Aakash Chopra is remembered as the doughty opener who blunted the Aussie pacers in 2003-2004 in a pulsating series in Australia, where India scored level, 1-1. It was the real watershed moment in India’s journey to the top league when Australia was at its zenith. Post retirement, Aakash has written three books on cricket and has been commentating with insight. His latest book “Numbers Do Lie: 61 Hidden Cricket Stories” is an excellent read, which will thrill both the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi. It contains rare anecdotes of cricketers, past and present, in a style which is both racy and often irreverent. The high point of the book is his dalliance with numbers and impact index; culminating into “series defining” (SD) performance; where player is judged by high impact performance of 4+, changing the momentum of a series.
On this point Rahul Dravid emerges as the best SD (series deciding) player, with a record 8, equalled by Inzamam-ul-Haq, Sachin is the “best support act”, a sobriquet which is likely to hurt many aficionados. He quotes an interview of Lara with Ian Frazer where he says “Sachin was a one pace player and played the same, no matter who bowled or played”. But what is more disconcerting is his observation that Sachin preferred to play at position 4, when the side very often needed him more as an opener in the test matches. This was a role thrust on VVS Laxman and Dravid, often dipping their batting performance.
Aakash then makes an interesting comparison of Sachin with Brain Lara when he observes “If I want to see technical competence, I would see Sachin, but if I wanted to see sheer brilliance, high back-lift, the hop and the flair I would go to watch Lara”. Lara’s 153 in the second test against Australia in 1999, when 60 were required with Walsh as the last batsman in company and McGrath and Gillespie were at their fiery best, would rank as the best SD performance. Possibly this is the first time, a cricket writer has brought Sachin down from the pedestal of a god to a “run making” machine.
Inzamam-ul-Haq comes in for very high praise, who for Imran, was “No one plays fast bowling better than Inzamam”. Inzzy made 60 in 37 in the 1992 world cup semi final, snuffing out the New Zealanders. For Asian players for whom swing bowling in England conditions is a nightmare, Inzzy played the second line superbly by playing late. Unlike DeVilliers, who moves a lot in the crease to get into the right place, Inzamam is in position with minimal movement and rarely off balance; a quality only seen in Rohit Sharma since then. Inzzy had also a feet of clay, when he used to get his partner run out in delightfully ludicrous way.
AB de Villiers is the modern day Viv Richards with six SDs in 100 tests. He has the ability to hit a perfectly good yorker for a six; as he did when he pelted Dale Steyn, for 24 runs in an IPL match (2014). His ODI career has followed a similar pattern as in tests with eight SDs, making him the highest impact batsman in history. Chopra writes “I demand a DNA test of him; the game is for the humans”.
Ten fast bowlers have series defining performance in cricketing history. Dale Steyn tops it with seven, piping both Marshall (6) and Lillee (5). He is the poster boy of South African cricket between (2005-16). He has two uncanny abilities. One to crank up the pace the moment he sees an opportunity. With the new ball, he bowls only at 80% of his capacity and swings the ball prodigiously. He bowls at the same pace, around 90 miles, through a test match, a trait he shares with Harold Larwood, of body line fame, and Malcolm Marshall, who broke Mike Gatting’s nose in a test match. He is as lethal in seamer friendly conditions as he is in spinner friendly pitches, a feat unmatched by any other fast bowler.
Lillee takes the cake for inducing a lot of edges. With 5 wickets per match, Lillee has the enviable record of taking 73% of top or middle order batsmen, something unmatched by Dale Steyn or McGrath. Greg Chappell, who is considered the next best Australian batsman after Sir Don Bradman, feels that Lillee was the most likely bowler to make the break through when the team really needed one. He was the best pressure building and big occasion bowler that the world has seen.
Of the youngsters, Aakash picks of Kane Williamson of New Zealand, Joe Root of England, Virat Kohli of India and Steve Smith of Australia, as the best prospects of “SD” performance in recent times. They are the natural progenitors of Lara, Ponting, Sachin and Sangakara, who dominated the last decade. The book pays hosannas to Kumble, who is the series defining bowler for India, till Harbhajan bowled his magic spell in 2001 to bamboozle the Aussies in Eden Garden. R. Ashwin is the new poster boy, with his uncanny carrom ball.
The book has included quite a few forgettable cricketers, while stars like Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall and Ricky Ponting get only stray mention. That’s really unfortunate. Of the troika of Sachin, Lara & Ponting; Ponting played an equally “SD” role as Lara did in test series. His defiance of Flintoff and Johnson in 2004-05 series to score a marvelous century, is in no way is less than Lara’s incandescent brilliance in 1999. Similar was his superb century against India in the World Cup final (2011). While Lara was the king of spin, Ponting was the prince of pace bowling.
The game of cricket has changed from its languid pace to breezy batting, reverse sweeping and acrobatic fielding. Batsmanship has reached a new crescendo. Yet as the 1970s Boney-M song crooned: “Money, Money, Money; It’s a Batsman’s World”. The pitches are being numbed and pacers have been blunted by the T-20 format. The way pacers get belted, would certainly make Harold Larwood wince in his graves. The stormy petrel of bodyline bowling, who humbled the run machine Don Bradman, wrote in his book “Bodyline”: “When I am in my run-up, I watch from the corner of my eyes, if the batsman is looking at the closest hospital for admission”. The helmet and the dumb pitches have made heroes out of ordinary batsmen. In contrast, tennis is witness to real geniuses like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic who revel on fast surface. The heartless pitches of cricket, on the other hand, under the pressure of commerce, have made fast bowlers of the day, cannon fodder for the mediocre batsmen!