Mumbai: The manner in which the Indian batting line-up crumbled on Sunday in the second Test match against England at Mumbai highlighted the need for a dying art—defensive batting to save a cricket game.
It was on display soon after at Adelaide, during the second Test match between South Africa and Australia. South African batsman Faf du Plessis batted for seven hours and 46 minutes to remain unbeaten at 110, helping his team draw the match that seemed lost at one point. It was the sort of stubborn batting that is rarely appreciated these days.
Heroic resistance is the stuff of legend in most cultures—Spartans fighting a million Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae or seven Maratha warriors rushing to certain death to save the life of Shivaji. Such heroism in the face of almost certain defeat used to be far more common on the cricket field as well. One of the greatest innings I have watched is Sunil Gavaskar’s last Test innings in 1987, on a pitch in Bangalore where Pakistani spinners Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed were making the ball jump off a good length and turning it square as well. Gavaskar stood on that minefield to produce a monumental 96, eventually falling to a dodgy umpiring decision. India lost the match by 16 runs, but it is worth remembering that the other recognized Indian batsman, all fine players of spin, scored 57 runs between themselves.
Anybody raised on cricket in the 1970s and 1980s will remember great defensive innings when all seemed lost, by batsmen such as Mohinder Amarnath or Javed Miandad. It is important to remember that many of these batsmen were not habitual plodders. They could attack when the situation needed it.
A less well-known example is an astonishing innings by Mark Greatbatch, the New Zealand left-hand batsman who was one of the pioneers of the strategy to take advantage of the field restrictions in the early parts of a one-day match by hitting over the top. Greatbatch could hit massive sixers, but perhaps his greatest innings was a defensive one. He stayed at the crease for 14 hours to score 146 not out against Australia in 1989, saving his team from what looked like certain defeat at one point of time.
Of course, there were others who made a habit of blocking the ball in all situations. One of the most painful cricket sessions I have watched is two hours of Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavare on the opening day of a Test match at the Wankhede stadium. Boycott was famously dropped from the English cricket team after scoring a double century against the Indian team that toured England in 1967 under the captaincy of M.A.K. Pataudi. He took 573 minutes to score 246 not out at Leeds, in a series that the English team dominated. Give me a good T20 game any day.
It is not a question about attacking batting versus defensive batting. Both are important for the game. A blistering innings by Virender Sehwag is as much of a joy as a great defensive innings on a bad wicket was. Nor does every rearguard action necessarily have to be defensive: Who can forget the ethereal 281 scored by V.V.S. Laxman against the Australians at the Eden Gardens in 2001, full of wonderful strokes. Yet, the sort of heroic innings du Plessis played at Adelaide this week has become a rarity—and cricket is the poorer because of that.
Writing for www.espncricinfo.com after du Plessis’s masterly innings, Mark Nicholas wrote: “If Test cricket goes, a piece of us goes with it. The piece that is patience, manners and respect; the piece that is without commerce at its core.”
Hard to disagree, isn’t it?