Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Century before lunch - that rare feat

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The first session in a Test match, more often than not, used to be a leisurely affair.

Spectators in their hundreds used to trickle in slightly late, held up in the traffic and jostling that naturally accumulate near the entrance of a sporting arena on the big day.

There would perhaps be an angry word or two with the diligent policeman taking his job too seriously at the gate, but seldom would the latecomers be in tearing hurry. There would be a quick reassuring look at the two men at the wicket if the home team had been taking first strike, a tentative glance at the scoreboard to ensure that the world was in order – before hastening to find their seats.

The momentum was supposed to be built up only later – the first session of the first day was akin to heating up frozen action in the cauldron that was just beginning to simmer, for the feast that would spread out later during the day. It was in the afternoon that the excitement would be likely to begin.

Fans heard the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott swearing by the convention of giving the first hour to the bowlers, to ensure that the rest of the day was theirs. So, the crowd could very well take it easy for the first few overs or more before the batsmen got down to the business of scoring runs.

However, with the turn of the century, a few avant garde stalwarts, most of them made to order for the middle-order, redefined the art of opening the innings. Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chris Gayle made the crowd dread the thought of missing the very first ball. Even as the opposition captain placed the age-old attacking field at the start of a Test match, these men plundered boundaries in the wide open spaces as if there was no second session. And even when the field was pushed back, the boundaries continued to come undeterred. With the wave of these virtuoso bats, the start of a Test match had been metamorphosed from the reposeful adagio to brisk, reverberating allegro – from the courtly slow waltz to jaunty jives down the wicket.

Yet, we note that the onslaught of fast starts have not been able to emulate something achieved only once since the Second World War, that too three and a half decades back in the pages of cricket history by a dapper Pakistani maestro.

Virender Sehwag misses the feat by one run!

Virender Sehwag did blast his way within one run of the feat on the first day at the Beausejour Stadium, Gros Islet, St Lucia, in 2006. Facing the last ball before lunch with his score on 98, he backed away towards square-leg and tried to cart Corey Colleymore over hîs head, but the ball trickled off a mistimed edge to mid-off and the batsman had to be satisfied with a hastily taken single. The Najafgarh Nuke eventually got the necessary run off the third ball after lunch, but the rare century before the break remained elusive.

The early names who are associated with a hundred in the first session of a Test match conjure up romantic images. It is a roll call of honour, a roster of superlative strokeplay, a checklist of champions.

Victor Trumper, the legendary Aussie virtuoso, probably the first superstar batsman whose pictures were pinned to the early 20th century oak cupboards, was the first to perform the feat at Manchester in 1902. It was an innings that lit up the ground with flashes of willow wizardry during an Ashes Test that saw remarkable action, including the death of a spectator due to excitement.

Twenty four years later, Charley Macartney came in second ball, and raced away to the second such instance at Leeds against a shell-shocked English attack. Legend has it that after Macartney had surveyed the field and noted the difficult wicket rendered sticky by thunderstorms, he taunted the famed Maurice Tate by saying, “Let’s have it.”

The Yorkshire ground saw history repeat itself just four years later, when 22-year old Don Bradman announced his arrival, walking out at No 3 and plundering 105 runs before lunch out of what would be 309 in a day and an eventual 334.

The first three instances of hundred before lunch were, thus, all Australian. According to The Don, it made them extremely possessive of the landmark.

Eight years later in Nottingham, Bradman himself was captaining the side for the first time, in a match made memorable by Stanley McCabe's immortal 232. The Gloucestershire opener Charlie Barnett started the innings for England by flaying the ball all over the ground. With Len Hutton settling down at the other end, Barnett was nearing his century at the rate of knots. Realising the approaching landmark, the Aussies threw themselves about zealously on the field, protecting the final single like men possessed, to keep the unfortunate batsman on 99 as he went in for the lunch break.

However, with Test cricket turning dour and professional in the post World War days, the opening batsmen building themselves on the correct and copybook template of Len Hutton, Bill Lawry and, later, the aforementioned austere principles of Gavaskar and Boycott, the deed remained unrepeated. Professionalism also ensured less number of overs bowled per session, and the game became increasingly dominated by fast bowlers with long, time consuming run ups. Hence, chances of the feat being repeated looked bleak.

