#One day in the future, Paul Harris will gather his grandchildren around him, and tell them of how he once squared up to a team comprising some of the best players of spin in contemporary cricket. ‘There was Gambhir,’ he will say. ‘AND Dravid. AND Laxman. AND…’, after a pause pregnant with drama, ‘the great SACHIN!’
‘I bowled 30 overs to them, and they could only score 29 runs off me!’
‘To Sachin, I had seven men around the bat at one time. Eight if you count my mate Boucher. Nine if you count me. Think about it, just two men patrolling that vast ground. And I bowled 57 balls to the greatest batsman of the time — and he could only take FOUR runs off me!’
‘GRANDPA!!!!!! Can we have an ice-cream now? Please?’
#Following the cricket conversation on Twitter yesterday served up the most telling example of how much this team has changed — and we the fans have changed with it. Even five years ago, if we woke up in the morning knowing the team — even with its roster of master batsmen that much younger, that much closer to peak physical and mental powers — had to survive for 90 overs against perhaps the best bowling unit in contemporary cricket, led by the best fast bowler of our times, on a wearing wicket with bounce and turn, we would have prayed for one thing: honorable survival.
Yesterday, we — myself included — demanded fireworks; we moaned for the team to show gumption, to go after the unrealistic — given the conditions and the opposition — target of 341 in 90 overs, and we cribbed when the team showed no intent of even making the attempt. Mere survival, once a desirable end in itself, has now become commonplace — we demand no less than miracles.
That, perhaps, is the best tribute to a team that, in its own way, is beginning to justify its number one rating in Tests. It cannot, with a straight face, lay claim yet to the tag of world champions — that is a different tag altogether, and can be worn only on the back of consistent, sustained domination around the world. But the number one rating sits increasingly lightly on the shoulders of this team — and that is something we had dreamt of ever since John Wright first landed in India and said his goal was to make this Indian team shed the tag of being poor travellers.
#Part of the vocal disappointment with the team stemmed perhaps from the desire — felt, if not adequately vocalized — for this most compelling of Test series to have a climax worthy of all that had gone before. That ship sailed, however, when Graeme Smith decided to allow first Dale Steyn, then Lonwabo Tsotsobe, a chance to try for individual centuries, or whatever the heck it was they were playing for late into the fourth evening. Every moment of that extended evening, you expected the South Africans to throw their bats around in a bid to set a tempting target — 280-290, even 300, in 100 overs, say. But once Smith decided to bat out time — an act contrary to the thoughts of team psychologist Dr Henning Gericke, who has been arguing for the side to show more courage — the conclusion was pretty much foregone.
Never mind the noise all of us made on Twitter at the time, that was our way of keeping ourselves entertained. In actual fact, we all knew that once that target was set, one result had been effectively ruled out, and all that remained was for India to play for the stalemate, which in and of itself would be an honorable end to a series where the team has repeatedly outperformed expectations. The batting unit — excoriated by the opposing captain and commentators as flat track bullies — outperformed the home side, in their own conditions, in every subsequent innings. The bowling unit — dismissed as ‘pop gun’, with the likes of Shaun Pollock suggesting that India was stupid to come to South Africa with three seamers bowling at military medium — took out South Africa’s in-form lineup three times for low scores, and had it in dire trouble on one other occasion. The catching was brilliant throughout; the fielding was adequate — and the combative attitude, which allowed the team to shrug off a debacle in the first Test and fight back to level the series, was exemplary.
Perhaps that was it. Perhaps the team had left so much of itself out on the field during the first two Tests and four days of this third Test, that it had nothing left to give.
That should be enough to satisfy us, for now. And yet — there remains a vestige of disappointment. It began in the final session of day four as we watched the game get away from us, as the bowlers went flat just when they should have been most inspired and the field was spread just when the noose should have been tightened. And it stems from the knowledge that defeating the Proteas on home soil is an important step the team needs to take, as part of the transition from ‘world number one’ to ‘world champion’ — and the awareness that this team, with collective spirit finally added to individual abilities, gave us the best shot at taking that step. There is no clue in the FTP about when India will play in South Africa next — whenever that happens, it would be improbable to expect that the likes of Sachin, Rahul and VVS, even Zak, will be part of that unit.
Perhaps that is why the disappointment felt yesterday was so perversely intense — deep inside, we wished for those four players, who have labored for so long and so thanklessly to get India to its current eminence, to be able to insert this one significant triumph to their CVs. Oh well — next stop, England.
#Speaking of England brings up a final thought. The Indian batting unit yesterday clearly was playing to a plan — to bat the Proteas attack to a total standstill. Another day, another Test, an Indian side had done this — admittedly, to a bowling attack not quite in the same league as this one: read Andrew Miller, and Rahul Bhattacharya, on the great hijack that almost was. Just for fun.
#I’ll leave you with two good reads: Harsha Bhogle on the Garry Sobers of our generation and, in the run up to the IPL auction tamasha this week, Sambit Bal on the danger a self-absorbed BCCI poses for the game. See you Monday.