And Then There Were Twelve

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

My most recent post, on the little masters Tendulkar and Gavaskar, and the not so little Kohli, generated such a wave of interest – there must have been at least six comments – that it prompted me to go further and pick a best Indian eleven, or rather twelve.

It goes without saying that the above-mentioned trio are all selected, though obviously Tendulkar and Kohli will not both be able to bat at number four.

Gavaskar will open and there can be no serious dispute that his opening partner will be Virender Sehwag. With 8,503 runs at 49.43 and 23 hundreds in Tests there is no doubting his quality. He made two Test scores of over 300; Brian Lara, Don Bradman and Chris Gayle are the other members of that exclusive club. He also scored 293 against Sri Lanka and 254 against Pakistan.

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But it was the way Sehwag made his runs that was memorable. Paul Collingwood, speaking after a season with the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League, spoke about a consultation he had had about technical issues with his local teammate. Sehwag’s advice had been very simple: “See ball, hit ball”.

The best modern tour book, Pundits From Pakistan, by Rahul Bhattacharya, covers India’s tour of Pakistan in 2003-04, when, in the first Test in Multan, Sehwag became India’s first triple centurion, making 309 in 375 minutes with 39 fours and three sixes (he was the first man to reach the milestone with a six). “For ages”, Bhattacharya said, “cricketers have been raised to the commandment “thou shalt play in the V”. Sehwag plays in the V alright, the V between cover-point and third man. He goes on, describing this remarkable innings, which ended just after lunch on the second day. “Having set himself up, he lets his marvellous hands take over, slicing, slapping, slashing, swatting above or in between the fielders in his V”.

In 2005-06 India returned to Pakistan and Sehwag scored 254 – out of 410 for one – in the first Test in Lahore. He hit 47 fours and a six – almost all on the off side – and reached his double century in 182 balls.

One of the most memorable of 21st century Tests was the first between India and England in Chennai in 2008-09. Two weeks earlier, on 26 November 2008 there had been a horrific terror attack on Mumbai, and Kevin Pietersen’s England squad, who had been in India since early November, flew home. But they returned for the two-match Test series. India won the first match by six wickets with an hour to spare, making 387 for four, the highest successful run chase in a Test in Asia. Tendulkar masterminded the pursuit with 103 not out, an innings he dedicated to all his countrymen. But could they have won the match without Sehwag? He made 83 from 68 balls with four sixes.

Many people say number three is the most important place in the batting order. There is no doubt about who is going there in this team, despite the presence of Tendulkar and Kohli. It is “The Wall”, Rahul Dravid.

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He made 13,265 runs at 52.63 with 36 hundreds. And he made every one of those runs count. Like the big – well – small-ish – three, he was a master in all conditions. Indeed in England, where conditions frequently pose a challenge to visiting batsmen, he averaged 68 compared to Tendulkar’s 54.

There was none of the Sehwag swagger. All that sort of caper was irrelevant. The important things were a) to occupy the crease and b) to score runs. But to look as good as Dravid while you’re doing it – well, Dravid was the coaching manual made man.

He played a pivotal role in one of the most famous of all Test victories, India’s win over Australia at Eden Gardens, Kolkata in 2000-01 when the home side won after following on 274 behind. V V S Laxman (281, batting at 3) and Dravid (180) put on 376 for the fifth wicket. In the context – not just of the match and the series but of Australia’s drive for cricketing world domination – these were great performances.

Dravid was a superb slip fielder and often kept wicket in one-day cricket. As Christopher Martin-Jenkins said, he never did a graceless thing on a cricket field.

Kohli is at four and Tendulkar at five.

Then we come to a difficult decision, the sort that all selectors have to make. It is all about balance. Do we go for an extra batsman? If so, that batsman will be Laxman. 8781 runs at 45.97 with 17 hundreds (six of them against Australia), perhaps not quite as good as the others. Curiously he never made a century against England and his highest score in that country, in 11 Tests, was 74. But there was that innings in Kolkata. Shane Warne has said it was up there with the best innings played against Australia, as good as anything by Tendulkar or Brian Lara. And in terms of style and the aesthetic thrill of batsmanship, I would pick Laxman aead of all the others.

