The Four Musketeers

IN the galis and maidans of India, they often ask this about a promising cricketer - 'Kya ye lambi race ka ghoda hai? (is this horse a stayer?).'

It is a pertinent query, for talent without consistency and durability is unlikely to take a cricketer far. In the long distance race, he is bound to come up short.

Sachin Tendulkar holds a special commemorative plate, presented to him by the Cricket Club of India on the occasion of his 100th Test match. With him is Sunil Gavaskar, the only player still to have scored more Test centuries than Tendulkar.-AP

Sachin Tendulkar is a galloping horse though, one who has gobbled up hundreds of miles in a supremely confident manner, and is threatening to zoom into a territory of his own. Both a genius and a team-man.

These days, each time Tendulkar walks to the middle is in itself an occasion for celebration. Just the other afternoon at Headingley, Leeds, he surpassed Sir Donald Bradman's tally of 29 Test hundreds. And then, when he entered the arena at the Oval, the little big man became only the fourth Indian to have represented India in a 100 Tests, joining the illustrious company of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Dilip Vengsarkar, all former India captains.

There is always something magical about the figure '100' in cricket. Whether it is the number of three-figure marks for batsmen, or a 100 Test wickets, or a century of catches.

However, turning out in 100 Test matches puts cricketers in a different league altogether. These are men who have stayed and have delivered time and time again for their country, overcoming daunting odds in the process. It indeed, is an outstanding achievement throwing light on their discipline, focus, commitment, consistency, strength of mind, fitness...and, of course, skill.

At 29, Tendulkar is the youngest to get there, yet another first in this phenomenal cricketer's career. From Karachi '89 to the Oval, 2002, it has been a long, rewarding and eventful journey for the maestro.

Tendulkar was just 16 years and 205 days, when he first wore the India cap, against Pakistan in Karachi '89. It was baptism by fire for the Mumbai boy in the demanding away series, as he took on the might of Pakistan's varied and dangerous attack, once even suffering a bleeding injury, yet, refusing to leave the field.

While Sunil Gavaskar was the first Indian to play in 100 Test matches, Dilip Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev followed in his footsteps.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY, V. V. KRISHNAN,

Apart from loads of ability, the lad had phenomenal character. A heady, unique combination. With the willow his in-born aggression, astonishing balance in offence and defence against both pace and spin, feet movement, timing, and the ability to find gaps, marked him out as someone very special. On top of all that, he had the heart of a lion.

He was a boy then, he is a man now, the nation's biggest single, cricketing hero. A superstar and an icon.

Between his first and 100th Tests are stirring tales of glory and conquests on a cricketing field. The scintillating 114 on a fast Perth surface in '92, where he met fire with fire, his masterly 122 on a wickedly seaming Birmingham pitch in '96, the explosive 169 at Cape Town, '96, when he launched into the South African bowlers along with Mohammad Azharuddin in a famous 'oriental' partnership, the mind-boggling unbeaten 155 in Chennai, '98, when he tore Shane Warne apart, pulling him disdainfully even as the leg-spinner spun the ball from the rough, and of course, his brilliant 193 in the recent Headingley Test.

There were also two moments of searing disappointment, the first, when he made just four even as India was shot out for 81, chasing only 120 for what would have been a series clinching victory, at Bridgetown, Barbados, '97. He was also the captain then and it was an occasion laced with anguish and frustration.

Then there was his blood and guts 136 in the Chennai Test, 1998-99, when he withstood shooting back pain to unravel an innings of rare quality on a wearing pitch, countering Pakistan's incisive attack, only to see India fail by a whisker at the end. However, his good days far outnumber the bad ones, and by the time he winds up his incredible career, Tendulkar could well have represented India in over 150 Tests. A whopping figure! In 99 Tests, his tally was 8351 runs at 57.99, adorned with 30 strokeful hundreds.

