Of boys, and burning decks

AT FIRST, it was just white noise. “Cameron Green” “long levers” “gone the distance” “declaration is imminent”. Words and phrases sans context, skimming past along the outer rim of my conscious self while I, back home after attending the cremation of the uncle who was more than a father, was on the phone. Calls with his widow, Prabhachechi, about going back for the 16th day ceremony. With his daughter Bindu, sharing recollections of a man without peer. With his two grandchildren, Ashwin and Ashwati, sharing stories of what it was like for me, growing up in Chandrettan’s shadow.

A succession of calls drenched in grief and nostalgia.

At some point, tired of pacing up and down in my study while talking on the phone, I sat at my desk. The cricket was streaming on the big-screen monitor. Pat Cummins, billed ad nauseum throughout this series as the world’s best bowler, was bowling to Shubman Gill. In the time of social distancing, it felt odd to see the crowd close to the bat. Slips, gully, forward short leg, leg gully.

I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Gill stand tall, his front foot forward, his weight inclining back, his bat descending in a short, crisp arc to meet the ball on the rise outside off and send it scudding through the extra cover region for four. It was the seventh over.

Chasing a random thought, I went to Cricinfo and pulled up the ball by ball commentary of India’s first innings and skimmed through it from the bottom up. Cummins had come on in the seventh over. Gill was 14 off 19 at the time. Cummins’s first spell in that innings read 7-3-12-0. Every single one of those 42 deliveries had been faced by the tall, composed freshman playing only his third Test innings, and already into his second partner.

Australian fast bowling packs operate much like how I imagine the Roman phalanx under Caesar fought – the star strike bowler as the sharp end of a wedge, hammering the defenses of the openers, finding a way through, and opening it up for the rest to surge in and decimate the opposition. And here, now, was this youngster, just 21, facing the strike bowler with phlegmatic calm and unfussy skill.

I settled down to watch. And was initially struck by Gill’s ability to forget all about the ball he had just played, and focus on the one he was about to face. In the 13th over, Cummins’s fourth, Gill got one of those deliveries no one can really hope to play. It was quick, it rushed in at speed on an off-stump line, it lifted off length, it seamed away late, and it just missed the outside edge. Next ball – small error in line, onto middle and leg, and Gill flicked it with nonchalant ease to the fine leg boundary.

At the other end was contemporary Indian cricket’s enduring enigma. Rohit Sharma, age 33, playing his 33rd Test after debuting in 2013. A legend in white ball cricket; ‘No-Hit Sharma’, in the cruel language of the fan when it comes to Test cricket despite an average of 44, strike rate of 58.5, with six centuries and 11 fifties. Since his debut, India has played 70 Tests; Sharma has figured in less than half of those.

I watch as he struggles through a Hazelwood over and think, yeah, this is why the limited overs must-pick is such an iffy proposition when it comes to Tests. I watch him play one of those patented, languid drives through the covers off Cummins and recall a publisher, in a media house I worked in once, talking of the “curse of talent”. I watch him do an encore of that drive against Starc. And then, two balls later, to a ball on the 5th or maybe even 6th stump line – the kind of ball any opener in his right mind would leave alone – I watch him reel off a cover drive with the showboating panache of a salesman unfurling a rare Persian rug for your admiration.

The two openers, now well into their second fifty partnership of the match, seem uncannily alike in their style. Both have minimal trigger movements. Both lead with their heads and let feet and bat follow. Both drive and pull with felicity and grace. Both seem to have more time than most mortals to meet deliveries hurtling towards them at speeds in excess of 140k. Both have an air of calm certitude at the crease. If there is one thing that sets them apart, it is only Gill’s back-foot punch/drive on the rise through the covers. I watch them and forget the impossibility of the task ahead of them; I forget that they are facing what pundits rate the best bowling attack in the world on their home turf. I even forget, momentarily, the grief that I have carried around since 10.58 AM on January 5, when a tear-drenched voice on the phone told me of the passing of my uncle.

