Indian cricket’s most successful foursome on the verge of decline
Indian QuartetBoy, that was quick. The moment India learnt its senior most batsmen had opted out of September’s Twenty20 World Cup, there was a stampede. Not towards the nearest street corner for a ritual round of protests, but to hammer out the tributes and order the bugler to sound the,Indian QuartetBoy, that was quick. The moment India learnt its senior most batsmen had opted out of September’s Twenty20 World Cup, there was a stampede. Not towards the nearest street corner for a ritual round of protests, but to hammer out the tributes and order the bugler to sound the Last Post. Quick, before they change their minds.The Twenty20 World Cup, cricket’s ode to the microwave, is for young legs, quick wits and short attention spans. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly have decided that their wits and skills are in good condition but their inner athlete is unlikely to rise and shine. With thinning pates and growing children, who needs more reminders about the generation gap? Who needs to dive, slide, and produce physiology-defying shots? Not such a tough choice, is it? Between the judgment of history and a verdict by popularity contest. Thanks guys, the microwave is all yours. The pressure cooker is more our thing.It was as if relief was ringing out from rooftops in stereo. It had happened. The baton had been exchanged, thank god. The torch has been passed.Not yet.Soon it will be, but not just yet. In between that day and this, the light will slowly fade on a quartet like no other in Indian cricket history. Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly are top of the mind today, but ignore VVS Laxman and their collective mojo vaporizes. These four, India’s most successful generation middle-order batsmen, perhaps its greatest ever batting generation are in England now at the start of what could be their last season together.advertisementClick here to EnlargeIndia has had many luminous batsmen, and a few great line-ups, but these four stand apart. Not merely because all feature amongst the top 10 Indian Test run-getters (300-odd more runs for Laxman in England and they will be four of the top eight). Their real distinction lies in their impact: at their peak, their runs and partnerships led to more Test victories than any other foursome India had ever fielded.Click here to EnlargeWhen the Tests in England begin, the group will be thrown up into the familiar swirl of affection and aggravation, kinship and rivalry. In the middle, they will try to rediscover the sync that builds when the scoreboard is hostile, the skies grey, the ball swinging, when all they have is each other. Eventually, one may keep going longer than the other, but every man knows he will never keep such company again.Before the Lord’s Test, they are being paid a few cursory compliments but being told, in a very English way, that they are frankly a little pass. Ever since the World Cup, they have grown attuned to the impatient hissing.Pataudi on the Quartet: They were the greatest Indian middle order ever when they were the top of their game two-three years ago- only Viswanath and Vijay Manjrekar come into the frame.When told about this article, one of them laughed and gave it a title, “The old boys’ last stand, eh?” Their last two seasons have witnessed a tumult in fortunes, a spiraling of batting form and a jangling of confidence. Cool, green England, where cricket is organic entity rather than a shrill modern sport, is a place to check whether their multiplier effect still works. India will hope it does, for that is a well-trodden route to success and redemption.Each of them have the means. To expert and peer, the core of their qualities lies beneath the surface and beyond glib brand names. Tendulkar’s stroke play comes from a clutter-free creativity, says Javagal Srinath. His gift- carving out an extra instant by first concentrating on reading length alone before making his decision-forward or back. Unlike ordinary batsmen, Tendulkar does not think about where the bowlers arm come from or judging how the ball would swing. Length first, action in the next instant. “That sort of batsman,” says former India spinner V.V. Kumar, “is a miracle. It is like he has a sixth sense, one of shot-making.”Dravid’s defense is immaculate and his technique sound, but below the accumulated layers of learning and training, at his core, he is a master of the mind. A formidable mind player who brings his preparation to the crease well before the precision tool of his technique comes into play.Dravid with GangulyAfter his early flourish, Ganguly’s Test cricket has been played before the scrutiny of scowling pundits who say he can’t play fast bowling, can’t play the pull, doesn’t have an onside game, doesn’t have patience, doesn’t have the bottle. Still, he does have 5,000-plus Test runs and a signature six over long on that is an offering to the Gods. Tendulkar says, “See, Sourav knows his strengths very well. Singles are not his style, he likes boundaries. He knows how to set up bowlers.” Only three batsmen in history have a better ODI record and Srinath says, “His game is about domination. Either you overpower Sourav or he overpowers you.”Laxman is the juniormost but his skills seem the most unfathomable. No one can define the meeting point of his technique and his temperament, how he makes his physical art and his mental craft work. “His success,” says Kumar, “lies between the extremes of the improbable and the probable.” Laxman has often batted as if the scoreboard is irrelevant. He seems more careworn these days but India hopes England will uncork the magic.advertisementJohn Buchanan on India: Between 2000-2004, they were the best batting side we ran up against, not just in depth but in their skills-they could play pace and spin, they could attack and defend.Each knows what he would like to borrow from the other. Laxman’s wrist-work, says Tendulkar. Dravid’s