Even with the proliferation of Test cricket, playing 100 Test matches is still a significant feat. It denotes longevity and consistency, a run of glorious performances and the right to be classed as a great player. On Friday Harbhajan Singh will experience that special feeling when he becomes the tenth Indian cricketer to figure in 100 Tests.
Times have changed and I remember when about half a century ago Polly Umrigar became the first Indian cricketer to figure in 50 Tests, it was hailed as an outstanding achievement. He was of course one of the great cricketers in the formative years of Indian cricket and even as more and more Test cricket was being played in the 70s Umrigar’s mark – he retired in 1962 having played 59 Tests – stood as a record till 1978 when Bishen Bedi went past it while leading the team in Pakistan.
Bedi played his last Test the following year but by now it was clearly only a matter of time before his 67 Tests ceased to be a record. India were playing Tests at frequent intervals and Sunil Gavaskar was always going to be the man to go past Bedi which he did in 1981 in New Zealand.
By the early 80s Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott and Clive Lloyd had all figured in over 100 Tests and Gavaskar, not surprisingly, became the first Indian to pass the significant mark, crossing it in Pakistan in 1984. With brother-in-law Gundappa Viswanath’s Test career being halted at 91 matches, Gavaskar was comfortably ahead of the rest and by the time he retired in 1987 he had played 125 Tests more than anyone else.
But by this time it became clear that he was not going to be the only Indian to play 100 Tests for very long. Dilip Vengsarkar joined him in 1988 playing against New Zealand in his home town of Bombay and a year later Kapil Dev became the third Indian to achieve the landmark while representing India in Pakistan.
During the 90s India were playing around ten Tests a year and it was a foregone conclusion that other cricketers too would join the trio. It was surely only a matter of time before Sachin Tendulkar joined the elite and early in the new millennium he became the fourth Indian to accomplish the feat. By now the cricketers who had figured in the 100-Test club numbered around 30 but that did not lessen the significance of the feat.
And the manner in which Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble figured in every Test India was playing, it was inevitable that this quartet should follow the quartet that had reached the mark before them. And almost systematically Kumble in 2005, Dravid in 2006, Ganguly in 2007 and Laxman in 2008 joined the 100-Test club.
Now ensued a great deal of suspense as who would be the next Indian to reach the landmark. When Laxman became the eighth Indian to join the 100-Test club Virender Sehwag had played just over 60 matches. Given his batting style there was no guarantee that he would go on to play another 40 Tests. After all he had already been axed once during his career.
Zaheer Khan had also played about 60 Tests while Harbhajan Singh, having figured in over 70 matches, was now the front runner to become the ninth Indian in the exclusive club given the fact that he was also the youngest of the trio. But trust Sehwag to leapfrog the others in contention.
Over the next four years, even as Zaheer, battling injury, and Harbhajan, on grounds of form, were out of the Indian team for various periods, Sehwag held his place and sped to the mark late last year against England. For a cricketer with his swashbuckling batting approach which always carries more than an element of risk, it is an outstanding achievement.
With the success of the Ravichandran Ashwin – Pragyan Ojha pairing, Harbhajan was stuck on 98 Tests for a while till he was brought back to play against England last year. His 99th Test brought him on par with Mohd Azharuddin but there was never any chance of him being stuck with the former Indian captain who will occupy a unique position being the only cricketer to figure in 99 Tests.
Now that Harbhajan is poised to join the 100-Test club, the focus will perhaps shift to Zaheer Khan. But the Indian pace spearhead is stuck on 88 and at the moment given his injuries and a dip in form it seems unlikely that he will get to play 100 Tests.
In the meantime the membership in the 100-Test club has crossed the half century mark but one cricketer who has gone well past everyone else is Tendulkar. He has currently figured in 194 Tests and is within striking distance of becoming the first to play 200 matches which all things considered will be a tremendous achievement and should constitute one of his many records that will stand the test of time.
Jacques Kallis with 162 Tests is the only serious contender but given the fact that Tendulkar is still playing, the gap of 30-odd games might be a bit too much even for a marvel of modern cricket like Kallis who is already in his 38th year.