Now to the other Little Master, Sunil Gavaskar. To his credit, Gavaskar, shouldering massive responsibility, opened in the era of the fearsome pace predators, wore the finest of bowlers down with impecabble technique, possessed extraordinary powers of concentration, could win stirring duels conquering the worst of conditions, scored a mountain of runs...saved and won matches for India. He was also a competent slip catcher (108 catches).

Cast in the classical mould, Gavaskar, who could play most strokes in the book, often eschewed risks in the interests of the team, and his great defensive knocks have to be understood in this context.

Over the years, his broad blade became a symbol of India's defiance. A supreme accumulator of runs, he mastered the art of building an innings, laying brick by brick, stone by stone, ticking off hours, sessions, days, driving his adversaries to despair.

His Test record speaks for itself. An astounding 10122 runs at 51.12 in 125 Tests - he was the first to cross the 10,000-run barrier in Tests - and his still unsurpassed 34 Test hundreds create space for him as a legend that he certainly is.

It is not often that an opener runs up scores of 116, 117 not out, 124, and 220 in his first Test series, but then, Gavaskar accomplished just that against the West Indies in '71, as India scored an epoch-making away series win.

In an eventful Test career spanning 16 years, his temperament and technique were put to the sternest test with pacemen such as Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee and Richard Hadlee firing at him. But Gavaskar, relishing the challenge, was more than equal to the task.

He could so effortlessly sway out of the line of short-pitched deliveries and took on the pacemen too, when the occasion warranted, as during his blazing 121 in the Delhi Test of '83, where Gavaskar pulled, hooked, cut and drove Malcolm Marshall & co. to ribbons. His sharp cricketing brain enabled him to change tactics in a jiffy.

And he ended his Test career with a glorious 96 in the fourth innings of the Bangalore Test of '87, on a minefield of a surface, in the cauldron of an India-Pakistan series decider.

The ball was turning square, and Pakistan had the right men for the job too in Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim. Yet, Gavaskar, smothering the spin, using his feet, and conjuring strokes with soft hands, came up with an innings of great character. India suffered a defeat, but in his final innings for his country, Gavaskar had scripted an epic knock. A masterpiece from the Master. In a glittering career, there were several examples of Gavaskar's technical purity, his courage, his fortitude. His hundreds in the four successive Tests of the 1976-77 and 77-78 seasons, where he made 108 in Mumbai against England and followed that up with 113, 127 and 118 in Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne even as Jeff Thomson breathed fire, reflects the maestro's consistency and appetite for runs.

And his 111 and 137 in the Karachi Test (1978-79) is ample tribute to his ability to handle extreme pressure in a hostile environment. Similarly, his astonishing 221 in the fourth innings of The Oval Test, '79, a knock where text-book defence blended with dazzling strokeplay, piloted India to the doorstep of what would have been a significant triumph. But the later batsmen made a hash of things.

It was Gavaskar who nursed Kapil Dev in his early years and the awesome all-rounder, named Wisden's Indian Cricketer of the Century recently, flew high in the sky, even higher than the rarest of birds.

By the time Kapil played his last Test for India, in '94, he had notched up 5248 runs in 131 Tests (ave. 31.05, eight hundreds) apart from bowling his heart out, often on the rather docile pitches of the sub-continent, and finishing with 434 wickets at 29.64 (23 five-wicket hauls).

With a natural outswinger, delivered from a lovely side-on action, Kapil demanded respect for Indian pace bowling. Before he surfaced, the country's pace attack was merely a sideshow. He changed all that, and was surely among the most influential cricketers of his time.

With Kapil as spearhead, Indian pace bowling moved from the periphery to the centrestage. He could withstand immense physical pain and nowhere was his raw courage more on display than in the Melbourne Test of '81, where he sent down 16.4 successive overs despite a pulled hamstring, picked up five for 28, and bowled India to a sensational victory.

In the Chennai Test of '80, on a placid track, he did not allow the conditions to defeat him and his 11 for 146 in the match gave India a treasured Test series victory over Asif Iqbal's highly-rated Pakistanis. Kapil was lively, if not quick, kept the pressure on the batsmen with his accuracy, and had the habit of picking key wickets, at any stage of the innings, at any point of the day. The stamina of the remarkably injury-free Kapil meant he could don the dual role of both, the strike and stock bowler, with aplomb. Not surprisingly, he had a world-record 434 Tests scalps, before Courtney Walsh went past the mark.

