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Saturday , March 12 , 2011
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- Of Abu Abraham and real cricket

On February 26, I attended the opening of an exhibition of cartoons by Abu Abraham, a brilliant, brooding Malayali who worked for many years in London and New Delhi before retiring to Kerala. Ranging over 50 years of Abu’s work, the show had as its centrepiece his cartoons of the 1970s. These were often prescient, with, for example, a politician saying, before election time, that “we must consider the relative merits of candidates”, and another answering “yes, especially the merits of relatives”. Another had politician A glumly telling politician B that “the gains of Pokharan have been cancelled out at Lord’s”.

Viewers much younger than I am might not have caught the reference. I did, immediately, for I was 16 in 1974, an age when one is just discovering one’s love for one country. Like other patriotic Indians I had saluted the nuclear test of May, but been devastated by the humiliation at Lord’s, when a crack Indian batting side — Gavaskar, Viswanath, Engineer et al — were bowled out for 42 all out. Within a single month, I (and very many other patriots) had thus passed from exultation to humiliation. Abu, however, had set the matter in perspective. The sardonic, sceptical Malayali had told his readers in 1974 — and was telling me now, decades later — that it was foolish to see either the possession of a nuclear bomb or victory in a cricket match as an index of a nation’s worth.

The next day I was due to be at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, to watch India play England in the World Cup. Normally, I would have wanted India to win, but Abu’s cartoon had confused me. I told a friend at the exhibition that I saw more clearly than ever before the utter worthlessness of sporting nationalism, and would therefore support England on the morrow.

I was a cricketing nationalist as a teenager but, over the years, had acquired more ambivalent feelings. I greatly admired the West Indian cricketers of the 1980s — Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall in particular —and the Australian masters of the following decade, such as Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, and Glenn McGrath. I still wanted India to win, but was not desolated if they lost, especially if it had been to a better or more skilful side. And I particularly deprecated the jingoism that was on display when India played Pakistan. The saddest moment of 40 years of live cricket watching remains the World Cup quarter-final of 1996, also played in Bangalore, when I was the only person in my stand (and possibly in the entire stadium) who applauded Javed Miandad when he walked off the ground for the last time as an international player.

At the same time, I had sympathy for the Indian players, for the burdens they had to bear, with tens of millions of their countrymen demanding that they win to redeem national pride, or merely to bring consolation and cheer to their own blighted lives. The saddest moment outside the ground in my life as a cricket lover occurred after India lost a one-day match against Pakistan, when the homes of some great and decent cricketers (among them, Rahul Dravid) were attacked by their deranged fans.

Fortunately, the extreme and excessive jingoism of the 1990s has somewhat abated. Some years ago, I watched Pakistan beat India in a Test in Bangalore, the match watched by a peaceful and appreciative crowd, whose broad-mindedness owed itself (at least in part) to the sentiment that in matters other than cricket — politics and economics, for example —their country was doing rather better than that of Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team. Still, I slept erratically on the night of February 26/27, juxtaposing to Abu’s cartoon my own lifelong desire not to see the Indian cricket team humiliated. Juggling my emotions, I recalled that Neville Cardus had once written of how, as a boy, he had reconciled his admiration for the batsmanship of Victor Trumper with the desire to see England win. Before an Ashes Test, he would pray to god that he let his hero make a century — out of an Australian total of 127 all out. I now amended that to fit, and resolve, my own particular dilemma. What I wanted at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, I decided at 3 am, was for Sachin Tendulkar to score a hundred, but for England to win the match.

By the time this column appears the match itself would have been superseded in the readers’ consciousness by other and more recent encounters. It was, of course, a tie, a result that did not displease me, since if my second wish is re-interpreted to mean that I did not want India to win, I got what I wanted. And Tendulkar scored a superb hundred, a masterful, controlled innings, playing himself in while Sehwag blazed away and accelerating smoothly after his partner got out. I will, I think, remember this century especially for the demolition of Grahame Swann (whom he struck for three sixes) and for two glorious off-drives off James Anderson.

In response, the England captain, Andrew Strauss, scored a fine hundred that, like Tendulkar’s innings, was marked by genuine cricketing shots — drives, cuts, pulls, and glides, no slogs or inside-out shots over cover. But the match was also marked by high-class pace bowling. Had Tim Bresnan not got Sehwag out early, and then cleaned up the lower middle-order, India would have probably got 370 or 380 instead of 338, and won the match comfortably. On the other side, Zaheer Khan bowled an indifferent first spell, but then, when England seemed to be walking home to victory, came back to get three quick wickets, among them Andrew Strauss, leg-before to the ball of the match, an inswinging yorker.

Test cricket is real cricket, not because it is played over five days, but because it places bat and ball on par. Twenty20 is a vulgar and debased form of the game, because the bowler gets a mere four overs. Although 50-50 cricket is still biased in favour of the batsman, at least he can go beyond mere slogging to construct and shape an innings, the way Tendulkar and Strauss did in Bangalore that day. Meanwhile, given 60 rather than 24 deliveries, the bowler can still somewhat display his variety and subtlety, as both Bresnan and Zaheer showed us at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

Other early matches in the World Cup have likewise demonstrated the ability of one-day internationals to provide attractive and meaningful cricket. Consider, for instance, Shahid Afridi’s match-winning spells against Sri Lanka and Canada — both times seeing his side through in a thrilling, low-scoring contest — and Kevin O’Brien’s extraordinary innings for Ireland against England, neither possible nor conceivable in the Twenty20 format.

On the evidence of its first fortnight, this World Cup may redeem the promise of the 50-over game, a version disparaged by proponents of the shorter and longer varieties of cricket, albeit for different reasons. (Test cricket purists think it too fast, Twenty20 fanatics deem it too slow.) But who will or should win the tournament? My own hope, or fantasy, which is inspired both by Abu Abraham’s cartoon and the match I watched in Bangalore, is that India reach the final in Mumbai, where they shall play Pakistan. Tendulkar shall score a hundred on his home ground, but his side will not win. Nor lose, either.

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