Team before individual
In my opinion, Test cricket may be compared to the finest Scotch, 50-overs a side to Indian Made Foreign Liquor, and 20-20 to the local hooch. The addict who cannot have the first or the second will make do with the last. The pleasures of the shortest game are intense but also wholly ephemeral. There is no time to savour delights offered in such a rushed and heady fashion. The medium form allows one to take in the booze more leisurely. Here, a batsman can bat long enough to develop an innings, to play strokes other than the hoick over midwicket or mid on. Although a bowler is restricted to 10 overs, 60 deliveries constitute a spell in a way in which four overs cannot — long enough at least to plan, and execute, a dismissal. As compared to 20-20, 50-50 allows a greater exposure to the varieties and subtleties of the game. After spending a whole day at the cricket one can, as it were, remember individual sips of the drink that one has consumed. On the other hand, after a Twenty20 game, all one remembers is that one got drunk, and one’s side won, or lost.
But proper cricket can only be Test cricket. Spread out over five days, the game unfolds as in an epic drama. No restrictions are placed on anyone. The bowler can bowl 40 overs at a stretch; the batsman plays on until he gets out. Even the fielder has greater opportunities to display his wares. He can (as in limited overs cricket) dive to his left at cover point to stop a boundary; and he can also (unlike in limited overs cricket) dive to his right to take a low catch at short leg. In this long, leisurely, civilized form of the game, a villain is allowed to redeem himself, a hero to reveal his flaws, a team to show reserves of character one could have scarcely thought it possessed. As with the finest Scotch, one savours every sip; and yet, as with the finest Scotch, the whole is infinitely greater than the parts.
Of the matches played in the inaugural 20-20 World Cup, one memory remains with me — that of the catch taken by Sreesanth at short fine leg which brought the tournament to a close. Everything else is a blur. I guess some sixes were struck and some yorkers bowled, but I cannot remember them. On the other hand, I can recall strokes and catches and innings and spells from Test matches watched (or heard on the radio) from as far back as the Seventies.
With me as I write is a memory from a more recent Test match, that played in Perth in the third week of January, 2008. Australia had been set a stiff victory target, in excess of 400 runs. With their characteristic commitment and courage, they went for it. The openers were dismissed early, but Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey got together in a fine, retrieving partnership. Both were dismissed in their forties, but the battle was carried forward by the elegant right-hander, Michael Clarke. The dangerous Andrew Symonds fell to Anil Kumble, and Gilchrist and Lee got out in quick succession to the change bowler, Virender Sehwag. But so long as Clarke was in and hitting boundaries, the home side were not out of the game. He had got to 81, when he came down the wicket to drive Kumble. However, he was beaten in the flight; after pitching, the ball spun away past his outside edge, to enter the gloves of the wicket-keeper with the batsman still several feet out of the ground. When Dhoni took the bails off, the match had been lost, and won.
Clarke’s dismissal will stay with me for some time. I shall remember it for cricketing reasons — as a display of the wrist-spinner’s art — and for what the expert commentator on television said as soon as the batsman was out. Sunil Gavaskar remarked that Clarke would be kicking himself, for getting out when in reach of a “personal milestone”. It was true that the batsman had hit the ground in disgust as soon as he heard the rattle behind him. But anyone with any knowledge of Australian cricketers should have known that his annoyance was not a product of his not getting to a century, but of not being around to take his side to a win.
Gavaskar’s remark probably revealed far more about the speaker than his subject. While Australian cricketers have always played for their team rather than for themselves, with Indian cricketers it had often been the other way around. But perhaps that too is changing. For me, the moment of the Perth Test, cricketing-wise, was Michael Clarke’s dismissal. Character-wise, it was the sight of Sourav Ganguly fielding at short-leg. It was customary among Indian Test teams that this most hazardous of fielding positions was assigned to the juniormost member of the side. In Gavaskar’s day, or before that in Mankad’s day, no former captain would be asked to field at short-leg. Even if asked, he would refuse. That Ganguly willingly stood where he was most likely to be hit suggested that in this Indian team at least, the group mattered more than the individual.
When he himself was captain of India, Ganguly had scrupulously refused to favour players from his native Bengal. He put his faith in talent, regardless of where it came from. It helped that in his long reign as skipper, he had a selfless deputy, Rahul Dravid. In turn, when Dravid was offered the top job, Ganguly cheerfully played under him as an ordinary member of the team. However, this spirit of teamwork has reached its apogee under the leadership of the present Test captain, Anil Kumble. No man has won more Test matches for India; no cricketer has demanded less for himself. It is in acknowledgment of his outstanding gifts as player and human being that Kumble can command the unswerving loyalty and support of three former captains —Ganguly, Dravid, and Tendulkar —and, of course, of the current and very successful captain of the one-day side, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Before Perth, there had been a Test played at Sydney, which India lost owing to the incompetence of the umpires, and where accusations of bad behaviour were levelled at and by both teams. Since Perth is a ground where fast bowlers dominate, no one gave the Indians a ghost of a chance. The Australian press, the Indian press, the Indian fans — who among them would have thought that Kumble’s men would win, at Perth of all places, and after comprehensively losing the first two Test matches of the series? In fact, there were 11 men who thought that Australia could be defeated at the WACA. It was this self-belief of Kumble and his team, and their whole-hearted willingness to place the group above the individual, that lay behind this most unlikely of wins.
This superb team-spirit, nurtured over the months and years in which these cricketers have played together, will now be put under strain by the Indian Premier League. Club loyalties cannot be cultivated overnight. And where half the players come from outside, city loyalties will not mean a thing. What the IPL shall actually promote will be a loyalty to one’s self —and one’s bank balance. Already, the buying and selling of players have grossly undervalued real distinction. What can one say of a “system” where Anil Kumble, one of the greatest players in the history of cricket, commands a fraction of the price offered to the journeyman Gautam Gambhir?
Despite the hard sell and the media hype, the true lovers of cricket, and of Indian cricket more especially, must hope that the IPL will fail as a commercial proposition. It offers, arguably, a degraded form of cricket; and it will promote, certainly, a degradation of character. Speaking for myself, I can state that I intend to watch the three-Test series against South Africa, and then voluntarily go on the wagon. So long as only hooch is on offer, I will not be seen anywhere near a television set broadcasting a cricket match. I will resume my drinking habits once the IMFL and the Scotch reappear on the menu.