March, and the meaning of life

 

march

Many moons ago, I was born in the month of March.

Many moons later, I met my wife, who too was born in the month of March.

In a March somewhere in between, I was held hostage in an exam hall, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted through oppressive Kolkata heat, a stellar bowling line-up that featured the likes of Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, to script a Houdini act and give India its best test victory ever.

Somewhere along the way, I grew up, fell out of faith with God and religion and put a ridiculous amount of hope in cricket and sport, looking to find meaning that had somehow eluded me.

I would like to think that Kolkata 2001 was when I realised that cricket could fill some of that void. Cricket had the answers that academics, god and religion didn’t.

But there is one god that I pray to – the rain god. For one, I can see, touch and feel the rain. If there is a more wondrous natural coolant ever invented, I would like to know what it is. It threatened to rain on Sunday. Then it finally rained on Monday. It threatened to rain on Tuesday. But it didn’t just stop at a drizzle. It poured. The decibel levels of the thunder were higher than those of a Metallica concert.

Maybe even the clouds were relieved and cried tears of joy, so much so that I had to stop and take shelter on the way home.

On Sunday, the real threat was Australia threatening to rain down on India’s parade. It was the home side that was looking for shelter from the Australian assault. The day loomed over us like some sort of an apocalypse. It could have been the day when the unfathomable became a thing of reality. Australia are supposed to be the visiting side. They are supposed to get crushed 4-0, the Indian spinners running through their line-up, making them look like school boys. Our batting line-up is supposed to crush their very souls. Virat Kohli is supposed to continue his magnificent form and score another double century with his eyes closed.

In Pune, India were out-spun and out-batted in their own backyard on a made-to-measure turning track. In a reversal of roles, India got a taste of their own medicine and it left a very bitter taste in the mouth. It was like America helping form the Al-Qaeda only to have it come back to bite them. Remember 2001, when the first match ended in three days in Mumbai? The only difference between then and now is that Australia were expected to rail-road India. Back then, they marched to India on a record 16 match winning streak in a bid to conquer the final frontier. In 2017, India was expected to trample upon Australia mercilessly the way they trampled over England and New Zealand.

189 all out on day 1 of the Bangalore test. 84 more runs than they could manage in the first test at Pune. Australia were smelling blood and pinching themselves. A series win in India against a rampaging Indian side?

There are few sounds on a cricket ground that are near mellifluous.

The sound a straight drive makes. It is just ‘thock’, nothing more. It’s the sound of near perfection.

The sound of the ball hitting the stumps when a player from the opposition is bowled.

The sound of the crowd exploding in unison when victory has been sprung upon them.

David Warner found his off-stump in a disheveled condition when Ashwin bowled one that turned in and Warner tried to chase it and missed it. Such a beautiful sound. The first session of the match was test cricket at its best with India finally showing ‘intent’. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav bowled with precision and aggression, not giving the Aussies any easy runs.

Yet, 189 isn’t a score to play with. All these years, the scourge of India is finding pace bowlers who could come and complement the heroics of the batsmen. Javagal Srinath tried and nearly lost his shoulders. Zaheer Khan’s fitness was always suspect and it was spin that was deemed to be the answer to all our questions.

Anil Kumble, then Harbhajan Singh and now, R Ashwin.

But if spin is the answer, Pune was the unanswered question.

While the rest of the world was sitting back in their chairs on Sunday and God himself was supposedly resting, 13 players were battling it out at the M Chinnaswamy stadium. Cubbon Park, one of Bangalore’s largest parks is just a stone’s throw away from the stadium and home to many rare species of birds, but the loudest chirps were heard from players on the cricket field.

Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp. Wicket! Ravindra Jadeja, the man with probably the most memes to his name, came to the party. Ashwin, in a very ungainly manner, held onto a catch offered by Hanscomb. Jadeja then found himself in the middle of a hat-trick, accounting for Wade and Lyon in the same over.

As Sunday wore down and everyone was already in a funk about getting back to their wage slave selves, Australia had a 48 run lead. In life, as in sport, it is always tough to arrest a losing streak. In the two disastrous tours of England and Australia in 2011-12 when India were handed consecutive 0-4 series defeats, it felt as if the slide began in the mind. The moment they lost two test matches in a row, the remainder of the series just felt like a Monday to Friday going through the motions kind of work week. If India didn’t come back in Bangalore, there would be no real motivation to dig deep into their reserves and script a comeback.

