Once Brothers

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‘How can I ever bring myself to fight against Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of reverence? How can I, Krishna? Surely it would be better to spend my life begging than to kill these great and worthy souls!’

Arjuna to Lord Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita

In the epic the Mahabharata, Arjuna is forced to go to war against his own family and gets wise counsel from Lord Krishna to do his duty. It is sad that Indian cricket seems to be embroiled in a Mahabharata of its own. There is dissent in the board about how they are now being forced to take a smaller share of the cricket pie. There is dissent against the ICC and Shashank Manohar, who is accused of not standing up for Indian cricket. A few weeks back, there were talks of India not participating in the Champions Trophy as sign of proetest against the ICC. Those fears were quickly assuaged as it would have looked immature and silly if cricket’s biggest money spinner didn’t participate in ICC’s second biggest event after the 50 over and T20 World Cups.

And then, a week or so ago, a new and unexpected firestorm has been raging and if all the half baked information and reports could form liquid rock, a volcano is bound to erupt. After the victorious Australia series, Indian cricket went from its longest home test season to the razzmatazz of the IPL. There were no murmurs of dissent, an unhappy dressing room, or a rift between the coach and the team.

Indian cricket is seemingly at war with Indian cricket.

The first wave hit when the BCCI announced that it is inviting applications for a coach.

Wait, don’t we already have a coach who has had a very successful first year even though it was a home season?

Wasn’t an extension a given?

Why advertise the search for a coach a week before the team is playing the Champion’s Trophy?

What the hell exactly happened?

There is at least one positive – if a point of no-return has been reached between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble, at least the wheels didn’t fall off when the team was in the middle of a high profile series and didn’t lead to a series defeat. Barring an unexpected result and tawdry performance in Pune against Australia and couple of minor scares against England, the Indian team has had a dream run. It appeared to be the perfect setting to take things to the next level with a season of high profile international series in the offing. Though a series win against Sri Lanka in 2016 came after a long drought, the new look Indian team are yet to win convincingly in Australia or England. A victory at Lord’s in 2014 was followed by a meltdown of epic proportions where the side crashed and burned in matches that were lucky to last 3 days.

The rift has gained significance because after a long time, the players are odds with one of their own. When Greg Chappell and the team had travelled to the World Cup in 2007, the wheels had well and truly gone off. Had India not had such a disastrous showing, it’s anyone’s guess what might have transpired. If Chappell was well and truly the devil that he was made out to be, he may not have kept his job but he may not have exited the country in so much ignominy. All blame was cast on the coach then, that he created a dressing room where no one was secure and this led to a team that was low on motivation. The World Cup fiasco was the point of no return.

Luckily, and if reports are to be believed that the rift between Kumble and Kohli has a nadir, it didn’t result in a series loss where all dirty linen was aired in public.

Few remember Kapil Dev’s stint as coach in the late 90s mostly because Indian cricket and professionalism kept an arm’s length from each other those days. When the match fixing scandal hit, he was forced to resign and his tenure is barely a blimp in the short history of the long list of Indian coaches. But with Anil Kumble, things are very different.

For someone who once refused to share space in a newsroom with a former cricketer tainted by match-fixing, that he was going to have a no-nonsense approach was a given. Someone who bowls with a broken jaw isn’t the one to nurse bruised egos. With Virat Kohli’s own work ethic being beyond reproach, it didn’t seem to be a perfect mismatch like the way it is being reported now.

Should players choose their coaches?

Should employees choose their bosses? What an ideal world that would be. Or would it?

At the risk of  flogging a dead horse, let’s recap Greg Chappell’s appointment as the Indian coach back in 2005 amid much fanfare. It was none other than his soon to be arch nemesis, Sourav Ganguly, who pushed from Chappell’s appointment. The honeymoon, if there ever was one, spiralled and snowballed into a controversy when Ganguly was made to step down as captain. Even though India won a test series in
West Indies after 35 years under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy, Chappell’s legacy will always be tied down to the tumultuous meltdown off the team in the 2007 World Cup. Accusations were bandied and Sachin Tendulkar himself spoke to the media on how he was personally hurt by the accusations of the coach on the perceived lack of commitment of some senior players.

