| A positive draw
As always, God is in the details. Laxman and Tendulkar grinning at some ongoing joke as they punched gloves after yet another four-ball, Dravid’s reaction stop, at slip, of a ball kangarooing out of nowhere, then, even as he scores a century, Simon Katich’s eyes every now and then reciprocating the look of abject panic normally seen under Ganguly’s various helmets, Akash Chopra deliberately and repeatedly walking right into Mount Hayden after stopping a ball at short leg and, at the end, Langer and Hayden carrying Steve Waugh on their shoulders, the difference between one shoulder and other being something like eight inches, and Waugh, therefore, listing like a badly damaged battleship just making it back into home port — gun turrets shot to smithereens but honour almost intact, bullet-ridden Baggy Green limp but still, somehow, clinging on to the mast.
England would have happily taken this result and the manner in which it was arrived at, even if it meant that the Ashes stayed in Sydney. The South Africans would, I’m pretty sure, be more than willing to exchange their current, triumphant, series with the Windies for this drawn one. Sri Lanka and Pakistan will now, suddenly, find some spine to their dreams of winning in Oz. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh will now find their players practising in the middle of the night. Brian Lara will be figuring out how to score 800 at Perth. And the Kiwis will not be able to stop themselves chortling in glee for another five years — “India sivin hundrid and faav for sivin in Sudney! Now, how are you going to explain that away, Aussie'”
Aussies will try and explain it by pointing to the absence of Glenn McGrath (the more sensible of them will avoid mentioning the absence of Shane Warne, knowing that it’s Warne who was lucky to miss out playing against the one batting line-up that has consistently relished taking him apart); they will point out that their players were “distracted” by Steve Waugh’s impending retirement; they will say that every great team has it’s down-blip and that’s all this was, now-watch-how-hard-we-hit-back; they will say, sportingly and truthfully, that this is a historically great Indian batting line-up (but what a pity we couldn’t chew back into their bowling hard enough). They will say John Wright is a great coach and Ganguly a tough and shrewd captain, and right after this exact half-truth (John Wright is a great coach) they will slip in the quick flipper — but they didn’t manage to beat us!
Critical as I have been of my home-boy and critical as I remain, after the third farcical lbw decision on the last day, even I felt a tidal wave of sympathy for our King SG the Second. Even great generals need some luck to win and the not-so-great definitely need a lot of it, and Ganguly had none whatsoever on that epic fifth day. The ungiven plumb lbws, the infant Patel missing the Ponting stumping, the dreaded SCG pitch suddenly going docile for its Lord and Master’s last day of test cricket, etc, etc, etc. But to talk purely in captaincy terms, the huge chasm between between Ganguly and Waugh reminds me of the following story: On the morning of the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington woke up in his mistress’s bed and, swelling up his chest, he announced — “Today, my dear, I am going to beat Napoleon!”, to which the insightful lady replied — “My Lord, you will only be remembered as the man who defeated Napoleon, but Napoleon will always be remembered as Napoleon.”
On the other hand, such is the crossfire of emotions released by this series, that I must contradict myself immediately, and do so by breaking the cardinal rule that a writer should never quote himself. On the day of the last World Cup final, I wrote a piece for this newspaper in which I managed to stumble upon something that a lot of people are now saying: “The fact is, Australia is the one team we now most want to beat and vice versa. In strictly cricketing terms, they are now our real Pakistan and, whether they admit it or not, we are now Australia’s proper England…”
Matthew Engel, the superb veteran Guardian writer, was present in Sydney to witness the test. In one report about the end of what he calls “one of the most brilliant series of the modern era, perhaps of all time”, Engel happily concedes that “Even the status of the Ashes could be called into question if India can maintain this form.” And, again, in another report, that “the Indians emerged with their reputation dramatically enhanced. Their home series against Australia nine months hence now becomes unquestionably the cricketing event of the year.” Quite a far cry this, from Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Martin-Jenkins’s uproariously arrogant statement only a few years ago that no other test battle could possibly touch the Ashes for drama and for the quality of the cricket.
Poor Martin-Jenkins was only putting into well-modulated words what an old Australian gent once said to me when I asked him how he would feel if Australia ever lost the Ashes again — “Oh, it would be alright, mate, as long as it didn’t happen too often. After all, it’s Us against Us isn’t it'”
There was an Us and Us playing itself out on the sidelines of the SCG, in the shape of the Shaz and Waz Show, where two sub-continental cricketing greats were obliged, every single day of this enthralling cricket match, to corner some hapless young woman and “talk” to her during the tea-break. Watching Wasim Akram and Ravi Shastri desperately trying to manufacture a proper, manly, stereo-leer, while their minds were quite obviously on the small matter of bat and ball, was straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd, but then, that’s what the marketing boys in TV make you do.
A very different kind of Us and Us was on display when you watched Akram commentate. One of India’s most implacable cricketing foes could hardly contain his delight at watching the Australians being made to sweat. Not to deny that he would much rather have had, say, Inzamam and Youhana instead of Laxman and Tendu doing the damage on the square, but there was no trace of envy, just a real, articulate and unpretentious enjoyment of what was going on, which I would stick my neck out and translate as: “My people are grinding these Australians into keema, and about time too.”
In the meantime, yet another Us and Us, one that quite rightly took second place to the cricketing headlines, unfolded in Islamabad — the Vajpayee-Musharraf love-fest. Again, it’s what TV makes you do. There is far more reason to trust Shaz and Waz with some nubile innocent than there is to trust Vajpayee and Musharraf with the tender foundling called Peace. But, for want of anything more concrete, most people in India and Pakistan will have to take it for now. Both sides should take comfort from the fact that the Indian cricket team managed just enough to make everybody in the sub-continent happy, but not so much that Vajpayee-Advani can declare themselves into a “feel-good” election victory on the back of one in Australia. The joint resolution coming out of Islamabad is, at best, a positive draw. There is a long way to go before the two countries manage anything like an emphatic win for their people. In order to achieve that, one will have to pray hard that God is actually far away from the details.