Day 3. Monday. The day we all seemingly wake up with a hangover even if we have not drunk the night before. What will become of our lives without live commentary? What other reason to wake up on a Monday other than a test match in whose hands lie the destiny of a series? Only live sport can add meaning to a Monday. Or a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell Starc, expected to sting with his lethal pace had also added the sting to the tail at Pune. A lead of over a 100 would mean game and series Australia. The unraveling of all the good work that Australia had put in began on Monday morning. 4 wickets fell for a mere 36 runs and the lead came to a halt at 87. On twitter, Harsha Bhogle tweeted that India needed at least a 300 run lead to ensure victory.

Abhinav Mukund and KL Rahul began sedately but Mukund’s tepid run of form continued. Rahul, whose near century in the first innings was the only spice in an otherwise bland score card again came to the rescue.

For the longest time, the BCCI used all of its might to fight the DRS saying that it wasn’t reliable. After old guard moved on and the board itself went topsy turvy, the DRS found a tiny opening and made itself comfortable. Before this series, Virat Kohli was walking on water. In Pune, he was slipping on ice. In the first innings in Bangalore, he was adjudged LBW to a Nathan Lyon delivery for 12 and asked for a review. But the result was obvious. He was desperate to score runs and Australia were even more desperate for his wicket. In the second innings, he was again adjudged lbw to Hazelwood and was supremely confident that he had nicked the ball. The third umpire, it seemed, thought he was controlling the button to a nuclear bomb instead of a decision in a test match. Again, Kohli lost to DRS. 300 lead someone was saying?

If Warner was Ashwin’s bunny, Pujara looked like he was trying to learn a new language called learning to play spin. He edged one to Smith and was dropped. He was on 4. KL Rahul faced 16 consecutive deliveries in order to give Pujara a breather and get his confidence back. After Kohli’s dismissal, Ravindra Jadeja of all people was sent in, for no discernible reason. Remember when Javagal Srinath or Irfan Pathan would be sent in as night watchmen as a bid to protect the batsmen and delay an inevitable breach? Sending in a nightwatchman or its equivalent is like not picking the phone when the moneylender calls. They will eventually find you and make you pay. He lasted a grand total of 15 deliveries before being castled by Hazelwood.

Ajinkya Rahane and Chateshwar Pujara didn’t do a Dravid and Laxman but they came within the same vicinity.

Day 4. On a day when India were expected to solidify their position, their wheels came undone like some defective toy. If Australia’s good work had been undone on the morning of Day 4, India came undone on 4th morning. Karun Nair, triple centurion and local boy saw his leg stump beheaded and doing cartwheels. Rahane, Nair, Pujara, Ashwin, Sharma and Yadav were all out in a space of 36 runs.

188 runs separated Australia and the Border Gavaskar trophy. The pitch wasn’t a minefield and when the Aussies began batting, it didn’t look a saunter to victory nor did it seem like they had a great wall that needed to be scaled.

188. 112 runs less than the desired 300. Almost two days to get there.

At what point did victory seem possible?

When David Warner’s wicket was again pocketed by Ashwin?

When Steven Smith was adjudged LBW, allegedly had a ‘brain fade’ and looked to the dressing room for an opinion before the umpires and a few Indian players pounced on him like vultures on their prey and he left before it could get uglier?

When Virat Kohli, like he always does, played symphony conductor to the crowd and orchestrated their cheers to drill nails into the Australian chase?

When R Ashwin realised that he was the No.1 spin bowler in the world and bowled like one?

When Wriddhiman Saha flew and took a blinder to send Matthew Wade back?

In the end, Nathan Lyon, who had bowled magnificently in the first innings gave an easy return catch to Ashwin and the comeback from 0-1 was complete.

Parallels were drawn to Kolkata 2001 and while it was a riveting match, there really can’t be a comparison. Back in 2001, no one expected India to win in Kolkata, Mumbai or in Chennai. In 2017, Pune was an electric shock and until day 4 in Bangalore, the match could have gone either way. It would take something very very special to come close to what a Very Very Special Laxman and Rahul Dravid accomplished.

