In Indian cricket’s 85-year-long history, three men stand tall for their longevity, volume of runs and batting average: Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar. The trio is head and shoulders above the rest, followed by VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag – the former with the most memorable innings in Indian history, the latter with the biggest ones.

If you consider pure averages, Virat Kohli features high on the list among batsmen who have played over 50 Tests (the minimum criterion for this piece). Considerably behind Kohli are Mohammad Azharuddin, Mohinder Amarnath, Polly Umrigar, Sourav Ganguly, Dilip Vengsarkar, Navjot Sidhu, Gundappa Viswanath and Gautam Gambhir (in that order). Just shy of 50 Tests (48 to be precise), Cheteshwar Pujara will soon be an inevitable entrant on this list – though at a much higher average than Azharuddin’s 45.03 – so we must mention him too.

These judgments can be made by anyone, based on the averages and aggregates system, the practice of which has left cricket lolling imperviously somewhere in the middle of the last century. It leaves little room for nuance and context, resulting in several important stories never getting told. For instance, GR Viswanath and Chandu Borde do not get any recognition for successfully absorbing the most pressure, in Indian cricket history, of their teammates’ wickets falling.

If the minimum criterion is fewer than 50 Tests, MAK Pataudi’s contribution is especially significant as the man who absorbed the most pressure of falling wickets among all in the world, in 140 years of Test history. Sehwag, Azharuddin and Kapil Dev don’t get their due for being the batsmen who most affected match results with their strike rate in Tests. Neither does Murali Vijay for having seen off the new ball more than any Indian opening batsman after Gavaskar, nor Azharuddin for being a bigger series-winner than Tendulkar in the 1990s, even if he had less impact overall.

How does context affect the Indian batting list? Let’s start with the top five here. This is how they stack up, in order of their impact, with key batting parameters mentioned.

Batsman Matches Batting Average Batting Impact SDs Runs Tally Impact Pressure Impact Partnership-Building Impact Failure Rate (in %)
Rahul Dravid 164 52.31 100 8 85 75 100 39
Virat Kohli 57 49.41 93 1 100 88 100 45
Sachin Tendulkar 200 53.78 92 6 84 72 77 42
Sunil Gavaskar 125 51.12 82 2 85 50 85 36
Gundappa Viswanath 91 41.93 80 3 74 100 69 43

Note:
SDs- Series-defining performances
All impact parameters (apart from failure rate and SDs) are expressed on a scale of 0 to 100, with the maximum (100) assigned to the highest impact batsman from India in that parameter. All other batsmen are scaled relative to that.

The big three are here, though not necessarily in the order you would expect. How does Kohli figure so high with an average less than 50? Why does the man with the highest average come in third? And how did someone with an average of 41.93 make the cut at all?

Dravid tops this list for two reasons. One, he is the biggest series-winner in Test history (alongside Inzamam-ul-Haq who also has eight series-defining performances , though in fewer matches) – a factor that must be taken into account when gauging the impact of any player. Two, his consistency marks him out, despite his poor run from 2007 to 2011.

Kohli, in the middle of his career, is enjoying a phase most players can only dream of (the series against Australia notwithstanding). His tendency to score big, once set, has taken him to these heights.

Viswanath makes this list because of his propensity to be a match- and series-winner, remarkable for a batsman as hopelessly attractive to watch, and for his ability to deliver often despite the carnage around him.

Laxman does not make this list because of his high failure rate – he did not bat enough in positions most suited to him (Nos 3 and 4). That he could still be such a significant batsman in Indian Test history is a testimony to a once-in-a-generation talent. Sehwag does not get on either despite his status as a template-changing Test opening batsman. For all his dominating performances and big runs, he did not score near enough tough runs in his career. Curiously, it wasn’t a problem with conditions as one would normally associate with a batsman as contemptuous of technique as him, but one of expectation: he seemed to play his best only if there was a clean slate or a licence to kill.

Now, to concentrate on the five who make the list. Let’s begin with Rahul Dravid whose hallmark was big match play.

