The remarkable Mr Kohli

kohli

Virat Kohli grimaces. He is wearing a helmet but camera technology is advanced enough to show us his facial contortions. We are in the 16th over. The asking rate is two runs a ball. And Kohli has missed an offcutter from Josh Hazlewood. This, he seems to be telling us, is unacceptable. He practises the cover drive (which he had wanted to play), then imitates Hazlewood’s wrist-tweak.

Tiny episodes like these may mean very little in the grand scheme of things. No scorecard records them. No YouTube clip will immortalize “18 dots balls after which Kohli was angry at himself”. Yet, to see him charge and miss and berate himself, cursing, looking up to the heavens, crunching his teeth, widening his eyes – each is part of the Kohli experience. To watch him bat is to ride along in a rollercoaster of emotions, rising with him, falling with him, swearing, fist-pumping – all through the run-chase.

Over the years his temper has cooled. He is less of a brat, more dignified towards opponents’ mothers and sisters. These days it’s hard to imagine of him flipping the bird at an away crowd. And his celebrations are far more genteel. But occasionally the essential Kohli reveals himself. Like after steering India to victory against Pakistan he walked off the ground, while being high-fived my team-mates, with: “That’s it boys. It’s fucking our hometown. Nobody taking it away.” Now how beautifully Virat is that?

Hazlewood runs in again. But the rest of the over, Kohli the man has switched modes. He is now Kohli the machine, picking off 22422: a masterclass in placement, timing, angling and furious running. The first double he finishes with a full-length dive. The next double is made easy by an Aaron Finch misfield (which was probably Kohli induced to start with). Then a pause for breath, making Hazlewood wait few seconds, before unleashing an awshucks blast to midwicket: down the track, head still, wrists immaculate, field neatly bisected. Then he taunts Finch with two more to deep cover, before picking off another couple to fine leg.

There is nothing wishy-washy about these twos. Kohli hits, Kohli sprints, Kohli turns, Kohli sprints back. He understands that the long square boundaries give him a head start. He knows his captain at the other end will back him up no matter what. Each stroke is calibrated for power, spin and angle. The ball strikes the bat’s middle, the wrists turn as if oiled. The run rate is still hovering at two runs a ball (just as it was at the start of the over) but the mood has comprehensively shifted. The crowd is behaving as if he has reverse-scooped five successive sixes. The commentators are going nuts. The bowler is unnerved. Virat Kohli has brought on this extraordinary atmosphere by doing little out of the ordinary.

Once done with his second run off the last ball, he signals to the dressing room for water. Now water is important to Kohli. He apparently makes sure he drinks a specific amount of water each day (of a specific brand of bottled water) and, according to R Ashwin, does so with militant discipline. Kohli himself admits he is a “freak for keeping things clean”. Team-mates talk about how particular he is about the food he eats. All this happened post 2011, when Kohli says he started developing strong work ethics.

This attention to detail is apparent on the field, and never more so than when he is chasing. He is in no rush to impose himself, not for him the raging counterattack. Tricky pitch? No need to drastically alter one’s approach. Fifty up? That’s all fine but why hasn’t the umpire called one bouncer for the over yet? The rest of the top-order are trying to hit themselves out of trouble. Kohli only wants to find the gaps and wage a war against the dots. Everything else he can get to in due course.

That due course arrives in the 18th over with 39 needed off 18. Everyone knows it’s time for running Kohli to give away to smashing Kohli. What is also clear by now is that Kohli is unlikely to ramp, scoop, lap, paddle or reverse. That is all too crude, unacceptable to his finely tuned chasing method. The ball must strike the middle of the bat. The gap must be found. And the fielders must stand no chance. This is batting as understood by a five year old, batting as mastered by Kohli.

The next two overs produce 35. There are two pulls, two square drives, two lofts over extra cover (one clears the ropes) and a majestic cover drive that should have been frozen in time. Watch those shots again. Pause them just before bat meets ball. And pause them again when he is into his follow through. So classical is the execution that you realize how he could have played exactly in the same way in a Test, ODI, T20 or a six-a-side hitout in a beach, park or gully. The Kohli method is foolproof. It works in all formats, against all opposition, in all conditions. Crowd noise? What crowd noise?

Kohli finished on 82 – and as much as one tries to avoid comparisons, it’s hard to overlook the poetic ring this number comes with. Twenty-two years ago another Indian made an unforgettable 82 that would launch a new era in Indian cricket. The circumstances are not comparable (this is a world tournament, that was a mere bilateral series) yet there is something similar in the thrill that both innings triggered and the effect they had on those watching. To see Tendulkar careen along at such a berserker pace, launching into the bowling with such ferocity, was to be gobsmacked by the possibilities that lay ahead. And it would usher in a new phase for India’s ODI side, leading to some indelible innings over the next few years.

Kohli’s 82, though, was no bolt in the blue. He had guided India to the finish in the past and as long as he was in, the scales were in their favour. The longer he stayed the easier the task seemed to get. And by the end the real shock was that it was actually no shock at all.

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Goodbye Shiv

shiv

The first great West Indian batsman, George Headley, played 22 Tests between 1930 and 1954. His team won five of those matches. Headley almost single-handedly scripted each triumph with three hundreds, one 93 and an unbeaten 270. When Headley didn’t score, West Indies usually lost. “Atlas,” they called him, after the Greek god who carried the heavens on his shoulders.

Headley batted right-handed. He was self-taught and possessed technique not too dissimilar from Don Bradman (he was even famously dubbed the “Black Bradman”). Like the Don, he had a gargantuan appetite for runs. And was obsessed with batting. Of the first 14 Test hundreds by West Indians, Headley made ten. The writer CLR James was emphatic in his assessment. Headley, he said, was “my candidate for a clinical study of a great batsman as a unique type of human being, both mentally and physically”.

