India have played 512 Tests since being granted Test status by the then Imperial Cricket Conference in 1932. If one considers that each Test match consists of two innings and up to 11 players can bat in each such innings, there would be approximately 10,000 occasions when Indian batsmen would have taken guard at the crease in this format of the game. Hence selecting the 10 best Test innings played by Indian batsmen presents an onerous task. This is made more daunting by the fact that India has produced some of the all-time great batsmen in cricket history besides being home to brilliant willow wielders who rubbed shoulders with the best in contemporary international cricket and emerged with enhanced reputations.
How does one rate individual performances and arrive at the conclusion as to which are the top 10 innings? Number of runs scored would be one criterion, but this cannot be the sole or even the most important aspect meriting consideration. The quality of bowling of the opposing side, the pitch and other playing conditions, the match situation, whether the Test was played at home or abroad and the impact of the innings on the match, series and on cricket history are all required to be considered while undertaking the selection process. Like in all exercises of similar nature, there would be some amount of subjectivity and arbitrariness here also and I would plead guilty on that score right at the beginning! I have also ensured that only one innings of a batsman figures in the list. So here goes my select list.
1. 281 by V.V.S. Laxman against Australia at Kolkata in 2001: This knock of Laxman would count among one of the greatest innings of all times. Walking in to bat at No. 3 with India following on 222 runs behind, Laxman steadied the innings and showed that the powerful Aussie attack could be tamed. After Sourav Ganguly fell with the total at 232, he forged a 376-run stand with Rahul Dravid for the fifth wicket and took India past 600, a position from where off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, Sachin Tendulkar with his leg-breaks, and left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju bowled the home team to an unexpected victory. Laxman literally halted the Australian juggernaut looking for a record 17th successive Test win by playing an innings that was at one stroke superb, sublime and surreal. Australian bowling surrendered before the brilliance of his foot work and stroke play as Laxman and Dravid batted through the fourth day.
2. 97 not out by G.R. Viswanath against West Indies at Madras in 1975: On a hard and fast paced track at Chepauk, Andy Roberts, the fastest bowler in the world at that point of time, had India on the mat, reducing them first to 41 for 4 and then to 117 for 8. However, Viswanath, stood tall among the ruins and proceeded to slay the West Indies bowling in the company of Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. Vishy displayed the entire range of shots from square cut to on drive to hook as he tackled the West Indies bowlers with ease, while also protecting his less skilled batting partners. Finally, he ran out of partners with his individual score just three short of a well deserved century. This innings so rejuvenated the Indian side that the spin trio of Bedi, Chandra and Erapalli Prasanna bowled them to a 100-run victory, to square the series.
3. 233 by Rahul Dravid against Australia at Adelaide in 2003: After a drawn first Test, Australia had India on the back foot in second match of the series. The visitors lost their fourth wicket with the score at 85, replying to the first innings total of 556 piled up by the hosts. At this juncture Dravid took over and in the company of his old mate Laxman, carved out a 303-run fifth-wicket partnership. Dravid continued after Laxman left and was last man to be dismissed by which time India had reached a total of 523. This innings was typical Dravid, rock solid defense punctuated with classic drives to the fence, with perfect footwork in full display. Australia collapsed in their second innings leaving India a victory target of 230 runs, which the visitors reached with four wickets to spare, helped again by an unbeaten 72 by Dravid.
4. 96 by Sunil Gavaskar against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1987: It is a matter of supreme irony that the finest innings of India’s best opening batsman ever should be made on his last outing to the middle on a minefield of a wicket. India had prepared a turning track at Bangalore for the last Test of a five-match series wherein all previous encounters had failed to yield a result. In a low-scoring thriller, Pakistan set India a victory target on 221 runs in the fourth innings. While wickets tumbled at regular intervals at the other end, Gavaskar stood firm demonstrating perfect technique, monumental concentration and fierce determination. Finally it took a dubious umpiring decision when he was four runs short of his 35th Test century to remove him from the crease. India lost their last two wickets quickly and went down by 16 runs.
5. 309 by Virender Sehwag against Pakistan at Multan in 2004: This was the first ever triple century scored by an Indian batsman in Test cricket. In 2004, a three-match series was organized at short notice by the governments of India and Pakistan, with focus being as much on diplomacy as it was on cricket. On the very first day of the opening Test, Virender Sehwag tore into the Pakistani attack that included Shoaib Akhtar, then the fastest bower in the world, Mohamed Sami and Saqlain Mushtaq in his inimitable style and reached 228 by stumps. He continued in the same vein on the next day and reached his triple century by hoisting Saqlain over the ropes for a six! Pakistan never recovered from this onslaught by Sehwag and lost the Test. Though Pakistan won the second Test, they surrendered meekly in the series-decider at Rawalpindi.
