The Irreverence of Rishabh Pant

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Jimmy Anderson is the ‘cockroach’ of swing and seam bowling. Emblematic of an indefatigable spirit, the man just refuses to be cowed down or dominated. On the unforgiving tracks of Sri Lanka and India, Anderson’s figures in his last four Tests read 88.5-41-148-13. And the man is all of 39 years old. Yet even the maestro might have had a jaw dropping moment when an impudent, impetuous and yet incandescent southpaw, sixteen years younger than him, almost dropped down on one knee to reverse sweep (yes you read that right) him over the slips for an audacious boundary on the 5th of March 2021.

The Narendra Modi Stadium, the largest cricket ground in the world, was the subject of  contradiction and caustic debates following India’s demolition of Joe Root’s England in the Third Test Match of the ongoing India v England Test series. The pitch on which the game that did not even last the whole of two days, was intensely debated, defended, dissected and denigrated. However the same venue that is hosting the final test match of the series has been a philharmonic that has, after two full days, played a totally different kind of music. A deck that has aided swing, abetted bounce and also assisted the spinners landing the ball on a length.

On this level playing field, where the ball was coming onto the bat with a refreshing nicety, England won the toss and had no hesitation to bat first. However, yet another phenomenal performance by the Indian spinners coupled with some appalling batsmanship saw the English innings fold for a score just over 200. The Indian batsmen, in turn made their opponents modest score look like a magisterial mountain when four quick wickets fell with the scoreboard reading a paltry 80. Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli both failing to open their account.

The mercurial talent and a veritable motor mouth behind the stumps, Rishabh Pant, walked in to partner an unusually quiet, albeit steady Rohit Sharma. In the game of cricket, there is a phrase pregnant with import and indispensability. Match-awareness. Sizing up the situation ultimately leads to the seizing of an occasion. Pant looks to have made these two words an uncompromising flagship of his cricketing lexicon. Curbing his natural instinct, Pant nudged, tucked, nibbled, pushed, and dabbed through the initial bit of his innings. Even when he first lost Rohit Sharma, and then Ravichandran Ashwin, Pant did not look to attack. With India in a precarious situation at 146-6, it looked as though the visitors would be the beneficiaries of an improbable lead.

Washington Sundar, another rising star joined Pant. Sundar has about him a poise that is inveterate and an assurance that is innate. These twin attributes came into play as the 21 year-old played an impeccable foil to the more ‘experienced’ 23 year-old. The pair frustrated England with a combination of judgment and footwork. Getting to the pitch of the ball to the slow bowlers to smother the spin and exercising caution against the quicks, the pair began a process of consolidation. Pant reached an assiduously compiled half century. Between the time, Pant took guard, and pushed a delivery to long-on before acknowledging the crowd and his teammates, he had consumed 82 deliveries. This was the same application which the left hander had brought to bear in India’s epochal victory at the Gabba a month or two earlier.

As and when the scoreboard commenced to take on hues on respectability, Pant’s colours of possibility began to shine in resplendence. After the indomitable Adam Gilchrist, Pant is undoubtedly the most entertaining wicket keeper batsmen. Even though he has some way to go before he can be on par with the greatest wicket keeping batsman of all time (sorry Sangakkara), he is already showing signs of greatness. Collaring the English bowling he slashed, smote, smoked and swept away with gay abandon.

A phenomenal sequence of events commencing in the 81st over and climaxing in the 83rd over held the viewer in a frenzied grip of fevered imagination. Striding down the track to Anderson, Pant spanked the first ball of the 81st over through long off for a scorching boundary. The very next delivery was sent rocketing past the fielders in the infield. Boundary number 2. The only other eventful delivery of the over was a single off the fifth ball.

Over number 82. Enter Ben Stokes. Exit ball. The first delivery of the 82nd over was pitched slightly outside the off-stump. Pant imperiously picked up the stray delivery and swatted it away through midwicket for a disdainful boundary. Washington Sundar, who at the other end might have felt left out did not want to miss out on some magic of his own. Finding himself at the striker’s end after Pant gathered a single, Sundar threaded two magnificent boundaries of his own displaying a regal sense of timing and placement.