THE relationship between fan and sportsperson is underpinned by self-interest. Without fans willing to brave traffic pile ups and pay for the privilege of putting their butts in uncomfortable seats, sport is starved of the oxygen of money. And without the sportsperson putting his mind and heart and body on the line to provide high entertainment, there is no incentive for the fan to endure discomfort and spend chunks of his time in the stadium.

Each gets something out of the deal. The sportsperson gets recognition, fame, adulation. And money. The fan gets a trove of treasured memories she can dine out on for the rest of her life.

I’ve watched Viv Richards bat in his debut series. Sat in the schoolboy stands yelling, with my peers, for Salim Durrani to hit a six – and been rewarded when the debonair Salim smiled in our direction and deposited two balls in our midst. I’ve seen Sunil Gavaskar snap to military attention to let a ball go by outside off and marveled at the surgical precision of a GR Vishwanath square cut. I’ve followed every ball of India’s seminal 1983 World Cup win on an old UMS valve radio that spit out commentary and static in equal measure. I’ve seen the likes of Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock bat. I’ve covered every ball of the monumental day-long partnership between Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman at the Eden Gardens.

I have, as fan and as reporter, accumulated memories I can summon up and sunbathe in when the world seems bleak and cold and inhospitable. In the here and now an Indian team, a pale shadow of the storied, star-spangled units of the past, resembling in the aggregate the out-patient ward of a general hospital after a multi-car highway pileup, push past my aching sense of loss and seed fresh memories for my tomorrows.

I AM too exhausted to set an alarm next morning. (Afterthought: My wife, who read this just now, at 6.30 PM, says this was probably the instinctive defense mechanism of a fan who has lived through a lifetime’s worth of inexplicable batting collapses. She is usually right when it comes to reading me.)

When I settle down in front of my monitor, palms wrapped around a mug of strong black coffee, I find that Rahane has got himself out and Cheteshwar Pujara (22 off 64) is outscoring the normally ebullient Rishabh Pant (5 off 30).

Nathan Lyon beats Pant’s outside edge with one thrown wide of off; Pant takes a brace off the spinner. And then – maybe he was waiting for me to wake up – Pant skips down the track to loft against the spin, clearing mid-on with ease. Next ball, he is down the track again and this time, the swing is even more vehement, meeting the ball with the sweetest part of the sweet spot and depositing it into the stands behind long on. He follows it up in the next Lyon over with back to back fours – a bludgeon through the covers, then a spank over the bowler’s head. The footwork against spin is all Ganguly; the arrogance is pure Sehwag.

Or maybe not – as the innings builds, as Pant takes on spin and pace with equal disdain, I realize that comparisons are as unnecessary as they are unfair – this young lad is Rishabh Pant, sui generis. In the 57th over, Lyon sets mid-off and mid-on deep. Pant to the first ball goes inside out over the long-off boundary, then skips down to the second ball and sends it soaring over long-on’s head. So much for field setting, and video analysis, and working out game-plans.

Starc gets slapped through point and pulled through mid-wicket; Cummins gets driven through the covers, Lyon gets flicked through square-leg and cut through cover point… That he does all this with a badly bruised elbow that kept him off the field for the entirety of the third innings is almost beside the point.

The partnership reaches the 100-run mark; Pant’s contribution is 73. And at the other end, Pujara plays his game regardless, letting the bowlers waste their energy outside his off stump, defending with poise when his stumps are attacked, waiting with monumental patience for the rare error he can cash in on.

It’s not that he doesn’t have the strokes – in a Cummins over after the lunch break, Pujara on-drives the first ball with a minimum of fuss, rocks back to the next ball and punches it past cover, then leans into an on-drive that leaves the field standing to make it three in three. He has shots, even against the best in the business – it is just that he chooses when, where, and if he will play them, and those who don’t like it can lump it.