Somethings do happen only once in a lifetime.

And some things come close to the original. The 75 run victory by India at Bangalore came close.

I could see Kolkata 2001 only in patches. I was writing the dreaded board exams, trying to make sense of life. The school canteen had a 14 inch tv, the only source of information. While Dravid and Laxman were playing their magnum opus, I was in the confines of an exam hall, the rustle of the fan and the papers my only companion. Highlights and articles can’t make up for the real thing.

Like that match and series sowed the seeds of the golden generation that would travel the world and bring glory by playing some of the finest cricket in the most dignified manner, I began to see cricket as a metaphor for life too.

Ecstasy, agony, relief, defiance, fortitude, artistry, hope, things that make a life, bind it and give it meaning. That’s what cricket is, too.

And in more ways than one for me, it all began in March.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great healing at Perth that followed the great divide at Sydney

waca

South Africa’s win over Australia at the WACA, once the bastion of the Australians, brings back memories of a factitious Australian summer where India bounced back at the same ground after nearly threatening to walk out of the series. The well-fought match was a much needed panacea after the tempestuous Sydney encounter that divided the cricket world with accusations of racism and poor umpiring. 

The WACA at Perth is closing down. Major matches will soon be shifted to the newly minted Perth stadium in a couple of years. In this scintillating piece by Gideon Haigh, one of the best writers the game has seen, writes about how the loss will form a hole in the soul of Australian cricket, one that cannot be easily filled.

South Africa’s fight back and victory at the WACA came on the back of a Dale Steyn injury and being reduced to 32/4 in the first innings. A run out effected by Temba Bavuma to send David Warner back was the stand-out moment of the match

WACA at Perth.The name conjures up many images but two of them are enduring; a 19 year old Sachin Tendulkar scored one of his finest centuries at the ground as the rest of the side fell like nine pins around him (this was the 90s, just to be sure). Many rate it as one of his best test innings ever.

Then came a match that many Indian fans still hold dear to their hearts, in part for the result and in part for the negativity that it helped negate.

No one likes a good scrap like the Australians but what had transpired before the Perth test wasn’t a scrap, it was an ugly brawl. Most of didn’t even take place on the ground but in a hearing conducted by Mike Procter.

If the Perth test is one that we all like to remember and reminiscence about, the Sydney test that preceded it is one we all like to forget and confine to the depths of our selective amnesia. You don’t hold close to your heart victories that were ceded without a fight. Whitewashes and innings defeats are celebrated but not revered and recalled with the same fervor nor do they evoke teary-eyed nostalgia as the the years go by.  A test-match is made of numerous parts that are woven together and when you look at the tapestry, it isn’t always easy to say which part clinched victory. Was it the innings of a lifetime, or the spell of a lifetime, or the run out of a lifetime? Or was it a pot-pourri of all of the above?

To recall the Sydney match, the favourite hunting ground of many a cricketer (Brian Lara named his daughter Sydney after the ground), will be to unearth wounds that are better kept under wraps. It means recalling the Indian side losing 3 wickets in two overs and Anil Kumble casting a forlorn figure after he had batted valiantly for 2 hours to help draw the match, only to see his side capitulate as the end came near. It would mean recalling the amateurish umpiring that hung over the match like a heavy cloud. It would mean recalling Michael Clarke claim a catch that Ricky Ponting vouched was a clean take, though the replays were far from conclusive. It would mean recalling Rahul Dravid’s dismissal and him walking away with a smile that had ‘did this just happen’ written all over it. In the post match conference, Anil Kumble said “only one team played in the spirit of the game” and received unanimous applause from the press corp present there. Ricky Ponting got into a tiff with a reporter who questioned his integrity.

