Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Century before lunch - that rare feat

This post by the author also appears in

The first session in a Test match, more often than not, used to be a leisurely affair.

Spectators in their hundreds used to trickle in slightly late, held up in the traffic and jostling that naturally accumulate near the entrance of a sporting arena on the big day.

There would perhaps be an angry word or two with the diligent policeman taking his job too seriously at the gate, but seldom would the latecomers be in tearing hurry. There would be a quick reassuring look at the two men at the wicket if the home team had been taking first strike, a tentative glance at the scoreboard to ensure that the world was in order – before hastening to find their seats.

The momentum was supposed to be built up only later – the first session of the first day was akin to heating up frozen action in the cauldron that was just beginning to simmer, for the feast that would spread out later during the day. It was in the afternoon that the excitement would be likely to begin.

Fans heard the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott swearing by the convention of giving the first hour to the bowlers, to ensure that the rest of the day was theirs. So, the crowd could very well take it easy for the first few overs or more before the batsmen got down to the business of scoring runs.

However, with the turn of the century, a few avant garde stalwarts, most of them made to order for the middle-order, redefined the art of opening the innings. Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chris Gayle made the crowd dread the thought of missing the very first ball. Even as the opposition captain placed the age-old attacking field at the start of a Test match, these men plundered boundaries in the wide open spaces as if there was no second session. And even when the field was pushed back, the boundaries continued to come undeterred. With the wave of these virtuoso bats, the start of a Test match had been metamorphosed from the reposeful adagio to brisk, reverberating allegro – from the courtly slow waltz to jaunty jives down the wicket.

Yet, we note that the onslaught of fast starts have not been able to emulate something achieved only once since the Second World War, that too three and a half decades back in the pages of cricket history by a dapper Pakistani maestro.

Virender Sehwag misses the feat by one run!

Virender Sehwag did blast his way within one run of the feat on the first day at the Beausejour Stadium, Gros Islet, St Lucia, in 2006. Facing the last ball before lunch with his score on 98, he backed away towards square-leg and tried to cart Corey Colleymore over hîs head, but the ball trickled off a mistimed edge to mid-off and the batsman had to be satisfied with a hastily taken single. The Najafgarh Nuke eventually got the necessary run off the third ball after lunch, but the rare century before the break remained elusive.

The early names who are associated with a hundred in the first session of a Test match conjure up romantic images. It is a roll call of honour, a roster of superlative strokeplay, a checklist of champions.

Victor Trumper, the legendary Aussie virtuoso, probably the first superstar batsman whose pictures were pinned to the early 20th century oak cupboards, was the first to perform the feat at Manchester in 1902. It was an innings that lit up the ground with flashes of willow wizardry during an Ashes Test that saw remarkable action, including the death of a spectator due to excitement.

Twenty four years later, Charley Macartney came in second ball, and raced away to the second such instance at Leeds against a shell-shocked English attack. Legend has it that after Macartney had surveyed the field and noted the difficult wicket rendered sticky by thunderstorms, he taunted the famed Maurice Tate by saying, “Let’s have it.”

The Yorkshire ground saw history repeat itself just four years later, when 22-year old Don Bradman announced his arrival, walking out at No 3 and plundering 105 runs before lunch out of what would be 309 in a day and an eventual 334.

The first three instances of hundred before lunch were, thus, all Australian. According to The Don, it made them extremely possessive of the landmark.

Eight years later in Nottingham, Bradman himself was captaining the side for the first time, in a match made memorable by Stanley McCabe's immortal 232. The Gloucestershire opener Charlie Barnett started the innings for England by flaying the ball all over the ground. With Len Hutton settling down at the other end, Barnett was nearing his century at the rate of knots. Realising the approaching landmark, the Aussies threw themselves about zealously on the field, protecting the final single like men possessed, to keep the unfortunate batsman on 99 as he went in for the lunch break.

However, with Test cricket turning dour and professional in the post World War days, the opening batsmen building themselves on the correct and copybook template of Len Hutton, Bill Lawry and, later, the aforementioned austere principles of Gavaskar and Boycott, the deed remained unrepeated. Professionalism also ensured less number of overs bowled per session, and the game became increasingly dominated by fast bowlers with long, time consuming run ups. Hence, chances of the feat being repeated looked bleak.

Conrad Hunte did produce flashes which lit up many a hopeful heart, Roy Fredericks was sometimes fast and furious, Keith Stackpole often flattered to deceive. Some number three batsmen of the calibre of Greg Chappell and Vivian Richards had more than the required oodles of talent to come in at the fall of an early wicket and blaze away to a hundred of glory before pausing for the midday meal. However, the target remained elusive.

Heartbreak for Farokh Engineer

Interestingly, Indian wicketkeeper batsman Farokh Engineer came remarkably close – scoring 94 in the first session at Madras in 1967 against a West Indian attack consisting of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs. He got to his century soon after lunch.

It was finally in late October 1976 that in a debonair display of majestic hitting the elusive hundred before lunch of the first day was accomplished after a 46-year hiatus.

If the Australians had been zealous custodians of the landmark, it was their lesser cricketing neighbours who allowed a fluent and graceful Pathan to enter the select group.

Already two down in the three-Test series, and without their star batsman and skipper Glenn Turner, the Kiwis were not the most spirited side going into the match at Karachi. However, with Richard Hadlee spearheading the attack, along with Richard Collinge and Lance Cairns, the seam attack was more than potent. But, Majid Khan, with magnificent – almost regal – elegance, started the innings by timing the ball imperiously.

Accompanying his illustrious partner, Sadiq Mohammed, he drove crisply, down the ground and through the covers, with the bat caressing rather than forcing the ball, gently showing it direction between the fielders. And when the pacemen bounced, he hooked with an arrogance seldom witnessed in the subcontinent.

In some ways, it was fit that Majid would repeat an exploit that had been witnessed only during the Ashes encounters of early twentieth century. In spirit and charisma, with his Cambridge accent and long sideburns, he looked and strutted about like an early English amateur playing for pleasure.

On his day he looked the most sublime of batsmen, a fact made more remarkable because he took batting seriously only after a back injury and suspect action cast a threatening shadow over his test career as a pace bowler.

Unfortunately for him and Pakistan, the number of days when the joy of batting bore fruit was limited. His enormous potential did not amount to more than eight centuries in 63 Tests.

But this balmy autumn morning had been manufactured for him, to showcase his grandiose flair at its most eloquent, signed with the éclat of his characteristic flourish. Eighteen boundaries marked their flaming trails across the turf and two impeccably-timed sixes stamped his panache in the first session.

Majid ended with 108 at the interval, falling to Richard Collinge almost immediately after resumption, adding just four more.

The Kiwis were not spared the cruel stick with Majid's dismissal. Captain Mushtaq Mohammed pranced along to a hundred and a young sensation named Javed Miandad piled on a little matter of 206. However, some shoddy wicket-keeping and close catching ensured a draw, with some tenacious batting by the Black caps on the last day.

Thirty five years on, century before lunch on the first day of a Test match remains unrepeated. If we consider the other four days of Test matches and look at the list of hundred-plus runs scored by batsmen during any of the five available first sessions, it makes Majid Khan's accomplishment even more noteworthy.

It has been done only 16 times in the 134-year history of Test cricket – apart from the four instances on the first day we have already seen.

Of these 16, once again the pre-Second World War list reads like a Who's Who of the greatest names to grace the game, including Clem Hill, K.S Ranjitsinhji, William Bardsley, Jack Hobbs, Stan McCabe and Wally Hammond.

