Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Surreal confluence of Greats at MCG

Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid & Ricky Ponting - the surreal confluence of Test cricket's greatest run-getters

Thi post also appears in the Cricketcountry website

It is one of the most common pastimes of the cricket romantic to roll his mind’s eye over the combined space of witnessed matches, digested accounts and devoured scorecards, and end up pitting fictitious teams against each other in the cricket grounds of imagination.

We like to wonder how the greatest of names would fare if they faced each other. How would it turn out if Don Bradman batted one drop for Australia and in the same match Garfield Sobers walked out at No 5 for the West Indies? What if Dennis Lillee and Ray Lindwall opened the Australian attack while Anil Kumble and Erapalli Prasanna bowled in tandem for India? If only there was a way to simulate such showdowns across the barriers of time.

However, if a real life match brings together three of the greatest accumulators of Test runs of all time, it is the veritable junction of cricket lovers’ nirvana, where romantic imagination chugs along and meets the actual delights of reality. Even more so if the said match takes place in the historic setting of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Such has been the current encounter at the MCG, where the three highest-ever run-getters in the history of the game have not only turned out to bat for their sides, but firing the fancy of the nostalgic, they have also played exceptionally pivotal roles in the match. The vagaries of cricketing fortunes still obey the dictates of the masters of the game.

It has been extremely rare for three men at the top of the batting world to take part in the same match. It was more than 100 years ago when the top four run getters in Tests, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Archie MacLaren and Joe Darling, appeared together at The Oval for the famous 1902 Test Match. It was in an era when the record aggregate hovered around 1500, the crown more prone to move from head to head. However, till this day, the 1902 Test series is remembered as the high point of the first golden age of cricket.

We can definitely argue that the last decade and a half has been another similar golden era of batsmanship. These three venerable masters have been the towering pillars, who, along with Jacques Kallis and Brian Lara, have defined the shape of the modern willow.

Never in the history of the game have we encountered three batsmen with anything approaching 41,000 runs, 126 centuries and 176 half centuries between them on the same cricket field.

When we take their One-Day International records into account, we end up with 83,000 runs, 216 hundreds and 445 fifties in international cricket! The sheer weight of the numbers bears testimony to the giant impressions the three have left in the history of the game.

While the three have each scaled unknown peaks and have written their names in indelible letters in the annals of cricket, the paths traced by them have been different.

Ricky Ponting - class apart in the treasure trove of Australian talent

For Ponting, there had never been any doubt about the phenomenal ability that made him a class apart even in the treasure trove of talent that combined to form the Australian batting line up. His stroke making prowess, the capacity to plunder runs with arrogance, was never in question ever since he made his debut in 1995. The poser that popped up from time to time was whether he would be able to realise his evident potential, sidestepping his self-destructive tendencies.

For the first few years, he hovered on the fringes of greatness that always seemed that one series away – sometimes a little more distant when he struggled against the turning ball on the dusty pitches of the subcontinent or got embroiled in off-field fiascos.

However, from 2002 he found that he could answer every question thrown at him, cricketing or otherwise. During a prolonged purple patch, there were predictions aplenty, tinged with the robust Australian flavour, about his future claim on all possible batting records. This became more and more imminent when his prodigious peak largely coincided with the period during which Sachin Tendulkar struggled with his tennis elbow. The gap between the two legends was reduced to the proportions of wafer thin. The average tended to explode beyond the 60 barrier and the vital signs of serious greatness looked ominous.

However, at this juncture, the Australian side was shaken at the foundations by a series of retirements. As the replacements struggled to match the talent and consistency of Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the all-conquering boat rocked and Ponting at the helm suffered the aftershocks. Stripped of the cushion of great batsmen around him, he tried his best to wage a lone war with his bold bat, but his form deserted him. From late 2008, the hundreds reduced to a trickle and dried up altogether, the average plummeted back from the heights to settle in the early 50s. The balls that had sped off the middle of the bat suddenly found the edge or sneaked through the defence. The valiant pull shot, the hall mark of his game, refused to produce returns of yesteryears. The great man was feeling the effects of age, and while a Tendulkar wised up to the winds of change and adapted his game into a stupendous return, the Australian took way too long to recognise the fractional fraying of the hand eye coordination.

