The Last Over


A dreaded denouement is in store for fans as Indian cricket’s golden generation prepares for its final innings, says Suresh Menon

THE PERIOD 1890 to 1914 is generally regarded as the golden age of cricket. It saw the flowering of Ranji, the maturing of Grace, the varied skills of Trumper, Gregory, Rhodes and Barnes. But it was essentially an Anglo-Australian golden age. India and the West Indies were yet to play Test cricket. Still, the essentials of a golden age were laid down: a mix of the classical and the adventurous, an attitude bordering on playing the game rather than winning or losing, a transnational fandom and, above all, a spirit that encapsulated the best the game had to offer.

Heir apparent: In Dhoni, the team has found a natural successor to Ganguly
Heir apparent In Dhoni, the team has found a natural successor to Ganguly, Photo: AP

Not all of this was true, of course. Teams played to win, individuals to score runs or take wickets. A Victor Trumper was as popular among Englishmen as he was among his native Australians, so that part was probably right. The spirit was tending towards the professional, although later writers, especially Neville Cardus, romanticised the period, and his imaginative summing up has replaced facts with more exciting near-facts, if not downright fiction.

In later years, victory, consistent and against all teams in all conditions, has been the ideal. Thus the golden age of West Indies cricket, when their fast bowlers and incredibly gifted batsmen ruled the world, or of Australian cricket when sturdy, almost humourless men like Allan Border and Steve Waugh led the team and focussed on reducing the enemy to dust. Trumper would have found it difficult to break into those teams, he would have been tossed aside for someone who could intimidate with ‘mental disintegration’ tactics.

Yet, India’s golden era — now gently coming to an end — has somehow managed to retain some of the requirements of the 1890- 1914 era. In men like Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman, they have had batsmen who could destroy either with club or velvet brush; the Gower-like distaste for the straight and narrow that marked the batsmanship of Sourav Ganguly, and above all, the mastery of  Sachin Tendulkar have combined the luxuries of an age past and the necessities of modern times, the most important of which is a string of victories. No player in any golden age could have been more professional yet more sportsmanlike than either Dravid or Kumble.

During the cricket series in Australia commencing in December, Dravid will turn 39; soon after, so will Tendulkar. Since Tendulkar made his debut in November 1989, India has played 200 Tests (at the end of the recent one in Kolkata) and won more than they have lost — 69 to 54. This is no coincidence. It has been Indian cricket’s golden age, a period when they were recognised as the No 1 Test team and won both the T20 and the One-Day World Cups.

And now we must prepare — both players and fans — for the dreaded denouement. A future without the icons who have been part of everybody’s life while growing up. Or if that’s an exaggeration, at least part of half the country’s growing years. Fifty percent of India’s population is under the age of 25, and as Tendulkar enters his 23rd year in international cricket, the figures are significant. There are millions who don’t know of a national team without Tendulkar. For them, India has been Tendulkar and vice versa.

The trouble with golden ages is that they are seldom recognised as such by those living through them. In sport especially, greatness is usually bestowed retrospectively. Bowlers and batsmen and teams tend to get better with age, better with every ball not bowled, every run not scored, or indeed every match not played.

Some time ago, the website Cricinfo ran a poll to pick the greatest Indian XI of all time. Four players in the list — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni — are currently in the national side and two others, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, retired fairly recently.

THAT SIX of the XI made their debuts after November 1989 is a tribute to Tendulkar’s impact. Golden ages must have their iconic figure and Tendulkar is clearly the one here, both for what he has accomplished himself and for his qualities that inspired the others.

(To digress, the final XI was: Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Kapil Dev, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Erapalli Prasanna).

The only other phase that might challenge the current one for its golden qualities is 1971-74 when India beat the West Indies away for the first time, and then England both away and at home. Then came the 1974 tour of England, a disastrous 3-0 defeat, which featured, if that’s the word, India’s lowest score in Tests — 42 — at Lord’s.

