(This post also appears in the author's Cricket Country column)
It was the fourth afternoon at The Oval and a certain RP Singh was having fun.
In fact, from the moment RP had stepped onto the field on the opening day to bowl the first over of the Test match, he had given the indication of being in the middle of a hilarious vacation. Called over from the USA where he had indeed been spending his happy holidays, he looked incurably soaked in good times. Overweight, unshaven and glaringly unprepared, his first ball had pitched twice before reaching Mahendra Singh Dhoni somewhere in the wide leg-slip region. In the innings, he had bowled 34 overs conceding 118 runs without any pretensions of disturbing the wickets column.
Now, with the Indians batting with their backs to the wall, he was out there to enjoy himself. Flamboyantly striking the ball in all directions, with little or no correlation to the ultimate course, he had raced to a 23-ball cameo of 25 with five boundaries when an athletic catch by James Anderson in the slips brought an end to his jovial festivities.
All along the spectators were being treated to a master class. Rahul Dravid, at age 38, had taken up the unaccustomed role of an opener and was still there batting on 146. He had been at it for over six hours, had negotiated 266 balls and had looked impeccable all along. The Englishmen had all but given up trying to dismiss him, preferring the easy wickets that tumbled at the other end. It was only after the fall of the seventh wicket that Dravid had chanced his arm and lofted the ball, but even that had been carried out with on-drives signed with way too much perfection of technique to give a whiff of a chance to the fielding side.
Two balls remained of the Tim Bresnan over. Dravid stood stoically at the non-striker end with the immaculate demeanour that characterises everything that is pure in cricket, wedging his broad bat against the shutting door of the inevitable to allow a few rays of hope to trickle in.
However, one expects even a number eleven batsman to spare a thought for the man at the other end. The lone flag bearer of a pathetic Indian cause of the summer. Danny Morrison, a confirmed and self-confessed rabbit with the bat, had on one occasion hung on to his wicket for a session to help his side draw a Test match. When the situation demanded, even Glenn McGrath made his a wicket bowlers had to earn with back breaking hard work rather than receive as a gift wrapped with bubble paper. Could one not expect someone wearing the national cap and colours to show enough sense of honour and temperament to put his head down and make an effort to hang in there? To try and provide Dravid that bit of extra support out of sheer respect for the man's brilliance?
After a slower outside the off-stump that was left alone, Sreesanth took guard to face the last ball of the over. One more delivery negotiated calmly would give the Great Wall of India another chance to farm the strike, to reach his thoroughly-deserved 150, to make it somewhat more difficult for England to force the issue.
The ball was a half volley outside the off-stump, and Sreesanth flashed at it in an extravagant cover-drive. It was as if the spirit of Victor Trumper, Archie McLaren or the great Sir Don Bradman himself had entered his bat and was playing havoc with his senses. A ball which could be well left alone with a half-concealed yawn was now driven in the air and ended up in the safe clasp of Eoin Morgan in the short cover. With nine wickets down and a man who had painstakingly carried his bat at the other end, Sreesanth had resorted to playing the nonchalant hero with flagrant disregard for his own lack of ability. A typical No 11 dismissal – bowled, leg before or caught fending to the gully would have, perhaps, been excusable. But he had tried to play like the star batsman in mid-season form who had just walked in at No 3 with the scoreboard reading 327 for one.
And at the other end there was Dravid again, exemplifying all that is embodied in the spirit of cricket. His eyes followed the ball as it left the hand of the bowler, followed it as it was driven with the casual exuberance by the team's number eleven, watched it disappearing into Morgan's grasp ... and he turned without expression. There was no outward sign of disappointment, no exasperation at being let down by monumental ineptitude, no tell-tale body language showing the disgust that his admirers felt burning the chambers of their hearts. He turned and walked back purposefully to the pavilion, knowing fully well that he would have to come out within ten minutes and take guard as opener in the second innings – even after a six hours and eighteen minute marathon at the age of 38, outlasting all his batting partners put together.
A study in contrast, between the attitude of two eras and schools of thought. Between commitment and callousness.
And where does this colossal callousness find its source of sustenance? How is it that the very same players putting up this spineless show of casual surrender can walk away with gilt-edged deals by swinging crude bats and bowling four hasty overs in T20 cricket?
The answer was demonstrated for all if one cared to wait a while in the afternoon and watch the Indian cricketers board the team bus.
Outside The Oval, there were the familiar concentric circles of fanatic Indian followers of the game, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of their heroes. As Duncan Fletcher emerged, he was booed all the way to the bus. And then, in a sight that defied belief, the fans descended in hordes to get the autograph of that selfsame Sreesanth.
On returning home the same day, one could witness a thousand or so ‘likes’ on the Facebook update that Yusuf Pathan was in the USA inaugurating an indoor cricket facility.
Indian fan following of the game of cricket leaves the realms of Page 3 in distant shadows when measured in terms of sound, fury and star-gazing.
No wonder that for many a handful of wins within the comforting confines of home in calendar cramming One-Day Internationals has already erased the debacle in England completely – with the Champions League in between having provided the much-required temporary anaesthetic that carries memory loss as its side effects.
In times when the focus is on the instantaneous, attributes such as long innings, extended spells, winning sprees or even lasting careers are too painstaking to contemplate for players and fans alike. It is the moment capturing the snapshot of glamour that matters, to lose senses in the intoxication of blaring music, raucous cheering, gyrating cheerleaders and the associated glitz and flash of all that surround the immediacy of the game.
It is scant wonder then that perseverance and poise are fast disappearing virtues and the buccaneering attitude of Sreesanth, RP Singh and their likes is more and more on the rise.