As the table above also reveals, Dravid produced the most series-defining performances of any batsman in Indian Test history. He is also the best after Kohli when it comes to scoring the highest proportion of runs for his team and the most consistent batsman in Indian Test history after Gavaskar. But his most important characteristic was his ability to produce performances that decided series.

By our barometer, we study performances only in the context of a match – not merely an innings in isolation. It is not a coincidence that all of the performances listed above either decided or significantly shifted the momentum of a series. All three also resulted in historic wins. The fifties against West Indies, when Dravid batted for longer in both innings on a tough pitch than all the members of the opposition, is hardly remembered any longer. The performance most people would expect on this list – 233 and 72 not out in Adelaide in 2003 – is actually only his fifth-highest in terms of match-impact (fourth, if you consider series-impact). It is obviously not a coincidence that the timing of Dravid’s best performances was even better than the finest on-drive he ever played: match-awareness – indeed series-awareness – like his is extremely rare, as Test history suggests.

Next on the list is Virat Kohli whose hallmark is his appetite for runs.

That he is the only one on this list who has scored more centuries than half-centuries – a rare and remarkable feat – reveals the bloody-mindedness with which he scores when set. He has 11 high-impact performances in 57 Tests, which is a pretty stunning rate. For perspective, Dravid has 22 in 164, Tendulkar 25 in 200, Gavaskar 15 in 125, Viswanath ten in 91, Sehwag ten in 103 and Laxman ten in 134. This is the main reason why Kohli has scored the highest proportion of runs in Indian cricket history to date (although Pujara, when he crosses 50 Tests, might trump him on this). This is also why he is so high impact, despite having just one series-defining performance to his name.

This propensity to score big runs has also made him the fourth-highest-impact No.4 batsman in Test history, for now, after Greg Chappell, Everton Weekes and Brian Lara. Apart from scoring the highest proportion of Test runs for India, he has also built the most partnerships (after Dravid) and absorbed the most pressure (after Viswanath and Borde).

Kohli’s highest-impact Test performances were all on flat pitches – the first two in the same series, and the famous one at Adelaide in a losing cause. Despite big runs in all countries except England, it is too early to make a definitive call on whether Kohli can bat as well on difficult pitches and make tough runs. In the end, this will define his legacy.

Next on our list is Sachin Tendulkar whose hallmark was longevity.

Tendulkar’s accomplishments are quite simply about volume. He holds the world record for the most runs and centuries and has a high average – the three most outdated means of judging batting talent. It’s not that Tendulkar’s natural talent or records can ever be in doubt, but the timing of his performances are another matter. Their metronomic regularity suggests that he played at the same level right through his career, without raising his game when the team needed it most (or not most of the time anyway, particularly in Tests). But he was there as an almost-omnipresent support act even in his series-defining performances – five of six such performances were as a support act. This explains his consistency rate (third-best after Gavaskar and Dravid) and his high impact overall.

 

It is interesting how the list of highest-impact performances reveals so much about a player or his legacy. Two of Tendulkar’s performances were in a support role (to Laxman and Manjrekar respectively) while the runs against Pakistan came in a losing cause. You’d be hard-pressed to find such a sequence in the best performances of any player, let alone one considered a legend. His most famous contribution in a winning cause (4 and 155 not out v Australia, Chennai, 1998) is his next highest-impact performance. However, given the context of the match, the performance that brought him the highest match tally of his career (241 and 60 not out, Sydney, 2004) is 47th on the impact list of Tendulkar’s performances.

Fourth on this list is Sunil Gavaskar whose hallmark was consistency .

He is India’s most consistent batsman and among the most consistent in the history of the game – remarkable for an opening batsman who undoubtedly faces the toughest challenge in the sport. He saw off the new ball better than any Indian batsman. He is also third in Indian cricket history with regard to building partnerships (after Dravid and Kohli) and scoring the highest proportion of runs for his team (after Kohli and Dravid). It must be remembered that the Indian team in his time were not world-beaters even though they had a few notable triumphs. They were often playing for draws where Gavaskar made the difference between defeat and a hard-fought draw.