After his fall from grace and exile from the corridors of Indian cricket, a behind the scenes Gary Kirsten worked quietly behind the scenes and his run ended with the greatest prize of all – the World Cup victory in 2011 after a 27 year drought. No one knew when Duncan Fletcher came or left and Ravi Shastri met with some success as Team Director.

There are a few uncomfortable questions here – if Virat Kohli is making such a hue and cry about not wanting Anil Kumble and supposedly prefers Ravi Shastri, why didn’t he get what he wanted last year instead of letting a year go by and then playing truant?

If a legend like Anil Kumble is treated so shabbily, why will any of the former greats try their hand at coaching?

Last year, when the board asked people to apply for the coaching position, there were 57 applicants. This year, there are 9. Looks like no one is willing to be a moth that is burned by the flame. And the 9 that have applied aren’t even enviable. If reports are to be believed, Virender Sehwag is one of the applicants. In his playing days, his cavalier approach once led to John Wright catching him by his collar and admonishing him. His playing career was surely compromised as he didn’t really put a premium on his fitness. At his peak, his was breath-taking, audacious and could change the fate of the game in matter of minutes. But can he be the coach of a national team?

In all of this, Ramachandra Guha’s resignation letter has created a storm in a teacup about the helplessness of the COA and the vested interests in Indian cricket that keep it from moving forward and making whole scale changes. He may have seemed a misfit in the ethic less world of cricket administration but the fact that he has nothing to lose must make us take some of what he is saying seriously.

Does a team need to be happy and cheerful to win?

It’s a question that has plagued many people who study motivation and though many have claimed to have found answers, reality poses a very different scenario.

If the Indian team was so unhappy, could they have had the season that they had?

 

The role of a coach at the highest level is very different from the role of a coach at the lower levels. If the only job of a coach is to create a happy dressing room, it is very difficult to measure success. If a team doesn’t perform, the coach is the first to get the boot. And going by what we have heard, the Indian team was a bunch of not so happy campers who had an outstanding home season, in spite of a ‘headmasterly’ coach.

Some thing just doesn’t add up, or we need to admit that there can never be one criteria for judging success. And that happiness and satisfaction don’t necessarily lead to victory, nor does dissatisfaction and unhappiness necessarily lead to catastrophe.

Can a bunch of unhappy people cobble together and still create something? Sure, it happens in workplaces all the time.

In 1998, the Chicago Bulls won the last of their six NBA titles. After that, one of the greatest sporting legacies broke up as there were conflicts between the coach Phil Jackson, the team and the manger Jerry Krause. Even in his hall of fame speech made a little over 10 years after he wore a Bulls jersey, Jordan spared no barbs when it came to Jerry Krause. All of which go to show that everything wasn’t hunky dory behind the scenes.

Whatever the reality, this fracas has surely altered a few things that will haunt Indian cricket in years to come.

Former cricketers of stature will surely hesitate to come forward and take up the coaching mantle. Rahul Dravid’s name has been doing the rounds as national coach for years but after seeing the treatment meted out to Kumble, he would like to keep more than an arm’s length from the job. Virat Kohli maybe a great player but the truth is there are no ‘no men’ around him. With the COA turning the Supreme Court at every step and the old guard still trying to restore old order, his say in things seem to be overwhelming. But everything that goes up must come down. He can do well if just saw how the generation that preceded him conducted themselves.

After his retirement, Anil Kumble was the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association for 3 years before deciding not to run again. He has been very involved with Indian cricket but this will surely shake him up and make him rethink of his role and contribution to the national team.

If Indian cricket just wants Yes Men, then that’s what they will get. Sunil Gavaskar, however great he is, is an unapologetic yes man. So is Ravi Shastri, which is why the board seems to be reluctant to look beyond him. Which is why he was sure he would be appointed coach before Kumble threw a googly and pulled the carpet under him. The trio of VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly would have surely not foreseen such a twist in the plot when they appointed one of their comrades and one of the country’s most tireless warriors on the field as coach.

Anil Kumble’s engineering past was evident in his cricket. He always seemed methodical and after his playing days, didn’t seem uncomfortable with power point and making presentations. A few weeks back, he had championed an increase in the fees for players by making a presentation to the COA.

