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The Fab Five

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They brought class, genius, tenacity, skill, passion and much more to the cricket field. One of history’s most successful captains assesses their contribution to Indian cricket

THE FAB FIVE—Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Kumble—have been the heartbeat and soul of a proud Indian cricket team for the better part of the last two decades. They are not only fabulous, but more significantly the fabric of the team that defined all that is good while representing the second-most populous nation on earth and clearly the most passionate sporting country on the planet.

To see a team list that comprised these five was to know you were in a contest against class in Dravid, genius in Tendulkar, tenacity in Ganguly, skill in Laxman and passion in Kumble. They covered most bases and required detailed planning to expose chinks in their armour, which if unlocked, probably meant success for us, and if not, meant chasing plenty of leather and batting to save ourselves from defeat.

Each man grew stronger from seeing another succeed and, in turn, the batting quartet virtually had an internal battle to outdo each other and be the leader of the pack. All the while, Kumble stood alone with the ball, capable of carrying the team on his broad shoulders.

It was a pleasure to play against these guys in an era that may well be the last where Test cricket was held aloft as the pinnacle of the sport. I hope that money doesn’t change the essence of the game and elevate the ‘quick fix’ ahead of the intrigue and mystery of a five-day battle that pits skill, stamina and strategy alongside the mental toughness to battle through phases of adversity and self-doubt.

Already we have seen a player pull out of a Test match series because of fatigue suffered by playing Twenty20 cricket. If this attitude is not corrected, the stupendous achievement of this group may well dissolve in time, relegated to the bench behind a game that has merit but not the same intense, deep intricacies that evolve as the match meanders and eventually finds its path due to the will and strength of individuals who are ready to stand up and be counted.

It’s time to look back at this group and critique these guys with an honesty and clarity that isn’t always easy or appropriate when in the heat of battle. These are my thoughts on the ‘five’ who nearly got India to the summit.

The Winner

Sachin Tendulkar

Besides Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar is the only other player I didn’t mind watching score against us. He was pure artistry, presenting a full blade, exquisite footwork, impeccable judgment of length and an uncanny instinct to seize the moment to attack or defend. He was the catalyst for success, with other batsmen feeding off his dominance. His presence at the crease caused mayhem with adoring fans and increased the heart rate of the fielding team, which immediately sensed that the moment of truth was upon them. It was sensory overload with Sachin at the wicket and as his innings began to build. Everyone was swept up in a tsunami of hysteria, and for a captain, the toughest job was to gain control of the situation and slow the tempo of the match, and not be swamped by a man who fed voraciously on the vibes of spectators and frazzled bowlers.

Finding a weakness for us was tougher than learning Hindi, but we felt he was susceptible to the fuller delivery that either darted back towards middle and off stump or angled in as he occasionally drove with a gap between bat and pad. Conversely, I could sense we were in trouble when he was scampering between wickets trying to steal singles or pinch a cheeky two, as this meant he was alert and attempting to pressurise us into mistakes. At his best, he was in total control, able to manipulate the strike, tease opposing captains by piercing field placement, and staying impervious to distraction.

I always believed Sachin was under-bowled, particularly his leg spin, which was varied and penetrating, and especially his wrong ‘un, a delivery I could never detect. If this man had a weakness, it was his captaincy, which was in direct contrast to the rest of his game. He was a reluctant leader, who let the game control him rather than impose his style, which resulted in teams led by him being submissive and steady instead of combative and positive. Perhaps the continual burden of carrying the hopes of a nation each time he batted was too mentally draining to also take on the role of leadership, and perhaps this task was unfair on a man with such responsibility.

Sachin will be recognised as India’s greatest batsman. I will recall him as a batsman that you never wanted to taunt or engage, as it only steeled his nerves for the battle ahead. I never got to know him on the field as we both kept ‘the cards close to our chests’, but away from the spotlight, he was humble, considerate and down-to-earth. And highly competitive. Once we were driving against each other in a sponsored go-kart race, and we nearly wiped ourselves out trying to win. Predictably, he found a way to win. It’s something you can’t teach, and as an Aussie, we always knew the kid from Mumbai had the innate ability to do it. We sure would have loved him on our side!

The Controller

Rahul Dravid

Dravid was the glue that held India’s batting together and gave the team confidence that everything would be fine as long as he graced the field. There was always a fire in his belly, and in Rahul we saw a player that we would have loved to have in our team. He was dependable,
mentally unfazed by pressure, longed for an adverse situation to challenge himself and instilled confidence in batting partners.

Of all the Indian players I played against, I felt a connection with him, and we shared conversations about the mental side of the game and cricket in general. I could sense a man who loved representing his country in Rahul. He longed to don the royal blue cap at every opportunity, and wore the pain of defeat across his face and in his body language.