Remembering Sydney would also mean revisiting one of the darkest chapters of India-Australia cricket that threatened to tear apart the very seams that bound the laws and decencies of the game. The rancor from the match was made to look like child’s play with what followed. Andrew Symmonds accused Harbhajan Singh of a racial slur. Players, umpires and captains from both sides were called for a hearing and Sachin Tendulkar, honorary saint to a billion, was accused of changing his testimony in order to defend what many thought was a guilty Harbhajan Singh. Mike Procter sided with the Australian version of events, even though neither umpire heard anything and handed Harbhajan Singh a 3 match ban. The BCCI chose the opportune moment to show its clout and threatened to pull out of the series, going so far as to have a plane on stand by at the tarmac to ferry the team back home if Harbhajan’s ban wasn’t revoked and Steve Bucknor not removed. In the end, power talked and cricket listened. Steve Bucknor was removed from officiating and Harbhajan Singh played the next match. His ban would later be revoked. The ugly turn of events was cloistered into the phrase  ‘Monkeygate’.

Then the team went to Perth.

Some things aren’t meant to happen, but they do. Some surprises are good, some not so good. Donald Trump winning the presidency is a not so good surprise. India winning at Perth, one of the fastest pitches in the world, on the backdrop of mistrust and anger and a tour that almost went off the rails, is good.

Virender Sehwag had been off-colour and out-of-favour with the selectors  but Anil Kumble pushed hard for his inclusion in the squad for the series. He played his first match of the series at Perth. India scored a gritty 330 on the backs of some good sensible cricket from Rahul Dravid (93) and Sachin Tendulkar (71). Australia’s reply saw them fall short by 112 runs, giving a decent lead to work with.

In their second innings, they looked like they would squander a good chance when they lost 5 quick wickets. An old nemesis, VVS Laxman, returned to resist them again and was helped by MS Dhoni and RP Singh. Australia were set 413 to win.

The passage of play that is most fondly remembered and reminisced about is the magical spell that Ishant Sharma bowled on the 4th day. He had Ricky Ponting prodding, jumping, swinging and missing. It was a tantalizing exhibition of bowling by a 19 year old yet finding his feet in international cricket. For over an hour, a man who ranks in the same league as Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar was made to look like a rookie who was facing a seasoned campaigner when it was the other way round. After his first spell, Kumble called RP Singh to take over when Virender Sehwag ran up to the middle and persuaded Kumble to persist with Ishant Sharma for a little while longer. He turned to Ishant to ask him if he was up for a couple more overs. There was no hint of hesitancy from Ishant. He accounted for Ponting in the first delivery of that over when he reached out and was edged a delivery to Rahul Dravid at slips.

The chase for an improbable victory watered down into a chase for a draw. Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist threw caution to the wind in a bid to raise the spirits of the Australian fans and they nearly succeeded before Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan returned to settle raw nerves with their cameos. Sehwag repaid his debt partially to Anil Kumble by taking two wickets, one of them being that of Adam Gilchrist. The Aussies, not known to give up, went for the last yard dash with much gung-ho and Clarke and Mitchell Johnson held on to their forts before the inevitable final breach.

The sight of RP Singh castling Shaun Tait is one of the most memorable images of Indian cricket. After the match, there were no harsh words or heated press conferences. It had two sides shaking hands and respecting each other for a well-fought match. Both sides went back to what they did best, play good, hard cricket instead of wasting all their energies on casting aspersions and accusations at one another.

Till date, India hasn’t won another test match on Australian soil.

The 2011-2012 series was a forgettable whitewash that saw Laxman and Dravid playing in whites for the final time.

The 2014-2015 series was played on the back drop of the tragic death of Phil Hughes and saw some fighting cricket, but still stopped short of offering a victory for India.

The difference between sport and life is that sometimes, sport offers you a chance at redemption and healing quickly. It can be the next ball, the next quarter, the next half, the next match, the next series or the next moment.

In these fractious times, that’s something to look forward to.

The Easter another God arose

kohli

 

 

It was Easter, the day Catholics the world over celebrated their messiah who came back to life after being crucified on the cross.

March 27th was Easter Sunday and Virat Kohli, who has been crucified for his brashness, cockiness, his actress ex-girlfriend among many other things, rose again. It wasn’t the first time that he had risen to the occasion, nor the first time he had taken his team across the finish line with a calm head. It’s funny how Indian cricket’s angry young man is counted upon to steer the team to victory with a calm head. The innings he played on Sunday for some reason elicited more than the usual responses. From Brian Lara, Kumar Sangakkara and Sachin Tendulkar, three of the finest proponents of the modern game, praise was effusive and unrestrained.