Since 1935, however, apart from the Majid Khan masterpiece, there have been only seven more such mornings of merrymaking. But, not all of them can be considered in this elite group.

Three of the hundreds – two by Brian Lara and one by Mark Taylor – were compiled during extended sessions which saw 150 to 161 minutes of play rather than the usual 120. And of course, the minnows played their usual part in skewing modern day cricket records, with Inzamam-ul Haq, Lara and Ian Bell making their runs against either Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

As a result, there are only two occasions that can be counted alongside the other first session run feasts. The first – when the impeccable Greg Chappell scored exactly 100 on the second morning of the 1982 Christchurch Test. And the latest instance being the morning of mayhem when AB deVilliers piled on agony for India by hitting 119 in the 2010 Test at the Centurion as the Proteans looked to amass quick runs.

However, those were innings that had already taken off, the launch pad prepared, the progress of run-making put into gear by the preceding men, all that one had to do was to press the accelerator and keep it pressed.

In that light, the magical morning of Majid Khan, striding out with a swagger and stroking his way to the century with grandeur and élan is a very special chapter in the history of cricket. More so because of the enthralling way he went about getting those runs, donning the mantle of Trumper, Macartney and Bradman with class and bravado that the venerable masters would have been proud of.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Final day at Wankhede - queering the pitch for Conspiracy Theorists

This post also appears in the author's CricketCountry columns

The final few overs at the Wankhede resonated with millions of hearts throbbing in unison, while knuckles were cracked to their limits and nails chewed down to the quick.

The phenomenal day, on which all four results seemed equally likely till the penultimate ball, provided not only one of the most dramatic ends to Test matches, but also underlined the glorious uncertainties of the great game. While Ravichandran Ashwin failed to turn quickly enough and charge down the wicket to complete the second run, nothing can be taken away from the young man who produced one of the best ever all-round performances for the country.

However, the ones who have indeed been caught on the wrong foot are the hundreds of chaotic voices, also known as critics, who till the fourth evening had shouted in various degrees of righteous indignation about supposed doctoring of the pitch. It won’t make happy reading for the tribe, but it has to be accepted that a Test match wicket that ended up producing such a great game has been exonerated of the charges, vindicated by the outcome.

Test cricket is a treasure trove of surprise delights because of the vagaries of fortune, the twists and turns of tale that can bubble up during its five day flow. Just as demonstrated by the recent series in the other hemisphere, predicting outcomes based on the first half, three quarters, or even 90% of a Test match can be hazardous, prone to as many errors as wagers on a throw of dice. There are too many parameters in the longer version of the game to always make a reasonably accurate prediction – the surface of the turf, the moisture in the air, the direction of the wind all have their say in the final result, as in no other sport. Voicing opinions while there are hours and overs left to be played can be risky business, making one perilously prone to be put down as the false prophet.

Understandably we are used to tracks that turn square from the first day, where a ball pitched up often gets lost in the puff of dust is discharged from the strip even before the players have had their first midday meal of the game. This is especially true if we are playing against a side known to be susceptible against the turning ball. However, by definition, a sporting track is not a bowler-friendly minefield from the first hour. And talented batsmen like Darren Bravo being difficult to dislodge does not automatically imply that the pitch has been made for a purpose other than a simple game of cricket.

In fact, pitches that start out having lots of runs in them and then break up towards the latter part of the match are nothing new in the history of Indian cricket. During the Mohammad Azharuddin-Ajit Wadekar era, India won Test after Test by piling on a huge score on an apparent featherbed which turned square from the third afternoon, allowing Anil Kumble, Venkatpathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan to torture and torment the opposition batsmen with looped up poison tipped slow balls while a battery of close-in fielders crouched in wait. Perhaps, if India had won the toss in this Test match, this wicket would have been clubbed in that old category, the line of criticism changing to the safer track of pampering our spinners and being tigers at home. However, the chancy coin proved faithless to the Indian cause, and the critics ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

Test cricket makes some significant demands on the cricketers. Along with talent, flair, temperament, one of the much-needed ingredients for success is patience. It is that attribute which allows a batsman to tire down the bowlers by shouldering arms ball after ball during long innings, that quality which allows a bowler to stick to a plan over after over till it bears fruit in the form of a snick, that virtue which allows the fielder to react with the speed of lightening and grab the only chance that may come his way in more than a day and a half.

Strangely, this same demand – in a different degree – is made by the game on its spectators. To enjoy the finer points of the game, and capture the essence of entertainment, one needs to stick to the action in the middle with serene persistence, allowing it to mature and pitch forth the delicious surprises and secrets to the persevering. Sadly, in these days of the instantaneous, jumping to conclusions with fallacious judgements in the face of uncertainty is too rampant.

It is remarkably easy and mouth-wateringly attractive to look for correlations between the placid wicket and Sachin Tendulkar’s landmark, surmising with smug self-satisfaction that the latter influenced the former. It is easy to get brownie points through Facebook likes, accolades in discussion forums or prominence in the media circus by voicing supposed patriotic concern about the robbery of a national 3-0 victory for the fruition of personal landmarks. So sure were these critics of themselves that they did not even qualify their charges with possible face-saving buffers like ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ and ‘perhaps’.

However, cricket is a strange game – and there is always the danger that such unverified words may have to be swallowed with the bitterness of truth. Indeed, when 17 wickets fell on the last day, and run-making seemed increasingly back-breaking, all those who had been crowing about the placidity of the track were themselves caught on sticky wicket, their own pitch queered by even a Marlon Samuels getting the ball to turn, bounce, stop and talk.

Some pointed their desperate fingers at the West Indian batting line-up, prone to collapses on any day and surface. But, given that the likes of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar and VVS Laxman found run-making extremely difficult, perishing to balls that turned, bounced, stopped or came on quickly, the claim can be dismissed with a carelessly concealed chuckle.

The wicket, it turned out, was one of the most sporting, which gave batsmen the upper hand for the first few days, and then, with the end in sight, switched allegiance to the bowlers. The match thus produced will go down as one of the most fascinating encounters of all times.

Performances in the face of crisis will be recalled with the greatest admiration and awe. Virat Kohli’s crucial knock will be remembered for genuine maturity and a fascinating forecast of future. Darren Sammy’s tactic of slowing the game down by clutching his hamstring and ultimately frustrating the young batsman into playing a cut shot down the throat of gully will remain one of the most memorable mind games witnessed on the ground in recent times.

As Test match aficionados, we can now regale in the memories of the fantastic contest that was on display – a testimony to the continuing robust health of the noblest format of the noble game.

And as a concluding note, we can say that Sudhir Naik, the curator, ended up doing a brilliant job with the strip. Formulae for such wickets need to be urgently added to the business plans – if any such plans exist, that is – for luring spectators back to the stands.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Surreal brilliance before heartbreak

(This post also appears on the author's  column)

True, Sachin Tendulkar’s momentary misjudgement of the short of a length ball from Ravi Rampaul shattered the dreams of innumerable fans. A moment of pain shot through and wrenched the heart of the country.

This particular milestone, light years beyond every mortal mile that has been traversed by other cricketers, has now again been shelved – to be perhaps retrieved and accomplished in a dramatic delight of destiny, in the backyard of Bradman.

However, the ones who had made their way to the Wankhede on the fourth morning, or had tuned in to follow the master on television or live-streams, did witness a few moments of mystique from the willow of the wizard.