Conrad Hunte did produce flashes which lit up many a hopeful heart, Roy Fredericks was sometimes fast and furious, Keith Stackpole often flattered to deceive. Some number three batsmen of the calibre of Greg Chappell and Vivian Richards had more than the required oodles of talent to come in at the fall of an early wicket and blaze away to a hundred of glory before pausing for the midday meal. However, the target remained elusive.

Heartbreak for Farokh Engineer

Interestingly, Indian wicketkeeper batsman Farokh Engineer came remarkably close – scoring 94 in the first session at Madras in 1967 against a West Indian attack consisting of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs. He got to his century soon after lunch.

It was finally in late October 1976 that in a debonair display of majestic hitting the elusive hundred before lunch of the first day was accomplished after a 46-year hiatus.

If the Australians had been zealous custodians of the landmark, it was their lesser cricketing neighbours who allowed a fluent and graceful Pathan to enter the select group.

Already two down in the three-Test series, and without their star batsman and skipper Glenn Turner, the Kiwis were not the most spirited side going into the match at Karachi. However, with Richard Hadlee spearheading the attack, along with Richard Collinge and Lance Cairns, the seam attack was more than potent. But, Majid Khan, with magnificent – almost regal – elegance, started the innings by timing the ball imperiously.

Accompanying his illustrious partner, Sadiq Mohammed, he drove crisply, down the ground and through the covers, with the bat caressing rather than forcing the ball, gently showing it direction between the fielders. And when the pacemen bounced, he hooked with an arrogance seldom witnessed in the subcontinent.

In some ways, it was fit that Majid would repeat an exploit that had been witnessed only during the Ashes encounters of early twentieth century. In spirit and charisma, with his Cambridge accent and long sideburns, he looked and strutted about like an early English amateur playing for pleasure.

On his day he looked the most sublime of batsmen, a fact made more remarkable because he took batting seriously only after a back injury and suspect action cast a threatening shadow over his test career as a pace bowler.

Unfortunately for him and Pakistan, the number of days when the joy of batting bore fruit was limited. His enormous potential did not amount to more than eight centuries in 63 Tests.

But this balmy autumn morning had been manufactured for him, to showcase his grandiose flair at its most eloquent, signed with the éclat of his characteristic flourish. Eighteen boundaries marked their flaming trails across the turf and two impeccably-timed sixes stamped his panache in the first session.

Majid ended with 108 at the interval, falling to Richard Collinge almost immediately after resumption, adding just four more.

The Kiwis were not spared the cruel stick with Majid's dismissal. Captain Mushtaq Mohammed pranced along to a hundred and a young sensation named Javed Miandad piled on a little matter of 206. However, some shoddy wicket-keeping and close catching ensured a draw, with some tenacious batting by the Black caps on the last day.

Thirty five years on, century before lunch on the first day of a Test match remains unrepeated. If we consider the other four days of Test matches and look at the list of hundred-plus runs scored by batsmen during any of the five available first sessions, it makes Majid Khan's accomplishment even more noteworthy.

It has been done only 16 times in the 134-year history of Test cricket – apart from the four instances on the first day we have already seen.

Of these 16, once again the pre-Second World War list reads like a Who's Who of the greatest names to grace the game, including Clem Hill, K.S Ranjitsinhji, William Bardsley, Jack Hobbs, Stan McCabe and Wally Hammond.

Since 1935, however, apart from the Majid Khan masterpiece, there have been only seven more such mornings of merrymaking. But, not all of them can be considered in this elite group.

Three of the hundreds – two by Brian Lara and one by Mark Taylor – were compiled during extended sessions which saw 150 to 161 minutes of play rather than the usual 120. And of course, the minnows played their usual part in skewing modern day cricket records, with Inzamam-ul Haq, Lara and Ian Bell making their runs against either Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

As a result, there are only two occasions that can be counted alongside the other first session run feasts. The first – when the impeccable Greg Chappell scored exactly 100 on the second morning of the 1982 Christchurch Test. And the latest instance being the morning of mayhem when AB deVilliers piled on agony for India by hitting 119 in the 2010 Test at the Centurion as the Proteans looked to amass quick runs.

However, those were innings that had already taken off, the launch pad prepared, the progress of run-making put into gear by the preceding men, all that one had to do was to press the accelerator and keep it pressed.

In that light, the magical morning of Majid Khan, striding out with a swagger and stroking his way to the century with grandeur and élan is a very special chapter in the history of cricket. More so because of the enthralling way he went about getting those runs, donning the mantle of Trumper, Macartney and Bradman with class and bravado that the venerable masters would have been proud of.

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