Headley set the bar for those who followed. And how they followed! Weekes, Worrell, Walcott, Sobers, Kanhai, Greenidge, Richards, Lloyd, Lara: each a godsend, men who took West Indies from a struggling side to one that could not be beaten. They didn’t just pile on the runs. They swung their bats with panache, infusing their strokeplay with a creativity and audacity rarely seen before.

Then came Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a most un-West Indian batsmen, having skipped the whole semester of Batting 101. He marked his guard by hammering a bail into the turf. Then he faced the square-leg umpire and tapped his bat at a ridiculous angle. His stance was askew, those anti-glare stickers under his eyes. And he went on to throw out such herky-jerky movements that it is a wonder that he could even lay his bat on the ball.

Eleven thousand eight hundred and sixty seven: that is how many Test runs Chanderpaul finished with (before retiring Friday). Let that sink in for a moment. More runs than Gavaskar, Border, Miandad and Steve Waugh. More than Pietersen, Clarke, Laxman and Inzamam. More any other West Indian barring Lara. Chanderpaul didn’t just survive with that out-of-whack technique; he conquered attacks world-over, soaring to his greatness.

Runs, averages, longevity, consistency: these are sometimes flawed measures of greatness. What often matters is context. Not how he scored. Not how many he scored. But when. Chanderpaul broke into the West Indies side when the dynasty was falling. A year after his debut, West Indies lost their crown. A couple of years later they were being whitewashed. Early this millennium, the fast bowler supply dried up. Then the top players started getting fed up with the board, leading to West Indies often selecting second-string sides. Which meant that for a bulk of his career Chanderpaul walked in after the top order was wrecked. The series was often surrendered, the match a lost cause.

All that is background. Now consider this: no batsman has scored as many runs in Test defeats as Chanderpaul – not even Lara. And between 2007 and 2014 – a time when Lara had retired and West Indies plumbed new depths – Chanderpaul averaged 69.16. Barring Sangakkara (who averaged 65) no other batsman even managed 60 during this period. Here was the modern-day Atlas, gritting his teeth, digging in his heels, and refusing to yield.

There was a reason why his stickability was so eye-popping. Chanderpaul’s finest phase coincided with batting’s most electric years, a time when a 7-ball 17 could make you an overnight star. As batsmen ran riot with Dilscoops and ramps and revere-paddles, as cricketers started to stack up fastest fifties and hundreds, Chanderpaul went about mastering the art of the graft.He was in no rush to slam a quickfire hundred (though he did pull off a 69-ball century in 2003 as if to say, “Hey, I can have some fun too”). Instead he pitched tent and slowed the clock. To watch Chanderpaul was to go back in time, to an age when batsmen were hailed not just for the audacity of their shot-making but for their sheer obsession with batting. To watch Chanderpaul was to be transported to a time way before Lara and Lloyd and Richards and Sobers – all the way back to George Headley carrying the hopes of a weak West Indies in the 1930s.

As a young boy in Jamaica, Headley played a form of neighbourhood cricket called “catch and bowl”. The rules were simple: you could bowl only if you took a catch; you could bat only if you took a wicket. When he was 13 Headley started batting one Monday afternoon. He continued batting through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. When he came to bat on Friday, nobody else had arrived. The bowlers and fielders couldn’t bear to see him bat through another afternoon. So they had stayed away.

Chanderpaul would have owned “catch and bowl”. His frail physique, fidgety reactions and awkward stance would have fooled the bowlers into thinking they had a chance. But by the end of the day they would have been worn out, defeated. Cricket may throw up another Clarke or Pietersen. But it will be a pleasant shock if it throws up another Chanderpaul. An era has ended, in more ways than one.

The piece first appeared in Mumbai Mirror

(PS: Another piece I wrote recently was on our perceptions of greatness and the kind of performances that tend to be remembered as great. This was part of The Cricket Monthly’s January issue that contained an expert panel choosing the 50 greatest Test performances over the last 50 years. The issue is here. My piece is here.)

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Goodbye Zaheer, goodbye Sehwag

zaksehwag

Wrote two pieces over the last week:

On Zaheer’s entry into the international scene in Nairobi.

To understand some endings you need to go back to the beginning.

Fifteen years ago, on a June afternoon in Dhaka, India lost the toss in a must-win game against Pakistan in the Asia Cup. And with it they lost the match. Over the next three hours Ajit Agarkar, Amit Bhandari and T Kumaran would be pounded for 208 runs in 30 overs. The prospects were bleak. Agarkar had lost much of his early sparkle, especially the zippy yorker that used to castle batsmen at the death; the debutant, Bhandari, posed no threat in these benign conditions; and Kumaran, in his eighth ODI, was ravaged for 86 off his ten overs. He would not play for India again …

On Sehwag’s ability to pull off the unexpected.

The heart wishes Virender Sehwag had retired after a rousing Test, his team-mates chairing him off the ground, the crowd bidding him adieu with a standing ovation. The mind understands that this was never going to come to pass, that Sehwag’s days as an international cricketer were long past, and that he would tweet the news of his exit (as he had promised late last year) and be off without a fuss…

Also, apologies for not updating this blog more often. Some more recent stuff:

On VVS Laxman’s hundred in the Sydney Test of 2008  – as part of a Cricket Monthly piece where five writers put forth their choices for the greatest counter-attack.

A Cricket Monthly editorial pondering the knotty question: Is cricket a team game?

