On a television show recently, Mr. Sunil Gavaskar said, and I quote: "You need bowlers who can take 20 wickets for a period of 2-3 matches at a stretch. And I am afraid, India have always missed such a bunch of bowlers. If they can do this, only then they will have chance."
He was, of course, talking of India's chances in the forthcoming Test series in Australia. Incidentally India will also be playing in Australian and New Zealand pitches in the next World Cup in 2015. Gavaskar, one of the shrewdest observers of the game, must have been worried about the consistency, or the lack of it, in our attack, especially in games played abroad.
Equally important, too, is the performance of our batsmen. Here again consistency seems to be a worrying factor.
Let me elaborate. A Test match is played over 5 days with 90 overs a day totaling a maximum of 450 overs assuming the match does not get over earlier. Occupancy of crease should be a major occupation of any batsman worth the name. Each side is roughly expected to last 225 overs in the match with 112.5 overs per innings.
Let us see how India fared in their last tour to England.
In the third Test of the series at Southampton, India lasted 106.1 overs in the first Innings scoring 233 runs while its second innings folded in just 66.4 overs, scoring 178 runs, to lose the match by a whopping 266 runs.
In the fourth Test at Manchester, India didn't even last 50 overs in either of their innings. The visitors lasted 46.4 overs and scored 152 runs in their first innings and fared even worse in the second essay, folding up in 43 overs to score 161 and lose by an innings and 54 runs.
In the final Test at The Oval, always considered a spinners' pitch, India lasted a modest 61.1 overs in the first Innings to score 148 runs and were packed up for an embarrassing 94 in 29.2 overs in the second; it was almost a T20 over match in the second innings that saw India getting bowled out in less than a session.
The point is those were all batting pitches where the opposition scored over 400 runs in each of their innings and India couldn't occupy the crease long enough to make an impact.
India somehow seemed to have lost the 'crease occupancy' power which was once considered their hallmark. Right from Vijay Merchant and the legendary Gavaskar, they used to grind the bowlers and occupy long hours; and once the bowling was tamed, 'opened the shoulders' and carried on to build decent to tall scores. In this context, it is worthwhile to remember that staring at the prospect of an innings defeat, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman ground perhaps the best attack in the world at that time comprising Mcgrath, Shane Warne, Gillespie, Kasprowicz for a whole day to change the complexion of a Test on that one single partnership to wrest the initiative and go on to script one of the most dramatic victories seen in Test cricket at Eden Gardens in 2001.
In the entire India- England series earlier this year India failed to occupy the crease for 225 overs normally expected of a side in Test matches. There was no rain, no bugbears in the pitches to explain the repeated collapse.
It is no coincidence Dravid leads the table for spending maximum time at the crease in Test cricket, 44152 minutes, facing 31258 balls. He ranks fourth in the number of runs scored in Test cricket with 13288 runs. The patience, the concentration and resolve he brought in his game has been part of Dravid's persona. It is only fitting for over a decade, many a time, India's batting was built around his innings. When he stood like a rock at one end, more often runs came from Sachin Tendulkar, Laxman and Sehwag, secure in their belief that there was Dravid at the other end.
It is not a surprise in the top ten of that table, Tendulkar the highest scorer in all forms of cricket stayed second longest at the wicket and faced 29437 balls, second only to Dravid, and scored 15291 runs, the highest to lead the table.
You don't need any more encouragement for any cricketer than to know what the legends at the wicket did at the wicket. Just these two figures should be a great encouragement for any of our batsmen while taking guards.
How I wish Sunny would hold a batting clinic with Dravid to highlight the importance of occupancy of crease in a Test match. Apart from these two, one of the contemporary cricketers and still growing strong is West Indies batsman Shivnaraine Chadrapaul.
Chandrapaul comes to the crease with a purpose and makes it clear that he has no intention to leave it in a hurry by the way he bats. He stays for hours and can bat all day taking his side to safety. He is a classic occupier of crease. So was Jacques Kallis of South Africa, the best allrounder the game has seen since Garfield Sobers.
The English attack, save Jimmy Anderson, was fairly ordinary with Stuart Broad 'sometimes' bowling accurately. Yet India caved in against fast bowling, medium pace and finally to spin in a heap.
Only Murali Vijay showed his intent to stay at the wicket when he laid the foundation for a match-winning effort with a crucial 95 runs in 378 minutes. If any of our batsmen had applied themselves for the job in hand as Gavaskar and Dravid had done time and again, the matches could have been saved. Even an ordinary bowling can trigger a bating collapse if the batsmen do not value their wicket highly, as it happened on the English tour.
This factor is somehow lost in the razzmatazz of ODIs and T20s. Hope its importance in Test cricket is realised and brought into focus once again when India goes to Australia.