How did Virat Kohli go from being a talented brash young kid who spat and cussed like a sailor and seemed to count on rage as his only fuel to being anointed the next messiah of Indian cricket?

A few days ago, after he again took India to a victory against Pakistan, he bowed down to one of his heroes and the country’s most celebrated icons in the stands, Sachin Tendulkar. It was Tendulkar about whom he said “he has carried a nation on his shoulders, now it’s time we carry him on ours” after the team won the 2011 World Cup after 28 years. Now, he is finally being deemed worthy of being his successor.

Kohli’s Easter Sunday knock reminded me of two hot summer days in April 18 years ago when a young Sachin Tendulkar, already an icon, added another chapter to his already growing legend. Over two incredible nights, a curly haired Tendulkar sent the Australian attack on a leather hunt that is recounted even to this day. It was one man against the mighty Aussies whose bowling line-up included the likes of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Michael Kasprowicz and Tom Moody. Those two innings were dubbed Desert Storm as they were played in Sharjah and one of the matches was even interrupted by a dust storm.

Nearly 18 years later, it was more or less the same thing. Hot summer night. A full house. And one man who stood between Australia and a place in the semi-finals.

The wicket in Mohali wasn’t a belter and the ground isn’t the smallest. Bumrah’s first over yielded four boundaries. Poof. One of Dhoni’s most bankable bowlers was already nursing his wounds. Ashwin’s first over yielded 22 runs, two sixes and wide that resulted in a boundary. The Aussies had thundered their way to 53/0 in four overs.

Australia looked like they were poised to breach the 200 mark. Ashish Nehra accounted for Khawaja, only to bring in the destructive David Warner. After a horrendous first over, Ashwin bowled a delivery that turned away and Warner totally missed as he came down the track. Some semblance of sanity was restored to the innings. Australia’s gallop was reduced to a jog.

Yuvraj Singh is never far from the news. If he doesn’t make it, someone else will make it for him. His father, Yograj Singh, known to draw attention to himself by making outlandish statements had warned MS Dhoni about not giving his son enough opportunities with the ball and shuffling him down the order. Maybe MS Dhoni heard him, maybe he didn’t. Whatever maybe the case, Yuvraj Singh got his first over in the World Cup. In the very first ball of the over, he bowled one that bounced a bit and had Steven Smith try to play at it. Dhoni caught it and was up in a flash. Steven Smith was ruled out. In a living room somewhere, Yuvraj Singh’s father was having the last laugh.

Aaron Finch had settled down and looked to play a big one when he mistimed a shot and Shikhar Dhawan at midwicket made no mistake. 200 looked more unlikely by the minute.

The destructive Glen Maxwell went for some 20 balls without a boundary. That was until he smashed Jadeja for a boundary and a six off consecutive deliveries in the 16th over. In the very next over, he misread a slower delivery by Bumrah and saw his bails clipped. It was left to Shane Watson and James Faulkner to give Australia a total worthy of defending. The penultimate over by Bumrah gave 9 runs, courtesy a boundary from the first ball. The Aussies were 145 in the 19th over. A good last over would have made the total seem gettable.

Hardik Pandya accounted for Faulkner with the first ball of the over. That was the only high point in that over. Watson got a thick edge and the ball flew past Dhoni for four. He ran a single off the next delivery to bring Neville on strike. He struck the first delivery he faced for four over short fine leg. The over had already yielded nine runs for the Aussies. The final delivery of the innings was pulverized for a six. The over had produced 15 runs and the Australian innings came to a halt at 160.

India’s openers have flattered to deceive the entire tournament and chasing 161 in a quarter-final meant someone had to play an innings less ordinary if India were to have any chance of overhauling the total. Much to the chagrin of the crowd, the openers flattered to deceive yet again. Shikhar Dhawan struck a boundary in the second ball off the innings. The first over yielded seven runs. Rohit Sharma took a few deliveries to get off the mark. In the third over, Dhawan smashed a six over deep square leg and got the crowd back on its feet. He would perish in the next over attempting to hook a short pitched delivery and finding Khawaja at short fine leg. Virat Kohli came to join Rohit Sharma at the crease.