The ball hard and new, the bowlers fresh and fast – the contest was lively. VVS Laxman lasted just one ball, carving a wide delivery to gully in his trademark laidback style, which looks sublime if it comes off and silly if it does not.

In his next over, Fidel Edwards - charged up by the taste of fresh and fantastic blood - tore in and pitched short. The little man arched back and delicately guided the ball over the slips. A stroke executed with the subtlety of a late cut. And it went on and on as the eyes squinted and strained to follow it, all the way over the ropes.

We have seen the uppercut used with great productivity in recent times. Virender Sehwag has made it so celebrated that he was signed on to perform a flat-footed dance step involving it in a popular ad. However, there has always been a ferocity involved with the cheekiness of the shot.

Yet, when Tendulkar struck it in the morning, power was turned down to a minimum. It was all grace and finesse. A brutal, unorthodox strike when produced by lesser bats, it was transformed with the stamp of genius into an exalted work of cricketing art. It may well be the first instance of an exquisite late cut going for maximum.

It was his second six of the innings. All morning he looked in supreme touch, the unquestioned master of all he surveyed. Three boundaries had scorched the turf already, one to square leg, one to extra-cover, and one – and oh, what a one that was – to the left of the sight screen. His 27 runs in the morning had been rapidly rounded up in just 19 balls before he steered the Rampaul delivery into the hands of second slip.

Interestingly, all this came in the wake of an Ian Chappell article that spoke about the way his rate of scoring was slowing down because of pressure built up in the anticipation of the landmark. The piece spoke of Tendulkar’s desperation to achieve his hundredth ton which was making his batting look laboured, even in the face of innocuous spin from Devendra Bishoo and Marlon Samuels.

Well, what the article actually showed with remarkable eloquence was the desperation of the author to hang on to the coat tails of any Tendulkar related issue and thus get dragged the additional parasitic mile, attain that freeloaded footage of fame. This is the same Ian Chappell who advised Tendulkar with characteristic Aussie directness to call it a day on March 30, 2007. Since then, Tendulkar has amassed 4512 runs in 49 Tests at an average of 60.16 with 16 centuries.

Some people never learn when to accept that the object of their criticism is too colossal for their myopic eyes to comprehend in full.

Not that Tendulkar was playing in the aggressive vein to make a point to the ex-Australian captain. My money will be on his not even knowing about the article. With 33,000 runs in international cricket, he has learnt a thing or two about the way to go about batting, and has hardly anything more to prove to anyone.

And, although he failed to score his 100th century on this day, he is still a good 30 clear of the next in line.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Full Coffers, Empty Stands

This post also appears on the author's cricketcountry columns

We witness empty stands.

Scattered applause of the precious few echo off the vast acres of vacant seats. Yet Test matches keep being scheduled on weekdays. The prices of the tickets remain ridiculously high, or are perhaps subsidised in some venues on second thought. The facilities for the spectators continue to be farcical, bordering on the insulting.

Which leads me to a perplexing thought: Are administrators really interested in the number of people who turn up for the matches?

The question, on careful scrutiny under the light of the current day, does not seem all that rhetorical.

In the modern times, we have seen electronic and digital communication play havoc with industries worldwide. The fibre optic cables have extended their far reaching tentacles, circumvented the old fashioned establishments one by one – choked them with communication channels that have flattened the earth and connected the Antipodes with the Alaskans at the rate of the instantaneous.

In such a world, are flesh and blood turnouts really important? Are they not just nice to have garnish around the extensive treasure troves that lie for the taking in the connected world?

There are indications of change every way one chooses to look or listen.

The music industry has been turned upside down in ways that have struck jarring chords. Companies dealing with mobile communications are now tuning themselves to the changing beats and leading the score, while the erstwhile behemoths are swaying to their own death knell in loss incurring music stores.

In the world of the fourth estate, newsprint now occupy the backseat as the power, potential and promise of the electronic media rewrite business plans. There is a very fine line now between bylines and blogs, and with the advent of the citizen journalist and fan-speak, with the consumer turning contributor, the news channels are engaging in a mad rush of introspection and innovation. The thud of the rolled up newspaper on the porch is now all but passé, with the world being downloaded without editorial censorship on seven inch laptop screens and even smaller smart phone handsets.

When we look at the publishing world, brick-and-mortar bookstores with limited shelf space and traditional publishers in their own smug, complacent ivory towers have been rocked and jolted by the advent of electronic readers. Amazon now sells many more Kindle versions than hard copies. Borders have disappeared from the map, and similar monopolising bookstores are fast following suit. Readers are growing increasingly used to packing their 3000 book libraries in handy featherweight six by four inch devices. Who needs crates of shop-soiled stuff shipped across the world to be pulped when inventory can be virtual – reproduced and delivered at the click of a button?

In such a world, does it really matter for organisers whether some paltry thousands turn up to watch the cricket in the giant stadiums?

Unlike in the 20th century, now the cricket watching delights are not restricted to the city hosting the match and its suburbs. Millions of viewers across the world tune in to watch on their television sets, interrupted by local advertisements after every over, wicket and pulled hamstring. Tens of thousands of office workers in cookie cutter cubicles click their way to follow each and every ball on the hundreds of cricket websites while banners ads blink away at the top of the screen and Bet365 beckons tantalisingly from the side pane.

The same millions watch and re-watch the action in their respective time zones, live or recorded as suitable, on the hundreds of television channels, streaming web sites and social media applications, after waiting a brief while for the mandatory advertisement to play itself to conclusion.

In light of all this, the sweet timing of the phenomenon of scheduling Test matches on week days synchronising with the launch of seems more than significant. Why target the insignificant thousands in the ground when one can easily capture the market of hundreds of millions across the World Wide Web? Ask yourself, on which days is it fairly certain that more people will follow the action on web sites streaming or reporting the match than live in the ground?

On one side lie the few thousands of prospective diehards, prepared to brave the baking sun and dirty pouches of water supplied at the grounds to catch the action live. On the other hand is the gateway to the infinite – a viewership unbounded by the archaic limitations of time and space, not checked by the turnstile even if they want to enter the virtual arena again and again ad infinitum.

It is the same reason why Harper Collins looks at capturing the Print on Demand market while pulping last year's bestsellers. This is why Sony ties up with Nokia and Apple creates more music applications for the iPhone. This is also why Rupert Murdoch enterprises are more interested in linking their sites to Facebook and Twitter than wooing local newspaper stores with expensive square feet of space.

Looking at it from the other point of view, it cannot be ruled out that maybe the fans of the day want to watch the matches in the comfort of their air-conditioned cubicles, listening to the expert commentary of a battery of celebrity ex-cricketers, sharing their own views in online discussion forums, updating their Facebook status and tweeting opinions with every major and not so major incident.

The times have changed. The audience is global and infinite across space and time. The local few are limited, and therefore, an eminently expendable fraction.

One may argue that a sport cannot exist without live spectators. However, we live in an era when books sell themselves without bookshops, newspapers are distributed without paper and music pours into the ears without being packaged into cassettes and compact discs.

Perhaps in today’s world, the empty stands reflect not the diminishing popularity of the sport, but the evolution of the cricket enthusiast to fit into the demands of the modern times, behind the digital cover of a connected world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Shift of Power - the Wankhede Test Match of 1994

(This article also appears on the author's Cricketcountry column)

Visits of the Caribbean cricket teams to India had always been eagerly awaited encounters of heady excitement. However, the thrill was limited to the adrenaline rushing sight of huge fast bowlers tearing in at the speed of lightning, sending down thunderbolts, more often than not decimating the home team batting line ups. The great stalwarts of Indian batting did often put up brave resistance, but accounts of the exploits of Vijay Manjrekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar et al. read more like the stories of the boy on the burning deck, elegies to the tragic heroes who died fighting.