And a few more odds and ends for Cricinfo and The Cricket Monthly – all of which you can read here

 

 

 

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Richie Benaud. RIP.

richie

Understated punch. Evocative of a gentle breeze. Unflappable. Wry. Precise. Droll. The silences that let images speak for themselves. The pauses that amplified what came after. A deep love for the game. A mastery of its intricacies. Marvellous.

There is tribute heaped over tribute. There are many words strung together in eulogy. But sometimes words are not enough. Celebrating Richie Benaud’s mastery as a commentator requires us to awaken other senses. To perk up our ears and open our eyes. The image and audio must synchronise. Words can’t be two-dimensional black squiggles on a white page or screen. They need to live and breathe. They need to stretch out and tumble out.

Some statements need a minor aside. Great players need middle names. Others need to be referred to with their initials (Shane Warne and Dennis Lillee? Nah. Shane Keith Warne and DK Lillee. Now we’re talking.) Players need to be concatenated as one (Not Warne and McGrath but Warnunmcgraaa.) Some all-time greats don’t even need to be mentioned in name. “This 17-year-old scoring a century,” will do just fine.

Take four-and-a-half minutes to watch this video. (Hat tip: @ishangodbole)

What can a commentator do in four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Is it enough time for him to take us on a joy ride through 35 years of cricketing history in Australia? Can a man of so few words help us understand the revolutionary changes in the game since the late 1970s? Can he inform us about the advances in broadcasting, while also highlighting unforgettable games and players? Will his words stick in the mind?

This is not a live broadcast. There are trumpets playing in the background, music assisting him, and a custom-made montage to play with. Benaud is not extemporising. He has probably rehearsed this many times before the actual take. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the magic with which the words drip out.

“This all goes back to the Chappell era,” he says with close-up images of Ian and Greg in their World Series gear, “the brrruthers themselves” – that emphasis on brothers telling us how much they mean to Australian cricket. Then a pause… before a sensational little drag on the “to” – tuuuu – “DK Lillee” (accompanied by a front-on image of that side-on action), “Jeff Thomson” (golden mane fluttering in the breeze) … “unnd” (in its full Australian glory) “the one and only Doug Walters”. (Crucial that the “one and only” was not for the Chappells or DK or Thomson but for Walters, conveying what an absolute cult figure he must have been.)

“These fine men inspired a resurgence in cricket” (image of Lillee trapping Alan Knott to wrap up the Centenary Test)… a further pause… “but somehow”… (a classic grandfather’s pause this, full of reflection and wisdom) “it wasn’t translating either to the players pocketssss … or our television screens.

“That’s where Kerry Packer came in”, a pause accompanying the close-up image of Packer and then a classic dip in tone for “the way he always came in… ” (six words that would have been lost without the expert pause and dip in voice, from a man who knew that the image on the screen – a newspaper article headlined “Cricket War” – spoke for itself.)

“It’s 35 years now since the breakaway… since Wuuurld Series Cricket changed the game for the better… (image of Lillee hitting a batsman on the helmet) “and… for-ever”.

Clip of “C’mon Aussie, c’mon” – the iconic soundtrack for World Series Cricket.

***

This is a promotional clip, a video made for Channel Nine to celebrate 35 years of broadcasting. Yet, Benaud has been telling us a story for more than a minute and not once has it felt like an advert. Not once has he put his employer above the game. Even when he says, “Channel Nine did things others overseas didn’t do” it comes through as a fact and not a brag. He is not a salesman luring us to buy a product. We are not his customers or (that detestable word) consumers. Instead Benaud, as Russell Jackson wrote recently, is the “wise, kindly grandfather”, patiently telling us how things were.

“My old team-mate, a mate-for-life Bill Lawry… we’ve been calling cricket for Nine ever since. In the summer of ’79-’80 Ian Chappell and Tony Greig joined us in the commentary box. “Together…” (a gentle pause allowing us to admire a still picture of four of the most iconic commentators of our times) “we’ve seen them all” (again, not a brag but plain old fact.”)

“Saw Dennis Lillee pass my Australian wicket-taking record” (you can almost hear him blushing even as the camera shows him actually blushing); “Javed Miandad… he didn’t applaud Lillee… but-uh (that critical uh, imbued with the sagacity gained over many years of playing and watching cricket) “it does get hot out there… you only had to look at Greigy’s weatherboard.” (stunning segue from Lillee to Miandad to Perth 1981 to Greig to Channel Nine’s weatherboards… in ten seconds.)

“Ian Botham” (bare-headed Botham looking like he is all set to burn down the confectionary stall in Headingley), “Michael Holding” (splattering stumps) “and Malcolm Marshall” (celebrating a wicket).

“The master blaster” (no name needed since the image shows Viv Richards blasting a left-arm spinner over long-on and then adjusting his cap), “the rotund Allan Border” (taking strike), a quick intake of breath followed by “Richard Hadlee” (image showing Hadlee trapping a left-hander lbw with a classic in-dipper; Benaud waiting, waiting, waiting and then with a tinge of awe…) “no wonder the knighthood”.

“Saw Whitney and McDermott hanging on” (no mention of where, when etc. It’s like grandpa Benaud is telling us that everyone knows about the draw in Melbourne in 1987. And that if they don’t know, they ought to)… “stump cam … Shane Keith Warne” (middle name adding so much)… “this seventeen-year-old scoring a century” (an image of Tendulkar raising his bat, probably in Sydney in 1991-92 – one of Benaud’s favourite Tendulkar hundreds – or the one in Perth, which he said deserved to be seen by 100,000 people)… “and there’s Brian Lara…” (that’s enough on that front. No age, no mention of century, nothing. Just “And there’s Brian Lara”.)