The Indian revival reached a crescendo, with Pant on 89. Jimmy Anderson ran in to bowl the first ball of the 83rd over. The ball was a tad bit short and bowled on and around the off and middle stump line. Rishabh Pant, like a jack in the box, changed his stance, almost dropping down on one knee, before reverse sweeping the ball over the heads of the slip cordon – off balance almost – for an audacious boundary. A popular cricketing website declared that the shot represented an indignity towards Jimmy Anderson. Rubbish! I do not think there is a single batsman in the world worth his salt who would even attempt to foist indignity on this magnificent bowler. Some may term the shot, an impetuosity of youth, while others may lay claim to the impudence of talent. While it could be both, it was in its plain, pure and simple essence, an act of irreverence. An irreverence that is inimitable to Rishabh Pant. An irreverence that is the imprimatur of one of India’s brightest ever prospect. An irreverence that treats a score of 89 as just another combination of numbers in the cosmic world. An irreverence that brings a teeming populace to fill the grounds and keep the game of cricket alive in all formats. An irreverence that no one acknowledges more than the wily genius off whose bowling this improbable shot was executed. Jimmy was neither non-plussed nor deflated. He was just acknowledging. V.V.S.Laxman, waxing eloquent on a TV show at the end of the game emphatically declared that irrespective of the games that may be played throughout the year 2021, this reverse sweep would be the “shot of the year” in his books. It may or may not be. Maybe there might be played an even more contemptuous shot that would take the breath away of friends and foes alike. But it is evident that no shot would be played this year that symbolizes a degree of irreverence attached to Rishabh Pant’s extraordinary reverse sweep.

https://www.bcci.tv/videos/151336/how-did-pant-play-that-shot-

This was also the same irreverence that saw Pant perish in attempting to smite a short pitched ball off Anderson through the leg side and making contact with the toe end of the bat instead. But before this fault stroke, the marvelous stroke maker reached his third Test Match century by depositing Joe Root over the square leg boundary for a gargantuan six. Irreverence.

This is the irreverence that instils hope when one is down in the depths of despair. This is the irreverence that is revered by so many ordinary mortals.

Stay irreverent, stay cool, Stay Pant!

Death by Aesthetics: The Rohit Sharma Way

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Cricketing tracks that play truant in terms of reneging on their responsibility to last the routine duration of a game are commonly referred to as minefields, dustbowls etc. When England spinner Jack Leach, landed a hard new ball that was just 9.1 overs old (or young), on a good length at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on the 13th of February 2021, both India and England knew that they had more than just a misbehaving pitch on hand. A veritable explosion resulted from the spot where the ball landed. The scurrilous puff of dust had laid the ominous template for the rest of the game, and also, in all probability for the series as well. A series where the visitors led by Joe Root had their noses in front after besting India at the same venue a week before.

The writer S.S.Van Dine, in his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, set out twenty quintessential elements that were vital for a crime or a mystery novel to succeed. Unfortunately, no similar recommendations exist for instructing batsmen to survive the vagaries of a track characterized by spiteful bounce and vicious turn. No more can anyone teach a batsman to protect his wicket on an unpredictable track than can one instruct a brave soldier to survive artillery barrages in the course of a trench warfare. The harsh reality here is ‘each one onto his own.’ This is exactly the situation which the Indian batsmen found themselves in, on an otherwise bright and sunny Chennai morning. The home team seemed to have squandered away a critical toss when in a grave error of judgment, young Shubman Gill shouldered arms to a lightning fast straight one from Olly Stone that saw him trapped plumb in front. As dead as a dodo for a blob. The prospects for an Indian revival seemed to be obfuscated by pixie dusts of doom when spin was introduced earlier than usual, and the pitch seemed to accommodate the entrants with more than a mere tinge of benevolence.

