What constitutes a great innings? Quality of the opposition and technical excellence certainly, conditions and circumstance, whether the outcome was material to other things or strictly to be seen in isolation, bravado and inspiration.
At the Wankhede Stadium, less than a fortnight ago, Kevin Pietersen played a great innings, a match-winning effort of a kind few of this or any other age would be capable of playing. It was, some argue, the finest innings ever played abroad by an England batsman, certainly in the last half a century.
Brilliant as it was though, there is competition: Pietersen's own hundred in Colombo earlier in the year, say, that transformed a match; Alastair Cook's bloody-minded determination in Ahmedabad; Mike Atherton's famous Wanderers rearguard marathon; Graham Gooch's sad, brave hundred in Bridgetown in the immediate aftermath of the death of his friend and mentor Ken Barrington; Derek Randall's Centenary Test romp in the MCG; or Dennis Amiss's remarkable unbeaten double century in Jamaica that almost singlehandedly saved a match that was lost and arguably was the catalyst for an England revival in the series.
To such a list must be added the painstaking, painful, astonishing century scored by Tony Greig at Eden Gardens in the second Test against India in January 1977. The back story tells of an England win by an innings in the first Test in Delhi, and, in something with a familiar ring to it, Indian determination to make amends in conditions bespoke for arguably the finest of all spin attacks. What the controversialists, who seize on MS Dhoni's demands for turning pitches, would have made of the sight of ground staff back then scarifying the surface of the Test pitch with wire brushes is hard to imagine.
It backfired on India spectacularly. Bishen Bedi won an important toss, but his batsmen wasted the opportunity and were bowled out by Bob Willis for 155. Greig and England knew that a sizeable lead, achieved at any price, would win them the game and quite possibly be key to the success or otherwise in the challenge for the series. By the end of the second day, England, in reply, were 136 for four, with Greig unbeaten on 19.
The third day was scarcely one for the purist but never lacked drama. Estimates put the crowd unofficially at around 100,000. The noise was deafening: firecrackers exploded, giant catapults, made from the inner tubes of truck tyres, projected oranges from the crowd right to the centre of the field, mirrors flashed. It was an intimidating atmosphere.
Throughout the entire day, Greig played an innings of unwavering determination, self-denial and immense courage. The conditions alone – in which the ball was already spitting and turning sharply for Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar – were wretched. Early on in his innings, Greig, a robust front-foot player whose game was largely dictated by his height and reach, drove Chandra uppishly and was fortunate that the ball did not go to hand. Thereafter he resolved not to play another forcing shot off the front foot, relying on defence, and scoring square of the wicket off the back foot.
But there were further complications. Overnight Greig developed a fever, a worryingly high temperature from which he sweated so much that his bedsheets required changing several times during the night. He hardly slept, and, medicated, resumed his innings while still drowsy. Eighty-six overs were bowled that third day, from which England scored only 149 runs, of which Greig made a further 75 taking him within six of his hundred. It took him well over three hours to reach 50. In the impish reserve wicketkeeper Roger Tolchard, here making his debut as a specialist batsman, he found a staunch ally who was to bat for five and a half hours making 67 of the 142 they added together for the fifth wicket.
Greig was able to spend the rest day recuperating, and resumed his innings, reaching three figures by hitting Chandra to the fence. By the time he was out, lbw to Prasanna for 103 half an hour later, he had batted for seven and a quarter hours and faced 347 deliveries under the most intense scrutiny imaginable.
He had made his runs in a manner totally alien to his temperament, instinct and upbringing, while wracked by illness. By the fifth morning the match was over, England winning by 10 wickets, a defeat from which India would not recover. A fortnight later, England had won in Madras and the series was secured.
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image: © JJ Hall