“South Africa back after twenty five years…” (image of Warne knocking back Kallis’ off stump with an outstanding legbreak) … “Warney …” (superlative pause as Warne whirls his arms around in celebration) “makes them wish it was fifty” (the last six words uttered slightly faster, hammering the point home and bringing the joke to life.)

“Warnunmcgraaa … spearheading the bowling” (as if to say: they were two bowlers but one mighty unified force)… “Taylor” (pulling), “Slater” (kissing his helmet), “the Waugh brothers and Healy the batting.”

“Myurali…” (the bowler’s eyes lighting up in his delivery stride and the batsman driving through the off-side and taking off for a single only for Benaud to continue…) “hello Ricky Ponting” (such a great player, such a light touch for an introduction.)

“Snicko… and speedgun… as Tubby and Heals head up to our commentary box.”

“This once-in-a-generation player” (again, no need to mention his name. Just an image of Adam Gilchrist pulling through midwicket) “makes his debut.

“Steve Waugh… his famous century at the SCG … the most capped Australian Test player ever… and lookout…” (as if driving along a highway and glancing at the rear-view mirror) “here comes Michael Clarke … a century in his first Test in Australia.”

A lot has been said about Benaud allowing images to talk for themselves and you get a glimpse of his genius at 3:33.

“Just six years ago … sweet revenge …” he says before bringing forth a proper silence. The screen moves from Ponting celebrating a hundred to Hussey celebrating a win to the players in the pavilion celebrating a win to Ponting celebrating again to Gilchrist lofting a spinner to a distraught Flintoff looking skywards to Warne getting a wicket to confirm the return of the Ashes …. And Benaud has sat back and let us take it all in.

And then comes the sensational finish. “These are the reasons we love our cricket… the sounds and… images of summer,” he says, keeping his tone measured even as Lawry and others are going ballistic in the background with action images taking your breath away. The contrast is stunning: the pictures are showing cricket at its most emotional and here’s grandpa Benaud calm as ever, putting the whole thing in perspective.

“In another 35 years we’ll have more stories to tell…” (the tone controlled even as Michael Clarke is uncontrollable on screen) … “more champions to crown” (a sedate Benaud in the background, a buccaneering Dave Warner on screen plastering a bowler)… “more contests to call” (more composure from Benaud even as Shane Watson and James Pattinson go bananas after getting their wickets)

“Right now… it’s the first Test of 2012-13. Australia versus South Africa … ffrumm the Gabba. Right here on the home of cricket … Nine’s one and only Wide World of Sports” (never stuck in the past, always looking ahead, always looking forward to new champions and new adventures.)

***

“In conversation we express ourselves between and around words as much as in them,” said Kassia St Clair, the books and arts editor of the Economist, when writing about the power of the ellipsis. “The thoughtful phrase, the embarrassed lull, the frigid hush and the exquisite hesitation before a punchline add nuance to the bald landscape of syntax.”

Richie Benaud understood this better than anyone. And as much as we will remember him through his books and columns, through his pet phrases and epic lines, we will also remember the blanks and the dots, the empty spaces and the silences.

At 2:22pm on Friday many Australian cricket lovers observed a minute’s silence to remember the great man. There is unlikely to have been a better tribute.

RIP

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Bye bye MSD (Test edition)

CRICKET-PAK-IND

MS Dhoni has retired from Test cricket. There are reasons to be surprised. It was a call he took mid-series. He didn’t say a word about his decision in the post-match presser. There was no lap of honour, no speech, no teary goodbyes. Just a matter-of-fact press release. One can debate the timing and the reasons. Was his body unwilling? Or had the mind had enough? Either way, we will never know. Dhoni doesn’t do detailed explanations. He has never seen the need.

A few thoughts:

