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By Suresh Menon
As I write this, Rahul Dravid has just completed his third century of the calendar year; statistically it has not been his best year, nor has it been his worst. The spotlight has been so firmly fixed on Sachin Tendulkar that the resurrection of Dravid and V V S Laxman has gone almost unnoticed.
So often in the recent past has the famed Indian middle order been written off that the mere fact it can continue to surprise and give us glimpses into its best days says something for its remarkable character. It is when success comes calling despite slowing reflexes and ageing bones that it is most welcomed. Tendulkar is having another of his Indian summers, not having made so many runs in a year since 2002. His six centuries were made with the same authority and enthusiasm as his previous 43. The start of every innings he plays now will be seen as the beginning of the road to his 50th Test match century. This is rather like the anticipation ahead of Pele’s one thousandth goal in soccer.
India have not done well in the current home series against New Zealand. Their batsmen struggled in the first two Tests – with the line-up, middle order and all reduced to 25 for five in one spell of fast medium bowling by Chris Martin in Ahmedabad – and however exciting Harbhajan’s emergence as a century-maker has been, India have lacked the authority of being the number one team in the world. They found it easier to beat the second best team, Australia, than the second worst team in the world rankings. No professional sportsman will make the excuse – as has been made on behalf of the Indian team – that he finds it difficult to motivate himself against lesser opposition.
While Virender Sehwag emerged as the key batsman for India, the focus was on Laxman and Dravid, especially as a talented younger lot was waiting in the wings ready to take over.
Yet it was important for the South African tour to follow that the middle order came together and made its mark. Laxman’s 790 runs this year (two centuries and six fifties) may be statistically inferior to the efforts of Tendulkar and Sehwag, but he was there when it mattered, guiding India to victories in Sri Lanka and Mohali or preventing late collapses. He did all this without compromising on the essential beauty of his batsmanship, driving with a flair seldom seen in contemporary cricket.
Dravid’s struggle in the first Test against New Zealand was palpable, yet he finished with a century. This is the lesson youngsters will have to learn, especially as the caravan moves to South Africa. Batting in Tests is as much about scoring runs as denying the opposition time to get back into the game and force a win. Dravid may have been slow then, but in getting back to the basics and refusing to roll over and die, he provided an important clue to greatness.
His century in the final Test, by contrast, was a flowing effort; clearly whatever had clogged up his mind and his strokeplay had been unclogged. The quick dismissals of Tendulkar and Laxman on the third morning merely underscored the importance of the Dravid style of batsmanship at number three for India.
It has been a fabulous season for the middle order as it has rediscovered the methods that made it great in the first place. Watching some of India’s greatest batsmen remind us all over again just why they are held in the kind of esteem they are has been a treat.
There are two Tests remaining this year – and India’s middle order has prepared well for South Africa where its record needs some serious refurbishing.