But, sadly, he doesn’t make it into this side. My view is that with a top five like this, somebody will make the runs; they will come somehow. The difficult thing is to take 20 wickets. We need a keeper, an all-rounder – they don’t grow on trees – and four bowlers.

First, the keeper. I have a soft spot for Farokh Engineer. How could one not have a soft spot for a man who, on one occasion, against West Indies in 1966-67 in Madras, almost became the fourth man to score a century before lunch on the first day of a Test, and, on another, against England at The oval in 1971 (a famous Indian victory) made the highest score – 59 – in a Test in England not to contain a single boundary?

I met him once. He was kind enough to accept the invitation of the publishers to write the foreword to my book on Indian cricketers, The Indian Masters. I knew this was happening but one day I was delighted to receive a copy of his generous hand-written foreword, complete with contact details. I at once emailed him asking him to contact me if he ever visited Singapore. To my astonishment I received an immediate response, from his wife, saying he was in Singapore now and that I should contact him at his hotel. I did, and we had a wonderfully entertaining lunch.

But I haven’t picked him either. I am drawn, inexorably, in rather the way that American voters are drawn in the direction of Donald J Trump, but I trust with less calamitous and risible results – towards Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

There really is no contest. Dhoni was one of the most remarkable cricketers of his generation. In the last 20 years or so India have been lucky enough to have three captains who have helped take their team from a position of something like apologetic subservience – with the odd exception of course – to one of unapologetic dominance. They were Sourav Ganguly, Dhoni, and Kohli. It will be Dhoni who captains this side.

He scored 4,876 runs at 38.09 and effected 294 dismissals in 90 Tests. He arguably made more of a name for himself on ODI and T20 cricket; he is definitely the greatest chaser in the shorter formats, rivalled only by Kohli. But Dhoni’s story is an unusual one. Almost all Indian players come from the established centres and – Tendulkar is the extreme example but Kohli is another – play high quality cricket from a tender age. Dhoni came from a real cricketing backwater, and basically taught himself the game. Yet he rose to the very top of the Indian cricketing tree. He captained India in 60 Tests, winning 27 and losing 18 (Kohli is catching up and has a better win-loss ratio.)

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His only Test century outside India – he made six altogether – came against Pakistan in Faisalabad in 2005-06. It was his first Test century and when he came in he received a fusillade of bouncers from Shoaib Akhtar. He hooked his seventh ball for six and didn’t look back, finishing on 148. Wisden described him as “India’s cocky rock star with a neat line in wicketkeeping and outlandish batting.”

For the all-rounder position there is only one option. People who only saw him toward the end of his career may not have realised what a genuinely exciting cricketer Kapil Dev was. At the height of his powers he was the equal of his three great contemporaries, Imran Khan, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee, an exuberant batsman, incisive fast-medium bowler and a brilliant fielder. A career record of 5,248 runs at 31.05 and 454 wickets at 29.64 tells its own story. And who knows, perhaps he has been the most influential of all Indian cricketers. For it was he who was at the helm during the World Cup in England in 1983. It was he who kept India in the competition with his brilliant 175 against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells, when all seemed lost. It was he who plucked an impossible catch out of the air when Viv Richards seemed to be easing West Indies to victory in the final. And it was he who stood on the Lord’s balcony holding the trophy aloft. India had fallen in love with limited-overs cricket; we didn’t know it at the time but the global game was changing for ever.

Ravindra Jadeja comes in at number eight. What? I hear you cry. He’s not even a regular in the current side! Well, more fool the Indian selectors. He wasn’t even in the 2019 World Cup side at the start of the tournament; in the end, he almost got them into the final with a typically inventive 77 in the semifinal against New Zealand. His teammate, Ravi Ashwin, might be the safer selection – and, as will be seen, possibly the more logical – but we’re not going for safe here. With 213 Test wickets at an average of 24, and a batting average of 35 you’d think he’d be ever present. He is, obviously, not one of the great all-rounders, but like those players, he makes things happen. It’s not obvious how, but he does. Like Kohli he is a wonderful fielder. And he will annoy the opposition, which, up to a point, can be a good thing.