  • Dhoni’s Test career lasted nine years. This sounds a bit strange when you compare it with Dravid and Laxman, who both managed a decade and a half, and Kumble, who lasted 18 years. Ganguly’s Test career went for 12 years. (Tendulkar, of course, began insanely early and can be treated as an exception.) Yet, none of the above endured as hectic a schedule as Dhoni did. Tests, ODIs, T20s, IPLs, and Champions Leagues – the treadmill rarely stopped. And Dhoni rarely buckled. Forget the wins and runs and averages; his ability to endure such a relentless schedule is a feat in itself.
  • Dhoni’s Test career – as remarkable as it was – was often played out in the shadow of a once-in-a-lifetime ODI and T20 career. He finished as India’s winning-est Test captain but it’s his breathtaking innings in ODIs and T20s that have laid the foundation for his superstardom. As Rahul Dravid has suggested, Dhoni’s retirement from Tests could allow him to extend his ODI and T20 career, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest short-form players of all time.
  • Retirements have a strange effect. You might have been cursing Dhoni for the way he batted in the first innings in Melbourne – “why is he torturing himself like this?” one friend asked via email – and, in a span of a few minutes, you might have got mushy when he announced he was walking away. Maybe it’s in retirement that we look beyond the here and now and consider his whole career arc – what he meant, how good he was, the moments he inspired, the times he took the team to No.1, those pre-Dominica days when he could do no wrong, the match-winning knocks against Australia in Mohali, stifling Ponting and Co. in Nagpur with the 8-1 field, promoting Pujara to No.3 in Bangalore, backing Sreesanth in Durban, the stunner in Cape Town, conquering New Zealand and so much more.
  • Dhoni’s success (and failings) as a Test captain must be put in context: he had never captained any team before he captained India. He has said he never dreamt of leading India. Added to that, he was a wicketkeeper and – given that history isn’t too favourable to keeper-captains – he was never going to have it easy. Plus, Dhoni was in charge during one of the most difficult transitions in Indian cricket. Once Kumble retired, Zaheer slid and Harbhajan plateaued, he was left with a bunch of bowlers who struggled with their consistency and fitness when away from home.
  • Dhoni’s Test batting too needs context: he needed to adjust his homespun technique to meet the demands of Test cricket (especially on seaming, bouncy pitches). When he was coming up the ranks, coaches were constantly telling him to change his approach. In his third season in domestic cricket, in 2001-02, he had one score of over 25 in first-class games and 45 runs in four one-day games. He was bombarded with advice like “don’t be so aggressive”, “change your technique”, “don’t loft spinners”. Many people told him that he would never be a long-form player if he continued in this way. But Dhoni stood firm.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         In 2004, on his Duleep Trophy debut against England A in Amritsar, his first big first-class game on the national stage, Dhoni was asked to open the innings in a two-paced surface. He was facing competition within the zone and a poor game would have harmed his chances. In the first innings, 48 of his 52 runs came in fours. In the second innings he made 24 off 29. A few days later, he Dhoni opened the batting in the final. His first four scoring shots were fours. He made 21 off 26 balls before edging off. In the second innings he walked in with East needing 409 to win. He fire-started the chase with a 47-ball 60. One veteran reporter watching the game said that had this been the 1970s or 1980s, batting coaches would have asked Dhoni to pack his kitbag and try his hand at another sport. Other observers weren’t as sympathetic. They were convinced that this manic style wouldn’t work at the highest level. MS Dhoni made 4,876 Test runs. There were six centuries and 33 fifties. His 224 is the third-best score by a wicketkeeper.
  • My favourite Dhoni Test innings was in 2006, when he took on Shoaib Akhtar in Faisalabad. That was his first real experience of extreme pace. Shoaib was screaming in at 146 to 152 kph and though the pitch was flat, the pressure was intense. India had quite a way to go to avoid the follow on and the variable bounce was making it hard to duck against the short deliveries. Dhoni edged a four off his second ball and then watched the next over of sizzling pace from the non-striker’s end. “There were only two options,” he would later say. “I could either hang in there and defend or back myself and play my strokes. I was better at playing my strokes than defending. So it was a simple choice.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The first ball of the next over was short, fast and headed straight for Dhoni’s temple. But the bat was ready, as if he was waiting for the short one, and let loose a withering slap – Viv Richards style – and sent it flying over square leg. It was the shot that would change the course of the Test. Shoaib tried to bowl faster, and shorter, and lost control. Dhoni grew in confidence, scattered the bowlers, and took India to safety.
  • Then there’s the keeping. In 2003-04, more than one national selector was concerned that Dhoni had shifted from being a goalkeeper to a wicketkeeper. He’s a stopper, one said, and was worried that he didn’t have the chops to glide behind the stumps like many natural wicketkeepers. In 2005 Dhoni played a tri-series in Sri Lanka and struggled with his glovework. Most observers agreed that Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel were better options. You can get away with poor keeping at the first-class level, some said, but they asserted that at the Test level Dhoni will be found out.               When he finished, Dhoni had taken 256 catches and managed 38 stumpings.
  • But leave all that. Assume Dhoni had the perfect batting technique. Assume he had proved his captaincy at various age-group levels. Assume he was a perfectly agile wicketkeeper. What were the chances that a player from a cricketing backwater like Bihar or Jharkhand would play 90 Tests for India? What were the odds? Ask Saba Karim. Ask Hari Gidwani. Ask Mihir Diwakar. Each of them will tell you stories of talent unnoticed, of players being dropped after one poor innings, of chances denied.                                                                                                                                                          Dhoni made his first-class debut in the 1999-2000 season. He didn’t make a mark in the Deodhar Trophy until 2004. And he didn’t play in the Duleep Trophy until 2005. For close to six years, he was among the thousands of cricketers who plough away day after day, just names on scorecards, riding trains across the country, training, diving, sweating, batting, keeping, hoping that some selector somewhere will take notice. He never considered moving out of his state, never considered changing his team. “I knew if I’m good enough I’ll get a chance,” he would later say, inspiring a whole generation of small-town cricketers to believe the same.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            And therein lies a mighty legacy.
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Bouncing at Lord’s

ishant

Ten random thoughts:

1 India won a Test at Lord’s after 28 years. More importantly, they won an away Test for the first time since mid-2011. This was also their first away Test win post Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. India’s top five batsmen are playing their first Test series in England. Ditto for their two opening bowlers. India went into this Test with three-and-a-half bowlers (given that you’d expect Jadeja to be less of a threat abroad than at home). They were sent in to bat on a green pitch. And they were 145 for 7 on day one.

You get the idea.

Perth 2008 will probably remain India’s finest win abroad in the last 25 years and Headingley ’02, Jo’burg ’06, Adelaide ’03, and Durban ’10 will follow (not necessarily in that order). But Lord’s 2014 won’t be too far behind. Yes, they’re playing against an England team whose players are acting like freshers waiting to be ragged – meek, passive and error-prone, just like their captain – but given 0-8, given the inexperience, given the toss, and given the conditions, this should be up there with the rest.

2 The worst part about watching the 0-8 in 2011 was that you couldn’t even relate to the Indian team on the field. There was a profound listlessness to those defeats. I understand that cricket ultimately boils down to skill (a team with good batsmen and good bowlers will usually win) but even the poor teams sometimes put up enough resistance and keep fans interested.

