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DIFFERENT STROKES

Charles Darwin, otherwise known as the father of modern biology, was also keen on cricket. During his voyage on the HMS Beagle, he made an admiring record in his diary of cricket being played by the children of missionaries. Later, when he was living at Down House in Kent, he gave up part of his estate for the activities of a local cricket club. Darwin never commented on the connection between his theory of evolution and cricket. Yet had he been alive today, you can be sure he would have spotted the relevance immediately.

A curious thing about biological evolution is that new characteristics emerge where you least expect them to. A single species can get separated across a river and evolve into two new ones, though the habitat is the same except for an impassable line of water that keeps them apart.

In 1947, India, a Test-playing nation, was carved into two separate cricketing populations that, in the subsequent years, seldom mixed. Sixty years later, dramatically different cricket characteristics have evolved across the border.

The long and short of it is that India has come up with the Gavaskars and Tendulkars and Pakistan with the Wasims and Waqars. And it has happened over time. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, if you indulged the fantasy of selecting an all-time Indo-Pak XI, both countries would have contributed more or less equally to bowling and batting. Today, the batsmen will be mostly from India, the bowlers mostly from Pakistan.

This impression is substantiated by numbers. India has no player with a Test bowling average under 25, yet Pakistan has several — eight in all (although four of them have played less than 20 Tests each). The discrepancy persists in ODIs, where India still has no one with a bowling average of under 25 (Irfan Pathan leads with 26.73), even though Pakistan has five (Saqlain Mushtaq, Shoaib Akhtar, Sarfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis). The mirror image is India’s batting prowess. Three Indians have crossed 9,000 Test runs. None has from Pakistan. Four Indians have crossed 9,000 ODI runs; only one has from Pakistan.

There are no satisfying explanations for this asymmetry. The leading myth behind Pakistan’s fast-bowling success is that it has come from a diet rich in beef. Pakistani cricketers will often repeat it privately. There is not a shred of scientific evidence to support this claim, yet it continues to percolate, perhaps because it is a rather obvious cultural difference that distracts from probing other possibilities.

The easiest way to debunk the beef myth is to concede for a moment that it is true. A diet rich in animal protein is said to build strong muscles for generating pace, yet the true measure of Pakistan’s bowling advantage — a tightfisted bowling average — is about so much more than just pace. Mohammad Sami and Javagal Srinath could both approach 150 km per hour, but have failed to bring their averages under 30. Conversely, many of Wasim Akram’s wickets have come not so much from speed but from guile, and from swinging the ball both ways in the same delivery.

Meanwhile, observers in Pakistan scratch their heads to understand why their country cannot produce a half-decent opening batsman. At one level the explanation is simple — India’s batting stature has come as much from talent and skill as from diligence, application, force of will, and a thorough grounding in the fundamentals. Pakistani batsmen, on the other hand, have acquired a reputation for audacity, bluster, bravado, and lack of orthodoxy. Yet why the temperaments should differ so is anyone’s guess.

There is a parallel in evolutionary theory, and it suggests the answer could well be that it is the nature of the beast. The evolutionary record of life is full of dramatic characteristics that erupt without warning and go on to transform the fortunes of a species. Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar burst forth on a subcontinental landscape that had hitherto been devoid of anything like them.

So the question can be reduced to asking why Gavaskar emerged in India and Imran in Pakistan. Yet the theory of evolution tells us this is not a real question; it is merely a description of the way life behaves. Transformative features can appear anywhere, and if they impart value to the struggle for life, they will continue to be passed down generations.

Cricket genius was bound to sprout in the subcontinent somehow. Circumstances — in the form of a passionate following for the game numbering in the millions — made it inevitable. In the event, the way it happened was that Gavaskar was born in India and Imran in Pakistan. Thereafter, Gavaskar engendered India’s formidable batting tradition, and Imran spawned a Pakistani bowling dynasty.

The good news is that evolution is not governed by intent or design, and even though Pakistan became a bowling nation and India a batting one, it could just as easily have happened the other way round. Which means that one day it almost certainly will.

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