Batsmen over the course of their career develop their own methods to counter tracks that are unusual suspects. While the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara wage an attritional warfare, the clan of Rishabh Pant attempts to negate the malice of the pitch by resorting to pure and uninhibited aggression. But there is a unique breed of batsmen that cock a snook at both attrition and aggression. This singularly peculiar variety places its bet on pure aesthetics. A pioneer of this unusual method is Rohit Sharma. No batsman has this unimaginable propensity to exasperate a fan than this elegant right hander and the skipper of Mumbai Indians. Languid, lithe and lambent, Rohit Sharma has supple wrists, sublime stroke making and seraphic timing. Yet, more often than not his batting is a ‘gedankenexperiment’. People are left wondering what could have been than what actually has been. Just when he seems to be getting into a fluent and flawless rhythm, Rohit Sharma executes a shot which even Rohit Sharma would be wont to avoid thereby sacrificing his wicket. But on the days his strategy comes up trump, he is an epitome of incandescence.

The sparse Chennai crowd (the reduction being a necessity on account of the COVID-19 pandemic), on the 13th of February was lucky to witness a Rohit Sharma experiment come good. The opener oblivious to the early loss of Gill, set about collaring an honest and hard working English bowling attack comprising Stuart Broad, Olly Stone, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jack Leach. Rohit Sharma does not ‘smite’ sixes, he just assists the ball on its journey over the ropes. Rohit Sharma does not crunch or smash boundaries, he just whispers to the ball and munificently provides the direction which it needs to take for it to speed away towards the boundary ropes. In the contemporary history of the gentleman’s game, Rohit Sharma is the equivalent of Caesar Milan. Rohit Sharma is the ultimate “ball whisperer”. Ignoring the vicissitudes of a dangerous pitch, Sharma drove with elan, pulled with panache and flicked with exquisite grace. The preternatural gift of timing that has made him such a dangerous batsman, held friends and foes alike in thrall. Sharma also dusted off the closet a powerful weapon in the form of the sweep. A shot which he had abhorred during the course of the first test, the sweep turned out to be a trusted ally. Not allowing either Moeen or Leach to settle, Sharma swept them off on length to propitious results. An 85 run partnership with the obdurate Pujara was followed by a gargantuan 161 run partnership with Ajinkya Rahane. This after Captain Kohli was bamboozled and bewildered before being bested by a beauty by Moeen Ali. A ball that had drift, dip, deceit and direction.

Rohit Sharma, however, was like C.S.Forester’s boy who stood on the burning deck. When an entire philharmonic was at sixes and sevens, a single musician seemed to have orchestrated a symphony. Adept on the front foot and adroit on the back, Sharma, cut, pulled and drove with utter disdain. He was putting on an exhibition that was resplendent in quality and rewarding in quantity. He did all of this without  seemingly expending a drop of sweat. The only physical discomfiture or exertion seemed to be the raising of the bat three times to signify scores of 50,100 and 150. When finally, Sharma perished sweeping Leach into the hands of Moeen Ali, his side was not just heaving a sigh of relief, but also ensconced in a cocoon of comfort. Sharma’s lambent 161 had placed India in a position of  ascendancy if not utter dominance.

Livid with himself, on playing a ‘faulty’ shot, Sharma admonished himself by throwing his head back and swinging his bat with the frenzy of a man possessed. But he had done his duty. In fact, the man had transcended his call of duty by rising to the occasion in a manner that was inimitable and indomitable. Rohit Sharma has pulled off a trick which only Rohit Sharma was capable of. A trick resplendent in its import and imminence.

Meanwhile, it is time for day 2 of the Trench warfare and Rishabh Pant to hold the Indian tricolour aloft and afloat.

The Philosophy of Interludes

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Inglorious epitaphs were penned when India folded up in spectacular fashion for a paltry 36 in Adelaide. Exactly a month following this debacle, epigrammatic paeans are being scripted, some  by the same scathing pens, as India has incredibly managed to not just come back from the dead, but also inflict upon the hosts their first ever defeat in Brisbane since 1988. History, in general is biased against interludes, choosing to focus instead, on beginnings and ends. Yet, it is interludes that bridge zenith and nadir, and link triumphs with tribulations. The pause between the humiliation at Adelaide, and proudly holding up the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Brisbane, has been for Ajinkya Rahane’s ragtag assemblage, one punctuated by injuries, interspersed with battles of attrition, sprinkled with yet more injuries, and assailed by off the field provocations and uncivil riling. Yet, this motley crew, choose to embrace such an eventful hyphenation in its stride, preferring to concentrate more on cause, than be rattled by consequence. This Eckhart Tolle kind of serenity that put mind over matter lent a surreal equilibrium between sagacity and success. The skipper himself, has been a purveyor of equanimity. Possessing a perpetual sagely demeanour, he has demonstrated that he could be impervious to pleasure and impermeable to pain.