For large stretches of 0-8, the Indian Test team made me lose interest. It was hard to summon up the energy to wake early and sleep late for that bunch – simply because they themselves appeared to be coasting from one loss to the next. (Now I’m not saying the players didn’t hurt; I’m saying that the on-field performances were so uninspiring, I didn’t really mind missing a day or two of that sorry sameness.)

In the last six months, this team has changed the mood. Sure, they lost series in South Africa and New Zealand but there have been several phases (specifically in Jo’burg and Auckland and Wellington – where they should have won – but also in Durban and Nottingham) that have kept me engrossed. Whether it’s Bhuvi and Shami making fifties or Dhawan kick-starting a tall run-chase or Kohli handling Steyn and Morkel on day one or Jadeja smashing the new ball or Shami and Ishant bowling New Zealand out for 192 – there has always been that whiff of possibility. And that’s a wonderful reason to set an alarm, wake up, and watch.

3 There are several reasons why India have won just one Test at Lord’s before this (and it’s never a good idea to generalise) but I think too many Indian players in the past have had a deep reverence for the ground, which in turn has dictated the way they have played.

There’s this whole aura about Lord’s being the “home” of cricket or the “mecca” of cricket. You have the Long Room and Father Time. Players are constantly asked about their thoughts of playing there. You have the honours board. Etc etc.

I won’t be surprised if many Indian teams in the past were overwhelmed by the setting. The hush before the bowler runs in, the ooohs, the temple-like setting. A few days before the 2007 Test, Dinesh Karthik claimed to have goosebumps just being at the ground. On the first morning, he dropped a dolly of a catch (I would be surprised if the drop was not at least partly brought on by the goosebumps). In 1990, Kiran More dropped Gooch on 36 (he went on to make 333). Again, it may well have been such jitters.

I maybe totally wrong but something tells me that one of the reasons why Dravid missed out on a hundred on debut (at Lord’s) was because he thought too much about the significance of getting there. I am sure he had read or heard stories of the Lord’s slope, the honours board, and the egg-and-bacon ties. And, as a young boy, he probably dreamed of raising his bat at the ground. (Of course, Dravid would eventually get that Lord’s hundred and what a fine knock that was.)

The man who began to change this mindset was Ganguly. He recently said he had no idea about the Lord’s slope before batting on it (when he went on to get a hundred on debut in 1996). And he famously went topless on the Lord’s balcony in 2002, screaming obscenities. He made it clear that playing at Lord’s was like playing at any other ground.

MS Dhoni has taken Ganguly’s approach. Back in 2007 (when Karthik was talking of “goosebumps” and Sreesanth was on the verge of tears) Dhoni was asked about playing at Lord’s. Pat came the reply: “I think the food is amazing and the desserts are excellent. I’m enjoying my ice cream. And after this discussion I’m going back for more.”

All this pop psychology may be total humbug but I think the way a team approaches a venue rubs off on their performances. And this Indian team played with enough swagger to show they were more interested in how they were playing rather than where.

4 Ishant Sharma. The name comes with so much baggage. Just tell someone that Ishant Sharma is bowling and their palms may instinctively approach their face. Some days, you just can’t bear to see him bowl. And then, on other days, he does something like this: 7 for 74.

Imagine a cricketing god appears in front of you and says: “You can either have a bowler who is largely disciplined with his line and length and gets you a wicket or two regularly. Or you can have Ishant.” Who will you choose?

Ishant has 25 wickets in four Tests in 2014. He delivered the over that won the Champions Trophy. The problem with Ishant is not his bad days. The problem is, as Jon Hotten recently said, “Ishant is a player with quite a wide gap between his best and his worst.” When he’s good, he’s awesome; when he’s bad, he’s pathetic.

The strange part about Ishant is you can’t really tell his mood from his run-up. With some bowlers, you could spot the rhythm – Ambrose at his peak had a crazy intimidating run and even an in-form Zaheer, in the 2009-2011 phase, was pretty easy to identify. When Zaheer started his spell at Lord’s in 2011, it was pretty obvious that something was wrong. And sure enough, he was soon out of the series.

With Ishant, you need to wait until he finishes his delivery stride. And there is no real trend with his bowling – just random data points with no correlation. Sample this: The first over of his mad spell on the final day at Lord’s contained two full balls and one that was short and wide (aka rubbish). All three were struck for four. Here was someone playing his 57th Test. Wasn’t it high time he led the attack and ran through batting line-ups? I mean, how long could we watch him regularly beat the bat – only to be called “unlucky” – without actually delivering wins? How long could he get away with bowling as if he were a newbie?

Then, at the start of the next over – the one before lunch – Dhoni dispensed with the slips and placed a short leg and a leg gully. The plan was clear – Ishant had ben told to bang it in short. Everyone could see the bouncers coming. Root played out three short ones and Moeen Ali saw out two more (both slightly down the leg side). Then he took strike for the final ball before lunch. Of course, it was going to be another bouncer. Moeen obviously expected one too… yet he ducked awkwardly and popped a catch.

So here was Ishant, surprising a batsman with pace and bounce despite everyone knowing the nature of the plan. Now that’s a sign of a very good bowler – and also a sign that Ishant can go from ridiculous to terrific in about three minutes.

5 Gradually, layer by layer, the Indian batting is revealing itself. Pujara and Kohli were expected to carry the line-up (and they may well do in the next three Tests) but there’s something calming about a batsman like Vijay at the top. He blunts the new ball and shows discipline outside off. And like some adhesive batsmen, he doesn’t give it away after making 30 or 40. Vijay and Dhoni added 79 in the second innings – taking them from 123 for 4 to 202 for 5. Dhoni made 19. I’m sure you won’t forget Jadeja’s awshucks 68 that came after but don’t forget Vijay’s 95 that set it up.