It’s a tragedy that a man of method is caught up in all this madness.

Whether Indian cricket is on the cusp of another golden age is yet to be seen. But after the match fixing imbroglio, it was a bunch of well-intentioned gentlemen who came together and made of fall in love with cricket again. Srinath, Dravid, Kumble, Tendular, Laxman, Ganguly and later Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, all made us hold our heads up high again. No doubt, there was some emotion involved when they appointed Anil Kumble as coach. They were all a band of brothers who traveled the world and changed the face of Indian cricket.

Now, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have to take a call on the future of one of their own.

For all the battles that they have fought together, like Arjuna in the Mahabharata, this is one battle that they wish they would never have had to fight.

 

 

Tendulkar, and life after the moon landing

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A few weeks before he turned ex-president, Barack Obama sat down with television host Bill Maher for an interview. The first question posed to him was how he would spend the rest of his life, knowing that he would never have a job as exhilarating as the one he was leaving behind. 3 months into his post-presidency, Barack Obama made his first official public appearance yesterday, when he addressed students at the University of Chicago. Like most others who have traversed the road reserved for a chosen few , he is still trying to find an answer that some seem to have found, and which seems to have eluded many – where do you go after you go to the moon?

When astronauts who went to the moon returned to earth and normalcy, a few of them battled depression. For once you’ve gone to the moon, what else is there to aspire for? For the rest of us, our bucket lists are dotted with exotic locales, but the moon? If returning from a vacation is reason enough to go into a funk, imagine what it is like to return from the moon and go back to work.

Sachin Tendulkar’s moon landing lasted for 24 years. Through near career-ending injuries, self-doubt, heart-wrenching defeats, failed stints at captaincy, for 24 years, all the world was a stage for Tendulkar. No cricketer will ever be able to command the blind adulation that he has.

So how has life been for Tendulkar after his moon landing in November 2013?

Well, he turned 44 yesterday and he celebrated it at the Wankhede stadium with fans cheering him on. His team didn’t give him a victory as a birthday present, losing narrowly by 3 runs to the Rising Pune Super giants, who are staging a resurgence of sorts. He has been here and there, still trying to find an identity for himself, one that doesn’t involve him holding a bat and playing God so that an entire country can sleep better.

He has adopted a villages in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and according to reports, has helped change the lives of residents.

Of course, there have been missteps. Like this terrible effort at being a singer and ostensibly trying to reach out to a younger audience.

There have been murmurs of dissent over his no-shows at Parliament but at the same time, he has used most of the funds allocated to him as a part of MPLAD funds.

Even in retirement, he hasn’t spoken against the functioning of the BCCI, the Supreme Court’s intervention in how cricket is run in the country, the unceremonious manner in which the board was dismantled and the shamelessness of his one time boss N Srinivasan, who after being banned by the BCCI still sees himself as the President of the ICC. Actually, no ex-cricketer of stature has spoken about how cricket is being run in the country. At the same time, he has come out in support of other athletes like boxer Sarita Devi who was suspended by the boxing association for not accepting a medal. He has made it clear that politics is not his forte and has stayed away from administrative roles, lest his near-perfect image gets sullied. While Kapil Dev burnt his hands with a coaching stint, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri have played it safe by toeing the BCCI’s line. Now, we can add VVS Laxman to the list. Rahul Dravid, whose diction and clarity of thought are tailor-made for a never-ending commentary stint has chosen to mold the future by actually nurturing the next generation through coaching and mentorship roles in various capacities. Anil Kumble is currently the head coach of the Indian team and Sourav Ganguly has set his sights high in cricket administration.

Actually, where do you go after you go to the moon, after you’ve played God and then come back to earth?

Diego Maradona nearly snorted and drank himself to death before he was saved by gastric bypass surgery. His personal life is in constant upheaval mode as this recent piece articulates.

Pete Sampras retreated into private life to regain his sense of normalcy.

