Monday, January 23, 2012

Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman - a heady cocktail that may never be witnessed again

Adelaide may or may not be the last time Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman appear together in a Test match for India. However, the contribution of the three masters transcends the questions of the immediate. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the Golden Era which saw unparalleled triumphs scripted by the three gentlemen. 
(This post by the author appeared on Cricket Country on 23rd January)

Eden Gardens, 2001. Two gentlemen embodying all that is right and romantic about cricket batted through the fourth day of the Test match. It was that epochal moment when the heavenly ground was elevated to a divine dimension befitting its name, the spectators witnessing sublime moments of magic fit for the gods. The strokes fizzed through the field, heady and intoxicating, champagne cricket on display as the afternoon wore on – while the actual bottles of bubbly stocked up in the Aussie dressing room, to flow with the fall of the final frontier, remained unopened in the crates.

The rare landmark of a victory after following on also served as the watershed point beyond which the fortunes of Indian cricket flowed anew.
From lone crusader to accumulator

Till then, Sachin Tendulkar had carried the team, and the hopes and dreams of the nation, like a lonesome Atlas. Twelve years had seen him script legendary single handed epics, with minimal or, at best, sporadic support. 
Some of his exploits as a one man army brought forth memorable wins – the 155 against the Aussies at Chennai 1998, the 85 against the Windies at Mumbai, 1994, being prime examples of triumphant tales. 
Some brought the team to the brink of victory from where they managed to lose with unerring ineptitude – none more imprinted in memory as the heart-breaking 136 against Pakistan at Chennai. 
However, most of his efforts were futile forays on the burning deck, bearing the forlorn flag while the fragile ship sunk before the weaponry wielded by foreign attacks. Perth ’92, Birmingham ’96, Capetown ’97, Wellington ’98, Melbourne ’99 up until the Test match in Mumbai, immediately preceding the one at Eden, being some of the gems that glittered among ashes and dying embers.

The Wankhede Test against the Australians was almost a classic snapshot of the decade-long saga of Indian cricket. Coming in as usual at 25 for two, Tendulkar counter attacked for 76 as the rest collapsed like a pack of cards laden with hyper gravity belts. Replying to 176, Australia slumped to 99 for five before making merry on benevolent bowling changes to finish with 349. The master waged a lone war in the second essay as well, racing to a quick 65 before his pulverising pull ricocheted off the shoulder of the short-leg and Ricky Ponting swooped down from midwicket to miraculously hold on to the dying ball. From 154 for two, the hosts folded for 219 in the second innings. The perpetual story of Indian resistance in front of cricketing superpowers, a tale repeated many a times and oft all through the 90s.

However, Eden Gardens transformed it all. Two other batsmen stood up to be counted as architects of path and record breaking dreams. From that day, Tendulkar’s batting underwent gradual evolution. The man who, prodded along by extenuating circumstances, had looked to dominate, now slowly turned accumulator. The third Test at Chennai saw him patiently guide the innings with a match and series winning century, secure in the knowledge that the other end would be held up by more than able shoulders. As indeed it was, with Dravid scoring 81, and Laxman riding his fairy-tale form to notch up 65 and 66.

The Rule of The Triumvirate

In the course of the next 10 years and a bit, since that day in Kolkata, India has won 49 Test matches. The 57 years before Tendulkar entered the scene had brought the country 43 victories. And the 12 years that the Little Master had battled alone before the turnaround at Eden had resulted in 20 more.

While the great man had put a firm foot on the pedal of destiny in the 90s, after Eden the frequency of wins accelerated as if newly added rocket-fuel had suddenly propelled an age old contraption onto the race track; and all through the fast-paced progress, the three men at the wheel of fortune remained steadfastly same.

Of the 49 victorious Tests, Dravid has featured in 47, scoring 4326 runs at 66.55 with 14 centuries. Tendulkar has played 43 of them, notching 4053 runs at 70 with 15 hundreds. Laxman too has appeared in 43, with 3192 runs at 57 with 7 tons.

The only other man with comparable figures is Virender Sehwag, boasting 3201 runs in 37 of these Tests at an average of 57 with 7 hundreds. The best of the rest are behind by a good one and a half thousand runs and more than ten notches down on the scale of average.

This era of unprecedented success has been attributed to a lot of factors, many bordering on the intangible esoteric, but the numbers demonstrate a very simple underlying root cause.

Along with the bonus of a fast scoring and fascinating opening batsman, it was the miraculous concurrence of the best phases of the careers of three supreme batsmen who could be prolific run makers on fast and bouncy, as well as slow and turning, tracks. Very few sides ever ride on such wings of fate. Specifically, fans in India had never experienced anything remotely like this.