It’s fascinating that Gavaskar’s highest-impact performance came in his debut series (he produced a series-defining performance in his debut Test with 65 and 67 not out), and his next highest in his last Test innings. That classic innings of 96 – among the greatest final essays in cricket history – was tragic for another reason: India lost the Test by 16 runs in a fourth-innings chase and the series 0-1. If his team had scored another 17 runs, he would have had a series-defining performance . Similarly, his fourth highest-impact performance (13 and 221 v England, 1979) missed being a series-defining performance as India fell nine runs short of winning and could not level the series 1-1. These two missed opportunities in terms of series-defining performances would have doubled his count and brought him closer to Tendulkar’s impact, which is remarkable given how much better the Indian teams were during Tendulkar’s era. It also makes Gavaskar perhaps the unluckiest Indian Test player in terms of impact.

Finally, fifth on this list is India’s man for a crisis – GR Viswanath whose hallmark was making tough runs.

Arguably the most stylish Indian batsman to play Test cricket, Viswanath was also the most reliable when it came to tough situations – there are few better examples of style and substance than this 5’3’’ package. A lot has been said about India not losing a single match in which he scored a century (14 in all), but no one has any other way of knowing that he absorbed the most pressure of falling wickets in Indian cricket history (minimum 50 Tests). He has also had three series-defining performances , one more than Gavaskar. This brings him close to Gavaskar’s impact, which is remarkable given that they are separated by 10 runs in terms of averages.

Interestingly, each one is a crisis performance. The first two were from the same series (that India lost 2-3), and both the matches India won were on the back of Viswanath’s performances even as wickets collapsed at the other end. The last one, against a Kerry Packer-hit West Indian side, came in a low-scoring match (he made 124 out of 255 and then 31 out of 125 for 7): India won by just three wickets in the end, the only positive result in six Tests. He also had a series-defining performance overseas – 114 and 30 v Australia, Melbourne 1981 – his next highest-impact performance.

***

It is essential to mention here that Cheteshwar Pujara will top this list once he crosses 50 Tests. He is India’s highest-impact batsman, almost entirely based on what he has done for his team in subcontinental conditions. His batting average of 65 in 31 Tests (in subcontinental conditions) is proof and his two series-defining performances even more so. His biggest quality is the high proportion of runs he has scored – fourth highest in Test history after Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs and Steve Smith – which would never stand out with his batting average just a touch above 50. A significant proportion were tough runs with Pujara having absorbed the most pressure by an Indian batsman at No.3.

While Pujara’s batting average of 29.5 in 17 Tests outside Asia casts a dark shadow on his proposed greatness, it seems churlish to deny him that status in subcontinental conditions. He is the highest-impact batsman in 84 years of subcontinental Test history (all Tests in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even UAE considered) – ahead of legends like Dravid, Inzamam, Gavaskar, Laxman, Kohli, Tendulkar, Javed Miandad, Younis Khan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. His role in India being the No.1 Test team is greater than anyone who holds a bat.

The best thing about Pujara’s achievements is that he is a single-format batsman with not much of a role to play in limited-overs cricket. Even if you consider him a freak in today’s Twenty20 world, it is clear that Test cricket is alive and kicking. The success of batsmen like Kohli, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul in both limited-overs and Test cricket proves that as well.

 

 

Jaideep Varma
Illustrations: Vasim Maner

 

 

Jaideep Varma is the founder of  Impact Index, a statistical system in cricket that is more a mindset accounting for match and series context. Impact Index recently published their first book, with cricketer/ writer/ commentator Aakash Chopra, called  “Numbers Do Lie – 61 Hidden Cricket Stories” (HarperCollins). The essence of this piece is elaborated upon in detail in the book.

This piece first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the Nightwatchman, a Wisden cricket quarterly published by Bloomsbury.