The sequence of events would be highly predictable. A series against the Calypso brigade would start with a battery of pace bowlers crushing the spirited but hapless Indian batting. Be it Wes Hall and Charlie Gilchrist, Andy Roberts and Vanburn Holder, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh – the first Test was destined to be a batting debacle, followed by the domination of West Indian batting masters in the form of Everton Weekes, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards and the others. The contests ensured wonderful performances of legendary names, precious memories to recount to later generations, sometimes a good fight as in 1975, but not much more to cheer for from the Indian point of view.

It did start to change with the great Test match of Feroz Shah Kotla, 1987. The Indians stopped being pushovers. Later during the series, on a Chennai minefield, Narendra Hirwani took 16 wickets to ensure a 1-1 result. But, India became firmly established as the dominant side only after the gripping Test match at the Wankhede Stadium played seven years later.

Expectations this time around were radically different as the series started in a foggy day of November, 1994. India, as a nation, was just starting to make its presence felt in the world arena as a force to reckon with. Open economy, forces of globalisation, along with Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble had ensured that the common Indian man now brimmed with confidence when taking on the might of foreign powers. People were moving around to distant corners of the world and international action was being witnessed live on cable television. The awe at the sight of imported goods and visiting cricketers was fast disappearing.  Just before this, they had also won nine home Tests on the trot.

Walsh tears in to bowl
But, on the first morning of the first Test in the city as yet known as Bombay, it did not look as if much had changed. The West Indians started going about their business as in the days of old, with skipper Courtney Walsh, Kenny Benjamin and Cameron Cuffy getting the ball to dart past the bat and thud into wicket-keeper Junior Murray’s gloves at half a blink of an eye.

Walsh struck with his second ball, getting Manoj Prabhakar caught at short-leg. At the other end, Navjot Sidhu put on a display of nightmarish struggle. Vinod Kambli, distinctly uncomfortable against the fiery pace, lashed out a few boundaries but did not look anywhere near convincing.

After a hasty, unclean 40, Kambli departed, snicking one from Walsh. Even during the first hour, the wicket gave indications of being semi-prepared. Batting was always going to be difficult.

Yet, Sachin Tendulkar, walking in now, made it look extraordinarily easy. Even as Sidhu continued his tentative existence, Tendulkar raced away to a start, with seven crisply struck boundaries.

However, just after lunch, he missed an in-swinger from Walsh to be trapped plumb for 34. Captain Mohammad Azharuddin lasted five balls before falling to a short one from Benjamin, and Walsh thankfully put Sidhu out of his long misery by trapping him leg before.

At 99 for five, it was as if the age old Caribbean dominance was establishing itself yet again. The Indian team was playing for the first time in years without the services of the recently-retired Kapil Dev, and doomsday prophets were already dipping their pessimistic pens in gloomy inkpots to scribble warnings on the wall.

At this juncture, Sanjay Manjrekar and Nayan Mongia put their heads down and staged a recovery, building a sensible, brave partnership. Manjrekar, correct and watchful, hung in there – seeing off over after over. Mongia, on the other hand, was having one of those rare days when he looked like a top order batsman. With Walsh and Benjamin tiring, Cuffy not bowling in the right places, and debutant Rajindra Dhanraj, understandably overawed by the occasion, the runs started to come. The pair added 136, Mongia top-scoring with 80, and India managed to put 272 on the board before Walsh (six for 79) and Benjamin (three for 48) made short work of the tail.

The second day witnessed the continuation of the see-saw battle that would be the story of the Test match.

After Phil Simmons had been snapped in the slips off Javagal Srinath, the Indians resorted to the three-spinner strategy which had proved so successful in the recent past. With the phenomenal accuracy of Anil Kumble holding one end up, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan giving the ball an impressive amount of air, the West Indians soon started getting trapped in the web spun by the Indian trio. Brian Lara, the man people had flocked to see, was bowled by Raju after a long struggle. Carl Hooper lofted two sixes before falling to the same bowler. The patient Stuart Williams was removed by a tenacious Chauhan. Keith Arthurton, Jimmy Adams and Junior Murray all got good starts that got similarly derailed by the wily Raju. Kumble whisked out the tail cheaply. Raju picked up five wickets and Kumble three as the West Indian innings folded at 243.

The most important highlight of the innings was perhaps Arthurton calling for a chest guard when Raju and Kumble were bowling in tandem, underlining the uncertain vagaries of the pitch.

The Indians walked out to bat again during the closing stages of the second day with a paltry lead of 29 runs. And within a few minutes, the miniscule advantage had been neutralised and the match had been turned on its head.

Kenny Benjamin, fast and accurate, was the main architect of this turnaround. With the score on eight, he got Prabhakar caught in the slips. Nayan Mongia, who had shown impeccable application in the first innings, was sent in as the night watchman and found the new ball too hot to handle. After surviving four uncertain balls, more by luck than design, he fended the fifth to Jimmy Adams at short-leg. Two overs later, Vinod Kambli edged Benjamin to Hooper in the slips, and the Indians ended the day precariously at 11 for three. Navjot Sidhu at the other end was having another of his painstaking struggles at the wicket, and at the close of the second day the West Indians were definitely ahead by more than a bit.

The next morning, start was delayed by some wet footholes. The West Indian pacemen itched to have a go at the Indians and knock them over for a low score. The lead stood at a negligible 40, and a few quick wickets at this stage would win the match.

Tendulkar leans into the drive
It was then that Tendulkar walked out in severe crisis and produced yet another of his match winning gems, an innings of genius that now exists only as obscure evidence in record books, blissfully forgotten by his legion of critics.

Benjamin tore in to bowl, three wickets already in his bag, confidence oozing from his run-up – and Tendulkar leaned into a cover drive, hit disdainfully on the up, with hardly a follow-through, the ball raced away to the fence, the stroke replayed over and over for life by the lovers of the game who witnessed the occasion. One stroke to shift the balance of power, to upset the rhythm of a fast bowling trio who had tasted blood – one moment of audacity that brought the reins back into the hands of the Indians.

The pitch had not improved, the ball behaved erratically, Sidhu was leg before wicket to Benjamin with the score reading 43, but Tendulkar stood there, striking the ball majestically. It was as if the cracks and crevices that had appeared on the wicket magically filled up every time he took guard. All of a sudden, the bowling of Walsh and Benjamin looked less than threatening. At the other end, Azharuddin was not really on top of the situation, but the first hour of the third day had ensured that the complexion of the match had changed again. The home team was back in the game, and as long as Tendulkar was there, was dictating terms.

Azhar fell to Hooper’s off spin with the score on 88, but with Manjrekar at the other end at his copybook best, Tendulkar continued in the same vein. With ten exquisitely-struck boundaries and one towering six off Dhanraj, he scored a masterly 85 in just under three hours before guiding a Hooper delivery into the gloves of Murray. Tendulkar’s vital innings had put India way ahead, but at 162 for six, there was still work to be done.