Considering the fact that the Indian team was more a nomadic band of the walking wounded than a well-oiled fighting machine, it was a veritable miracle that eleven cricketers with fully functional limbs lined up to the strains of the Indian national anthem on the 15th of January. Only the captain, and the dour Cheteshwar Pujara had played all three previous tests. Ample monument to the injury woes of the touring team. Making their daunting debuts were Washington Sundar and T. Natarajan. As seems to be the unfortunate wont of Rahane, he promptly lost the toss and Tim Paine had no qualms in electing to bat first. Paine had mockingly dared Ravichandran Ashwin during the course of the latter’s epic resistance at Sydney in the Third test, to lock horns with the Australians at the Gabba. Ashwin’s truant back further exacerbated the uncomfortably long list of the injured and hence he was restrained from taking up the gauntlet thrown at him by Paine. The Gabba, also known as the Gabbattoir (a clever take on the sombre word Abattoir), was Australian cricket’s metaphor for invincibility. The last visiting team to scalp a victory over the Aussies at the Gabba pulled off this feat more than three decades ago. Analogous to tech speak, if the Gabba was a Digital Fortress, then the Indian team was attempting to hack a state of the art technology using archaic tools such as punch cards and outdated language in the form of BASIC. But what is cricket after all, if not sticking to the basics?

Despite the fidgety Marnus Labuschagne chalking up a frenzied century, and Tim Paine contributing an assured 50, the rookie Indian bowling outfit managed to prevent the Aussies from going on the rampage, curtailing the innings to 369. Before the Test began, an astounding statistic doing the rounds on social media, captured the yawning gap, nay chasm, in experience separating the two teams. While the combined Indian bowling attack of Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, and Natarajan had 14 wickets against their name, their competitors in the form of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon had collectively notched up a gobsmacking tally of 1013 wickets in international cricket! Statistics though, can be overwhelming only for those who opt to peruse them! From the stirring performance of India’s bowlers, it may be safely inferred that in both attention and attitude, the young pacemen were far removed from such weighty numerical details. While Natarajan and Shardul accounted for 3 wickets each, it was the 21 year old Washington Sundar who was a revelation. If not as exotic as his name, his bowling was engaging enough to outfox three obdurate Australian batsmen, including the run machine Steve Smith (Sundar’s first wicket in Test Match cricket). The sorcerer seemed to have found his apprentice.

In reply, the Indian innings was soon reduced to 186 for 6 after a refreshingly breezy start, in the wake of some relentless hostility from Cummins and Hazlewood. With the prospects looking as bleak as the ominous overhang of the notoriously dark Brisbane clouds, Shardul Thakur, joined Washington Sundar at the crease. The predators were all set to finish their prey off. The ability of India to bounce back from adversity has undergone a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in this series. What earlier was an occasional feature now seems an ingrained habit. Gabba was no exception to this newly sculpted norm. Sundar and Shardul held the formidable Aussie attack at bay for a frustratingly long time as they proceeded to add 124 invaluable runs for the seventh wicket, a record for India at Brisbane. While Sundar drove and flicked with elan, Shardul pulled and cut with panache and flair. When Pat Cummins finally got a ball to nip and peg back Shardul’ s stumps, India had progressed to 318, trailing the Aussie total by just 51 runs. Expectedly, when the tail failed to wag and after Sundar too perished trying to accelerate the scoring, the end was nigh. The final wicket fell with India conceding a lead of 33 runs.