The icons were Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and the spin quartet of Bishan Singh Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and S Venkataraghavan. But they lost out on consistency, on longevity and on range. It was great fun while it lasted though, as an adoring media calculated that because X had beaten Y and Z was out of the competition, India must be the world champions. The algebra of No 1 failed to convince those of a more objective frame of mind, and everything came crashing down within three years, but as I said, it was fun while it lasted.

The winning edge: Indira Gandhi (centre) with the World Cup-winning team of 1983
The winning edge Indira Gandhi (centre) with the World Cup-winning team of 1983

And better things were to come — a 2-0 win over England in England, a drawn series in Australia, and above all the World Cup in 1983. Kapil Dev played heroic roles in all these events, but again, it was back to the cliché: India were tigers at home (a 3-0 whitewash of England in 1992-93) but lambs abroad (only one win outside the country in the 1990s).

But two events took place at the start of the decade that were to change all that. The debut of the 15-year-old Tendulkar and the arrival on the scene of a 19-year-old bowler, Anil Kumble, who would carry the attack on his shoulders for nearly two decades. Javagal Srinath, who waited patiently while Kapil Dev hung on till the world aggregate record was his, came into his own after the great all-rounder’s exit. By the mid-’90s, the core was in place, with the sensational debuts of Ganguly and Dravid and the less feted arrival of Laxman.

One final element had to fall into place. The captaincy. Ganguly’s elevation might have been helped by the fact that his then supporter and Kolkata man, Jagmohan Dalmiya, called the shots in the cricket board. It might have been a toss-up between him and Dravid on the one hand, and him and Kumble on the other. The fact that Kumble was a bowler was held against him, a bias that has cost many worthy players the job. Dravid was seen as too inwardly focussed.

Ganguly blossomed. He led the second self-respect movement in Indian cricket following the one by Tiger Pataudi some four decades earlier. He built a team of youngsters who swore by him, and unusually for an Indian captain, backed his players to the hilt.

By the turn of the century, India had beaten Australia at home after losing the first Test and winning the next two. Laxman, he of the 1890s spirit, played a brilliant innings of 281 in Kolkata, then the highest individual score by an Indian. That series, perhaps that match, was the starting point for India’s rise to the No 1 slot in world cricket. Alone among Indian captains, Ganguly finished with more wins than defeats in away Tests, and under him for the first time, an Indian team began to believe in itself and win matches abroad consistently.

IT ALL came together on the 2004 tour of Australia. Ganguly showed the way with a century in the first Test at Brisbane. Dravid made a double century in the next Test that India won while Tendulkar made a double in the fourth Test. In between, Sehwag’s 195 was scored at such a galloping rate in Melbourne that it gave Australia enough time to fight back and win! Kumble finished with 24 wickets to lay to rest permanently a perceived lack of success on foreign soil.

India’s Top Six was compared to the best-ever in the game; no one could think of a match for the middle order of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman, not even one that had Bradman, Hassett and Harvey of Australia; or Worrell, Weekes and Walcott of the West Indies.

Yet, India did not dominate world cricket as the West Indies did in the 1980s or Australia in the decade and a half following. In South Africa and Sri Lanka, they did not win series although they won Test matches. Fast bowling, especially in the opening Test of an away series often caught the batsmen on the back foot, not much thought having been given to acclimatisation.

Bowlers, batsmen and teams tend to get better with age, better with every ball not bowled, every run not scored, or indeed every match not played

But the golden age was not just about cricket. Part of the reason for dubbing it thus is the fact that without the leadership of Ganguly and the presence of men like Kumble, Dravid, Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, India might not have recovered from the disaster of having a captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, accused of match-fixing.