Back home, Tendulkar has molded himself to the demands of the social media generation where every mundane event is broadcast to the world. A largely private person who lived his life with the cameras thrust at him at every step of the journey, is now letting his followers into his world via facebook and instagram. The current crop of cricket stars sport tattoos and weird hair cuts, date film stars and live for the moment. They prefer to burn out rather than to fade away and whether we will see careers that stretch beyond a decade is yet to be seen.

The biggest problem faced by sportspersons who retire as icons is how to protect their hard earned legacy. Politicians have no sense of shame and can make comebacks scandal after scandal but a sportsperson’s equity lies in the feats they perform and the memories they leave behind. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to witness your sporting heroes grow old, sport a paunch, grey at the sides and appear in commercials selling retirement plans? Creating a career worth idolising without losing one’s way is only half the battle. Securing with it with a dignified retirement is another. After living a tunnel vision life where sporting excellence is the sole pursuit, normal life possesses a smidgen of that heady rush.

To a generation of die-hard fans, Tendulkar isn’t 44, he is forever 14 with a flock of curly hair and an impish grin, the boy who became a man who became a legend who became a God, all under the harsh glare of the unforgiving spotlight. When he began his career, we had one channel and homes had one television, mostly black and white sets that were the only source of  news and entertainment. When his career ended amidst an outpouring of tributes and tears, the television was competing with social media and live streaming of matches on mobiles.

His image maybe a little too squeaky clean for our liking, his transgressions, however minor, unable to hold their own in the face of blind faith and worship. His utterances are mostly politically correct and his every move revolves around preserving an image that we have of him – that of a middle glass boy who is grounded and hasn’t lost his head or himself to fame.

If there is only wish, it is this – that we are slowly given a glimpse of not just Tendulkar the legend but also Tendulkar the man. He will never be able to lead a normal life in the country of his birth but maybe the second half of his life will have him still bringing a smile to people’s faces, sans cricket. Maybe he will let his guard down a bit, speak up more and not resort to singing songs to reach out to his fans.

For someone who was always asked for the moon when he had a bat in his hand, life after the moon landing has just begun.

 

Joy in the City of Joy

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The Eden Gardens is more than a ground. Some days it’s an author, writing tales of triumph, anguish and revenge. Some days it’s a poet, spurting out verses that effortlessly rhyme. Between March 11-15, 2001, it rubbed shoulders with the likes of Valmiki and Homer to script an epic. Sourav Ganguly, playing his first test in his home ground after being anointed captain, succeeded in striking himself off Waugh’s good books by keeping him waiting at the toss. It seemed like David was going up against Goliath. And all bets were placed on Goliath.

Summer had spread its tentacles and General  Steve Waugh and his men landed with war plans to conquer the final frontier. Closer to home, a different kind of war was being fought. The board exams were on, futures lay in the balance and parents rediscovered the neighbourhood temple. If only I had known at that time the transient nature of trigonometry, biology and the periodic table in my life and the ephemeral  joy and comfort that cricket would provide, life would have been infinitely simpler.

The first test in Mumbai was done and dusted in 3 days. Waugh and his merry band of soldiers thundered into Kolkata to stake claim to the what they thought was rightfully theirs – a series win and a world record 17 test victories on the trot.

March 11, 2001: Steve Waugh calls right and sends India’s bowlers on a leather hunt for the first two sessions. Hayden, Langer and Slater ensure that Australia get off to a strong start. India were missing the services of its spin warhorse Anil Kumble. His deputy, a young tyro by the name of Harbhajan Singh, who would go on to be Australia’s nemesis in more ways than one over the next decade, comes to the party after lunch.

Australia win the first two sessions. At 250/4, the day was seized by Australia. Well, almost. The first to go was Ponting, lbw. For Gilchrist, coming off a scintilating century in the first match, it was a baptism by fire. First ball duck, lbw. Replays show that the ball edged the bat but thankfuly, referrals were still a decade away. The same fate would be reserved for him in the second innings – a first ball duck. Shane Warne comes to the crease – the spin prodigy vs the eager student. He flicks the ball to S Ramesh standing at slip. Did the ball hit the bat or the pad? Did the ball touch the ground when Ramesh caught it. Eden Gardens doesn’t know nor does it care. It erupts nevertheless. The umpire asks for a replay. Adjudged out. The first Indian to ever claim a hatrick. The stadium erupts like a dormant volcano and the instead of molten lava, ecstasy spreads through the city of joy.