He has since then parted with his worrisome load of captaincy. The mind has been at work, the game has been moulded. The results have been slow but increasingly steady. Some of the lost sparks of brilliance have shone through now and then to promise a few last glitters that may yet decorate the sublime swansong to a worthy career.

2011 elevated Rahul Dravid into surreal brilliance

While Rahul Dravid always merited wide acceptance as a batsman of character and ability since his debut in 1996, not many would have predicted his ending up as the all-time No 2.

His game never boasted the flamboyance or swagger of the other two, partly as a severe price for occupying the No 3 slot, for a long while without a decent opening pair. He was forever the steady compiler of runs, a paragon of consistency which saw him score thousand after thousand runs in Test matches with the same prolific regularity, at almost equal intervals of metronomic precision.

While holding the innings together from the pivotal No 3, he also came to be accepted as the major architect of Test match wins around the globe. His scrupulously correct game was never dominating, but the returns were phenomenal.

It was somehow expected that the good times would go nigh on forever, especially while he was at the peak of his powers during 2000 to 2006. His unhurried, steadfast game was scarcely touched by the erosion of time. The poker face hid every ripple of emotion that hinted at a change in circumstances or confidence.

However, after he unexpectedly gave up captaincy following a successful English tour in the summer of 2006, things started to fall apart. He was curiously omitted from the one-day side. Runs in Test matches suddenly became increasingly scarce, and the pace of scoring, never quite brisk, turned laborious.

The lack of form continued long enough to raise a clamour for his exit. He did respond with a couple of hundreds, but they were painstaking enough to be unsightly.

However, the relentless repair work of the structure of “The Wall” finally paid off. A decent Caribbean affair followed by a phenomenal tour of England elevated him to a surreal plane of brilliance, beyond the reach of critical voices and also ahead of Ricky Ponting. The runs are once again coming thick and fast and he looks good for at least a few more test series. In his own words, he has returned ‘older, wiser and – I hope – improved’. 

Sachin Tendulkar – the Marathon Man

In my opinion what distinguishes these two performers from Sachin Tendulkar is the latter’s longevity at the peak. True, Dravid and Ponting have survived long and at the pinnacle of the game, but their stints at the zenith of the batting world have been limited to around half a dozen years. Tendulkar, on the other hand, has had a career longer than both by more than half a decade, and but for a three-year period plagued by the wear and tear of the body, he has never left his comfortable perch at the top of the world.

Starting out as a child prodigy who stamped his class early and unquestionably on the map of the cricketing world, he galloped across the first decade with audacious and dominant stroke-play seldom seen before. For long the lone hand who fought losing battles while team mates fell all around him, a clutch of talented batsmen coming of age by the turn of the century converted him into an accumulator of runs far ahead of the rest of his generation.

However, in 2004, the load of a team and the hope of millions carried on the shoulders for decade and a half finally took their toll on his body. For the next three years, he struggled to come to terms with the limitations of his elbow, lower back and other over-used parts of anatomy. This was the period when the rest of the world bore down on him, closing the gap and usurping the batting throne.

And then, even as the most diehard of his fans had accepted the fading away of a lustrous career, he engineered a second coming as a much modified run machine, without any visible weakness in the works. Starting with the Australian tour of 2007-08, he emerged once again as the man at the top of the batting world, the distance between him and the challengers slowly returning to the wide chasm of the earlier days. If he was at the height of mastery in the early nineties, twenty years later he is still there – unmatched and untouched, especially when one combines the two major formats of the game.

And thus the three men at various stages of rediscovered greatness, with three of the greatest collection of Test runs under their belts, find their paths crossed in one last battle Down Under.

Even if the heart is unwilling to accept it, this will definitely be the last such battle. The train of reality will eventually leave the magical junction, and the three great men will get off at their chosen temporal destinations.

The romantics of cricket will be left to chug along the tracks of imagination or remain reminiscing in the realms of memory.

For the time being, however, it is important to soak our senses while the three brightest stars of the cricketing firmament sparkle together for the final few moments, to light up the arenas in a glow of greatness that will perhaps never be seen again.

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