The wonder of “The Wall”

Some batsmen have certain characteristics which define them. Tendulkar it is a touch of class with every stroke-particularly the cover drive. Kallis has a more bullish approach, a raw power which eminates with every hit, while Ponting is a tenacity akin to bloodymindedness which makes every stroke a sign that he will not be dominated.

While most opt for aggression, the one thing which you could say about Rahul Dravid is solidity. His game is not built for aggression, he hardly seems the sort who has an aggressive bone in his body. Even in his post-match interviews he comes across with the kind of non-confrontational, articulate air normally the preserve of politicians.

But for a man who plays a game which conjures up various metaphors about life and death, his game has always been about calmness and common sense, about survival before risk and almost always about total dedication to the cause.

Perhaps that is why I’ve always warmed to him. He’s never been flashy, not a showman or narcissist cravenly hogging the spotlight, he has always been the man for the lesser role, akin to that played by a straightman to a comedian.

Some batsmen go out seeking to make headlines, Dravid does anything but. While others in this Indian team, the Sehwags, the Tendulkars and the Laxmans, have flourished with greater style and to greater applause, Dravid’s role has always been about the greatest effort and the greatest effect for the team.

Hence why the news that filtered through about his latest century against New Zealand was so welcoming, not because of the runs that he scored but the confirmation that if anything “The Wall” as he is known was still intact, still capable of scaling heights which were once so easy.

For a man who makes every innings an effort, a struggle for survival, it can’t have been easy watching the very things you pride yourself on, solidity and doughty defence being so easily breached as he struggled scratchily for runs and any semblance of form.

But this innings, this century, was a throwback to those better days when even the finest could spend days on end driven to the point of despair in trying to penetrate his defences and provide a platform for another mighty Indian total.

More importantly though it was simply a riposte for all the critics, all those calling for his head, aiming to bring down the curtain on his long and distinguished career in favour of something new and exciting but unproven and untested.

Surely Dravid deserves better and will certainly get better as the critics have to wait a little while longer.

In truth, while India may not need him as much as they once did, it would surely be folly to discard him so quickly. Granted his age and recent form are against him, but the old maxim remains as true as ever: form is temporary, class is permanent.

In a team full of strokemakers, full of star names and attractive batsmen, Dravid’s role is often understated and devalued. As Frank Keating once described the great English batsmen Ken Barrington: he is “the solid trellis which allowed the Fancy Dans to parade their blooms”.

Dravid plays that role perfectly in this Indian side, opting for stoic defence to allow his partner to flourish at the other end as Dhoni did against the Indians.

In an era of Twenty20 cricket he is perhaps out of step with the needs of the modern generation, but then Dravid has always been an anachronism, a classical batsmen playing in a very modern world.

Perhaps that’s the brilliance of him. That in a cricketing world which values showmanship and image above all else, he has shown that age-old qualities can still thrive in the modern game.

That is his gift, the wonder of “The Wall” encapsulated. His values are ancient, but they are indisputably important in Test cricket-a game which remains remarkably unchanged despite all that has gone on around it-and something which India continue to value and rely upon.

It is this which makes him unique and important to this Indian team. While tougher challenges may lay ahead for him with South Africa around the corner, if anyone can deal with a challenge it is the man who will forever go down in cricketing folklore as Rahul Dravid, “The Wall”.

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Test cricket: The role of the opener continues to evolve

Chris Gayle smashed 219* on the first day against Sri Lanka

Ask any author about the importance of a good opening and they’ll tell you it is crucial to any written work. It sets the tone, the pace and the spirit of the piece, and getting it right is vital, get it wrong and you’re off on the wrong foot immediately.

The importance of getting the opening right is also a vital part of a cricket innings; it sets the tone, dictates the pace and often determines whether the innings will sink or swim. For some the opening of an innings is an art of survival, a battle of pragmatism and practicality-particularly in England where the ball is liable to swing for longer.