Pant perishes as he had flourished, playing his shots irrespective. In this case, irrespective of the very obviously placed long-on, he backed himself to clear the field yet again, misjudged the slightly wider line, and carved into gully’s hands. He was on 97 then; he trudged off the field as slowly as he could possibly go, dragging his bat behind him, kicking at the turf, for all the world like a sulky schoolboy denied a treat. The only time you ever see Pant with shoulders slumped, head down, face unsmiling, is on the long walk back past relieved bowlers and fielders.

THROUGH the rest of that long morning, I continue to collect memories. Of Hanuma Vihari, a young man who celebrated his 27th birthday in a bubble, who gets picked for the tough overseas tours but never gets a chance to pad his CV on familiar home turf, facing an impossible task while painfully aware that the likely reason he is still in the playing eleven is because his dressing room is full of walking wounded.

I watch the normally free-stroking batsman grit it out for 27 deliveries while his partner, the normally gritty Pujara, takes Cummins apart in a totally unexpected role reversal. I watch Vihari jog a single and pull up, clutching his hamstring. It is the 88th over; India has to survive another 45 overs at the least. I don’t know it then, but the hamstrung Vihari, so crippled he cannot run one even when the ball has gone almost to the cover boundary, will hang in there – obdurate, implacable – for another 134 deliveries to see India to the security of a draw.

He will stretch forward in defense to spin and wince in pain; he will rock back in defense against bounce and grimace; he will limp towards square leg for some respite and then come back and get into his stance and do it all over again – a display of scarcely credible endurance, for the best part of two full sessions. He will have limped along on a leg and a half for over 280 minutes, faced down 161 deliveries, scored 23 runs and – by my back of the envelope calculation – left at least another 25 runs out there in the field because his injured leg can take only so much. And that is not counting the strokes he could have played if his movements were not, um, hamstrung.

I have seen far more storied batsmen – the kind that get feted by the fans and showered with gold by the sponsors — crumble under the weight of having to bat out a day to save a game. On the day, Hanuma Vihari – a player who, as on date, will not make any cricket fan’s list of the top 25, or even the top 50, all-time great Indian batsmen – played an innings fans will recall with wistfulness here on, every single time the team finds itself fighting rearguard.

THE “indomitable spirit” of Australian cricket – fostered by the media (guilty as charged) and fanned by marketers – is a myth that only goes skin deep. Beneath that veneer is an ugly reality that surfaces at the first sign of adversity.

As India takes the game deep, as the vaunted Australian bowlers hurl themselves in vain against the barrier the batsmen have erected, that ugly side increasingly manifests. In the mock charges Mathew Wade makes at the batsmen. In Steve ‘’brain fade” Smith, who oh-so-casually scuffs up the guard Rishabh Pant has marked out — an act that manages to be both petty and pointless at once. In the name-calling of Tim Paine, the captain Australian cricket had installed in order to refurbish its badly tarnished image. Paine, in post-match remarks, invoked the “heat of the moment”. He might as well not have bothered, because it is precisely in the heat of the moment that character is revealed, and what he revealed “in the heat of the moment” was ugly.

Ironically, Paine’s actions stood out in stark relief against those of the player he chose to target. When Ravichandran Ashwin walked out to bat at the fall of Pujara’s wicket in the 89th over, India was still a minimum of 42 overs away from saving the game. As he walked to the middle, the camera cut to the Indian dressing room to show Ravindra Jadeja, padded up to come in next.

Jadeja, who played a starring role with the ball and in the field in the first innings, sat legs splayed, hands resting on thigh. The camera zoomed in on the southpaw’s visibly swollen left hand. This much was clear – Jadeja may have walked out to bat at the fall of a sixth wicket, which in itself would take high courage, but there was no way he would survive a working over by quick bowlers who would look to target his injured hand, the dominant one for a left-handed batsman.

Ashwin was, to all intents, the boy with his finger in the dyke. He was given out caught behind off the 28th ball he faced, the first after the tea break – a decision he indignantly, and successfully, reviewed. He was thumped on the right shoulder by a Cummins bouncer off the very next ball. And from then on, he was peppered remorselessly by the three Australian quicks, operating in rota.