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Ishant Sharma is the leader of what must surely be India’s best ever pace attack. He has been around for a while now – he played his first Test back in 2007, first coming to prominence on India’s tour of Australia in 2007-08 – and although clearly a talented performer, in the earlier part of his career he lacked consistency and, somehow, conviction. Those days seem long gone. Now he has accuracy and control as well as pace, and at 6’4”” he generates considerable bounce too. He has almost 300 Test wickets at 32 apiece to show for it. In England in 2018 he took 18 wickets at 24.27, more than anyone else in the series apart from James Anderson. He took five for 51 in the first Test at Edgbaston. He posed a threat to Alastair Cook throughout the series.

There can have been few more intriguing pace bowlers to watch than Jasprit Bumra. His run up is extraordinary, very short for someone of his pace and starting with a purposeful-looking walk, like a more than usually determined competitor in an egg and spoon race, before breaking into a sprint. The action itself is immensely vibrant and powerful and generates serious pace. He has so many variations, a devastating yorker, a brilliant slower ball, and he can swing it both ways. He took both England and Australia by storm in 2018.

For my number 11 I just have to have one of the great spinners of the 1970s. With Jadeja operating from the other end logic would suggest the off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna, who many said was the best of the lot. I used to love watching the slow left armer Bishan Bedi, surely the most pleasingly aesthetic of all bowlers. When I wrote my book, the Bedi essay was the first. But I have gone for the leg spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. He was unique bowling his leg breaks and googlies at something like medium pace and troubling the very best batsmen, as 242 wickets at 29.74 shows. I saw him once, on the first day of a famous match, the first day of England’s third Test against India at The Oval in 1971 (the match in which Engineer scored his boundary-free 59). India won the match and the series, the first time tbey had achieved either in England. Chandrasekhar was the hero of the hour, taking six for 38 in England’s second innings. When England played five Tests in India in 1972-73 he took 35 wickets at 18.91, and when they returned four years later he took 19 at 28.26.

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What about Anil Kumble, I hear you cry. Well, yes, that’s not an unreasonable point; he did, after all, take 619 Test wickets. And he could bat and field, unlike Chandra. But, well it’s my team, so there.

And, finally, there is the twelfth man. Well, not exactly a twelfth man, in the sense of a substitute fielder. In an exercise like this it is, rather, someone you would love to put in the side but there just isn’t room for. For my friend Shashi Tharoor I am sure it would be Surinder Amarnath, or perhaps the great Salim Durani (whom I wrote about in my blog, see The Great Game). But for me it is the most romantic of all Indian cricketers: the late Mansur Ali Khan, the ninth Nawab of Pataudi.

“Tiger” Pataudi’s story is well known but none the worse for re-telling. His father had played for England, and scored a century in the Bodyline series in 1932-33, before captaining India. His wife, an actress, was related to the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Their children are Bollywood royalty.

Pataudi became captain of India at the age of 21, in March 1962 when the appointed captain, Nari Contractor, was struck and almost killed by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith during the Indian tourists’ game against Barbados. He remained captain until replaced by Ajit Wadekar in 1970, captaining the country in 40 of his 46 Tests. He didn’t have the firepower that Dhoni and Kohli, and Ganguly too, could call upon but in his own way he was just as influential captain. Right from the start he had the respect of his players, most of whom were of course older and more experienced than him. A brilliant fielder himself, he was one of the first international captains to try at least to convene e his charges of the importance of fielding. They didn’t win very often, but they were rarely disgraced. Sage observers D J Rutnagur and Mihir Bose conceded that at least he had something different to offer.

As a batsman he was vigorous and adventurous rather than classically attractive. He scored 2,793 runs at 34.61 – add a few for average inflation since the’60s. He scored hundreds against England, Australia and New Zealand, enjoying a superb series against Australia at home in 1964-65. (Of course there were no neutral umpires in those days. I love Gideon Haigh’s story of Australia’s vice-captain Brian Booth being asked what he thought of Pataudi’s 128 not out in Madras: “I thought his third innings was the best” said Booth.)

I have left till last the most remarkable thing about Pataudi. He had been a prodigy at Winchester and Oxford. On 1 July 1961 the car he was travelling back in (as a passenger) from Oxford University’s match against Sussex at Hove was involved in an accident; Pataudi lost the sight of his right eye.

Amazingly, he was back in the nets a few weeks later and in Madras in January 1962 he made his first Test century, against England. Of course we’ll never know but E W Swanton for one had no doubt: “His overflowing talent, I believe, would have carried him to the very top of the tree.”

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