I like to think of myself as an intense cricket fan.
But if I were to lay the facts out in the open, the truth is that I have followed very few cricket tournaments from start to finish.
I don’t mean following parts of innings when time permits, skimming the newspaper, or catching the highlights the next day. I have done all of that. I mean religiously following every ball of the match, taking breaks only for absolute necessities like answering calls from Mother Nature, food, and rolling one.
Circumstances haven’t been too kind to me in the past. As I scan my memory through the greatest moments in Indian cricket, I find myself trapped in a variety of situations that are both comical as well as tragical.
When Venkatesh Prasad made a mess of Aamir Sohail’s stumps, I was praying to God in a hostel. The only reports of the match came from a teacher who brought us detailed reviews of the matches (‘Boys, India won!’ – Yayyyyyy! ‘Boys, India lost’ – Noooooo! )
When Sachin Tendulkar was haunting Shane Warne’s nightmares at Sharjah, I was sleeping in a Sai Baba temple, the cheers and noises from nearby homes the only indicators of India’s progress in the match. When Laxman and Dravid got together to string the most magical Indian fairytale, I was battling a teenager’s curiosity of the world. When Yuvraj and Kaif waged a battle against our colonial masters, I was locked up in a room, craning my ears for cheers from neighbours.
I have always wanted to follow a Test tournament by the ball.
As a famous Brazilian author says, ‘When you want something with all your heart, but you lead a distinctly middle class life, the universe conspires to screw it up for you’. When a young brazen English team was making Aussies sweat in the 2005 Ashes series, I was fighting off the rigours of a call centre job. Every Test series has been jeopardised by a number of internal and external factors – examinations, semesters, jobs, or mangled affairs of the heart.
But not anymore.
A few weeks before the India Australia tournament kicked off, I washed my hands off worldly callings. I did away with my freelance and content writing work, took a break from the humdrum and revelled in some Laxmi Shiva Durga. I had nothing on my plate. In fact, I didn’t even have a plate.
When Steven Smith flipped the coin against Virat Kohli on February 23rd, I was prepared. The stars had been hesitant to start with, but I had successfully manipulated them into conspiring in my favour.
If you do not follow cricket, it is difficult to encapsulate what makes Test cricket special. On the surface, Test cricket has nothing going for it.
No other sport is played over 5 days, only to end as a draw. In the age of VR and FX and zip-zap-zoom, taller-faster-stronger – Test cricket is an archaic colonial indulgence that 10 of the world’s countries indulge in. On the surface, Test cricket is a coterie of cartels. But that’s the surface.
Scratch deeper, and Test cricket is the only form of sport where the name conveys the true meaning of the word. Test cricket is a test of human will and perseverance. Unlike other sports, where skill, talent and form can help you bulldoze through an opposition, Test cricket demands the strictest of regimes. It requires excelling across 5 days under the sun. It entails adapting to nature – soil, grass, outfield, pitch, weather – over five days.
While other sports are battles, Test cricket is war. You might lose two sessions, but you have to shake yourself off and fight again. You are required to regroup, refocus, reassess, reassure. Test cricket is cricket at its toughest, its most unforgiving form.
But ride the wave, and it is cricket at its most sublime, most nuanced.
If one begins to believe in stars and their alignment, there’s no end to the extents even a rational man would go.
Surely it could be no coincidence that for this particular series, the Indian team would be at its strongest and the Aussies at its weakest? That their front line bowler should get injured after two tests? That our middle order should fire when the captain gets injured? That we bounce back after losing the first match? That the tournament would be undecided till the penultimate day of the final Test?
The team that was dismissed to lost 4-0 (‘Australia will lose 3-1 if they play very well’ – Harbhajan Singh. Roadies Judge) fought valiantly. At times, it was brutal. At times it was curiosity to understand the etymology of our swear words. But playing the Aussies has never been easy, given their long line of impressive leaders – Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke.
It wasn’t easy to like Ponting or Steve Waugh. They both came across as insiders, groomed under the brash Australian system that gave them their thick skins. When Waugh encouraged his bowlers to hound batsmen, or Ponting walked up to the opposition to pick banters, they epitomised Australian aggression.
For some reason, Steven Smith doesn’t seem like a mean guy. Unlike Ponting and Waugh, his face doesn’t betray a sharp, incisive man. Steven Smith seems like a captain burdened by the history of being the Aussie captain. Australian captains were always expected to lead. To take the attack to the opponents’ chin. Unlike Ponting and Waugh, Smith has none of the natural grace or technique. He resembles a crab grappling to survive on the pitch. The nervous shakes of the hand, the shifting outside off stump.
And yet, he stood strong, the best batsman on the tour. Captaining a ship of greenhorns in baggy greens.
Perhaps that is what endears him to Indians, makes him stand out from his Aussie brethren. That he apologised after the tournament proves that he not only possesses better technique than Virat Kohli, but also a larger heart.
This tournament helped me understand the eternal puzzle in my head – the Aussie fan. I had imagined them all to be beer-guzzling hooligans who sledged and heckled. As I followed ball by ball coverage on r/cricket, the difference struck me.
Perhaps it is a cultural difference. The way we approach and consume cricket is different from the Aussie style. As fans from both sides sledged, heckled and hurled insults across each other, I was able to see beyond the surface. Beneath the shell of ‘Behnchods’ and ‘Cunts’, lay a mutual respect for each other.
Perhaps Indians tend to get overtly aggressive because of our colonial history. Or perhaps the biting truth that we are absolutely miserable in Australia. That we know deep within that we won’t be able to even draw the series when we go down under.
As the home season comes to an end, it is time for IPL. The glitz of the tournament blurs international boundaries, and loyalties melt and metamorphose into personal loyalties.
While my bread and butter, my chai and sutta is located with Sunrisers Hyderabad, I shall keep an eye out on Rising Pune Supergiants too.
The one Test tournament that I followed ball-by-ball, is being called one of the greatest tournaments between the two sides. It was a glorious summer of cricket.
A summer of leather and wood. Of sessions that swung this way and that. A summer when the two greatest exponents of the sublime art of batting led their sides.
One came off victorious at the end of an arduous war. The other won a billion hearts.
Thank you, Steven Smith.
Featured Image courtesy: Sky Sports.