6. 155 not out by Sachin Tendulkar against Australia at Chennai in 1998: The best batsman in the world pitted against the best bowler - this was how the run up to the Test series involving India and Australia in 1998 was portrayed by the media. Shane Warne was at the peak of his prowess and had reached the status of being hailed as one of the greatest bowlers of all times while Tendulkar was without doubt the best batsman in contemporary cricket. Warne won the first round in this battle when he dismissed Tendulkar cheaply in the first innings with Mark Taylor taking a blinder at first slip. However, Tendulkar returned in the second innings to play an innings which neither Warne nor those who watched it would ever forget. He took Warne apart in a clinical manner, smashing him for fours and sixes, and even the ploy of coming round the wicket to use the rough patch outside the leg stump did not help the master spinner. Tendulkar remained unconquered on 155 and India went on to win the match by 177 runs.
7. 184 by Vinoo Mankad against England at Lord’s in 1952: Vinoo Mankad was not included in the squad that toured England in 1952, but a poor performance in the first Test at Leeds, which India lost badly, saw him being called for national duty from Lancashire league. He scored 72 in India’s first innings score of 235 and bowled 73 overs picking up five wickets as England took a first innings lead of 302 runs. But Mankad showed no signs of exhaustion as he opened the Indian innings and played a brilliant innings. Neither the reputation of the bowling attack comprising Fred Trueman, Alec Bedser and Jim Laker nor the perilous situation in which his side was placed bothered him as he displayed a brand of attacking batsmanship to take India out of the woods and avoid an innings defeat. He bowled another 24 overs when England batted again and ensured that this match would be recorded in cricket history as 'Mankad’s Test'.
8. 212 by Dilip Sardesai against West Indies at Kingston in 1971: An inexperienced Indian side led by a new skipper Ajit Wadekar was touring West Indies and in the first match they were reduced to 75 for five, prompting a commentator to call them as a “club side”. It was at this juncture that Dilip Sardesai chose to play an innings that would form part of Indian cricketing folklore. In the company of Eknath Solkar first and Prasanna later on, Sardesai held the innings together taking the total to 387 before he became the last batsman to be dismissed. This knock set the tone for the entire series as India enforced follow on for the first time ever against the hosts. They won the next Test in Port of Spain, where Sardesai hit a century. Sardesai again played a lead role by scoring a brilliant 150 in the fourth Test at Barbados. India went on to win the five-match series 1-0.
9. 91 by Mohinder Amarnath against West Indies at Barbados in 1983: Pitted against the quartet of fastest bowlers that Test cricket has ever seen on a pitch that had juice and bounce for the speedsters, the Indian batsmen caved in meekly, except Mohinder Amarnath, who played one of the most courageous innings of all time. West Indian fast bowlers did not have to worry about slow over rates nor were they constrained by limitations in number of bouncers they could bowl in an over. Mohinder braved many blows, including one on his mouth in the second innings that forced him to retire for some time, but he stood up to Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall and scripted two defiant knocks, virtually in blood. He managed to save India the ignominy of an innings defeat with a fighting 80 in the second essay. Viv Richards would later call Amarnath as the best player of West Indies fast bowling based on his performances during this series.
10. 174 by Sandeep Patil against Australia at Adelaide in 1981: India had lost the first Test of a three-match series against Australia by an innings and were in deep trouble in the second with only 130 runs on board and their main batsmen back in the pavilion, when Sandeep Patil arrived at the wicket. He had been hit on his head by a Len Pascoe bouncer in the first Test and had chosen to wear a helmet in this match. However, Patil showed no fear or anxiety as he launched a blistering counter attack on the Aussie attack comprising Dennis Lillee, Pascoe, Rodney Hogg and Bruce Yardley hooking, pulling, cutting and driving in majestic style to score a brilliant century. This knock helped the visitors follow on and save the Test, which in turn, sparked an Indian recovery which culminated in them successfully defending 142 in the third Test at MCG and squaring the series.
This completes my list of 10 best Test knocks by Indian batsmen. I know that this list would prove to be contentious as I myself can think of many superb innings such as centuries by Vijay Hazare at Adelaide in 1948, 102 by Dilip Vengsarkar at Leeds in 1986 and his three centuries at Lord's, 126 by Kapil Dev at Port Elizabeth in 1992, besides many brilliant knock played by Tendulkar, Gavaskar and others who figure in the list. As I confessed at the beginning, this is my list and there would be some amount of arbitrariness and lack of objectivity in it, but no one would be able to deny that these brilliant innings and the players who sculpted them would always find a special place in the hearts of India cricket lovers.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)