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The other little master

  • Published at 12:02 am October 28th, 2016
The other little master

Researching my recent article on Hanif Muhammad (“Hanif Muhammad’s Epic Innings,” Dhaka Tribune, August 17), I became increasingly interested in the crucial differences between big scores made in the first and second innings of a Test match.

In brief, the batsman has little match pressure upon him in the first innings of a Test match. People expect him to score runs based on his reputation, but there is usually no imperative for him to do so.

In the second innings of a Test however, depending on what has happened earlier in the match, the batsman more often faces a trickier situation.

As a result, a failure in the second innings tends to be more consequential and, to that extent, each batsman has to take this constant worry into account with every ball he plays.

The challenge is made even greater because the pitch has usually deteriorated by the time of the second innings, especially if it happens to be the fourth innings of the match.

This means that, as a general rule, we should value a batsman’s contributions in the second innings higher than similar scores in the first innings.

This relatively higher valuation of course goes through the roof when we consider the occasional times in Test match history when the pressures on the batsmen become close to unbearable. The beauty of the game is that it sometimes throws up second innings situations (almost always in the fourth innings of a match) in which the outcome of the game hangs upon a thread and the batsmen have to call upon all their skill and temperament to try to come up with a match-saving, or match-winning, result -- in defiance of bowlers who are on top, and themselves straining for victory.

The extreme case of such a fightback was that of Hanif Muhammad who once batted for three days under exceptionally trying circumstances to bring about a draw in a Test match.

However, another name kept appearing in my study of extraordinary -- second innings contributions, none other than that of the other “Little Master” of the sub-continent, namely, Sunil Gavaskar.

The more important innings

Everyone knows of Gavaskar’s overall cricketing achievements -- the first man to score 10,000 Test runs and 30 centuries, ending with a lifetime average of 51.12. But the real gem hidden in these figures is that his average in the second innings of Tests is 51.46, which is actually higher than his average of 50.90 in first inning outings.

By contrast, the averages of great stroke-making batsmen like Brian Lara or Virender Sehwag are skewed completely in the opposite direction, respectively 63.94 and 62.50 in the first innings and only 38.18 and 30.25 in the second. This does not mean that the contributions of such stroke-makers are not worthwhile but only that they are not consciously directed responses, subject to high risk, to the same extent as those of the second innings stalwarts.

Other batsmen with better averages in their Test second innings are, as could have been expected, people like Allan Border and Geoffrey Boycott who combined obdurate temperaments with solid technique. As for modern batsmen, another opening bat, Alastair Cook has close first and second innings Test averages, respectively 48.43 and 45.70, which means that he shows admirable consistency.

These comparative statistics serve to put Gavaskar’s batting feats, which earned him a second innings average of over 50, in the right perspective. These averages are made more weighty because, as a perpetual opening bat, he was relatively less able to benefit from “not out” appearances.

The qualitative aspects of his performances are even more impressive. To begin with, we can note that he batted in the era when there were no helmets, and no chest/thigh/arm guards. I am always thrilled by the photos of Gavaskar opening the innings wearing a floppy hat with shirt unbuttoned to reveal his chest as he took on the fiery challenges thrown at him by the tearaway fast bowlers of the opposing sides.

Over his playing years he had the “misfortune” to face probably the most hostile new ball attacks ever in the history of the game: Denis Lillee and Jeff Thomson of Australia, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner of the West Indies, Imran Khan of Pakistan, Ian Botham of England, and Richard Hadlee of New Zealand.

All Sunil Gavaskar had in his armoury against these bowlers of express pace and guile was the quickness of his eye, the swiftness of his feet, and his perfect timing, (a quality which he particularly shared with Hanif Muhammad).

All Gavaskar had in his armoury against these bowlers of express pace and guile were the quickness of his eye, the swiftness of his feet, and his perfect timing

These were the conditions under which Gavaskar delivered an average in the fourth innings of Test matches of no less than 58.25, the only man (along with Ricky Ponting) to score four centuries in them. But let us look more closely at some of his exceptional performances.

The fourth Test at the Oval against England in 1979 was one such occasion. Late on the fourth day of the Test, India were put in to bat needing a seemingly impossible 438 runs, in little more than a day, to win. Instead of playing for a safe draw, India went for the win, Gavaskar leading the way by crafting an opening partnership of 213 with Chetan Chauhan.

Almost the whole of the fifth day, Gavaskar continued to manage the run chase against the always menacing attack of Bob Willis and Ian Botham until he was finally out for a magnificent score of 221. With three balls to spare all four results were possible, but the match was ultimately drawn with India only nine runs short.

In the fifth Test against the West Indies, played at Port of Spain Trinidad in 1971, India started their second innings late on the fourth day (it was a six day Test) facing a deficit of 166. Once more, Gavaskar (who had already scored a century in nearly 7 hours in the first innings) took matters in hand and batted for almost nine hours on a pitch, taking more and more turn to score yet another double century. Set 262 runs to win, the West Indies were 165 for 8 when the match ended in a tense draw.

The third example of Sunil Gavaskar’s powers of application comes from the third Test against the West Indies in 1976, once again at Port of Spain Trinidad. The wicket had helped the spinners throughout the match and all the West Indies’ 16 wickets in the match had fallen to the high-class Indian spin bowlers.

India came in to bat in the fourth innings of the match and set 403 runs to win, which had been achieved only once before in the entire history of Test cricket. Gavaskar opened the innings ready to try for the highly improbable win, and this time his technique was tested on a viciously turning pitch.

Batting into the fifth day for a total of over four hours, in an innings which was not fluent but full of character, he scored 104 before succumbing. As it turned out, he had laid the foundation and after GR Viswanath’s century, India pulled off a famous win.

All these second innings scores were made when the fate of the Test match was hanging in the balance and the slightest mistake could have been decisive. Instead, Gavaskar played with grit and tenacity for long periods, with huge burdens upon his shoulders, to help deliver the results that his teammates, and his country, were wanting from him.

In the game of cricket, the highest ranking belongs to the batsman who comes through when the chips are down and few deserve such a status more than Sunil Gavaskar.

This article was written with statistical assistance from Fedae Dastgir.

Sal Imam is a writer and freelance journalist. He can be followed on Twitter @redshiftsal.