The reason why you may forget it is because of how our memories of cricket are so dependent on images. A highlights package from this Test would probably have one or two shots of Vijay. A photo gallery would probably have one – just because you’ll feel a bit odd to leave out a batsman who made 95. Contrast that with Jadeja’s innings – an aggressive knock with charges down the ground, uppercuts and pulls. And when he reached his fifty, he brandished his bat like he was playing Fruit Ninja at the ground. That will surely be one of the defining images of this Test.

Television is obsessed with action. A batsman lofting a fast bowler above his head will get way more airtime than a dab to cover for two. And the more we watch these images and videos – the more we will be convinced (subconsciously, at least) that Jadeja played the more important hand.

What the images won’t tell you is that Jadeja might have had to walk in much earlier – way before the new ball was taken – if Vijay had been out for much lesser. Which is one of the reasons to value batsmen like Vijay. He slows down the game’s tempo and locks up an end – which allows strokemakers around him to take extra risks. Without his steeliness, you might not have had Jadeja’s swordplay.

6 MS Dhoni has probably had enough flak for a lifetime. But it’s hard to ignore his captaincy in this Test. A few of his bowling changes worked – he brought on Jadeja in the seventh over of England’s second innings, Jadeja struck off his first ball; he brought on Shami for a new spell when Cook and Ballance were settling down, and Shami struck off his first ball.

Dhoni has often said that he first gives his bowlers a free reign. Only when things don’t work does he step in. One over before the lunch break, he stepped in and gave Ishant a field to bowl at. He told him he had to use his height and bang it in short. Ishant struck at the stroke of lunch.

He stood back to Jadeja – which he later explained was to save runs. And he stood up to Bhuvi – in a bid to keep Moeen and Joe Root in their crease, thereby not allowing them to negate the swing.

The one reason for criticism is his team selection. I don’t really see the logic of picking Stuart Binny purely as a medium-pace bowler (Pankaj Singh and Varun Aaron are better options). And I also don’t see a point of picking Binny as a batsman who can bowl (if you need eight batsman in a Test, you’re really not trusting the top five.)

7 I have no idea how England became such a bad side so quickly. That second-innings collapse was straight out of India’s batting manual in the 1990s. And most of the batsmen seem unwilling to smash the ball, they’re all content to simply nudge and poke. Shane Warne spoke about how Cook’s passive approach seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the team. I wish they take a punt on a mad max who may give them a quick fifty early in the third Test. Maybe it’s time for Jos Buttler to be handed his debut. (Thinking about it, if not for KP’s masterpiece in Mumbai in 2012 – that series may have turned out slightly differently.)

8 I don’t believe nobody knows what exactly happened between Anderson and Jadeja. In this day and age, surely some unnamed source should have said something? My biggest question is – did Anderson cross the Kohli line? ie – did he say something that even Virat Kohli wouldn’t have said? If so, he’s surely in deep trouble. Or as an unnamed Indian cricketer said: “Anderson toh ghus gaya”.

9 I wish Jadeja had finished the match by getting Anderson lbw, or bowled, or – best of all – caught and bowled. A direct-hit run-out was not really the best way to end. Jadeja was desperate for that wicket – his appeal for lbw showed as much – and it would be been revealing to see how he would have reacted after the dismissal.

Pre and post-match, we hardly hear much from the cricketers apart from clichéd truisms. “Bowl in the right areas”, “totally focused”, “back to the drawing board”, “get our acts together” blah blah. So it makes me wish for more moments on the field when we get to see hitherto unknown aspects of cricketers’ personalities. I remember Tendulkar sending off Saqlain Mushtaq in a one-dayer in Sharjah (probably the first time I saw him use the f-word). And Steve Waugh bowling the best ball of the 1996 World Cup (to nail Brian Lara in a crucial stage in the semi-final) and simply raising one arm and letting out a faint smile. And of course, thank god it was Venkatesh Prasad who got Aamer Sohail in the 1996 quarter-final in Bangalore. Imagine what we would have missed if Sohail was run-out.

10 The most heartening aspects of the victory:

–    Bhuvi’s bowling. His batting is a bonus, of course, but Bhuvi the bowler is the anti-Ishant. He isn’t as tall, doesn’t have as much pace, and will never extract as much bounce but how beautifully he pegged away. Found a length (both at Trent Bridge and Lord’s) and kept hitting it. Over after over.

I just hope people let him be. He needn’t be the next anyone. There is no need for him to turn into a bowling allrounder and no need to demand any extra pace. He is the kind of bowler that can turn in consistent spells in all conditions. And he swings it. That works just fine.

– The biggest question mark post Draxmandulkar was not so much the No. 3 or No. 4 slots (which Pujara and Kohli had grown into) but No. 5, which was Laxman’s spot. Though he preferred to bat at No. 3 (and played some of his most fabulous innings from there) Laxman mastered the art of batting with the tail (and facing the second new ball) in the second half of his career. As long as Laxman was there, India were still in the game.

Which is why Rahane’s rise (in New Zealand and here) is the best news of the last few months. A traditional opener, he has shown he can adapt his game to the middle order. He lifted India from a precarious 145 for 7 to 275 (which eventually turned into 295). And he did so with a wonderful combination of defense and attack. When on 90, he faced two short balls from Anderson  – both of which rocketed to the boundary off fierce pull shots. The century came with another four, this time through the covers. He didn’t win the Man-of-the-Match award but he kept India in the game with a special innings. Some might even say very, very special.