But for others it is a chance to start off with a flyer, to immediately put pressure back on the bowler, the opposition and the captain, seizing the advantage from the off. In the past these examples were used brilliant by the very best in Test cricket, think the Haynes/Greenidge and Langer/Hayden partnerships.

However with the advent of Twenty20, the increasing exposure of Test players to limited overs cricket, the method of the opener has changed as more players are capable of hitting boundaries from the off. Whereas in the past only a few players would play an aggressive opener at the top of their order, now more teams are utilizing such players.

Brendan McCullum shows he can cut it at the top of the order

There were three brilliant examples of this in the past two days with the innings of Virender Sehwag, Brendan McCullum and Chris Gayle. In total the three of them hit 439 runs in 544 balls-a strike rate of 80.69 with 52 fours and 12 sixes-Gayle hitting six of them himself.

Gayle’s innings deserves special acclaim as it came at a time when he was under particular pressure due to losing the captaincy and also his failure to sign a WICB contract, but his was a special innings-the kind we know he is capable of-and he himself has sights on topping his triple century against South Africa next year.

But it was also a big moment for McCullum, who is seeking to prove himself at the top of the New Zealand batting order. Runs would have validated his position, but to do so in the manner which makes him so special is even better news.

Sehwag’s brilliance is simply treated as par for the course, a testament to both his consistency and his prolific appetite for runs. He is a unique and genuinely great player who combines brute strength with fantastic hand-eye co-ordination. What the likes of Gavaskar and Boycott would have made of opening this style is another matter.

The point is not to lavish praise on these talented individuals, all three are ranked among the finest hitters in the world and all had success as openers previously, albeit in McCullum’s case in limited overs form of the game.

But it is rather to mark the evolution of the role of the opening batsmen in Test cricket. Look around the international arena nowadays and almost every team starts with an opener capable of accelerating an innings.

Tamim Iqbal has shown no fear for Bangladesh

Nor is it just the larger teams, more dominant sides, as Bangladesh showed they too boast one in the sparkling talent of Tamim Iqbal who sent England’s attack to all parts both at home and abroad.

Gone are the days when mere survival was enough for an opener, now it is the era of attack as the best form of defence. It’s an evolution brought on by the limited overs game, but also by flat pitches, weaker bowling attacks and better and bigger bats.

All play their part, but ultimately it is also down to the personnel involved. Dashers like McCullum, Gayle and Sehwag have helped move the game on, seizing the advantage and capitalising on any opportunity.

As they’ve shown so brilliant, so hastily and so well, the role of the modern opener is far more than just build a platform for the middle order to thrive; it’s more a crash, bang wallop affair. How times sure have changed.

India v New Zealand: Jesse Ryder rides again

Hopefully John Bracewell had far kinder words for the New Zealand batsmen on a day when they helped wrestle the momentum of this match away from India.

Bracewell had claimed his batsmen had batted like “dickheads” in their recent 4-0 ODI series loss to Bangladesh, but they appeared men transformed by comparison today.

No more so than Jesse Ryder and Kane Williamson, who put on 194 runs for the fifth wicket, the second highest partnership in New Zealand’s history. More importantly they helped secure their side at a time when they were rocking following the quick dismissals of Brendan McCullum and Ross Taylor.

But for both players, their scores were crucial as in theory both had something to prove: Williamson on this, his first Test innings and Ryder on his first test in 14 months.

Jesse Ryder's third Test hundred was a memable one

And the absence has clearly helped galvanise him into potentially something greater. For those who have followed the peaks and troughs of his career they have always known that his talent is undoubted but the application has perhaps not always been there.

His live fast, bat fast method maybe entertaining and at times destructive, but it is hardly in keeping with what New Zealand have needed from a player who clearly boasts outrageous talent. At times he is a brilliant batsman, opening the batting in shorter forms, but in the longer form a place in the middle order, with freedom to play his shots is most suited.

What New Zealand have wanted is greater dedication, a commitment to keep his nose out of trouble and perhaps reapply himself more firmly to the team’s policy of hard work and 11o percent effort. The absence, caused by injury and indiscretion, has helped reassert these values. Should he stay out of trouble off-the-pitch and further apply himself then things ought to look up for both him and his team.