It was now that Kumble and Srinath produced two of the most brilliant innings ever played under pressure by Indian tailenders. With Manjrekar going on and on at the other end, batting for nearly four hours for his 66, Kumble started to look like a genuine batsman as he lit up the ground with some well timed drives. With Walsh and Benjamin back in an attempt to blast out the Indian tail, Kumble used the pace of the ball well, briskly moving to 42 before edging one to the slips to become the first Test wicket of Cuffy.

If the visitors expected a quick finish to the innings with the removal of the obstinate No 8, they were further disappointed. Srinath now produced a fascinating display of courage coupled with surprisingly sound technique. When Walsh bounced, he hooked for four with elegance and timing that left the bowler, the batsman and the rest of the players and spectators rubbing their eyes in disbelief. When Manjrekar was removed by Walsh at 265, Srinath’s response was to lift Hooper out of the ground. With both Chauhan and Raju putting steep price tags on their wickets, Srinath raced to his half century and was last out for an invaluable 60. The Indians had managed 333, remarkable in retrospect. It is indeed foolhardy to venture a comparison, but at least for this Test match, the pluck shown by Kumble and Srinath compensated for the absence of the great Kapil.

When West Indies began their chase of 363 on the fourth morning they could not have bargained for a worse start. Prabhakar, who had done precious little in the match so far, and would do even less hereafter, had Simmons caught behind and Lara clean bowled within the course of the first over.

At 26, Srinath trapped Williams leg before, and 22 runs later had Hooper caught behind. With an upcoming fight on a turning wicket against three quality spinners to deal with, the visitors had lost their first four wickets to medium pace. And when Arthurton was removed by Raju with 82 on the board, it seemed all was over bar the formalities and shouting.

The Spinning Trio
However, the match held yet another twist concealed under the glorious uncertainties Test cricket is credited with. An appeal for a slip catch against Murray was disallowed by the venerable Dickie Bird, much to the chagrin of the Indians. And soon after that, Jimmy Adams and Murray proceeded to make merry, batting with a lot of common sense and even more ease, feeding on the growing frustration of the Indian bowlers. Indeed, after the first fifty or so of the partnership, they never looked like getting out.

Adams, who averaged in the 60s in those days, gave a demonstration of what was to follow in the Test series. Using his pads to prodigious effect to negotiate the turning deliveries, he cashed in whenever the bowlers erred in line or pitched short. Murray, one of the few from Grenada to have ever played Test cricket, looked more accomplished, was untroubled by pace and spin, and lifted Chauhan twice for huge sixes.

After the success of the morning, the Indians spent almost three hours trying to separate the duo, Azharuddin springing forth every trick up his sleeve. Tendulkar was also tried for three overs, but the two West Indians kept on batting well into the last session of the fourth day.

They had added 162 runs, and the target was looking more and more attainable, a mere 119 runs away, when a persevering Chauhan spun a ball a long way to get through the attacking intent of Murray and bowl him for 85 priceless runs.

As so often happens with big partnerships, in the very next over Adams fell. Srinath jagged one back into him and it struck the left-hander on the back knee roll right in front of the stumps. The umpire raised his finger and an ecstatic Srinath looked heavenwards in delight while his teammates ran in and converged in fantastic celebrations. In a see-saw battle over five days, when the final roll of dice manifests itself after swaying this way and that, standing on the edge for quite some nerve-jangling moments, the ultimate euphoria and relief are both boundless.

The West Indian innings folded soon enough, Indians triumphing by a convincing 96 runs.

India dominated the series from then on, but could not win it in the end. A delayed declaration in the second Test and poor batting on the last day of the third ensured that they would not be the ones to stop the unbeaten Windies juggernaut of one and a half decades ... something achieved soon after, and perhaps more deservingly, by Mark Taylor’s Australians.

However, that Test at the Wankhede in 1994 shifted the equation of dominance towards the Indians and they have had the upper-hand ever since whenever the two sides have met.

Brief scores:
India 272
(Vinod Kambli 40, Sachin Tendulkar 34, Sanjay Manjrekar 51, Nayan Mongia 80; Courtney Walsh 6-79, Kenny Benjamin 3-48) and 333 (Sachin Tendulkar 85, Sanjay Manjrekar 66, Anil Kumble 42, Javagal Srinath 60; Kenny Benjamin 4-82) bt West Indies 243 (Stuart Williams 49,  Keith Arthurton 42, Jimmy Adams 39; Venkatapathy Raju 5-60, Anil Kumble 3-48) and 266 (Jimmy Adams 81, Junior Murray 85; Javagal Srinath 4-48, Venkatapathy Raju 3-85) by 96 runs

Film on the national passion

Los Angeles-based film maker Sushrut Jain talks to Arunabha Sengupta in an interview published in the web site about his forthcoming feature depicting the passion for the game and how lives are touched by it in the country.

There is a filmmaker who loves cricket, characters and cinema – not necessarily in that order. He has now decided to combine all three into a documentary which captures the national passion with throbbing eloquence. The product, with its current working title Beyond All Boundaries, is receiving the vital finishing touches.

"Cricket and the passion for it is the river that runs through India. Given how divided the country is along lines of language and region, not to mention class, cricket is pretty much the only thing that unites us. A farmer in Bihar and an engineer in Chennai feel equally passionate about only one thing – and that is the Indian cricket team," says Los Angeles-based independent film maker Sushrut Jain.

Jain chiselled his film-making skills by completing the graduate program in film making at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. In his final year of the MFA programme, for his thesis, he travelled to Mumbai to shoot a short film, Andheri, which ended up being showcased in more than 40 film festivals.

Sushrut has now followed it up with this documentary which captures the progress of India during the 2011 World Cup and in the process shows how much of a driving force the game is in the lives of Indian people.

What made him take on the venture?

Jain says that he grew up with the dream of becoming a fast bowler. He played cricket every day, with rubber ball and tennis ball in his building, and the authentic cricket ball cricket in his Juhu school ground. Eventually, realising the limits of his talent, he decided to focus on his studies. Years later, while living in the United States, news of the Indian cricket team was the umbilical chord that kept him attached to the mother country.

“Having already made Andheri in India, I knew that my first feature had to be equally authentic and meaningful. When the 2011 World Cup was approaching, I started thinking that someone should make a film to capture India and the passion for the country's favourite sport during this exciting period. Eventually I decided that that person had to be me. 

“My cinematographer, Jeremy, was my classmate at the graduate cinema school. Like most Americans, he had no idea what cricket was until he joined me on this film. The rest of my crew were all Indians, a mix of recent film school graduates (from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune and Whistling Woods) and Bollywood industry professionals. All of them joined me because of their love for cricket and their excitement about the idea of this film.”  

The film is perhaps the first definitive documentary based on India’s successful World Cup journey of 2011. However, while cricket and the World Cup create the background for the film, it is also about human stories of hope and struggle.

Jain would not categorise it as a message film with social commentary produced through editorialising. Rather, it is designed to entertain and also speaks eloquently about the common man directly through the stories of the three real life characters whose stories are intertwined with and influenced by the action on the cricket field.

“We begin with the end of the 1983 World Cup win and once we've quickly highlighted the fact that going into 2011 we haven't won again, we are done with the cricket history part of the film. We quickly establish how huge cricket is in India via the use of interviews and vox populi and then set the stage for the World Cup and the national expectation this time around. After that we launch into the stories of our three characters one by one. We intertwine their stories with an eye on India's progress through the nine matches it played in this World Cup.”

The motley threesome

The three characters are very ordinary people made exceptional through their connection with cricket. For all of them, cricket is a lifeline.

This raises some questions.