Kohli began his innings by striking two boundaries off Josh Hazlewood. In current form, Virat Kohli looks like he is batting in a realm of his own, just like Tendulkar did in the 90s. Increasingly, the chances of victory revolve around how well he plays, just like with Tendulkar in the 90s. In the limited over formats, no other player can stake a claim to Kohli’s level of consistency. MS Dhoni’s days as a finisher par excellence are dwindling while Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina don’t have consistency as their middle name. Kohli is the glue that holds the openers and the middle order together and more often than not, the glue that holds the innings together itself.

In the sixth over, Rohit Sharma came down the track, mistimed his shot and missed the ball completely. Shane Watson let out a war cry. The openers tryst with consistency was yet to come to pass.

Suresh Raina’s short stay at the crease yielded a boundary but little else in terms of contribution. Watson bowled a short one, the delivery Raina is yet to master and it got his glove on the way to the keeper. India were three down for 45 and staring down the barrel.

In came Yuvraj Singh, playing in front of his home crowd. In what is most likely his final T20 World Cup, the undisputed star of India’s first ever T20 World Cup triumph is now some distance away from his former self. In fleeting moments, he travels back in time and pulls out vintage shots and his fielding quality hasn’t dipped a bit. This is a Yuvraj Singh looking to taste glory one last time before the last rays of sunlight fade away into dusk.

Yuvraj edged a delivery that went for a boundary. He then set off for a single in the next ball and began hobbling. On a day when India needed every ounce of ammunition they could muster, their T20 warhorse was limping from one end to the other. The passage of play was surreal. At one end was Kohli who is sculpting his body, mind and soul to scale new heights and at the other end was Yuvraj who was wincing in pain after every move. Two’s became singles and Kohli, not known to hide his emotions, didn’t let his frustration at the situation get to him.

At the end of 11 overs, India still required 93 off 54 with one man on the field wounded. Kohli upped the ante with a massive six off Maxwell. India would need many more such missiles from Kohli. Yuvraj Singh struck a clean six off Zampa and it looked like the only scoring option for him as the running in between the wickets was drying up. It isn’t often that you wish for someone on your side to get out. But sadly, that was what many people were feeling when Yuvraj Singh was on strike. In another lifetime, Yuvraj Singh could plunder attacks at will with a class only a few could match. That seems like light years ago. Yuvraj Singh’s painful stay at the crease came to an end when he was caught off a superb effort by Shane Watson. It looked to be Shane Watson’s night. MS Dhoni walked into a situation he had been in many times. Kohli finally found a pair of able legs that could keep up with him.

The ensuing passage of play wasn’t  just a test of ability, it was a test of fitness levels. On Easter Sunday, Dhoni and Kohli ran like hares (pun intended). In current form, Kohli is in the same league as Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers. But Gayle and de Villiers brutalize attacks and pummel the bowling. During the IPL, the home crowd for the Royal Challengers Bangalore cheer for Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers more than they do for Kohli. Like a surgeon who dissects his patient meticulously, Kohli is meticulous in his dissection of bowlers. Dhoni was content to watch from the other end as his successor took the Aussie attack to the sword.

After the 16th over, India required 39 off 18 deliveries. In that single over, Kohli struck two boundaries, one of them a beautiful square drive and a six over long-off. The over yielded 19 runs. 20 required off 12.

As Jasprit Bumrah showed in the match against Bangladesh, penultimate overs are the ones that stand between victory and defeat. Anything can happen in the final over. There are too many nerves and the margin for error is minimal. The penultimate over offers the chance to pull back a situation from the brink. In the second ball of the over, Kohli opened the face of his bat to strike a boundary through point. The shot was almost zen like, almost as if he was one with his bat. Kohli struck three more boundaries in that over, each shot stamping his authority even more and hammering another nail in the coffin of the Aussies.

James Faulkner was given the duty to complete the formalities and Dhoni struck a boundary over long on. It first looked like a six, an eerie replay of how he finished off the World Cup final in 2011.

In 1998, a 25 year old Tendulkar laid siege to the hearts of Indians when he single-handedly took on the Australians. Steve Waugh would go on to say that they lost to one man, not to India. Steven Smith said more or less the same thing on Kohli’s herculean effort. Statistically, Virat Kohli is catching up with Sachin Tendulkar. While Tendulkar danced to a tune of his own, Kohli is standing on the shoulders of giants and looks to outdo them.