At his peak, like Sachin, he too knew the moment to accelerate the pain he was inflicting on the bowlers and fieldsmen, which was often heightened by his uncanny ability to control a stroke so that it was infuriatingly close to you but inevitably unreachable. Without doubt he was the best catcher of this quintet, regularly grasping stunning catches in the cordon to alter the momentum of matches.

The leadership, while seemingly a snug fit, never really sat comfortably with a captain who was maybe too structured and possibly too eager to please too many team-mates, while also feeling let down by administrators, media and selectors when he needed support and encouragement. Many would say he was a failure as a captain. I, for one, have only one word for Rahul—respect.

The Game Breaker

VVS Laxman

Many Australians believe VVS Laxman was the best they have seen when in full flight and it is hard to argue as he averaged 54 in Australia and scored a century in every few Tests against us. We could never understand how he could be Cinderella against us and turn into a pumpkin versus the rest of the world. VVS to us meant ‘very, very special’ and to watch him in top gear was to witness a genius at work, sculpting shots with a blade and wrist that defied textbooks.

To me, he was a guy who needed to be prodded and poked before he summoned his gifts, for he also had a temptation to drift back into mediocrity when not challenged. In Kolkata, he and Dravid produced the greatest partnership batting I had ever witnessed, and as a combo, they jelled against us more times than we’d like to recall. We found him exceptionally tough to plan against as he was capable of destroying plans with his unique style that often made quality deliveries disappear to places they had no right to end up at.

Hard to believe that he has played more Tests than one-dayers, but a final batting average of 17 further defies belief and perhaps explains his under-achievement in the shortened form of the game.

While he didn’t lead India, I believe he would have made a very good captain as he was always involved in team discussions and perhaps it may have given him the drive to fulfil his destiny as one of the game’s all-time greats. Unfortunately, we will never know, and as things stand, he will be remembered as a breathtakingly brilliant player when confident and focused.

The Influencer

Sourav Ganguly

A man who has more comebacks than Mike Tyson, a guy who polarises people, and a captain who elevated his team from competitive to combative, and in doing so, forged it into a unit that was capable of beating anyone. Sourav Ganguly’s legacy will be turning India into a battle-hardened outfit capable of winning away from India and getting young players to exhibit flair, gamesmanship and aggression.

It’s fair to say that we didn’t enjoy a meal together and we rubbed each other up the wrong way, but we always had a mutual admiration because we wanted our teams to reach their full potential. Sourav and I had a much-publicised standoff emanating from his reluctance to respect the tradition of tossing the coin on time and in uniform. He obviously enjoyed my displeasure and refused to abide by the match referee’s requests to toe the line.

I guess that was the beauty of Ganguly—prepared to back himself and take on all comers. He was a dangerous batsman capable of match-winning innings, but a mediocre average against us and South Africa detract somewhat from his elevation to the elite batsmen of his era. He was a dominant player against spin, but suspect against pace, and we always felt he was frustrated about being in the shadow of Sachin while they were at the crease together.

He enjoyed the limelight and adulation, which also is a prerequisite for leading India. The pressure of captaining a cricket-crazed country is a monumental job that only a few can master and, to his credit, Sourav did. As was the case many times during his career, he resurrected his place in the team through hard work, determination and self-belief to finish his career a much better player than when he first started.

The Fighter

Anil Kumble

Anil Kumble was the backbone of the team. Anil played the way we love to play—uncompromising, tenacious and never willing to give up or relent. He was an opponent that never got undue attention at team meetings. Often, he would have, ‘Be patient and treat him like a slow medium pace inswing bowler; but be aware of his subtle variations, especially late in the match’, noted against his name.

‘Respect’ and ‘never become complacent against’ were our key phrases for him. Anil’s value to India was the standards he expected of himself, and in turn, his team-mates. He was the moral compass in terms of the team’s work ethic, commitment and attitude. These traits made him a decent leader, for a captain must earn the respect of his players, and when, like Anil, one has that, the battle is already half won.

I enjoyed my battles against Anil as he made you earn your runs, nothing was cheap or easy, and I always felt I’d achieved something if I’d been successful against him. He was always trying to get into your head, ordering field changes, exhibiting positive body language and eager to engage in a one-on-one contest. India should consider itself fortunate to have had a player of his stature so committed to seeing the team victorious. Perhaps his true value will be realised only now since he is no longer part of the Indian team.

At the end of the day, they were all different characters who blended minds and skills to give the team a unique and formidable core, with Tendulkar the match winner, Dravid the match controller, Laxman the game breaker, Ganguly the attitude influencer and Kumble the fighter. There is no doubt this group will be remembered fondly by fans, but there will be that lingering question mark against them: why did they lose so many finals in one-day cricket, particularly in the latter stages of their careers when experience should have resulted in more success? Perhaps the weight of expectations, and the knowledge that commercial rewards were associated with winning, led to performances that were over-regimented and too focused on the outcome rather than the process needed to achieve the end result.

By arrangement with Gameplan