March 12, 2001: Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie take centre stage at 290/8. A quick ened to the Australian innings is predicted but then Steve Waugh shows the world the stuff champions are made off. Summoning all his reserves of stamina, fortitude and experience, he carves his first century in India. Australia end their innings at a chunky 445.

The ecstasy of the hatrick quickly dissolves into hopelessness as the Indian batting unit disintegrates. Ramesh falls with the score still at zero. Das soon follows suit. Hope makes an appearance as Dravid and Tendulkar are at the crease. Hope beats a hasty retreat as Tendulkar is adjudged lbw to Mcgrath. The decibel levels at the ground are on mute. In walks the prince to assuage the despair that has spread among his citizens. A rare misjudgement by Dravid costs him his wicket. A superb catch at gully ends Ganguly’s brief reign. As wickets tumble, Laxman unleashes some of his magic in the midst of the ruins.

March 13, 2001: VVS Laxman’s 59 is the only respectable score on the otherwise abysmal scorecard as India crumbles for a miserly for 171, racking up a debt of 274 runs. Any captain in his right mind would have enforced a follow on and resigned himself to an easy victory and if you were the captain of Australia, who were parading around as the invincibles, victory was a foregone conclusion. Till today, unconfirmed rumors abound of Steve Waugh prematurely ordering champagne to celebrate the victory, which in his mind was a foregone conclusion. 

The top order puts up a better performance in the second innings. Laxman is pushed up the order and arrives after the fall of Ramesh. If Gilchrist’s scorecard was a golden duck, Tendulkar picked his jersey number as his Lakshman Rekha by getting dismissed for 10 in both innings.  The prince stamps some of his authority on the proceedings but falls two runs short of a well-deserved half century. In walks an out of form Rahul Dravid to give company to Laxman.

This was a few years before the cell phone wave would engulf the country. Live streaming wasn’t invented and checking scores online wasn’t yet a way of life. As always, whenever the Indian cricket team is playing, precious man hours were wasted trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. Office goers took a break from their ornery jobs, school kids took a break from their frightening exams, and at the Eden Gardens, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman took center stage.

Laxman reaches his century and his counterpart assiduously plays out his deliveries till the close of play. It is interesting to note that on the same day in  1996, the Eden Gardens bellowed with rage and curtailed a world cup semi-final. The image of tears cascading down the face of Vinod Kambli still rankle. On that fateful day, the Eden Gardens chose to pen a tragedy.

March 14, 2001: Indian begin the day with VVS Laxman on 109 and Rahul Dravid on 7, still trailing by 20 runs. What transpired on this day has been analyzed, over analyzed, written, and rewritten. The stadium wears a deserted look. No one expects a fightback or a miracle. The result has been decided, only the execution remains. My take on Laxman’s masterpiece dwells on the innings a little more deeply.  In the zenith of summer, the Indian team scaled new heights. One guy dealt in magic, the other, in valor. They batted, with ice towels draped around their necks, battling the unforgiving heat and the world’s best bowling lineup. Session by session the scorecard careened from despair to hope and finally halted at redemption.  VVS Laxman had surpassed Sunil Gavaskar for the highest individual score for an Indian and Rahul Dravid’s poor run of form was history. The scorecard read 589/4. The lead was 314.

March 15, 2001: VVS Laxman inches toward a triple century but gets out to a soft dismissal in the morning for 281. By this time, the match is beyond Australia’s reach. Laxman walks back to a warm applause, his feat yet to sink into our collective consciousness. Rahul Dravid falls to a run out and India finally declare at 657, setting Australia a target of 384. Given the caliber of the Australian batting line up which featured the likes of Michael Slater, the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, a draw was on the cards. The spin duo of Venkatapathy Raju and Harbhajan Singh attempt to spin India to a victory. Australia begin strongly. At 160/3, everyone braces themselves for a draw.

Then the epic changes course.