In trying to force the pace, the Aussies went for some quick runs in their second innings. Smith and David Warner were aggressive, and Marcus Harris lent a token glimpse of his potential. A total of 294 meant that India had to score the highest ever fourth innings score at the Gabba to notch an improbable victory that would put them on the same pedestal as Sir Viv’s powerful squad of 1988-89 in terms of records. In the alternative India could just forget about getting 328 runs and play out time. From an Indian perspective, a draw was as good as a win, since they would be successfully retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in the event honours were evenly split. Siraj donning the mantle of the lead fast bowler in only his third test match, picked up a memorable five-for emulating the earlier exploits of Josh Hazlewood.

The fifth day began on an inauspicious note for the visitors as Rohit Sharma departed without even flattering to deceive, edging one from Cummins to Paine. What followed next was an extraordinary passage of play. The fearless Shubman Gill struck some rasping blows, while many a rasping blow did more than just strike Cheteshwar Pujara. Like an incorrigible pugilist thrusting his face forward in spite of being repeatedly punched towards oblivion, Pujara absorbed knock after knock employing inexplicable technique and exhibiting incomparable courage. Eleven stinging deliveries made unsympathetic contact with random parts of his anatomy. Ribs were rattled; fingers were rapped. Elbows and shoulders gamely attempted to stand firm against the onslaught of a barrage of short pitch deliveries that rose like hooded cobras. But the most dangerous ball of them all left Hazlewood’ s hand with a devious purpose, and angled into the right hander’s helmet with such violence that it almost executed an unbelievable 360 degree spin. A visibly angry Hazlewood was in no frame of mind for niceties, glaring at Pujara before asking, “Did you see that one?” But neither was Hazlewood John Cena and nor was the occasion an elaborate arrangement of fiction. An unperturbed Pujara nonchalantly signaled for a replacement helmet and proceeded to grind away. He was a gigantic sponge that absorbed, assimilated and accounted for all that was hurled at it. Even though Pujara’ s exploits might not have been a replica of Brian Close against the fearsome West Indian pacers, there surely would be blue saucers to sport as a badge of honour in the ice bath. The Australians were left to tackle a new breed of resilient cockroach that could be stamped, sprayed, smote and swiped, but never killed.

Gill proceeded on his merry way, even taking Starc for 16 off an over before perishing to Lyon, and falling just 9 short of what would have been a magnificent century. Gill and Pujara had seen India safely through to lunch and Rahane, within moments of arriving at the crease made his intentions pretty clear. Busily accumulating runs, he sashayed down the pitch to Lyon depositing him deep into the vacant stands. However, Rahane’s egregiousness got the better of him as he nicked one to Paine in attempting a ramp shot. The stage was set for Rishabh Pant. The pudgy wicket keeper might have been the hero of Sydney, but he had some unfinished business to attend to. Starting off sedately he put only the bad balls away, nudging, patting, flicking, tapping and even shouldering the rest. His intrepid state of mind was on dazzling display when he strode down the track and smote Lyon back over mid on for a huge six. The fact that the previous delivery had after landing on spun away from the batsman and evaded both wicket keeper and first slip seemed not to have influenced Pant’s attitude, even a jot!

Two deliveries into the new ball with still a 100 more runs to get, the unflappable Pujara’ s immoveable resistance finally met its match. That tireless warrior amongst all bowlers, and the highest wicket taker in the series, Pat Cummins trapped India’s No.3 leg before. The workhorse, to his credit had shun all forms of gamesmanship in favour of nagging line and length and was reaping rich rewards for his unwavering commitment. But it took not just the resoluteness of Cummins, but also the benefit of an Umpire’s call to send the battered and bruised gladiator back to the pavilion.

