It is a separate category, this. The search for the batsman you would have bat for your life. One who is courageous, passionless, immovably enduring in adversity, and will do what the situation calls for, without concern for one’s safety. A hero who will go the extra mile and is able to perform feats of character or determination way beyond any typical exemplary human.
This isn’t a question of who the best batsman in the team is or who the best strokeplayer is or who can hit the most sixes or fours or run fastest between wickets. Rather, this requires you to put in a lot more effort.
So let the question sink in again. Who is the batsman you would have bat for your life?
Think it through. Imagine your life is on the line and you could choose one batsman to save you on a minefield of a pitch, who would you choose? Get the choice wrong and you die. Pick an aggressive batsman, you die. Pick someone with a weak defence, you die. Pick a mentally weak specimen, you die. Your life depends on your choice. So then, think again… who would you choose?
It is a completely hypothetical scenario. Completely nonsensical too, perhaps. But yet at the same time, it makes complete sense especially after we saw Hanuma Vihari and Ashwin Ravichandran script India’s great escape at Sydney. It requires a very singular thought process. For this isn’t about going on the attack, rather this is about outlasting the opposition; it is about resisting the urge to dazzle.
The question can seem like a lifeline to the less flamboyant batsmen – to Len Hutton, to Hanif Mohammad, to Geoffery Boycott, to Allan Border, to Rahul Dravid. Not the strokeplayers but the warriors who would stand in the middle, in the face of insurmountable odds and defend with the calm magnanimity of perhaps Buddha himself.
The aggressive ones will rush in there with no particular concern for personal safety; they will either kill or be killed. Paeans will be sung. But what about the ones who will bitterly defend to the end; what about the ones who will not look to kill but rather just aim to survive?
They will, like Cheteshwar Pujara, the current torchbearer of the breed, push all other thoughts aside and immerse themselves in the task at hand. They will, like Vihari, not worry about when they might play their next Test for India. It requires bravery of a different kind. They are all very different batsmen too but they will all put a price on their wicket. A price that cannot be measured by runs alone; perhaps time might be a more accurate assessment.
This is a club that is imminently more difficult to enter in this day and age where a batsman’s intent is often measured by runs. A team may only have a place for only one such batsman and their value may only be truly realised in tough conditions.
So, in the eyes of many captains, a defensive batsman who helps a team save matches may not be as valuable as one who will help win matches. Indeed, the argument against them is a simple yet convincing one: we play sport to win, don’t we?
But what do you do, as India were in Sydney, when you are forced into a position where defence is the best form of offence? When the blade can only cut through so many but the shield can defend for longer? That is when teams realise the true value of the stoic hero.
They may look out of place on most days in an era where Tests rarely ever go into day five. Their poor strike-rates will be frowned upon. The awkward backlift that prioritises survival over piercing the field will be sneered at. They’ll be called blockers, which essentially alludes to how they’ll stop the charge but not move the game forward. They will, in some cases, be dropped for batsmen who will change the game in a session.
But on a tough day, against a brutal attack, with the match on the line, when the dust settles, they’ll time and again try to be the last men standing and sometimes, just sometimes, that is as good as winning.
My personal list of batsmen, across eras, who I would nominate to bat for my life (in no particular order):