to pull off on a consistent basis.

The left-arm pacemen, unless they can get the delivery to straighten from over the wicket, run the risk of being clipped and flicked by the southpaws all day. And, even on a mine-field of a pitch, a left-arm spinner might struggle against the left-handers, who can drive, sweep, and pull with the turn, having to watch out only for the arm ball (to the right-handers). And if a leg-spinner does not have an effective googly in his repertoire, he is in for a hard time against the left-handers.

The left-handed batsmen are at their most vulnerable while facing the off-spinners, for here, they have to cope with deliveries spinning away from them. However, even in this department, the dynamics of the game have undergone a change, with the drifter and the `doosra' coming increasingly into the picture.

Muttiah Muralitharan, the premier off-spinner in contemporary cricket, has gone on record saying that he preferred bowling to right-handers; understandable considering his chief wicket-taking balls over the last few years have been the potent drifter and a mean top-spinner.

Indeed, the two batsmen with the best record against Muralitharan in recent times have been Brian Lara and Stephen Fleming, two left-handers. Another leading off-spinner of our times, Saqlain Mushtaq, has struggled while bowling at the southpaws.

Sir Donald Bradman enjoys pride of place as the only batsman with two three-hundred plus knocks in Test cricket. -- Pic. GETTY IMAGES-

In Muralitharan's case, there is also a feeling that he, more often than not, spins the ball too much to actually find the edge of the left-hander's blade.

This said, the southpaws do have to be watchful out against the old-fashioned off-spinners, who may lack the variations but peg away around the middle and off-stump area.

There is another common thread running through Hayden, Lara, Jayasuriya, and Taylor. All of them are strong cutters and pullers, and if we glimpse at the above scenarios, the left-handers do get more width, more deliveries to put away.

On the other hand, the southpaws can always argue that since the incoming delivery to the right-hander is the easier ball to deliver, they are at a greater risk against even lesser pacemen.

However, there is no denying that operating against the southpaws represents a greater challenge to the bowlers.

The other men who threatened Lara's record

Lara's 375 did come under threat before Hayden's record breaking act, and had not Mark Taylor, overnight 334, in the Peshawar Test of '98, enforced declaration first thing in the morning, the chunky left-handed opener might well have erased Lara's mark. However, Taylor, an unselfish cricketer and a brilliant captain, took a decision that will forever be remembered as a selfless one. Fittingly, the New South Welshman led Australia to a rare Test series win in Pakistan.

A year earlier, at Colombo's Premadasa Stadium, Jayasuriya's short-arm pulls and cuts, left the Indian bowlers looking skywards in sheer despair. The explosive batsman from Matara was within striking distance of Lara's 375, when he was consumed by a Rajesh Chauhan off-break for 340.

And as recently as in May last year, Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq, a big man with an exquisite sense of timing, sliced open the Kiwi attack in Lahore while compiling 329.

Inzamam had emulated countryman Hanif Mohammed, that short but immaculate batsman, with great innings building skills. Hanif, in a highly creditable display, had held the Caribbeans. at bay during his 337 in the Bridgetown Test of 1958.

It is another matter though that within a year, Inzamam was dropped from the Pakistan team, on grounds that are still not clear. Inzy is back and firing though!

No Indian batsman has achieved the feat, with V. V. S. Laxman's 281 — he countered the formidable Aussie attack at the Eden Gardens — in 2001 remaining the highest.

The Indian attack has suffered more than once though. Apart from the pounding at the hands of Jayasuriya, the Indian bowling was at the receiving end at Lord's 1990, when that powerful opener Graham Gooch, making the most of an early let-off by wicket-keeper Kiran More, carried on and on, before eventually departing for a triple nelson. The 37-year-old batsman's knock had also set up a series clinching win for England.

The 300-club is a fascinating mix. For instance, we have the majestic Walter Hammond of that imperious cover-drive — the Englishman made 336 not out against New Zealand in Auckland, '33 — who has an undoubted place in the pantheon of all-time greats.

There are also relatively lesser names such as Australia's Robert Cowper, a determined left-handed batsman and a useful off-spinner. Cowper aggregated 2061 runs in 27 Tests, but gleaming among them was an effort of 307 during Ashes '66, in Melbourne, a marathon of twelve hours and seven minutes. Also in the list are two old fashioned openers, who put a great price on their wickets — Australia's Bob Simpson and England's John Edrich.

Simpson, a shrewd cricketing brain, notched up 311 in Manchester, '64, frustrating old enemy England. And Edrich, whose methods at the crease reflected that bulldog spirit associated with the English, battled his way to 310 not out against New Zealand at Leeds, 1965.

We find an enigmatic figure in this rarefied gathering — Lawrence Rowe, that Jamaican with an amalgam of skill and power. However, Rowe's was largely a career of unfulfilled dreams.

Jayasuriya's 340 came against the Indians at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, 1997. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

His 302 at Bridgetown '74, where he dissected a competent English attack, is regarded among the finest triple hundreds. But then, his cricketing journey subsequently progressed in fits and starts, with troublesome eyesight not helping Rowe's cause either. His definitely was a career of what might have been.

Top order rules the roost

There is another fascinating angle to the 300-club story. Ten of the 17 triple hundreds have been produced by openers and another four have come at the No. 3 slot. This is a definite indicator that the top-order batsman, if they survive the early phase, have a much better chance to construct a long innings since they can spend that much more time in the middle.

Also, having the ability to counter the shiny cherry provides them with a definite advantage, for when the new ball is due again, they are ready for another round of battle. And these men are so well set by the time the lower order surfaces that they are in a situation to dictate play.

A glimpse at the 300 club will tell you that all the top-order batsman in the list are fine players of spin, and this coupled with their solidity against pace, enabled them to enter into an area where not many have tread.

Bigger, better things seem to be in store. The pace at which runs are being gathered in Tests these days suggests that the 400-run barrier might be surpassed sooner than later. The chances are it could be an Australian again. Maybe Hayden, once more.