When Mayank Agarwal soon followed Pujara, after scratching around for an unconvincing and visibly uncomfortable score of 9, the Australians had their tails up. India still had 63 runs to get for what would be an epochal victory, with 5 wickets in hand. They had 13.2 overs in which to attempt the impossible. For the second time in the match, Washington Sundar was asked to prove his mettle and account for his character. This he did with aplomb. Initially showing the makers name of his broad blade in immaculate defense, he opened up his shoulders at every given opportunity thereby playing the perfect foil to Rishabh Pant, who by now was looking positively in the zone. When Sundar imperiously pulled a ball of searing pace from a wayward Cummins for six, it was obvious for everyone watching that the lad was here to stay. Meanwhile, displaying an exquisite blend of controlled aggression, Pant dispatched the Australian bowling to every part of the ground. The Indians who were supposed to be flattened on the green grass within the confines of a ‘fortress’ were making the Australians look like a ragged and confused pound shop variants of Rip Van Winkles, who after a long bout of involuntary torpor, had visibly lost all their bearings. When Rishabh Pant drove a ball to the mid-off boundary to finally seal an epochal series retaining victory, it was the bruise to an inflated Australian ego that would more likely than not, have induced more pain than the ones littering Cheteshwar Pujara’ s body. The digital fortress had not just been breached, but had been rendered obsolete as well with no room for an upgrade.

The philosophy of the interludes had made possible the transition from boys to men. The practice in the interlude had altered self-doubt to an iron clad self-belief. History would do well to more than merely book end interludes or consign them to a minuscule footnote in fine print hidden by the more alluring chronicles of initiations and outcomes. The time in between the test matches in the indelible Australian series has been one such seraphic interlude. An interlude in which a band of brothers decided to reinvent themselves, reimagine possibilities and rewrite history.

“Did you see that one, Mr. Hazelwood?”

Pataudi: nawab of cricket – edited by Suresh Menon

Pataudi- Nawab of Cricket: Suresh Menon: 9789350296073: Amazon.com: Books

Former England captain, the late Trevor Bailey, once predicted that the ninth Nawab of Pataudi would turn out to be as prodigious and incandescent as Sir Garfield Sobers. As a school boy at Winchester, this talented son of an illustrious father (Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, along with Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji were the only cricketers to have donned the national colours of both England and India in cricket), set the turf alight by going on to break every perceivable record, including that held by Douglas Jardine for the most number of runs. Then misfortune and fate contrived to put paid to what otherwise would have been a sparkling career. A car accident left him completely devoid of eyesight in his right eye. In his typical undaunted fashion, ‘Tiger’ – as he was fondly addressed by teammates and friends alike – shrugged this tragedy aside and went on to change the very façade of Indian cricket in more ways than one, ways the impact of which reverberate even to this day.

In this short compilation, edited by the preternatural cricket writer Suresh Menon, glorious facets of this gallant beacon of Indian cricket are revealed to an excited reader. What makes this book all the more relevant is the fact that it is more a clinical dissection of the genius of the man both on and off the field, than a forced panegyric. Contributors include Tiger Pataudi’s contemporaries as well as opponents. There is a stirring and poignant foreword penned by Tiger’s wife, Sharmila Tagore, not to mention two equally eloquent reminiscences, courtesy his daughters Saba and Soha Ali Khan.

Vijay Merchant, one of India’s earliest batting greats and also former Chairman of selectors recounts the unfortunate and untimely circumstance that led Tiger Pataudi to assume the mantle of captain at a tender age of twenty one. Selected as an understudy to Nari Contractor on the Caribbean tour of 1962, Pataudi was reluctantly thrust into the limelight when a nasty bouncer by Charlie Griffith not only felled Contractor but also ended his career. Thus, a young scion was left to handle experienced cricketers older than him by almost two decades. What happened next was the stuff of legends. As Bishen Singh Bedi, that glorious off spinner, remembers, Pataudi became the glue that bound the players together. In an era where provincialism and geography mattered more than meritocracy and mettle, Pataudi drilled into his team the singularly necessary mindset that it was an Indian team, and not a Karnataka, or a Tamil Nadu or a Delhi team.