temperament, says Ganguly. Tendulkar’s balance, says Dravid. Ganguly’s attitude, says Laxman. “When Sourav is at the crease, it’s all happening. Whatever shot he has just played on the previous ball, he’s still staring the opposition in the eyes.”Batting together, they have built an understanding of each other’s tempo and a mutual confidence, unshaken despite a run out or two dozen. Like a long-assembled, much-rehearsed string quartet, their cadences complement rather than compete. Dravid says, “Having them at the other end has helped me play in the rhythm I like.” In turn, Dravid has been the solid presence, the steady bass player, around whom the others could fly free and improvise knowing that the backbeat would always hold.The equal music of their batting together is actually conducted through long silences. Their partnerships punctuated by the occasional tap of the gloves, a few muttered words: “Have faith, have faith,” says Laxman and Dravid’s trademark “Keep going, you’re okay, you’re good, mate.” The only stream of chatter comes from Tendulkar and sometimes reserved, especially for Ganguly, in Bengali: “All the time, it’s the wrong Bengali-11 years and he still speaks it wrong.”There are parts to their old partners they still cannot understand: Sachin’s obsession with cars, Sourav’s obsession with his bats (he is alleged to have carried 15 on one tour), Laxman’s propensity to rush in for showers even at tea and pad up at the very last possible minute. And the perennial mindbender: why is Rahul so serious?Tendulkar on his Mates: If I could take a quality from their games, it would be Dravid’s patience, Sourav’s ability to calculate and pick and choose in an innings and Laxman’s wrist-work.They are secure enough to banter about each other but ask them if they think they form the India’s greatest ever batting generation and they palpably baulk. Tendulkar and Laxman opt for the safety of “one of the best”. Dravid says comparing eras is “silly, and I don’t want to do that.” Ganguly, never one for shy understatement says, “I would put it this way, in that period, we have contributed immensely to Indian cricket.”advertisementClick here to EnlargeFormer India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi places these young men in the historical context of the middle order batsmen he has seen from the 1950s onwards. “Only G.R. Viswanath and Vijay Manjrekar would enter the picture with them in terms of ability and effectiveness.” In his mind there is no argument, “When they were at the top of their game two-three years ago, they were the greatest middle order India has ever had.”Click here to EnlargeThey all know what time he is talking about. Between 2000 and the end of the 2004 season, when India played 41 Tests and won 16, exactly half of those away from home. There were Test wins in the West Indies after 26 years (series lost), in England after 16 years (series drawn), in Australia after 21(series drawn) and for the first time ever in Pakistan, where after many noshows, India kept its date with destiny, winning a series away from home. In that time, between them, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman scored 12,367 runs, 32 centuries (11 each to Tendulkar and Dravid), and shared 27 century partnerships.Ganguly on the Streak: There’s a lot of ability in our group-you’re talking tens of thousands of international runs. But mostly, at that time we played freely. There was no pressure on us.Why did it happen then, that hot streak when the phrase “best batting line-up in the world” meant what it said. When it was applied to Indian batsmen without the mockery loaded on? “It’s hard to give a reason,” says a smiling Tendulkar shaking his head, “but you’re talking about a lot of quality there.” Laxman includes runs from the top order like Virender Sehwag and his partnership with Akash Chopra in Australia, and believes, “it was a great team, everyone was gelling. It was amazing, we were all in great nick, getting runs for ourselves and the team.” Dravid’s dissection is more precise, “It coincided with the fact that we raised our games. We are the same age, we had similar experience, we peaked at around the same time.” Ability and freedom, says Ganguly, “we played freely, there was no pressure on the four of us.” Down a phone line from Christchurch, their coach at that time, John Wright, offers an odd-ball explanation, “They batted in a functional way,” he says.Throughout their history, Indians have never been functional cavalrymen. Swashbuckling yes, suicidal, very often, but functional? Like household gadgets? Wright explains. “They set some very clear goals-batting five sessions, batting in partnerships. Batting was our strength, if we could bat five sessions, put on runs, we knew we could control games.” So, these batsmen knew exactly what was expected of them? “No,” says Wright, “they knew exactly what was needed of them.”Tendulkar with LaxmanIndia was able to dominate in opposition territory, says Srinath on the back of this clutch of batsmen operating together. “I just wish,” he says with something sounding like longing, “these four guys had been in alignment for longer.”They are together again in England and what they will do will not be governed by the motion of the stars, but by their hunger and drive. If there was a single common chord in these diverse players, it lay in their intent to be the master of their destinies. Just like they orchestrated the perfect storm, maybe they can work out how to script the perfect finale. Despite the fact that Indian cricket doesn’t do fond farewells, only bitter and angry ones. If they could pull that off, it would perhaps be their ultimate victory. But the hours before contest commences in England are not for the anticipation of brute reality but for dreaming. They provide the perfect pause. To acknowledge these remarkable batsmen. To will them to suddenly perform in full-blooded chorus again.To say thank you for the music.