India is a country where there are many for whom a victory in a cricket match is more important than a successful relationship, for whom a Sachin Tendulkar hundred can actually act as an antidote for a loss of job. Among the millions of fans, what made him choose these three? Who are the three chosen ones?

The film maker has a treasury of rich memories of his association with these three and believes that they are unique in their own ways.

The first is Sudhir Kumar, the well-known super-fan who is a regular feature in the Indian stadiums, body and soul painted in tricolour.

“Sudhir Kumar is a one of a kind. The way he is portrayed on the news and his single mindedness leads people to think he is crazy. But he doesn't let that bother him as he pursues his passion to be the greatest cheerleader for Indian cricket. He believes that what he does makes a difference to the morale of the Indian team and you couldn't convince him otherwise. We became friends during the World Cup and he would often call me from his cell phone (easily the most expensive thing he owned) and tell me what happened in the last match. After the India-Australia quarter final he called me up excitedly from Ahmedabad and told me he had asked the Indian team manager to pray to the Ganesh idol inside the stadium before the match. He said that this idol had always been there, but no one in the team knew about it, which is why India had a bad record in the venue. The manager prayed as per Sudhir's request and India ended up winning. Sudhir was ecstatic as he told me the story. 

“Sudhir once mentioned that he had a bank balance of Rs 3. Yet, he has never taken a penny from any of the cricketers. There are so many great Sudhir stories but you will have to wait for the film to see them. We could have made an entire film just about Sudhir.”

The next main character is Prithvi Shaw, a 12-year old phenomenon Mumbai cricketer who induces ripples of romantic reflections about another schoolboy cricketer who emerged in the late eighties.

“We heard about Prithvi from a local Mumbai cricket writer. When we researched him we found that he was one of the three most talked about young cricketers in the Mumbai scene. We got in touch with his father who allowed us to spend time with him. We met his coaches at MIG and elsewhere. We even talked to the local Mumbai politician who has been Prithvi's sponsor for the past couple of years.  

“Prithvi grew comfortable with us quite quickly and we had a lot of fun speaking with him and watching him play. He is very down-to-earth and wasn't ruffled by a camera being around him all the time. He has already learnt to deal with the attention and maintain his focus on the cricket.”  

And finally there is perhaps the most extraordinary choice – Akshaya Surwe, a girl cricketer from the slums of Dadar.

“Akshaya, in spite of being a girl, has drive and athleticism that is visible to anyone who sees her play at Shivaji Park. What drew me to her though was the spark in her eye and her love for the game. Despite living in a small one-room chawl with no electricity and having no one in the world but her mother, Akshaya was never deterred in her dream to become a cricketer. I grew up in Mumbai and I knew kids like her and we had instant rapport. I felt if her story and personality appealed to me so much then they would to others as well. We also talked a lot to her coach, Aparna Kambli, who believed in Akshaya's talent and did a lot to help her.”

The film traces the highs and lows of the lives of these three characters even as the World Cup marches along in the background and India advances towards the crown of the cricketing world. The camera follows Sudhir on his cycle tour from Bihar to Bangladesh to watch the Indian games. It captures the dilapidated living quarters where Akshaya washes clothes, heats rotis. Her cricket playing friend Kaikesha dons a burkha. At the same time the two collect the pictures of Indian cricketers, walk out in cricketing whites and drives elegantly down the ground.

It focuses on the wonder boy as he takes guard in the nets and shows a surprisingly mature head on tender shoulder.

There is further intrigue as India wins the World Cup, and the movie captures some critical moments of the lives of these three even as they take place. All through, it never seems that the camera intrudes in their lives – the characters remain refreshingly real and sometimes brutally honest.

Although it deals with a colonial sport with limited global following, Sushrut believes that the film will have universal appeal.

“The Indian audience is naturally going to love this film because it will be the first authentic chronicle of their amazing World Cup win. They will also love it because they will find the three characters to be true and irresistible. I grew up in Mumbai playing cricket every day of my life and I know that if back then my friends and I had a film like this to watch we would have been ecstatic.  

“We also believe that through the festival circuit (and possibly ESPN or HBO), American and European audiences will be able to watch this film. There is a demand in the West for truthful stories from India that are realistic without being depressing. A sports documentary is the perfect device to bridge the gap between India and the West, even if it is a sport they may not understand. The American sports fans I have shown the footage to are extremely eager to see the final product because sports fanaticism is something that crosses all boundaries.”

The film has been a true labour of love for Jain.

“We did this film purely based on our love for the sport and of India with no big backers. I raised funds from grassroots, put together a crew of young Indian Bombay film school kids, and we travelled all over the country following our characters and the World Cup.”

As in any noble venture, helping hands were lent along the way by many.

“My first Assistant Director and Line Producer, Ashwin Shetty, and my second AD, Ankit Dahake, worked day and night on what was a tremendously long and difficult shoot. Other people who went out of their way to help us were journalist Ayaz Memon, cricketer Balvinder Singh Sandhu and Theo Braganza – the owner of a 60-yr old cricket book shop in Dadar. The great part was Yuvraj Singh and Sourav Ganguly providing us great interviews. And finally, my friends in America, primarily Oana Poliac – our biggest investor – and my mother, who fed and cared for Jeremy and me for nearly four months.”

And how does the road ahead look once the 200 hours of footage is edited into a 90- minute feature?

“I hope to have the film play on Indian television starting sometime next summer. We are open to speaking with all the sports and cricket channels there, Neo, TEN, ESPN, Star etc.  And even news channels like NDTV who might find a film about India's passion for cricket to be an irresistible programming choice. 

“However, we do need the help of fans and investors to help us cross the finishing line.  We need people to go to our film's website ( and make donations to help us finish this film. We have no big sponsors behind us and have done everything totally independently. This is a grassroots funded film and no donation/contribution is too small.”

For those interested, the website mentioned above includes a short trailer of the film.  There is also an associated blog which captures some delightful anecdotes about the experiences during the filming.

There is plenty of material there to whet one's cricket loving appetite until the final product becomes available.

The short clip that is available for view clearly demonstrates something that Sushrut repeats – It is the kind of film that could only have happened in India

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Eden - the Garden for Hunting in Pairs

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The time-tested duo of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were in the process of recapturing the sorcery performed a decade back – that phenomenal feat by now securely documented in every compilation of cricketing folklore.

The 80,000 odd who had flocked to the Eden Garden to witness an uphill, rearguard action on the fourth day of the 2001 Test match had been rewarded with divine delight for their steadfast support. Ten years down the line a few hundreds were present to cheer the continuing mastery of the two stalwarts as they toyed with the Windies bowling attack.

While the fast changing times have had severe effect on the turnstiles, the craftsmanship of the two maestros have remained untouched by the years. During the current match, they went on to notch up their respective centuries in the same classy demonstration of artistry and professionalism that have been the signatures of their splendid careers.

It was during the Indian innings that a delightful wall post popped up on Facebook, penned by H. Natarajan (Natty), the Executive Editor of

“Adam and Eve were thrown out of the beautiful Garden of Eden forever, but Dravid & Laxman will forever have a place in the heart of Eden Garden – two men whose many jugalbandis at this venue have been sight for Gods!"

Indeed, the Eden Garden seems to be the locale of everlasting honeymoon for Laxman and Dravid.

However, they are not the only mates to have made merry in this historic arena.