Here was a knock which showed him at his most enterprising, but also his most dogged and determined. He played within himself, but was also forceful, particularly against the spinners whom he would attack if necessary, as he showed by smiting Harbhajan Singh over long-on for six. But he also used skill,  playing the ball late and selecting his shots well.

But, unbefitting for a man known for big hits and fast scoring, he also showed he could play sedately and risk-free, in short like a true Test batsman, for most of the day.

He helped guide his younger partner through his innings as they combined to grind India into the ground on a slow and unthreatening pitch, and in the process brought up his third Test hundred-all of which have been scored against India.

The one blemish on his day was his dismissal, right before the close, when he was rapped on the pad by a ball from Sreesanth and was dismissed, just minutes after bringing up his hundred. It was a poor end to a brilliant day for the New Zealander.

Doubtless his team’s fans and management will hope this is a launch pad for better things for the big-hitting batsmen.

His talent is well-known, his record highly respectable, with a Test average near 50 and a reputation as one of the finest hitters in the world. He had spoken prior to the match about how he has cut out the alcohol, promised to change his ways and the way people perceive him. He appears trimmer, and has spoken about feeling fitter and more concentrated when he was batting.

A New Zealand batting line up with Ryder in is a more challenging proposition for Test teams especially alongside Brendan McCullum, Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson, which augurs well after their disastrous tour of Bangladesh.

A word for Williamson, whose debut innings on a slow Asian wicket was perhaps the most assured since Alistair Cook was rushed into the England team in 2006.

Kane Williamson has shown impressive composure on debut

He was watchful, especially as he his renowned as a stroke-maker, determined and more importantly he got his timing and shot selection right, which are often difficult for batsmen, especially on debut and at a tender age of just 20.

It takes two batsmen to make a partnership, and though he played a junior role to Ryder, it was an important one. His moment may come tomorrow, with just 13 runs needed to bring up his maiden test hundred. It would be a wonderful moment for a young player enjoying something of a rapid rise through the ranks.

But today was about one man, and one man only. 14 months on from his last appearance, New Zealand’s fans will be delighted to see that Jesse Ryder is riding high again.

Two Indians, Two Innings, Two very different centuries….

As the old adage goes, variety is the spice of life. For India, the full variety of their top order’s ability was on display against New Zealand in Ahmadabad, as two of their senior players carved out centuries of contrasting importance, style and effort.

New Zealand will have felt mighty tired after being run ragged for a day in the field, and figures of 329-3 after Day 1 tell their own story.

But this was more than just a hammering, it was at times an onslaught, led particularly by Virender Sehwag, who was at his imperious best.

Sehwag’s ability is well-known, as his capacity to destroy any attack on any given day. Sadly for New Zealand, this was their day.

The full array of his strokes, the placement, the power. One day, a brighter man than I may eventually come up with a word which can describe such a brilliant effort and Sehwag’s ability. In fact someone may just decide to add the word ‘Sehwag’ to the English language, simply as something which is so destructively brilliant, that it cannot be contained.

Here is a man who rips up the rulebook. If there are two types of openers, the rather passive sort and the aggressive sort, then Sehwag possibly signifies what a politician would call “a third way”.

The amazing thing about him is how still he can stay, how calm, yet he wreaks such destruction. Making run-a-ball hundreds appear almost a norm, when for almost 90% of other batsmen it would be an ideal.

Moreover he scores big scores consistently, this was his 22nd Test century, and his 14th score of over 150 in Test matches-all bar one with a strike-rate over 70. These are the statistics of a great, a phenomenon, a sheer cricket freak, or whatever word you choose to use. Though the one I’d probably choose, once they finally invent it, is: of a Sehwag.

But if Sehwag’s innings was the highlight, then Dravid’s was probably the most important.

‘The Wall’ has been decidedly porous in recent times, this was only his second score of over 50 in 10 innings, and there were plenty of contenders in the running for his position-notably Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay who recently starred against Australia.