Thighs, ribs, upper arm, shoulder – if you took his shirt off, you could see the story of his 128-ball defiance tattooed on his skin in shades of blue and purple.

He stood there, and took it all, and survived it all. When a desperate Paine tried to rattle him with abuse, he gave back better than he got. Always one to insist on fair play, he pointedly walked away each time the keeper and slips chattered as he got into his stance. When the Australians turned to Nathan Lyon, he put on a masterclass in the art of defending to spin – full stretch forward, angled bat in front of pad, the ball meeting the bat just beneath the eyeline… The ball that spun found the middle. The ball bowled straight through with the arm found the middle. Every variation Lyon tried, Ashwin met with the middle of his bat and, in the process, demonstrated the subtle art of reading spin out of the hand.

Sharma, Pujara, Pant all took to the Aussie offie, but on the day none played him better than Ashwin, who through the duration of this tour has heard the constant refrain “Why can’t he bowl more like Lyon?”

Between them, Vihari and Ashwin put on the sort of defiant rearguard that Hollywood makes sword-and-sandal epics out of. They made sure an Indian side missing at least five of its first choice players go into the final Test with honours still even. And then they walked off — one limping, the other gently massaging a shoulder tenderised by the Aussie quicks — with heads held high.

The full extent of what they had accomplished dawned only later, when a casual trawl of social media threw up this exchange:

I longed to reach out to Prithi Ashwin and to tell her, don’t worry about the packing. When the physio and the medical staff examine your husband this evening, they will find out what ails his back, and they will fix it. And in the process, they will also find something none of us — not you, not us the fans who have often accused him of not putting in an honest effort — never suspected: a spine of cold steel.

For a little over a day this team — of which, thanks to an attrition without parallel in our history, I at least had little expectations — made memories to cherish. And, more importantly, helped me forget that an uncle who was the wind beneath my wings is no more; that as the fourth Test winds down to a close in Brisbane, I will be back in Calicut, immersing his ashes in the sea and bidding him a last farewell.

To borrow from Shakespeare, ‘For this relief much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.’

54 thoughts on “Of boys, and burning decks

  1. Wow , the description of Ashwin as ‘cold steel’ can be used by steel mfrs to portray tufness of their ‘mettle’

    • 🙂 I’ve often wondered why “cast iron” is used to describe toughness, when cast iron is in actual fact brittle. Chilled — or cold — steel better serves the purpose.

      Be well.

  2. Dear Sir,

    1.Our deepest condolences on your irreparable loss. May your uncle’s soul rest in eternal peace and tranquility. Having lost a close family member 3 months ago, and still coming to terms with it, I can fully understand your mindset.

    2.Yet, the quality of your writing….outstanding!!! Thank you for getting the holistic perspective just right!

    3.A significant note…. You wrote about an epic Indian fightback in the midst of a deep personal family bereavement…
    To the best of my knowledge, our Captain, after becoming a father, is yet to find time to salute the magnificent rear guard action by his team in Sydney… I wonder why?

    Colonel Sekhar

    • Dear Colonel, thank you so much for the heartfelt condolences. I am sorry for your loss; I hope you find your way to peace soon.

      As to point #3, I’d rather not comment, though I did notice that silence. Just as I noticed that this team doing duty in the national colours is no less aggressive, despite the absence of on-field theatrics and MC / BC abuse.

        • Thank you, I read this. Had me thinking of what families go through when one of their members is off on an extended tour (applies to the women cricketers / sportspersons, too)

      • I think I must say we shouldnt pass judgement on anyone seeing his or her public social media response. I am sure he has congratulated the team in private and thats what is all needed. In these days we are too much engrossed in recognition of emotions in public forums through social media. Let the man do what he thinks he did best.

        • Fair point Mr Roy….
          However, the Captain has been reasonably active on social media, with comments on race related incidents at the SCG, and earlier, on the win in Melbourne.
          And wishing Kapil Dev happy birthday, and also wishing Sourav Ganguly a speedy recovery….
          A cursory look at his Twitter feed may give you a more nuanced perspective….

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