He was also a captain who walked the talk. Never one to take refuge behind his irreversible handicap, he adjusted and adapted his game to overcome adversity in a manner only he could have conceived. The result was a few innings of spectacular import and gravity. The feisty and scrappy Australian Ian Chappell writes with a sense of awe on one such essay of absolute class and calculated risk taking that left an Australian attack dumbstruck. In the 1967 Melbourne Test, Pataudi already hampered by a serious leg injury dragged his visage to the crease after an attack led by McKenzie had India in absolute tatters at 25 for 5. Pataudi decided to take the bowling by the scruff of its neck and proceeded to score an imperious 75. With one temporarily nonfunctional leg and a permanently impaired eye, the nawab had proceeded to provide a regal exhibition. Similarly, Ray Robinson waxes eloquent over the 203 not out amassed against Mike Smith’s touring squad in the 1964 series. After ploughing through 97 overs for his century, the nawab cut loose and ravaged the English attack comprising of Parfitt and Smith, among others to smash 103 runs off only 40 overs. If this reads absurd to the unsuspected, living in the age of instant gratification and immediate results, this was an era where ODIs were not even a concept, let alone T20.

Pataudi was also a fielder par excellence. Constantly on the prowl, the cover area was his kingdom and he was the unsurpassed monarch of all he surveyed. Quicksilver to the ball and possessing a bullet throw, he was a veritable nemesis to the quick single. However, after his calamitous accident, he could no longer rule the roost close-in. As was his innate wont, he converted this impediment into an opportunity and became Indian cricket’s best outfielder.

Pataudi was also not beyond the occasional prank. Possessing a wicked sense of humour, he could be a nightmare for an innocuous teammate. During the course of a Caribbean tour, Pataudi and Farokh Engineer put on Caribbean accents, telephoned their teammates in the rooms and clamoured for everyone to rush to the reception in whatever garb they were attired in, since a hurricane was headed their way. “The sight of a bunch of Indians in their pyjamas, dhotis and shorts searching for a hurricane in the reception area….was one of the highlights of a tour where we lost all five Tests.”

When it came to tactical acumen, Pataudi was way ahead of his time. When conventional and received wisdom dictated the presence of two seamers, irrespective of quality (or an absolute lack of it) and two spinning options, Pataudi upended conventions by fielding a troika or even a quartet of spinners! Even if wicket keeper batsman Budhi Kunderan had to wield the new ball just so that it becomes old, then so be it. The outcome: a spinning quartet of vintage quality the likes of which had never been seen before and would arguably be never seen again. Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagawat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkatraghavan were all provided wings by Pataudi to soar hard and high and by Jove, did they soar!

As Rahul Dravid informs the reader, Pataudi also fought for the player’s cause and was at the forefront of an attempt to form a players’ association. Even though such an endeavour did not come to fruition, its objective was more or less accomplished with the Board enhancing the remuneration and compensation of the players.

The book contains a plethora of anecdotes and is permeated with enduring memories. While the book might have contributed a lot in dispelling a great deal of reverential myth associated with Pataudi the man, it also embellished in great deal the aura – deserving by every stretch of imagination – attached to Pataudi the cricketer. Every contributor seems to have endorsed a universal attribute of pride and fortune that ensured that they were in some manner or other tied together with a colossus who strode through the world of cricket. A true prince in philosophy, principles, practice and pedigree.

Sydney 2021

From a playing eleven that had already lost so much in terms of talent even before taking the field, could there be anything substantial left to be extracted? It was with this quandary that a depleted Indian squad – more a motley crew than a well lubricated fighting machine – gamely lined up alongside their much vaunted hosts at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the third test Match in the ongoing Border Gavaskar Trophy. When the spin of the coin too did not go the way of the visitors, the universal consensus was that they were in for a long haul. But four grueling, unforgiving and thankless days, unwelcome injuries, and swirling controversies later, Rahane’s men, were not just standing toe to toe with Paine’s Aussies but also slugging it out with a pugilist’s resilience, that would have received unabashed approbation from the slayer of Goliath even. Factors both intrinsic and extraneous has conspired and contrived in attempting to thwart the Indians from putting up any formidable resistance. While Steve Smith, Will Pucovski and Cameron Green wielded their willows with gay abandon, a bunch of visibly egregious, possibly drunk, and definitely uncivil spectators – whose presence besmirched the very image of the game and tarnished the reputation of the venue – directed a tirade of abuse at Mohammed Siraj, who was manning the boundary line in one part of the field. This was a man who was passing through an extraordinarily poignant stage in not just his fledgling career, but also in his personal life. He had missed his father’s funeral, courtesy the stringent regulations imposed by the “bio-secure bubble”, a concomitant to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Siraj and the Indians stood by a firm conviction that the slurs aimed were racial in their hue and colour, Cricket Australia in tandem with the New South Wales law enforcement authorities launched an investigation into the matter. The results are yet to come, at the time of this writing.