Harbhajan dismisses Waugh and Ponting in quick succession. Out of nowhere, Indian cricket’s folk hero, Tendulkar, emerges from the shadows. He accounts for the scalps of Gilchrist, Hayden and Warne. Harbhajan returns for a final bow and takes the final wicket of Glenn Mcgrath. The Eden Gardens exploded, no erupted. No one knows what happens of the champagne bottles.

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQGTXhqVmCQ

Some rate Kolkata 2001 as the greatest test matches ever played, Laxman’s innings as the best innings ever played. Dravid’s 148, Harbhajan’s 13 wicket melee and Tendulkar’s belated outburst, all seemed to find each other and come together for a magnum opus.Unwittingly, the test laid the ground for the future and opened the doors to what is now fondly referred to as the golden era. On March 16th 2001, I wrote the last of my board exams. School had well and truly ended. Playtime was over.

A chapter closed. But the epic lives on.

The many walls that Rahul Dravid scaled

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Of all the things that Rahul Dravid can stake claim to, savagery is not one of them.

Yet, a few weeks back, he found himself on unfamiliar turf. If the sight was a tad bewildering, what ensued a little later was even more startling. In what can only be termed as a momentary lapse of reason, Rahul Dravid turned into an unwieldy mixture of Gilchrist, Sehwag and Jayasuria, striking  3 sixes in a row.  The wall, age 38, being called upon to scale another wall – his first and last t20 international.

Great players allude to a style of play that becomes inseparable from their very being. While Laxman’s style is intertwined with sublime artistry, Tendulkar’s synonymous with mastery, Dravid excels at rigor. His innings are an essay in concentration, a sermon on effort and a testimony on patience, all woven into one. He grinds bowlers down until they stop bowling and start praying. In the last 15 years, his presence at the crease is reason enough to hope. A ‘not out’ against his name gives visions of lasting a full day on a pitch that behaves like it has had too much to drink. It was in the Adelaide test  in 2003 when he didn’t have to watch the  winning runs being scored from someone else’s bat on a foundation laid by him.

If Kolkata 2001 embodies one of test cricket’s showcase innings courtesy Laxman, Dravid’s 183 in the same innings goes unheralded. In the recently concluded series, which was arguably an embodiment of test cricket at its worse, his 3 centuries reaffirmed a resolve to transcend circumstance.

Captaincy is a double edged sword and his short but turbulent reign gave India series wins in England and West Indies. No mean feat, but his captaincy will always find itself ensconced in our memories for the world cup that never was. In hindsight, he was leading a team torn apart by a megalomaniac coach, who was recently (and fittingly) shown the door by his own countrymen.

It wasn’t as if his game was reserved for the graces of test match cricket and not the vicissitudes of the shorter format. Maybe his 334 one day international (ODI) appearances are to be considered an aberration, his 10000 runs in ODI’s not to be taken seriously, just figures he conjured up while the selectors were furiously searching for an ODI specialist.

A side that strode to England hoping that the scoreboard would favour pedigree and not preparation learned their lesson. When it was felt that he no longer added value to the ODI team, he was unceremoniously shown the door. What was the need to recall him then? Why didn’t they turn to any of the fly-by-night whiz kids, in whose names paeans of praise were being sung after they found fame in a haze of cheerleaders and oversized paycheques? Where did all the faces and voices, drunk on the success of a world cup win in home conditions go when the ball started swinging and the pitches didn’t lend themselves to unrealistic scores? Nobody daresay but they unhesitatingly found the right person to go to.

Rahul Dravid’s chequered career, ironically, is replete with the many barriers he had to surmount. From being boxed into the role of being a test specialist to being the highest scorer in the 1999 world cup, to accumulating a near insurmountable mountain of runs in the shorter format. From being an unassuming affable chap to assuming one of Indian cricket’s most thankless jobs. From donning the batting gloves to donning the keeper’s gloves, sitting on his hunches for 50 overs to allow the team to field an extra batsman. From considering retirement to being recalled to save a team’s inevitable slide, all for a format he was so unceremoniously shown the door from. From seeing off the new ball to seeing a tail ender through, just as the vestiges of sunlight was making its way for twilight to set in.

And through all of this, he unassumingly surmounted the greatest wall of all – the one that separates players from legends.

PS: This piece was written after India’s tour to England in 2011