June 08, 2006

The return of Boycott’s Mum.
By Gaurav Sethi

If there’s one thing Geoffrey Boycott cannot resist, it is to mock top order batsmen with his pet taunt, “My Mum can play a better shot than that”. And now it has come to pass that not only Boycott’s mother but the whole lot of them tailenders look like they’re going to outperform top order batsmen. Can bowl? Will have a blast with the bat.

How come? Has the bowling lost its teeth? Or is being a bowler not enough to earn a team cap? Going by trends that multi-skilled and ambidextrous cricketers will soon rule the roost, why aren’t more batsmen augmenting their bowling skills and taking five-fors? It’s a confusing business – one that goes back to the old adage that batsmen run the game. Isn’t that why more and more batsmen end up as captains to leisurely stand in the slips, while the good old-fashioned earnest quickies toll over after over after over?

Earlier this year, Jason Gillespie scored an unbeaten double hundred, albeit against Bangladesh. Where as, Kiwi tailender, James Franklin made an unbeaten hundred against South Africa. Daniel Vettori has been making them forever. Irfan Pathan looks good for a few and Bret Lee should think so too. As would Shane Warne with a test best of 99. In the recent Eng-Lanka series, Sri Lankan No. 9 batsman Nuwan Kulasekara made a fifty, battling over three hours, with Chaminda Vaas, in a match saving innings against England. And Kulasekara was playing in only his 4th test match.

The growing demands of one-day-cricket have shaken, stirred and made James Bonds of many a tailender. ODI cricket has done the unthinkable - roused many a bowler to take batting more seriously. As if bowling 30 over spells on flatbeds wasn’t bad enough.

Gone are the days when Courtney Walsh used to shoulder arms as if he were taking fencing lessons. Today, No. 9, 10 and 11 not only save games but also set up wins. Brett Lee showed uncommon skill and extraordinary temperament throughout the 2005-06 Ashes series. And Gillespie and Hoggard’s dead bats have tormented Indian spinners on crumbling 5th day Indian wickets on a regular basis.

Many moons ago, promoting Javagal Srinath to No.3 as a pinchhitter, transformed a tailender into a batsman of sorts – and though Srinath had plenty of ability to start off, a few body blows softened him up, robbing him of the dare a devil slogger desperately needs. Srinath the slogger perished, and was banished to the lower order once again. But Srinath too had his brush with fame as a batsman in Bangalore; when he and Anil Kumble won an ODI with the bat – the very day India got acquainted with Kumble’s nervy ma and grandma praying in the stands. That was a red-letter day in Indian cricket – when two lower-order batsmen won a game. As was the case, some light years’ back when Kirti Azaad single handled tonked Pakistan at the JNS under lights – few watched that game after India all but lost most of the team, only to be taken totally unawares by the morning newspaper headlines. Those big days in Indian cricket were few and far between – when a lower order batsmen won a game. But now it seems like par for the course. With all these crazy promotions, the lower order batsman is a misnomer of sorts. Irfan Pathan has had reasonable success up the order, and barring the debacle in the recent ODIs he continues to stroke the ball beautifully in the V, a lot better than most top order bats in the side.

Harbhajan Singh, though highly unorthodox, has had some success (high strike rate of 80 plus in ODIs), and even helped India win a few times. Kumble has a few test fifties. Agarkar, though not called an all-rounder anymore, has the fastest fifty by an Indian, albeit against Zimbabwe, and a test hundred to boot (in a lost cause). Even young Sreesanth appears to have the right attitude when padded up – as was evident in the first innings at Antigua.

Often, the lack of pressure makes it easier for tailenders to swing and score fearlessly, as did Monty Panesar in a futile run chase against Lanka; Kevin Pietersen when asked if the English top order could have been more positive (like Monty), put things in perspective stating that tailenders can afford to play a lot more freely - and the press may not have been so kind had he swung and held out at 45.

And though there are still 8 months till the World Cup, the one-day series in the West Indies had some useful pointers – the slower wickets that offer less bounce and seam movement won’t intimidate tailenders. If anything, crafty variations in pace were the undoing of many top order Indian batsmen in the ODI series. The close encounters also showed that games could be won with crucial support from the lower order. It’s time for Bajji, Pathan, Sreesanth and whoever else makes it to the ‘07 World Cup to start playing like 007s. That sure would make Mom proud, right Boycs?

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