In the new millennium, cricket faced its biggest crisis since the war. South African captain Hansie Cronje and Azharuddin confessed, the former in a truth-and-reconciliation session that became a hallmark of South Africa’s response to huge international crime. “Maine match banaya,” admitted Azharuddin to the CBI and was given a life ban. Other players were given bans of varying lengths, and for a while, Indian cricket was in the doldrums. How many heads would roll? Rumours flew thick and fast, as they do in such situations. Someone or the other was pointing fingers at someone or the other. Whistle-blower Manoj Prabhakar turned out to be a suspect. The great Kapil Dev wept on national television when his conduct was called into question.

India needed a strong captain who would obviously be seen to be above the temptation. In Ganguly, who has not been given sufficient credit for this, they found the man. Even the silver spoon that he was born with was made of gold, so there was no excessive greed or need as in the case of some colleagues.

The strong team he built — Harbhajan Singh and Sehwag completed the picture — was seen to be above suspicion.

Had the Indian public turned its back on the game after Azharuddin admitted that he had used his supple wrists not just for scoring runs but for counting his ill-gotten wealth too, Indian cricket might not have recovered.

That players of the calibre of Dravid, Kumble and others emerged around the same period might have been a coincidence, but it was a necessary antidote to the shenanigans of an earlier generation. The golden age was also about restoring the public’s faith in the national obsession.

There was a manner of handling crises that made the Indian team stand out. The cricket board, flush with funds and ego, might have been telling the world who was boss in unsubtle ways, but there was a dignity to the captains of the period that made all the difference.

Ganguly led the second selfrespect movement in Indian cricket following the one by Tiger Pataudi. He built a team of youngsters who swore by him

When the ‘Monkeygate’ problem arose in Australia — Harbhajan was alleged to have called Andrew Symonds a racially-charged simian name — it was a matter of pride for his countrymen that Kumble was captain. And a captain who knew his history well enough to tell the Australian media that of the two teams there, only one was playing cricket. This reference to a famous quote by Australia’s Bodyline skipper Bill Woodfull not only put the troubles in perspective, it rattled the sport-loving nation.

Tendulkar might have scored over 33,000 runs in all forms of international cricket, nearly 7,000 runs more than the second-placed Ricky Ponting; Dravid might have played more deliveries than anyone else in Tests, his aggregate topped only by Tendulkar; Sehwag might have made two triple centuries (and narrowly missed a third while making the runs in a single day’s play); Kumble might have become only the second player to claim all 10 wickets in a Test innings, but impressive as these figures are, more impressive has been the ‘Indianness’ they brought to their task, and an old-fashioned attitude towards playing the game that made the whole thing special.

“Playing for India is motivation enough,” says Tendulkar every time you ask him what keeps him going. For Dravid, it continues to be the “sheer joy of playing”.

The cricket board might’ve been telling the world who was boss, but there was a dignity to the captains of the period that made all the difference

In 2007, these two greats and others wept openly when they were beaten in the World Cup. It is a tribute to their strength of character that they made up four years later, although by then Dravid was not in the One-Day squad. Meanwhile, Dhoni, the natural successor to Ganguly with his well-honed sense of man management and his own remarkable temperament, continues to promise great things.

India is yet to win a series in Australia, and this will surely be the last chance for a whole generation that ensured India played the long-time world champions on something approaching equal terms for over a decade.

After their remarkable performances in the recent past, especially Dravid’s in England, no one is suggesting that Australia might see the end of the careers of three leading Indian batsmen. But it is possible. Great sportsmen like to retire when they are right on top. It is what keeps a Ricky Ponting going through a horrible phase of low scores — he is in search of the big one to prove himself one final time and go out on a high.

Both Tendulkar and Dravid might play into their 40s. The contribution they and their colleagues have made to the golden age of Indian cricket is immense. And not calculable in figures.

The golden age of Indian cricket can be reduced to figures: so many matches, so many victories, so many centuries, so many wickets, so many runs. But in the end, what will endure is not so much the statistics as the culture of a group of players whose varied talents were brought together in the cause.

And the cause was spreading joy and giving pride to more than a single generation of Indians. That has been the team’s greatest achievement. Golden ages may come and go, but this one will always remain special.


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