For an entire generation that grew up with Tendulkar and equated meaning in their lives to his exploits on the field and mourned when he bid adieu to the game, never thought that his equal existed. Now they are being forced to reconsider.

18 years back, I was a 13 year old jumping in the living room watching Tendulkar decimate the Australians in his version of Desert Storm. On Easter Sunday, I sat rooted to my seat, scarcely able to believe what was unfolding in front of me. The excitement was the same that I felt all those years ago. Whether Kohli will scale the heights that Tendulkar scaled in his storied career and will he be as revered and put up on a pedestal like some God is yet to be seen. They are poles apart in terms of personalities; one was a child prodigy an entire generation grew up with and someone middle class India could identify with; no tattoos, no cussing, no attitude, no dalliances with actresses.  The other is the face of an India that isn’t afraid to quit their jobs and stick it up to their bosses.

When Sachin Tendulkar retired, it was thought the likes of him would never grace cricket again. And whether you believe in the resurrection or not, if you watched Virat Kohli single handedly going up against the Australians and emerging the victor, it was like the resurrection of another innings played by another God.

It looks like the land of a million Gods has found place for another one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Good Will Hunting and Osho’s epitaph

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. He may not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

dhoni

Never born. Never died. Only visited this Planet Earth between December 11, 1931 and January 19, 1990.  – Inscribed on the epitaph of controversial mystic, Osho Rajneesh

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays Will Hunt, a mathematical genius who is forced to confront his demons that are keeping him from fulfilling his potential. A telling scene in the movie shows his best friend Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck) imploring Will to do justice to his incredible gifts and tells him that he is waiting for a day when he finds that Will has left town without leaving as much as a note or offering an explanation. And that moment comes to bear when one day he rings the bell at Will’s house to pick him up for work and he doesn’t answer the door. He has, as Chuckie hoped he would, simply taken off without a note or an explanation, presumably towards a future befitting his intelligence and capabilities. That’s how Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose to let the world know of his intention of not being a test player anymore – without a note or an explanation.

There was no guard of honour, no farewell press conference, no emotional send-off from the game’s most revered format. He just simply walked away like Will did in Good Will Hunting. And in Dhoni’s case, the end was like the beginning – unexpected. Indian captains don’t always resign in a straightforward manner. Two of Dhoni’s predecessors, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, resigned without any prior notice. Rahul Dravid’s captaincy suffered a jolt after the first round exit at the 2007 World Cup. A few months after the debacle, he led India to an overseas test series victory over England after 21 years. Just when it looked like he was regaining his equilibrium after the forgettable World Cup, he returned from England and abruptly quit captaincy. It was only after his retirement that he let his guard down and revealed how captaincy had sucked out the joy from his game. Anil Kumble, who was in the autumn of a magnificent career, was given the task of leading the side and nurturing Dhoni for the ravages of test captaincy. A year into his role, father time caught up with his aging body and fighting spirit and in the series against Australia (which was also Sourav Ganguly’s final series) he called time on his career at his favourite ground, the Feroz Shah Kotla. The news of his retirement was conveyed through the mega screen on the ground and the crowds rushed in to catch a glimpse of his final moments as an Indian cricketer. There was a sense of poignancy too – the Feroz Shah Kotla was where he cemented his place in the history books by taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan. Dhoni took over officially as captain in the next test which was played at Nagpur, a match which India went onto win and seal a series victory.

In Test cricket, Dhoni inherited everything a captain could wish for. The side was on the ascent and he had one of the greatest middle orders of all time in the triumvirate of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Virender Sehwag was still his pomp, Harbhajan Singh hadn’t lost his sting and Zaheer Khan hadn’t yet run of steam. India’s climb to the top began with Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy and when the No. 1 ranking in Tests was finally accomplished in 2009 , MS Dhoni was at the helm. Sure, the credit wasn’t entirely his as the work had begun in right earnest even before he made his debut but for a while, he seemed like an alchemist who turned whatever he touched to gold. And then all the gold turned to lead weight.

