This time it lasted less than an over.
You know how it is: each time India’s openers go in, just before the first ball’s bowled, I warm myself with the thought of those ten wickets stacked in the bank, I finger the averages of India’s best six (three over fifty), I total the centuries they’ve made (Sachin 34 plus Dravid 23 plus Sehwag 12 plus Ganguly 12 plus Laxman 10 and Jaffer 2—but one of them was a double), I remind myself that the test record for the first wicket (413 by Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad) still belongs to India and then allow myself, despite experience, disappointment and the knowingness of cynics, the luxury of this thought: anything’s possible.
Possible in a good way, naturally. I’m not thinking that India could be zero for four wickets (Pankaj Roy had something to do with that score too); more along the lines of 513 for none, Sehwag 420, Jaffer unbeaten on a sticky 93. Most of the time this is more fantasy than hope, specially when India is touring. The standard touring story is that India loses the first test by a lot, then loses the second test by more. In this scenario, the anything-can-happen mantra is less optimism than forlorn swagger, desperate fans whistling in the wind.
But once every decade, the team does so well that the automatic hope of the Indian fan becomes reasonable. Because this happens so rarely, these moments of rational, founded fantasy are precious and you want them to last, to grow. I never actually believe that we’re going to get to 513; I’ll settle for 120 for one, but I want that moist glimmer of hope to last long enough to become a puddle of expectation.
This South African test series has been one of those high-points of fan-dom. I can’t remember the last time we took on a proper test side on a fast pitch in a foreign country and won. Not just won: won big and via our seamers. Generally, it’s our batsmen who win matches for us or our spinners. This time the South Africans had picked five fast bowlers for a lively pitch and we destroyed them at their own game. Sweet.
So in the gap between the first test in Johannesburg and this one in Durban, I counted the days. Christmas took forever coming, and the morning of Boxing Day wouldn’t end. Southern-hemisphere test matches are best conducted in Australia. They begin at a reasonable hour in the morning (5.30 or thereabouts), so I get to watch most of two sessions by the time I have to leave for my first lecture. South African test matches begin, unnaturally enough, at lunch.
By the time we had reduced South Africa to 29 for three, I was in a fever of expectation. We hadn’t just won the first test of a three-test series, we were about to win the first day of the next match too. If a winning start in a foreign series happens rarely, a winning start in the following test NEVER happens. (I know some tactless fool is going to say that Sehwag did get us off to a winning start with 195 against Australia at Melbourne in December 2003, but only insensitive nitpickers use tragedy to score points. Experienced Indian spectators know that some matches need to be airbrushed from our collective memory.)
Okay, so 29 for three was too good to last, but middle-aged fans have a lifetime’s experience in keeping flickering hope alive. Like veteran smokers, we cup our hands around the flame and eke it out till it burns our fingers and, to be honest, if someone had offered us South Africa, 258 for eight, at the end of the first day’s play before it began, we’d have taken it.
The second day’s morning session was depressing but not desolating. It was a set-piece that Indian spectators know by heart, tail-end partnerships that allow the opposition to bulk out meagre scores into respectable totals. In this way did two hundred and fifty odd for eight become 328 all out. Still, they were all out, and the moment I had been waiting for since we won the first test was at hand: the start of our innings.
Fantasy said we’d make 550, but the reasonable optimist, calculating that Sehwag was due an eighty ball hundred after his poor run while Tendulkar, not having crossed 50 in the 13 innings he had played since his last century, was owed a big one, settled for 450 which would mean a lead of 122. Given that the pitch was bound to deteriorate by the fourth day, that lead would be enough. Kumble would kill them on a Durban crumbler.
The sun was out between innings, the pitch, according to Symcox and Donald, had been baked into a belter for batsmen (which explained why their tail-enders had put on seventy for the last two wickets) and we were one up in a three-test series in a foreign country. The stage was set and for once, no one could accuse the Indian fan of delirious hope. We were playing, after many months, our best batting line-up. Ravi Shastri’s insane suggestion that Jaffar be dropped for Irfan Pathan had, fortunately, not been accepted by the team management and barring some freak decision by Chappell to send V.R.V. Singh to open the innings in the interest of flexibility, Virender Sehwag and Wasim Jaffar were about to commence their century partnership. Actually, even fifty would do, so long as Jaffar went first: Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly would, between them, manage the other four hundred.
That little bubble of perfect hope that we had reason to believe would balloon till it was big enough to roof the Kingsmead stadium, the virgin hope of true believers, dear reader, lived for less than an over. Five balls, to be precise. On the fifth, Virender Sehwag, who has twelve centuries and twelve fifties and a batting average of over fifty and a strike rate in the seventies, waved his bat at a ball outside off-stump bowled by the wild-eyed and certifiable Andre Nel and someone called de Villiers caught him at slip.
Hope died, I was about to say, but that would be a lie. Desi fans never stop hoping. I shifted gears and pinned my faith in Dravid, this Titan with a batting average that topped 58. An unbeaten double hundred, I reasoned, and not only would we win the match but Dravid would push his average over sixty and lay claim to being the greatest batsman of modern times. So hope there was, but it was a tarnished hope, smudged by that early wicket and limned with foreboding of worse to come. Which came. An idiot umpire judged Dravid leg-before to Nel after spending the whole of the South African innings pretending that lbw wasn’t a legal way of dismissing a batsman. Then Jaffer left us.
As I write this, Laxman and Tendulkar occupy the crease. I worship both of them, but I can’t watch the telecast continuously any more. I keep my eyes open till the bowler’s delivery stride, then keep them closed till I’m sure no one is out. We’re 93 for three, Tendulkar’s in the late thirties, Laxman, that colossus of Calcutta, is seven. Graeme Smith, he of the enormous body and tiny face, has just dropped a sitter at slip. Tendulkar’s been given a life. Surely, this is a sign.