| Too much, too soon
No matter what fate now has in store for us, the video-shot of Rahul Dravid hitting the winning runs at Adelaide is going to become an iconic one in the history of Indian cricket. It’s not so much the lunge to smack the ball away but what happens right after: a heartbeat of hesitation, and then you see from Dravid’s eyes that the ball has pierced the field, that the final run is now his, no mistake, and then his elated sprint forward, leaping and waving, and then that clutching kiss on his India cap. It is this moment that will be edited into our consciousness time and time again. People in the moving picture profession know that follow-focussing on a fast-moving object in extreme telephoto is not the easiest thing to do and the anonymous cameraman has a lot to be thanked for, as does his boss in the control room who probably told him to stay on Dravid’s face to the exclusion of everything else.
For an India supporter too, there is a great temptation to cut out everything else and hang on to this brief supernova of triumph. The labels come in a tumult — a test win, a win against Australia, a win in Australia, a win not to save the series or to catch up but a first-blood win to take the lead, and so on and so forth, but the words don’t quite cover the emotion. That winning run drew tears, from the normally unemotional Gavaskar, from the hardened cynic sitting next to me, and when the camera aperture opened to let us peer up into Dravid’s eyes during his post-match interview, from the man himself, though in his case it could have been the sweat of exhaustion — it was difficult to tell.
Call it a pessimism of instinct rather than of any great intellect, call it churlish, or a case of overblown expectations, call it what you will, but I found myself quite dry-eyed. Sure, I was happy, laughing, reaching for the celebratory beer — just for the great catches taken, how could one not' — but something inside made sure that the tears of joy and the champagne were kept on standby for another day, perhaps the last day of the Sydney test. This unseemly parsimony came, I realized, not from the fear of some great, impending, Aussie payback, but from elsewhere.
A thought: if an Indian cricket fan was to return today, from a twenty-year space journey where he had been out of contact with any news from earth, what would he say' Would it be — “Oh wow, we’ve beaten Australia again!”, or would it more likely be — “You mean we haven’t yet won a series Down Under'” And again, looking at the shameful playing and coaching conditions on the maidans all over the country would he say — “How amazing that we’ve produced a nearly world champion team despite this mess” and “How wonderful that we are now the richest cricket board in the world by a mile. Aren’t Eden and Mohali amazing cricket grounds'” or might it be something a bit less congratulatory — “So, now, how is all this money being used'”
The same Steve Waugh who will now move heaven, earth and all the barbecues in Australia not to lose, or even draw, his last series, said something very interesting about his team’s loss in India last time: “I didn’t think about it for ten seconds after it was over.” While this a laughable economizing with the truth, and obviously a pyschological opening pawn, there is a grain of reality in there somewhere. Win or lose, Waugh knows that he leaves behind a hugely powerful legacy, one he has moved forward from what he received from Border and Taylor. Unlike England and the West Indies, where cricket is fraying, or the subcontinent where it is stuck in the hero-worship of the few and the grassless dreams of millions, cricket in Australia is thriving. Aussie kids of both sexes play the game as part of their growing up, are taught it with great energy and innovation, play it with proper equipment on beautiful green grounds, and therefore learn from it and enjoy it. It helps that the Australian national team wins most of the time but it’s not crucial — cricket isn’t the nation’s windpipe. If Australians lose at cricket there’s always the rugby, and if they lose at that then there’s always the tennis or the Olympics to look forward to, and if they don’t do too well there, well, the cricket should be back on course by then, so no worries mate.
While it’s true that Aussies hate losing, there is, if you like, a surplus of winning memories, even a glut, according to some. Without any pretence whatsoever, a couple of Australian friends can actually say to me: “Hope you guys get one over! Keeps it interesting. I’m tired of this team winning all the bloody time!” Indeed. Though I’m unable to fantasize too vividly of the day when I can say the same for our boys in blue, the thought does creep up that it’s about time, (about bloody time, in lingua Ozzica), we left behind us the need to send up fireworks at every victory.
Besides this, another reason pops up to stem the flow of happy tears. Call me old-fashioned, but for me there is the question not only of winning but of how we become victors, and of the demeanour with which we wear that victory. With or without McEnroe’s talent, do we need an Indian enfant terrible to get us a Wimbledon Champion' Do we need Maradona’s thuggishness, if not his ball sense, to get somewhere in world soccer' Most relevantly, do we need to become Australian to beat Australia at cricket' Learning from other teams’ innovations in training routines and strategies is obviously sensible, but how far do you carry the aping of attitude'
From the mid-Nineties, far more than any fast bowler starting his run-up, the most terrifying sight in cricket was the Aussie slip cordon even before they went into their crouch: green baggy caps pulled low, shades down on noses, hands on hips, jaws masticating chewing gum as if they were already digesting the batsman’s entrails. My fellow Calcuttan on the Indian team may not have managed to fully emulate Greg Chappell’s consistency, Mark Taylor’s catching, or Steve Waugh’s feral tactical instincts, but he seems to be only a step behind Ricky Ponting in the gum-chewing. As a keen observer of cricket, I have been following the Skipper’s technique and it makes me worried for the immediate future of the sport in India.
For instance, the gum was there, dancing unchecked across Ganguly’s teeth during the press conference before the World Cup final, while Ponting’s was invisible. Then again, during the playing of the national anthem’s at the Wanderers, Ponting, advanced as always, took his gum out just before the Australian national anthem began, but Ganguly continued to chew through Jana Gana Mana, which is precisely the point where I thought we lost that match. At Adelaide too, any over-optimism for the series was squashed by the fact that Steve Waugh was completely clear-mouthed as the losing captain but our Prince did not know what to do with his gum during Tony Greig’s questions, so he chewed away for all he was worth, and that too in tight close-up.
The accusation levelled at Richard Nixon’s hapless successor, Gerald Ford — that he could not chew gum and walk at the same time — cannot reasonably be applied to Ganguly who is, I’m told, not unintelligent. I’m sure the gum-chewing, like the shirt-divestment and the late arrival for the toss, is a deliberately thought out ploy. It’s just that he needs to fine-tune it and not get into a tangle, otherwise Steve Waugh, who has an acute eye for detail, will notice and be sure to exploit it. If Ganguly wants to be the one lifting the rubber at Sydney he will do well to remember that with both chewing gum and attitude, a little goes a long way.