There is perhaps something in the atmosphere of this gorgeous ground that entices great pairs to perform in tandem, to streak the lush green outfields together with blazing strokes from gifted bats. The numbers show that glorious alliances are struck up often, perhaps encouraged by the billiard top outfield coupled with the often excellent batting strip. The ready applause around the enormous stadium perhaps stimulates resonant accompaniments as pairs of willow sweetly strike the leather at both ends.

More importantly for the lovers of the game, many of the major partnerships carried out in the ground have also heralded the beginnings of careers and collaborations which have ended up being etched in the history of the game in sparkling letters.

There have been other venues with their share of huge partnerships. Lord's and Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) are right at the top when it comes to the absolute number of 200-plus associations. But in India, pairs of great batsmen have preferred Kolkata’s celebrated cricket ground to pool their resources and pile up runs. What makes it even more special is that during these run-making festivals, more often than not, the quality of batsmanship on display has been magnificent.

More than half a century back, India started out by ending up on the wrong side of the first huge partnership on the ground, conceding 217 runs to the Caribbean duo of Basil Butcher and Rohan Kanhai. In a scintillating display of classic and sometimes curiously innovative stroke-making that heralded on the new-year day of 1959, Kanhai announced his arrival into the realms of the cricketing greats. The impeccable innings of 256 was his maiden Test hundred and stood for many, many years as the highest on Indian soil till VVS Laxman rewrote all the record books in 2001. India lost the match by a whopping margin of an innings and 336 runs.

The next great partnership on the ground featured the same two sides a couple of decades later. It involved two gentlemen who combined to form the most successful Indian batting alliance until the modern generation took over the mantle in the mid nineties and endowed it with unprecedented gloss.

The Gavaskar-Vengsarkar Marathon

In 1979, trailing by 27 in the first innings, Chetan Chauhan dismissed with only 17 on the board, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar came together and batted on and on and on to string together an unbeaten 344-run stand compiled over six hours; Gavaskar ended up with 182, his second century of the match, while Vengsarkar remained unbeaten on 157, the first of his 17 Test hundreds. Gavaskar then decided that it was time to have a go at the West Indians in the tricky twilight minutes of the fourth day. However, some dogged batting by the tailenders, aided by a dropped chance by Gundappa Viswanath in the slips, ensured that the visitors escaped with a nail-biting draw with just one wicket in hand.

Five years later, a gangling, reed-thin youngster made his debut against England and started stroking the ball with esoteric twists and turns of the wrists that no one had ever witnessed or imagined before. With the stoical and stationary Ravi Shastri at the other end rushing the score along at the staggering strike rate of 31, Mohammed Azharuddin provided the crowd with visual and aural delights to savour and treasure as he weaved his web of willow-magic that would become the hallmark of many a great knocks played in the ground from then on. Coming together on Day One, and batting through a rain- interrupted second, it was towards the end of the third day that they were finally separated after a stand of 224. The match petered out into a dull, dreary typical early eighties stalemate, but a new batting genius had arrived.

The home team was back at the receiving end in 1996, with Gary Kirsten tormenting them twice with double hundred-run partnerships – in the first innings with Andrew Hudson and in the second with Daryll Cullinan. While the opening stand in the first innings was largely workmanlike aided by butter-fingered slip catching, the Kirsten Cullinan display of the second essay impressed one and all with its controlled, risk-free aggression.

Yet, for most of the thousands who sat faithfully even as the South Africans cruised to a one-sided win, the period that gladdened the hearts synchronised with the heady, intoxicating third morning when Azharuddin returned to the crease after retiring hurt the previous evening and blitzkrieged his way to the fastest century ever witnessed at the ground. During a knock in which the erstwhile wristy artist suddenly metamorphosed into a rampaging blaster with bludgeoning hooks and pulls, Azhar added a whirlwind 161 with a surprisingly flamboyant Anil Kumble.

When champagne crates switched dressing rooms!

Next was the legend of 2001, the defining ditty of drama, action and a 281-run long poetry in motion.

Following on, four down in the second innings and the huge deficit yet to be eclipsed, Laxman and Dravid got together on the third evening. Champagne was being stocked in the Aussie dressing room in crates, ready to flow in streams of unrestrained glee. The visitors were at the doorstep of the famed “final frontier” – the entry into which essentially waited for the fall of another wicket. However, the two middle-order men were still batting on the fifth morning, having tormented Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz all through a spellbinding Day Four that in grace and style matched the celestial name of the venue. It was not the tale of painstaking survival against monumental odds but a lyrical saga of exceptional romantic adventure.

Shane Warne, bowling in the rough outside the leg-stump on a wearing pitch, saw Laxman repeatedly step out and drive him inside out past extra-cover with elegance and audacity that belied the situation. It was almost too good to last, but it surprisingly did and kept going for long. Laxman's 281 coupled with Dravid's 180 marked the veritable crest of all the gorgeous batsmanship that has flowed across the turf during the seventy five year history of the ground. The 376-run feat which turned the match on its head, and thereby scripted one of the most famous victories in history, was the start of a special collaboration which would keep etching innumerable indelible impressions on the landscape of Indian cricket.

A year and a half later, in late 2002, it was the turn of another immensely successful pairing to take India to safety. Sachin Tendulkar scored 176 and VVS Laxman remained unbeaten on 151, adding 214 as they batted from the fourth afternoon through most of the fifth day after West Indies had sniffed victory with four quick wickets early in the second innings. Due to the demands of discretion, stroke making at both ends was restrained, but two glorious dimensions of the multifaceted genius of Indian batting was nevertheless very much on display.

While the Laxman-Dravid symphony has produced over 4000 runs at 52, the Tendulkar-Laxman duet has not done too badly either, toting up over 3300 runs at a very similar average.

In 2005, the Indians were back at the receiving end as Pakistani middle order maestros, Mohammed Yousuf and Younis Khan, got together in one of their many mammoth mutual vigils on the pitch, adding 211 for the third wicket. However, Rahul Dravid, at the peak of his unbelievable purple patch, scored centuries in each innings and Anil Kumble snapped up 10 wickets in the match to render the Pakistani pair’s efforts futile and ensure a comprehensive Indian win.

Half a decade down the line, the 2010 Test match against South Africa saw three huge partnerships.

Batting first, debutant Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla added 209 for the second wicket and a huge total seemed in the offing. However, with Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh running through the rest of the side, the Proteans could manage only 296.

When India batted, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar put together 249 runs in 57 overs in a dazzling display of domination. This dream duo has not really batted together too often, but when they have, amassing 1400 plus at 71 runs per innings, the roars erupting from the stadiums have reverberated and registered on Richter scales. While the South Africans have suffered in their hands from the day Sehwag walked out to bat for the first time in Bloemfontein, 2001, it is the Pakistanis who have been the most pulverised by the two during the memorable murder in Multan.

To return to the match, it was six down for 384 with the South Africans looking at restricting the lead within manageable limits, when Laxman was joined by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The two men proceeded to have some severe and ruthless fun, adding another 259 runs without being separated before the innings was closed. It eventually resulted in an innings win for the hosts with a few balls to spare in spite of a stubborn unbeaten second century by Amla.

Come back to the current day, the absolute Master of Eden, VVS Laxman, was once again in the thick of things. After Sachin Tendulkar broke many a heart by pulling Devendra Bishoo straight to midwicket, prolonging the agonising wait for his 100th ton, Laxman ambled in to add 140 with old friend Rahul Dravid and a further 224 with a brutal Dhoni, thus continuing the rule of wristwork in the most beautiful of grounds.

