Transforming the character of batting

NO TWO opinions exist over acknowledging that the power, range and depth of the Indian batsmen are now at their zenith.

NO TWO opinions exist over acknowledging that the power, range and depth of the Indian batsmen are now at their zenith. The star galaxy of Sachin, Sourav, Sehwag, Dravid and Laxman mirrored this incandescence with phenomenal quality and content as to make India a super-power challenging the might of the Aussies in their homeland.

For a student of cricket history in India, the success of batsmen, either at home or abroad, cannot be a cause for surprise. Almost every decade, since India entered the sacred arena of international cricket, projected a star or two, whose achievements with the willow captivated the audience and the chronicler alike. When India gained official Test status in 1933 at Lord's, the strength of the team's batsmanship won instant notice. Long before that an Indian prince, Ranjitsinhji, charmed the British crowd with his proficiency, making renowned English essayists to spin rapturous prose. It is a pity that the immortal Ranji never had donned an India blazer.

The credit for displaying the essence of India's batting ethos should go to C. K. Nayudu, who earned the distinction of being portrayed as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year in Wisden in 1933. The Almanack noted, "Tall and well proportioned, Nayudu is eminently fitted by nature to be a good cricketer... He was a very strong player in front of the wicket, his driving both to the off and on being an outstanding feature of his batting."

Batsmen of that era were never shackled by the grammar or the theory enunciated in the book. They played with gay abandon, and enjoyed its romance. A Lala or a Mushtaq wielded the willow as though it was a weapon to destroy the bowlers — pacemen and spinners alike. If ever a knock is recalled time and again, wherever Indian cricket is discussed in any forum it is the century on debut by Lala Amarnath against England in 1933 at Bombay Gymkhana, or the 112 by Mushtaq Ali at Manchester in 1936. Long before the one-day format came into vogue these batsmen defined the dynamics of attack against any grade of bowling.

Perhaps this approach prompted the great Neville Cardus write in 1946 that, "Indian cricket, of course, has always been impulsive and of more reliable appeal to the aesthetic sense than to the baser competitive instincts. There should, perhaps, be some different way to estimate values in Indian cricket. The prosaic statistical evidence of the score-board cannot tell us anything relevant about cricket which is charged by a lissome, natural energy, radiating here and there like the lightning that strikes as soon as it has flickered."

Never should it be presumed that such batsmanship bordered on the reckless mode, or irreverent to science. Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali represented the contrast. The former exemplified the acme of orthodoxy, while the latter projected batting's effervescence. As time passed by when circumspection and technique superseded elegance and elan, there emerged stars like Vijay Hazare. Is there a comparable achievement today to Hazare's century in each innings (116 and 145) against the likes of Lindwall and Miller at Adelaide in 1947? Can any historian ignore the magnum opus of Polly Umrigar against Wes Hall and Griffith in 1962 at Port of Spain, or, for that matter, the magnificent century by Salim Durrani in the same Test? The genius of Nawab of Pataudi (Jr) too enhanced the stature immensely in the Sixties.

There is a still a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the world record partnership for the first wicket between Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy against New Zealand in 1954-55. And even from the 10th wicket partnership by C. T. Sarwate and Shute Bannerjee against Surrey in 1946.

The character of cricket transformed into a domain of ultra-professionalism and unbridled commercialism. From an art, batsmanship developed into the act of attrition, accumulation and that adeptness to defy the bowler for days on end. The emergence of Sunil Gavaskar brought an enchanting new dimension to technical excellence, temperament and tenacity that few matched in perfection. Small wonder, this marvellous tactician surpassed the number of centuries by the legendary Don and stays among the pantheons even after his own records have been pushed to the background.

Within this framework but with differing approaches, batsmen like Dilip Vengsarkar, Sandeep Patil, Chetan Chauhan and K. Srikkanth made a name for themselves. On a different plane was the audacity and aggression of Kapil Dev, majestic and mellifluous as long it lasted. Remember Tunbridge Wells in 1983? There has been no replica to that World Cup effort so far. Milestones are many to recall that it is simply fascinating to recount the aesthetics of batsmanship, which, today, carries the flavour and fervour of those pioneers who set the everlasting tone and tenor.