Column | Legendary duels in Test cricket

Harbhajan Singh
Harbhajan Singh has his bunny Ricky Ponting in the 2001 Test series. File photo: AFP

“Oh no, not again!” This response from a spectator summed up the thoughts of thousands of Indian cricket fans who watched the fall of skipper Virat Kohli in the first innings of the first Test of the ongoing series between India and England played at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. The Indian captain was dismissed for a first-ball duck, caught by wicketkeeper Jos Buttler off the bowling of James Anderson. In addition to the shock at the loss of their premier batsman without scoring, this dismissal brought back memories of the summer of 2014, when Kohli went through the batting horrors, failing to get going against the England bowlers, in particular Anderson.

A tally of 134 runs from 10 completed innings with a highest score of 39 stands as testimony to the miserable time Kohli had with the bat during that series. He was dismissed four times by Anderson but was so uncomfortable facing him that he took risks against other bowlers and ended up gifting them his wicket. But Kohli worked on his batting technique after this setback and returned to England in 2018, when he salvaged his reputation by scoring 593 runs in five Tests, that included two centuries. More importantly, he was not dismissed by Anderson even once during this series. Thus, Kohli ensured that he won the second round of his duel with Anderson in a convincing manner, after losing the first one four years earlier.

The resumption of the battle between Anderson and Kohli also brought to mind some instances in international cricket in the past where top drawer batsmen and bowlers had similar engagements, seeking to establish supremacy over each other. Some of the most memorable ones are listed below.

Viv Richards vs Dennis Lillee

This was the fascinating duel where one of best batsmen cricket has ever seen was pitted against an all time great fast bowler. Richards was undoubtedly the No. 1 batsman in the world of his time and showed the first sign of his greatness during the tour of Australia in 1975-76. Lillee, on the other hand, had reached the pinnacle of his prowess by the time the duo clashed for the first time ever during this series. Initially Lillee held the upper hand as Richards took time to find his feet against the aggressive Aussie bowling on his home turf, but he recovered soon enough to end the series with a tally of 426 runs, including a century. Lillee, on the other hand, dismissed him on five occasions.

The World Series Cricket of Kerry Packer ensured that it was another four years before the two played against each other in Test cricket. Richards was in dazzling form during the three-Test series in 1979-80, scoring 386 runs, with a highest score of 140. In fact, he never failed to reach the half-century mark on any of the occasions he took guard at the crease.

However, Lillee was not one of give up easily as he struck back with a vengeance the next time the two sides met. In the first Test of the series in 1980-81, played at Melbourne, he clean bowled Richards for 2 in the first innings while going on to claim 7/83, which set up an Aussie victory. Richards could score only one half-century during this series, managing an innings of 50 in his last outing.

Viv Richards
Viv Richards had many fascinating battles with Dennis Lillee. File photo: IANS

Looking back almost four decades after the last of the duels between these two giants, one can see that the scores are tied. The contest brought the best out of both these gifted cricketers, providing the fans of the game with a feast.

Ricky Ponting vs Harbhajan Singh

After making his debut in Test cricket in 1995, Ricky Ponting grew in stature as one of the reliable middle order batsmen of the strong Aussie side during the next couple of years. Having toured India in 1996 and 1998, he was experienced with the playing conditions here and with big scores under his belt against the visiting Indian side in Australia in 1999-2000, he would have been looking forward to a good outing, when Australia landed in India for a three-Test series in 2001. Off spinner Harbhajan Singh on the other hand desperately needed to come good in this series to cement his place in the Indian side.

The story of how Harbhajan reduced Ponting to a nervous wreck during this series is reflected on the statistical data which shows that the batsman could scrape together a measly 17 runs from five innings, falling on all occasions to the 'Turbanator'. This included three occasions, one in each Test where he failed to open the account! This duel could resume only seven years later as Harbhajan and Ponting played only in one Test apiece in the next two series - the former returning back to India due to an injury after the first match in 2003 and the latter playing only in the last game in 2005. Ponting struggled during this series, played in Australia in 2007-08, as well but managed to end it with an innings of 140 in the last Test.

However, when Australia visited India for a two-Test series in 2010, Ponting scored three half-centuries and did not fall to Harbhajan on any of the four occasions that he batted. Thus, it can be said that though Harbhajan held a distinct upper hand over Ponting for the most part, the latter managed to salvage some pride towards the twilight of his career.

Dilip Vengsarkar vs Malcolm Marshall

Marshall made his debut in Test cricket against India in Bangalore in December, 1978, and was dismissed without scoring, falling leg before wicket to Chandrasekhar. Marshall was convinced that the ball had touched the bat and he was done in by vociferous appeal of Indian players led by Vengsarkar, who also chose to send the newcomer off with some choice words. Marshall felt humiliated and, by his own admission, swore vengeance. One can only hazard a guess whether Vengsarkar would have sledged the debutant had he known that Marshall had the potential to become the top fast bowler in the world.

Marshall carried this grudge till the end of his playing days and always bowled a yard faster whenever Vengsarkar was at the wicket. He had no qualms about aiming at the body of the batsman and did not feel any remorse when he felled Vengsarkar with a bouncer in a league match during the 1983 World Cup. But Vengsarkar was man enough to rise to the challenge and did not allow himself to be intimidated. He toured the West Indies twice during the 1980s when their pace battery was at its peak and returned with his stature intact. His best moment as a batsman came during the home series against West Indies in 1984-85, when he scored 423 runs with two hundreds and two fifties, to anchor the Indian batting. Marshall was also at his best during this series, picking up 32 wickets in six matches.

In the final analysis, the result of this clash will show a tie as Marshall could never get the better of Vengsarkar and neither could the latter ever claim to be comfortable while facing the former.

Polly Umrigar vs Fred Trueman

Umrigar was hailed as the new batting hope of the Indian side that left for the tour of England in April, 1952. He had scored a century in the last Test of the series against England that concluded in January after making his debut in the second game. However, Umrigar had a horrendous series, scoring a paltry 43 runs in three Tests. Even worse, he found the pace and aggression of Trueman so intimidating that he was reported to have shown a distinct disinclination to face the tearaway fast bowler. For the record, Trueman dismissed him on four of the six occasions he batted in the series.

However, Umrigar managed to fight and conquer his demons when India toured England next, which took place seven years later. After a modest start, Umrigar ended the series on a high, scoring 118 at Old Trafford, Manchester, against Trueman and company, thus redeeming his reputation to some extent. More significant was the fact that Trueman could dismiss him only twice during this series, where Indian lost all the five Tests by big margins.

There are many more instances of exciting duels between top batsmen and equally brilliant bowlers. Some of them that quickly come to memory are the ones between Sachin Tendulkar and Glen McGrath, Steve Waugh and Wasim Akram and Michael Atherton and Allan Donald. The entire stadium would be agog with expectation of explosive cricket whenever these cricketers faced each other at the opposite ends of the pitch.

James Anderson
James Anderson, second left, is gung ho after snaring Virat Kohli in the first Test. Photo: AFP

The ongoing series will decide the winner of the third round of their contest between Kohli and Anderson. While the England pacer has drawn first blood, one can be certain that the Indian captain will not go down without a fight. This exciting battle played out on the sidelines of the war being fought between the two sides is certain to add fire and flavour to the series.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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