As someone who of necessity has had to bat quite a bit with the tail, it is of little wonder that Laxman finds an able ally in the best batsman-wicketkeeper ever produced by India. The two have added more than 1300 rollicking runs at an average of nearly 60. Dhoni's big-hitting ability when quick runs are required, along with Laxman's unlimited capacity for rotating the strike make them quite a formidable twosome while putting up incredibly large totals.

What is it that encourages prolific partnerships on this ground? Is it the velvet grass, the sweltering amphitheatre, the gentle breeze reminding one of the Ganges that flows further to the West? Or is it something to do with the throngs of Bengalis whose electric excitement sparks life into the proceedings?

Whatever be the reason, the hallowed ground has been the home to some of the greatest moments of serious run making carried out in twain. Epics have been scripted by collaborators against the lush green backdrop, often with an exhilarating mix of greatness and artistry.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Letter of Thanks to the Critics of Indian Cricket

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Dear critics of Indian cricket,

I write here to praise your opinions, not to bury them.

This is a letter of heartfelt gratitude to you for your immense contribution to the game of cricket as it exists in India.

I am not writing against the scribes and ex-cricketers who put players on pedestals with elaborate eulogies, before throwing them into the dust from whence they sprung with sensationalising epilogues.

I am not here to rant about the gay abandon with which 'fans' bestow the epithet of god on the performers, and then, swifter than an express Jeff Thomson delivery, reduce them to the ashes of burning effigies.

Hence, I am not going to question the logic of asking for the heads of some of the greatest cricketers ever produced by the country after every possible interval.

I choose the word interval here with care, because it is not always failure that triggers these deplorable demands. The man who has 15000 runs in Test cricket and a score of 91 in the last Test innings he played before this match had to face a clamour for forced retirement just two days prior to engineering an Indian win.

For the benefit of the critics, I will steer clear of any topic which might somehow creep into the foreign realms of rationality and logic.

Hence there will be no mathematical challenge of analysing the sequence 19, 13, 13, 13, 9, 9, 9, 11, 15, 11, 17, 13, 11, 8, 11.

It just happens that these are number of Tests taken by Sachin Tendulkar to reach each of his thousand runs. Apart from the initial 19 and the tennis elbow-affected 17, each of the numbers signifies a great batsman at the very height of his powers. It therefore implies that Tendulkar's career has been a never-ending peak. However, we have done away with mathematical arguments, and hence I will not question the sanity of asking for his retirement to enable Indian Premier League (IPL) superstars come into the team.

Given the consistent accumulation denoted by the above figures, it would also take Nijinsky-like skills and devious genius to subtly sidestep matches in which the team was either in crisis or ended up winning, yet I will not challenge the criticism that he does not win matches and cannot play under pressure.

Neither am I here to speak about VVS Laxman's achievements. I won't raise questions about the peculiarity of putting him on trial in every innings that he plays, of having his head on the chopping block to accommodate the latest one match wonder, even as he keeps on winning matches, tallies more than 8000 runs at an average of 47.

Even Rahul Dravid of nearly 13,000 runs, who is fresh from those three remarkable hundreds in an otherwise disastrous tour of England, has been hounded for a long, long period – with advice and abuse urging him to hang up his boots. But, I know critics are entitled to such privileges of peculiar pique.

I am not going to ask who would have taken India to victory on the Kotla minefield if Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman had not fired when they did in the Test match.

Neither am I going to ask for a plausible reason for criticising a wicketkeeper batsman who makes runs at an average of 38 in Tests and 50 in ODIs, and does a more than decent job behind the stumps. We are a country which has hardly ever produced wicketkeepers averaging more than 25 with the bat, let alone doubling up as a captain who has won India two World Cups and taking the team to the pinnacle of Test cricket – but these are irrelevant and uncomfortable trifles which of necessity must be erased from the famed ephemeral public memory.

With mathematical subjects out of the way, I have also decided to do away with the humanities– language and ethics.

Cricket is an English sport that has been made well and truly Indian by the 'passion' for the game that exists in the country. I will assume that same happens to the English language when the game is discussed on the numerous cricket congested internet highways.

Cricket matches are sometimes perhaps fixed by bookies, but seldom are they fixed to the bedsteads with screws and clamps. Hence the Indian team may lose matches once in a while, but they simply do not 'loose' them.

Also, Mahendra Singh Dhoni would probably be pulled up quite severely by the match referee if he 'stamped' batsmen. You see, cricketers are neither letters nor shoes, hence they are always more likely to be stumped.

However, I will not dwell on such quaint linguistic aberrations in the criticism of Indian cricket either.

And of course, I am not about to question the ethics of raising unwholesome, underachieving hindquarters to pee on the several decades of sweat and blood produced by the accepted greats of the game.

I know such behaviour is the birthright of the critic of Indian cricket with a long, illustrious tradition to live up to.

"Even if it is snowing in the Himalayas, it is Gavaskar's fault"

Sunil Gavaskar not only had to bear criticism of the most destructive kind during his playing days, but also had to deal with orange peels and rotten tomatoes thrown at his wife by 'passionate cricket lovers'. He went to the extent of boycotting a 'sports loving' venue and uttering these immortal words which sum up the lot of any cricketing great of our strange nation, "Even if it is snowing in the Himalayas, it is Gavaskar's fault."

I am not going to bring economics or sociology into the discussion either. Hence we will not try to analyse how tests are graced by cricket loving 'fans' in their throngs of tens and twenties, and the IPL matches in their tens of thousands. This continues to happen even as critics shake their collective heads to agree that T20 is destroying the game, but we will not wonder why.

As I have mentioned at the outset, this is not meant to be criticism of the critics but a letter of heartfelt gratitude.

I am well and truly indebted to the critics for the phenomenal cricket I have been enjoying in the recent years.

For someone like Sachin Tendulkar, who has 30,000 international runs and 99 centuries to his credit, there remain few heights to scale. He has ventured into lands that were not known to be in existence. He has conquered peaks which had not been sketched by even the most foresighted cricketing cartographer.

For a Dravid and Laxman, there are enough existing laurels on which to rest their heads comfortably, to spend a lifetime in luxurious slumber, reliving moments of glorious nostalgia in sweetest of dreams.

A whiff of the vitriol that simmers in the psyche and outpourings of these critics may or may not spur these masters of the modern game into new triumphant accomplishments. I wonder if the knowledge that there still remain doubters, that there still exist the unconvinced, affects them in any way. They must have seen way too many of them to understand that these critics constitute the necessary dimensional downside that completes the all-round brilliance of their achievements.

However, for a cricket lover like me, the contribution of the critics is enormous. I live for moments when a Tendulkar classic, a Dravid epic or a Laxman gem rubs the noses of these 'cricket adherents’ in the dirt.

I do know that these dregs of the cricketing society will rise again and erase every inconvenient memory. Soon we will hear them and their opinions once again, calling for the heads of those national treasures any other cricketing nation would kill to have among their ranks.

But, for a while the wagging tongues are silenced by willow wizardry, bedazzled into speechlessness by the lasting lustre of continuing greatness, till they are resurrected by the celebrated shortness of memory.

Thus, even if I have seen all these masters at the height of their glory, even if to me they have proved themselves a thousand times over, I still hanker for their success in the same way I did decades back, to enjoy the heady wine of vintage batsmanship, to bask in the lasting glory of the golden days of Indian middle-order – as also to enjoy those unique moments of bliss as the critics are made to slither away temporarily, chewing on their pitiably pathetic pronouncements.

So, once again, thank you dear critics for keeping my enthusiasm alive and kicking.