Maybe the beginning of the end was England 2011. Precisely, July 21, 2011, when Zaheer Khan pulled over in his 14th over and was excused from the remainder of the series. In hindsight, it seemed as though the series had been lost at that pivotal moment. And the fall was swift and cruel. A bowling attack that lacked application coupled with an aging batting line-up saw India losing the series 0-4  and relinquishing their No.1 ranking. The Australian series a few months later was to be a memorable swansong for the star studded batting line-up, the last chance to stake claim to a frontier that hadn’t been conquered. Instead it resembled a tour ripped out from the pages of an Indian fan’s worst nightmare and ended in a 0-4 annihilation, heralding the end of a glorious era. There were to be no excuses this time around, no list of injuries and illnesses that had plagued the side during the ill-fated tour to England. IPL fatigue, everyone’s favourite punching bag, couldn’t be summoned to the boxing ring. Dravid and Laxman retired soon after, leaving Dhoni with the unenviable task of rebuilding a side.

The home series loss to England in 2012 came as a setback on the road to redemption. On turning tracks that were expected to aid the spinners, it was Monty Panesar who seized the day and led England to a 2-1 series victory. When Australia visited, India avenged the 0-4 humiliation by paying them back in the same coin. The series saw Dhoni score a career best 224 and the innings was a throwback to a time when he played without a care in the world. By now, he was no longer a carefree player with the flowing mane, the grey hairs a testimony  to his ever growing burdens. Bereft of a bowling line-up that could take 20 wickets and bowl to set fields, he seemed at sea in the Test format. Gautam Gambhir’s and Virender Sehwag’s fluctuating fortunes at the top of the order after an impressive run didn’t help. It was said that he was voted out by the selectors but kept his job because of his proximity to the most powerful man in world cricket, N Srinivasan. He was accused of being defensive, an ODI wonder, but a test cropper. There were calls for his axing as the test captain – the small town boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Through it all, he didn’t say much.

2014 was a challenging one, but gratifying in some aspects. The tours of South Africa and New Zealand saw the team put up impressive performances, but victories were still elusive. The highly anticipated England tour saw a spectacular effort at Lord’s where he instructed a reluctant Ishant Sharma to bang the ball in short. The ploy paid off and a stunning victory ensued. But the euphoria was short-lived and it all careened off course from there. The side crashed to 3 successive defeats, each worse than the one before, bringing back memories of the 0-8 whitewash where a fight was conspicuous by its absence. If successive defeats in away tours were taking a toll, he didn’t reveal it. And when Virat Kohli’s in-your-face captaincy earned plaudits in the Adelaide test, maybe he thought the time was right to make way. No, walk away.

The thing about Dhoni is that he isn’t a prisoner of statistics. Playing 100 test matches was surely not something on his to-do list. Yes, he is India’s most successful test captain but history won’t remember him as a great test player. For in his own strange manner, Dhoni redefined cricketing greatness.

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. Dhoni always seems to come into his own when playing a limited overs game for in the shorter formats, he doesn’t have to worry about a bowling attack that sprays the ball all over the place because he backs himself and his team to chase the target. It is a format where the ability to take 10 wickets isn’t an essential ingredient to victory. And if it all boils down to him taking the team home, he relishes the challenge even more. He may  not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

In another life, MS Dhoni was a ticket collector from Ranchi. His journey from a small town in heartland India to leading the Indian side is a story in its own right. He inherited a position he never aspired for and went about it with a quiet dignity. When his name was dragged into the muck of the IPL scandal, he must have simply wanted to get on one of his numerous super bikes and ride away from it all. His story isn’t over. He is still a vital cog in the limited overs format and will lead India in their defence of the World Cup title. After that it is anyone’s guess.

I am not a fan or follower of godmen or spiritual gurus. But in this regard, the epitaph of Osho Rajneesh attempts to portray him as a mystical figure whose passage on earth was just a pit stop in his seemingly eternal journey. Dhoni’s cricketing journey is quite similar. Many writers have pointed out how he seems unfazed by the circus of fame and adulation and how it isn’t tough to imagine him leading a contented life outside the environs of the pressure cooker of international cricket. Maybe he’ll join the army. Or just ride his bikes. When his time finally comes to walk away, maybe he’ll just fall off the face of the cricketing world, just another visitor to the game of cricket.

And one hell of a visit it has been.