And for a time his innings betrayed these struggles, scoring only 17 runs off his first 105 balls, and struggling to pierce the field as New Zealand made him struggle for his runs. He then got a slice of luck, after a drop from Gareth Hopkins, and from their he too found runs easy to come.

His next 83 runs came off just 111 balls, bringing up his 29th Test match hundred-taking him past Sir Don Bradman’s record-and relieving plenty of the pressure which had been building on him.

They were two very different innings, but each in their own unique way was special.

Sehwag’s was one of style and power; Dravid’s more about patience and effort. These are contrasting elements, which each bring something different qualities to India’s top order. And when they face tougher challenges than those posed by New Zealand today, they will be equally delighted to have those elements back in form once again.

Daniel Vettori: A Hundredth Test tribute

Sometimes in cricket, cricketers do much more than what they say on the tin.

It’s like when people describe Viv Richards as batsman. It’s true, but it almost makes him comparable to some club cricket blocker. It does a disservice to the sheer visceral intensity of Richard’s art, the ability he possessed and the way he affected almost every game he played.

The same could be said about Daniel Vettori. There are plenty of ways to describe him and what he has brought to New Zealand down the years: Left arm spinner, top fielder, rock of the middle order, captain and all-round good egg.

Yet for Vettori one phrase isn’t enough. You’d have to use all of them to come even close to appreciating his worth to his country.

On Thursday, he will lead his country out in his one hundredth test, making him only the second New Zealand player to reach that landmark after his predecessor as Captain Stephen Fleming. It is quite some achievement.

It is even more remarkable when you consider the burden on him every time he has taken to the field; first as a bowler, then as a batsman and then as a captain.

He is an expert in his craft, particularly in One Day Cricket where he is probably the best spinner in that format, but his record of 325 test wickets shows he was capable of achieving great feats in the longer form too.

Yet even that status and statistics do him a disservice. Firstly, unlike his spin-bowling peers, he comes from a country with little renown for spin bowling-Vettori has taken over three times as many Test wickets as his nearest rival on the all-time list of New Zealand test wicket-takers.

Secondly he has often had to take on the mantle of two men-both taking wickets and controlling an end, while single-handedly leading his attack against better equipped and resourceful batting line-ups.

Not that he stopped at that. He then developed his batting, to where he now is one of the team’s most reliable players. Doughtier by comparison to the skilled craft of his bowling, he has five test match hundreds which is a respectable record for a makeshift batsman.

Add in the other facets, the always tidy and occasionally inspirational fielding, the captaincy where he had the unenviable task of following the inspirational Stephen Fleming, and the other roles-as an occasional statesman, selector, organiser and talisman.

It’s a mighty burden, and one which may weigh heavily on others shoulders, yet Vettori has borne it lightly and with remarkable longevity. Indeed it is perhaps the most remarkable facet of all his qualities; his longevity.

The man himself admitted that longevity was a key part of his success, stating: “For anyone to have such longevity is a great achievement. The fact that I have played well most all the time and that it is not just a number, gives me great satisfaction.”

It is worth remembering that Vettori began his journey to this moment in 1997, well over a decade ago, when the cricket world, and the world itself was a very different place.

Over that time, the landscape of test cricket and the New Zealand team has seen great players come and go, but despite it all

The man himself has set a target of reaching 4000 runs and 400 wickets, just 38 runs and 75 wickets away. One day he may overhaul the Sir Richard Hadlee’s total of 431 wickets and become New Zealand’s overall leading Test wicket holder and at 31, he conceivably has plenty of time left to do it.

It would be a remarkable achievement for a man who has given so much to his country, and even now, 13 years and 100 Tests after it all started Daniel Vettori is as important to his country’s hopes as he has ever been before.

Remembering England’s CBS Series win in Australia

As England enter the final stages of preparation for their Ashes campaign doubtless for some the memories of their last trip Down Under will be prominent in their mind. That could be a bad thing given the absolute trouncing that England were given in the test series when they were whitewashed 5-0 by an outstanding Australia team.