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An era to savour

era

At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams.

Thus begins Roger Kahn’s dazzling Boys of Summera book about growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Tendulkar era produced some marvellous Indian cricket teams. Over 24 years he played alongside four generations of cricketers – the Kapil-Shastri-Vengsarkar-Azhar era with cricketers who began in the late ‘70s and ‘80s; the Kumble-Srinath-Ganguly-Dravid-Laxman era that started in early-to-mid ‘90s; the Sehwag-Zaheer-Yuvraj-Dhoni era that kicked off in the first half of the millennium; and the Kohli-Dhawan-Pujara-Rohit era of the late noughties and early ‘10s.

Personally, the period that resonates the most is between 1996 and 2011, fifteen years split by a scalding match-fixing scandal, a turbulent phase during Greg Chappell’s reign as coach, and the ugliness of Sydney ’08.

This stretch covers the heartbreak of the 1996 World Cup semi-final, the ghastly 100 and 66 in Durban, the shambles in Barbados in 1997, conceding 952 in Colombo, the triumph against Australia in Chennai and Kolkata in ’98, the champagne in Sharjah in ’98, mayhem in Taunton in ’99, the hole in the heart in Chennai in 1999, defeat to South Africa in a home series…

… a giddy Champions Trophy in 2000, the unforgettable highs of Kolkata and Chennai in 2001, trench-warfare in Headingley in ’02, a sizzling run in the World Cup in ’03, three joyous triumphs in Adelaide, Multan and Rawalpindi…

… crushing defeat to Australia at home in 2004, historic series wins in the Caribbean and England, emptiness in the 2007 World Cup, pleasant shock in the inaugural World T20, a gallant fight in the Tests in Australia in 2008, a victory in the CB Series…

… rising to the top of the Test heap, winning a series in New Zealand, drawing one in South Africa, and clinching a World Cup after 28 years and sending a country into raptures.

Over the past ten years, I have written (on this blog and elsewhere) about what some of those matches meant to me. I have written both from the point of view of a reporter as well as a fan. And I have tried to explain why this particular era, and these group of cricketers, meant so much.

Here is a list of articles, tributes, interviews, and reports. All of them weren’t written in that 15-year timeframe but they try and capture the essence of the era and the men who made it special.

Sachin the Innocent: When a young and carefree Tendulkar put Australia to the sword with a sponsor-free bat

Degrees of fandom: The scoreboard at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was important: because on so many, many days it showed R Dravid

Javagal Srinath and the bridging of a gap: He won only four Test matches away from home. But he was anything but a loser

Why Durban matters: India’s 1996 series in South Africa left scars that would take many years to heal

Kumble – the clinical colossus: The reason he was different was because he didn’t try different things

Chennai 1999: That day, those memories: How does anyone get over such a loss?

Dear MS Dhoni: Lessons from India’s mess-ups in the World Cups gone by

The Y and Z axes: The Champions Trophy in 2000 heralded a new dawn

Ganguly takes his shirt off: A brattish upstart brings the tone of Lord’s down a notch or two

Dravid and the mastery of the struggle: Why an ideal Dravid innings needs a most challenging pitch

Watching Sachin leave: A masterclass in Lahore

Slash and burn: Sehwag goes bananas in St Lucia

Thou shalt not pass: Dravid’s lesson in the art of defence on a Sabina Park minefield

India lacked muscle and hustle: An uninspiring bunch go out of the World Cup

That special something: Dravid on the unique charms of playing in England

Coffee with Maharaj: From black sheep to main man, Sourav Ganguly has come a fair distance over a year

Team unity delivers glory: India’s series win in England belonged to everyone in the squad

Sachin and Sourav illuminate the haze: An opening combination for the ages

A legacy that lost its way: Dravid risks being seen as walking away when he was needed by the team

A hurricane with a calm in his eye: Dhoni’s rapid rise

Will and grace: When Dravid’s grit combined with Laxman’s flair to produce a magical day at the SCG

A regal knock: The SCG lays out a red carpet for Tendulkar

A frustrating end: Ugly might be an understatement to describe events on the final day in the SCG

Laxman shows his very, very steely side: The beauty of graft

Smells like team spirit: History at Perth

Tendulkar does a Don in Adelaide: The skies were clear but it would have been fitting if a rainbow hung over the arena.

The victory of the lambs: India’s CB Series triumph pointed to a new beginning

‘If there’s commitment, that’s victory for me’: MS Dhoni on captaincy

The last Samurai: Sehwag’s monster triple in Chennai

Bye bye Kumble: Turn is temporary, wickets are permanent

Losing my religion: The change of guard in Indian cricket has pulled the rug out from under the feet of a generation of cricket watchers

The baton passes. And how!:  The Tendulkar generation rises to the top of the world

When Dravid was there: Dravid joins Gavaskar on 34 centuries

Rahul Dravid and the eternal lament: Dravid’s one-day career was played out in a parallel universe compared with his Test career

Virender Sehwag and what we don’t know: Why it may take many years to understand his greatness

Goodbye Dravid: India’s most versatile cricketer walks away

Tendulkar gets a monument. And a barroom number: A hundred international hundreds

Goodbye VVS: Cricket’s ultimate toy-artist bids adieu

Dhoni and the art of the impossible: Celebrating a badass finisher

Growing up with Sachin: How Tendulkar helped a generation of Indians make sense of their lives

When he walks out to the middle: Every Sachin Tendulkar innings is a mini Ganeshotsav, imbued with a sense of occasion, teeming with expectation and possibility.

The grand piano has left the building: Everybody has a Tendulkar story. Everybody has a hole inside them now that he has gone

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