With the willow, he could alter the course of a contest in a hurry. His 'death or glory' 119 in Chennai, kept India alive in the famous tied Test of '86 against Australia, and his four successive sixes off Eddie Hemmings at Lord's, '90, with only last man Narendra Hirwani for company, when India required 24 to avoid the follow-on, is stuff more likely to be found in movie scripts. And for a while, let's move briefly to the ODI arena, and to Kapil's 'now-part-of-Indian-folklore' 175 not out against Zimbabwe in the World Cup '83, in a situation when everything appeared lost for India.

Kapil had genuine liking for a team-mate affectionately referred to as 'the Colonel.' Yes, Dilip Balwant Vengsarkar was an attractive middle-order batsman, who could, once he had settled, seize the initiative from the bowlers.

For someone who had a rough initiation to Test cricket, Vengsarkar's final returns are creditable - 6868 runs in 116 Tests at 42.13, with 17 hundreds dotting his career. He was a well organised middle-order batsman who could take responsibility upon himself and bail the side out of the woods.

Not the best of starters, the tall and majestic Vengsarkar dished out a wide range of strokes once he got his eye in, and possessed that 'in-the-trenches' resolve. His perfect balance was visible in his copy-book on-drives, and his cover-driving was often impeccable.

Vengsarkar will always have a soft corner for Lord's, for his unprecedented three hundreds at that historic venue, in '79, 82, and '86. In the later stages of his career, he did handle swing and seam with increasing confidence. A touch suspect outside the off-stump in the initial stages, especially early in the innings, he grew in confidence in the mid-80s, and he was, during this phase, easily among the outstanding batsmen in world cricket. In full flight, he was dominant.

The blossoming of the stylish Vengsarkar and the indomitable Mohinder Amarnath in the 80s, offered the Indian middle-order stability, and for once Gavaskar could breathe easy at the top of the order. This was also a period when Gavaskar batted with a lot more freedom.

Apart from his Lord's hundreds, Vengsarkar will be remembered for three significant knocks. The first being his second-innings unbeaten 146 against Pakistan in Delhi, '79-80, that rescued India from what had appeared a certain defeat after paceman Sikandar Bakht had run through the side in the first essay. He had the ability to grind out the bowling in pressure situations, and could bat till kingdom come. Then his undefeated 102 at Leeds, '86, where the conditions were decidedly in favour of swing and seam, eventually proved a match and series winning innings. There was also the effort (40 not out) at the Wankhede Stadium, '87, where he braved an injured finger and rallied with the tail to salvage a Test for India when Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson let them rip on a pitch of unpredictable bounce; he handled the short pitched stuff much better in the second half of his career.

All the four, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Vengsarkar and Tendulkar led the country as well, and had varying experiences. Gavaskar, though criticised by some for being defensive, was clever enough to play to his team's strengths and he had two outstanding results in Tests as skipper: the 2-0 victory over Pakistan at home in '80, and the 1-1 draw away from home against a powerful Australian side in '81. Kapil was less of a strategist than Gavaskar, but was a truly inspirational leader, and it was under his captaincy in '86, that India outplayed England in England 2-0. The against-all-odds triumph of Kapil's Devils in the World Cup '83 (England) and Gavaskar's all-conquering side in the World Championship of Cricket tournament (Australia) deserve a place even in an article highlighting their Test achievements. Vengsarkar's short tenure at the helm was dogged by controversies, for an alleged interview in the Caribbean, and over his newspaper column. And Tendulkar's two stints as captain were less than happy and one did get the feeling that he was frustrated by the inability of some of his men to rise to the high standards he had set for himself.

Whether they were leading the side or not, the 'Indian hundred men' are in a rarefied zone as exceptional cricketers. They have fought and won their own battles. We could call them the 'Four Musketeers.'