For those involved the tour will probably be remembered as a chaotic series of events, beginning with Marcus Trescothick’s decision to return home and capped by the chaotic captaincy of Andrew Flintoff and the harsh treatment meted out by the Australian crowds.

Yet there was a silver lining to this tour for the England team, one which is rarely mentioned when people discuss the events of three years ago which could bring fonder memories for the England team as they head down to Australia, the CBS Series which followed.

Having been on the receiving end of one of the biggest hammerings in recent Test history, the England team were in desperate need of a pick me-up in the 12-match series which followed. The return to international action of Michael Vaughan was a definite bonus, and the former captain and his team spoke optimistically ahead of the series.

Yet any semblance of optimism borne from Vaughan’s arrival was quickly erased by the comprehensive defeat handed out by Australia in a T20 game which was won by 77 runs-a true hammering.

Inevitably a similar result followed in the first match of the ODI Series with Australia winning by 8 wickets.

Even worse for England was the news that Kevin Pietersen, who had top-scored in the match with 82, was out for the rest of the tour with a cracked rib. Australia then beat New Zealand by 105 runs, despite a Shane Bond hat-trick, before the Kiwis faced England.

A superb bowling display from England, led by 4-42 from James Anderson, restricted New Zealand to 205-9.  A battling 72* from Andrew Flintoff sealed victory for England, their first in 68 days on tour, though the subsequent news of an injury to Vaughan took some of the gloss away.

Vaughan’s departure saw Mal Loye installed at the top of England’s batting order, and despite some lusty blows off the Australian bowlers, including a memorable shot onto the roof of the stadium, his team were again put to the sword by their rivals as England managed only 155, a target chased down in only 38 overs courtesy of a Mike Hussey master class.

Hussey then repeated the trick against New Zealand, who recovered to secure their first victory of the tour against England who were bowled out for a cheap 120 in reply to New Zealand’s 210.

Things got worse as they were bullied out for just 110 and watched as Australia chased the target down in little over 20 overs. It was a moment described by Ian Bell as the “lowest moment” of the tour”, and there had been a few on this tour already.

Yet from there, the team could only improve.

It was a slow start, as their bowlers went for 318 runs against New Zealand despite Liam Plunkett taking 3-54 and then England could only make 260 in reply.

However better was to follow as England set Australia 292 to win courtesy of a century by Ed Joyce, and England’s bowlers, led by Liam Plunkett who took 3-24, restricted Australia to a total of just 200 runs.

This result meant England needed only to beat New Zealand to qualify for the tournament finals, and all of a sudden the quick switch in momentum meant that the tide was turning with them.

England started badly, but found a hero when they needed it in Paul Collingwood, who despite scoring only 83 runs in his previous 6 innings, hit 106 runs to help his team to an imposing 270.

New Zealand struggled to make just manage 256 runs in reply with Liam Plunkett again proving a handful and England were through to the final.

Bad news followed with captain Vaughan ruled out through injury, but England were set a gettable 252 runs in the first final after an under par Australian batting performance

Collingwood, having finally found form in the series, was the match winner. He notched up a consecutive century with a superb 120 off 133 deliveries to lead his side home.

All of a sudden, the team who had been dominated for so long by the Australians were in danger of actually managing to achieve something notable-beating them in their own country.

The second final was equally engaging. England only managed 246 runs with Collingwood top-scoring with 70. But Australia’s reply was shattered by a combination of rain and superb England bowling and fielding.

Plunkett took three vital early top order wickets; Dalrymple removed the dangerous Brad Hodge and then took a sensational catch to remove Shane Watson to effectively seal a remarkable turnaround and victory.

Though compared to the rich rewards of the Ashes’ urn which Ricky Ponting and his team lifted a month earlier this was a distant second in terms of silverware, judging by the raucous celebrations among the England players and fans they felt this was due reward after a tour marred by controversy and criticism.

It was the ultimate silver lining to an ultimately disastrous tour. But while the memories of three years ago will remain with the arriving England players as they embark on another tour down under, at least they won’t all be bad ones.