It’s not a good time to be an Indian cricket fan in England right now. I miss the first Test but the trouble already starts with the second Test at Lord’s, the match we ‘win’. The slips are wrong, standing too far back and too close together, with catches dropping in front of them — which can happen, but then you compute the bounce and carry, and you adjust, except here no one does. Already things are going besur, a Test wicket-keeper (no matter that he’s also the captain and the captain who’s won us the World Cup in another form of the game eons ago), is standing back to a spinner, as in halfway between the stumps and his normal position for the pacers, and flanking him are a slip and a leg slip, all in a straight line, as if they’re in some provincial rock band deep in the Gangetic belt. This bizarre move doesn’t yield any master-stroke wickets, merely the derision of the gora commentators and also Michael Holding. The worst thing is the spinner, an ‘Indian’ spinner, is bowling, smacking them down with no thought of flight or loop or, well let’s just say it, actually spinning the ball, of allowing it to talk to the air and conspire with it. Besides Ishant showing some spark of old, the unsatisfying saving grace is that this England team is a) not very good, and b) still spooked by the Australian mauling and even by the mini-series with the Sri Lankans, and they do a very good impression of kids in a nursery playing ‘All Fall Down’. You know, even as Dhoni speaks second in the post-match jaw-billiards, that this ride isn’t going to stay so smooth, not in a five-Test series.
Watching and listening to the commentary on Sky is mostly fun though. There’s hilarious ribbing between Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly of the kind they would probably never do on an Indian channel, there’s semi-serious rub between Nasser Hussain and various other Ingrej, then there’s Warney with his twanging delivery, actually making a lot of common sense and giving us good insight. The irritating part of this is that every time an Indian batsman gets deep-fried by a bad decision or an English one escapes, the chirping starts, “Well… no sympathy there! Them’s the breaks! If you don’t agree to having DRS, you can’t review it!” The first few times this is understandable, but then the crowing grates, not least because it reminds me exactly of last time, which was the hellish 2011 tour.
By the time the Southampton Test starts, someone in the back room has clearly sent instructions for the commentary gang to cool it about the DRS and they do. Instead, as the extremely thin India balloons start bursting you get these stifled yelps of Pom-ecstacy: “Well, well, we-ell! Now had they agree—… well, he’ll feel hard doon by that decision, but there it is!” “You’re right Bumble! There it is!” And there, as they say in these parts, it b****y is. The moment Cook and a couple of other English batsmen get going, Dhoni’s band-baja party lower their instruments and tap their feet to the rhythm of runs being piled on. Suddenly there is no sense that anyone is trying to contain the runs or take wickets. Watching the fielding, you can almost hear the desi egos calling to each other, “Arre yaar, what to do? Anyway, we’ll just make more than them!” Which, of course, is not how it works.
Besides the clever ruse of getting us to refuse the DRS, England seem to have broken another, unwritten, code: this time they’ve dropped their Dhoni counterpart (or he’s bailed out) and they’ve instead deployed a proper Test-class wicket-keeper, a chap who can collect wild bouncers down the leg side and take catches and so on, which feels like it should be illegal when playing Dhoni’s India.
As the match progresses it gets worse and worse, and before long the whole thing seems to mutate without pause into an eight-day mega-test mauling, one that somehow begins at the Rose Bowl, with its beached cruise liner doubling as a stand, and ends at Old Trafford, with its ancient and familiar spires. On the way, as India are wont to do, we have resurrected the failing careers of several opponents. We have also helped birth a deadly off-spinner in the shape of one Moeen Ali. In between, on what seems like it must have been a rest day, we have also conceded an enquiry called Andersongate where El Jimmy is found to be not particularly guilty for having (or not quite having) pushed Ravindra Jadeja who may or may not have also behaved badly in the surveillance-less tunnel at Trent Bridge.
For the Indian cricket fan, there is no place to hide. It’s bad enough that local Pakistani friends are sympathetic — not that unusual nowadays — what’s worse is the English friends who normally get quite sharp about the cricket now doing the equivalent of patting you sympathetically on their Facebook statuses. In footballing terms, as an Arsenal supporter, my standard reaction to defeat from a big opponent is, “Go to hell! You’ve spent all these billions to buy all these stars... ” but in this case, I realize that the over-expensive team of prima donnas is us, and we are being flash-barbecued by a team of jobbing county second-raters plus Buttler, Anderson, the ghastly Broad and Cook.
Even as the debacle-tamasha starts again at the Oval, you realize a few things: barring some serious surgery of our cricketing system, India is done with the game we knew and loved as Test cricket. Suddenly, all those unspectacular Indian batsmen of yore who battled it out in English conditions for draws against top-notch swing and pace re-appear as true heroes. The monetary corruption may be what it is but the BCCI’s expansion into the game’s one super-power has brought with it the deepest spiritual corruption of cricket in this country. Barring the dismantling of the industry and repeated defeats and dismemberments in all forms of the game, or at least the T-20 form, there will be no rejuvenation, no resurrection.
Being in London when things aren’t going well for India on an England tour, one can usually take refuge in all the other wonderful things that makes this such a great place in summer. This time, however, the unrelentingly grim international news claws one’s attention: the second Malaysian Airlines plane goes down, Gaza is ablaze, Syria suppurates, Iraq is being over-run by Islamist butchers, ebola is spreading and the police shoot down an unarmed black man in Missouri. In all this awfulness there is a news item that says some people have shot at a convoy led by Imran Khan, possibly a group from Khan’s own beloved Pakistani Taliban. I remember Imran giving the annual Pataudi Lecture in Calcutta in 2012 and crowing about the consistency required for India to be hammered 0-4 twice, in two consecutive tours of England and Australia in 2011-12. IK squarely laid the blame on a surfeit of T-20 cricket, probably knowing full well that no one on this side of the border would take heed. Wherever he is, no matter how much his political idiocies are being exposed by Kalashnikov bullets, I know Imran Khan is grinning right now as he watches the Test cricket being played in England.