There are some more staggering stories disclosed by the figures. In only three of the 49 victorious Tests did none of the three maestros strike at least a half century. Two of those Tests have been against the weak attacks of Zimbabwe and West Indies, and one a Virender Sehwag super-show at Galle. However, even in each of these three exceptions, one or more of the three gentlemen have scored important 40s.

When India beat West Indies in a Test in their backyard for the first time in 26 years, Tendulkar held fort, scoring his customary century, as Dravid and Laxman shared three 60s between them. Almost a decade later, the same three were still guiding the team to victories, combining to mastermind a marvel at Mohali and chasing down a stiff target on a turning pitch at the Feroz Shah Kotla.

In all these years, every notable triumph but one has been scripted by the willow of one or more of the three men, dipped in the collected cocktail of greatness. Dravid and Laxman worked another miracle at Adelaide to vanquish the might and pride of the Australians. Tendulkar and Dravid composed eternal symphonies, the crescendos often euphoric, from Headingley to Hamilton, from Port of Spain to Perth. Tendulkar and Laxman brought the sparkle back at the Eden against the South Africans as India held on to their spot at the pinnacle of the Test world, cut through the webs of spin together at Mumbai, 2004 and Colombo, 2010.

Thirty of these 49 Tests have witnessed at least two substantial innings from the trio, 46 at least one.

As is the case with all phenomenal sportsmen, the enormity of their contribution is eloquently expressed by the numbers as undeniable footprints of greatness.

Even when the team has not won, the three – alone, in pairs or in a celebrated confluence of their combined genius – have left their marks in the honour boards of all but a few cricketing centres. Be it Dravid at Trent Bridge, Tendulkar at Centurion or Laxman at Napier, master-classes have been admired, accepted and acknowledged across the world.  
The residuals of good times

And now, Indian fans are flummoxed. The team that they have grown used to see winning for a decade seems to be retracing the path trodden before the turn of the century. Defeat followed by humiliating defeat abroad is too difficult to withstand by emotions and sentiments rendered soft and flabby by good times, made vulnerable by the steady opium of deification so ingrained in our culture. The barrels of resulting rage are now turned towards MS Dhoni, the man in the hot seat, easiest and most fun to pull down from the giant pedestal on which the World Cup win has established him.

Well, the truth is that all but the residual remnants of the good years have been swept away by the tide of time. While the great masters had continued to fire, Dhoni had led his side to square a series in South Africa and win in New Zealand, countries where the juggernaut of his predecessors had crashed to abject, humiliating defeats. The World Cup triumph had demonstrated his credentials as captain.

Sadly, in cricket, the captain is painfully limited by the team. The hourglass filled with greatness that all the skippers of the last decade had drawn on for sustenance is finally showing alarming signs of running out. Dearly as he may wish it, the captain cannot tilt it back to regenerate the flow. The three amigos, so long keeping the march of years at bay with synchronised steps, have been increasingly divided in their efforts at marking time. While they have taken turns to perform individually, the accompaniment has been absent – the resulting half-baked and incomplete. Like a practiced predator, the stealthy, stalking clock is now eyeing VVS Laxman as the most vulnerable of the pack, waiting to drag him into the pit of eternity. Adelaide may or may not be the last time we see them together, but the three names clubbed in the middle, transforming the batting order into a roll call of greatness, will probably not be witnessed in too many future scoreboards.

Picturing the future

How will the Indian line up look in a year from now? No impregnable “Wall” making his way to shield the country after the quick loss of a wicket, dapper and dignified, every aspect of gesture, grandeur and gear embodying the immaculate cricketer. No compulsive cheer at the fall of the second wicket, the moment for which a nation waits, the trot of the little big man to the wicket, that lean into the cover drive, that look at the heavens after yet another hundred. No magician walking out next, spreading calm with lazy elegant wafts of the willow, wristing the balls to unthought-of regions of the ground, delighting the cockles of the heart with a whip to midwicket.

What would it be like? A sequel to The Three Musketeers without Athos, Porthos and Aramis? A season of Friendswithout Ross, Chandler and Joey? An exhibition on the Impressionists without Degas, Monet and Renoir? A Marx Brothers production without Groucho, Chico and Harpo? The connected modern world without WTF?

The heady period of champagne cricket that started on that spring day at the Eden Gardens seems to be drawing to a close. We, who have delighted in the deeds, prefer to slowly sip the remaining elixir of the present from the splendid chalice etched with crystals of immortal memories. To let ourselves get drunk on the enduring drops during whatever few days of celebration that remain, rather than watch the vintage sparkle go flat by being left out in the open way too long.

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