It was against this unenviable backdrop of events that the dour Cheteshwar Pujara strode out to the middle with skipper Ajinkya Rahane in tow, with India at 98-2 (requiring 407 for an improbable win), on a bright fifth day morning. As if getting to grips with the unsettling experience of being abused was not enough, India now had to negotiate the devil that was an uneven bounce. This devil’s appetite would be whetted in no small measure by a frighteningly even world class bowling attack. Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon, in addition to each being an amanuensis to line and length were also devotees of pace and disciples of deception. When Ajinkya Rahane departed in the second over of the day, one could not have faulted the prophets of doom and naysayers for making a beeline to the betting counters. Enter Rishabh Pant. A feisty character whose very game plan is singularly based on the motto of “rile and let rile”, Pant decided that the restrictions on the number of spectators imposed by COVID-19 would not prevent him from laying out a dizzying exhibition of stroke play, the likes of which are rarely witnessed with regular frequency. Nursing an elbow that was lucky enough not to have been broken after taking a nasty blow in the first innings, Pant displayed audacity and artistic flair in equal measure. Sashaying down the track to the spinner and slashing the fast bowler over third man and deep backward point, the young Indian wicket keeper took the attack to the opposition. By the time a gob smacked Aussie attack came to terms with the damage inflicted by the southpaw, he was within a scoring shot of a century. A rash shot, (rash for the armchair critic, but a perfectly understandable item in the Pant handbook of cricket), resulted in Pant falling short of a ton by just 3 runs. However, he had infused a belligerent surge of optimism in the Indian camp. All along the rock called Pujara was standing firm, impervious to pace and impartial to spin.

More ill luck was in store for India. In going for a quick single Hanuma Vihari, arguably playing for his place in the squad, pulled a hamstring that rendered him more or less immobile. When Pujara finally departed, castled by Hazelwood for a typically gutsy 77, the writing was on the Indian wall. The fat lady was in all probability, preparing to hail a cab that would take her to the auditorium. With Jadeja nursing a fractured thumb, and only the pacemen to follow, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable collapse would commence.

However, a pair of walking wounded had other ideas. According to a tweet posted by Ravichandran Ashwin’s wife, the day following the match, her husband had tweaked his back in such a bad fashion that it was an excruciating endeavour for him to bend down to tie his bootlaces even. But no physical detriment would deter these two incapacitated men on this particular day. Like the preternaturally bold Spartans of Leonidas, the duo buckled down and countered all that was hurled at them. And boy did the Aussies hurl! From a barrage of short pitched deliveries (perfectly legitimate), indulging in intimidatory tactics such as when Matthew Wade impudently squared up to Ashwin, (not crossing the line though), to throwing the ball back at Vihari on a couple of occasions when he was well within his crease (behaviour of frustrated juveniles), the Aussies tried it all. The brute pace of the deliveries and the spite off the pitch made the batsmen squirm and shift. While Vihari standing on one leg, with a saintly demeanour, looked accomplished, Ashwin, especially against the pacemen was like a cat on a hot tin roof. He fended, fenced, ducked and hopped. But all that hopping served to embellish the hoping that stirred in the hearts, minds and imagination of millions of people watching from thousands of miles away and egging him on from the confines of their living rooms. Vihari was never hamstrung in his intent. Ashwin would let only his bat and not his back dictate terms and talk.

And when these, tactics ranging from the banal to the boorish didn’t work, the Australian Captain decided to take matters into his own gloved hands. These were the hands that were unusually prone to blunders in this Test Match. Having dropped a couple of edges, Tim Paine was now resolute that he would drop his dignity too. An insistent volley of snide chatter escaped the skipper’s lips as he engaged Ashwin in some unparliamentary chatter. Even though, at one point, he gave back what he received, Ashwin was mostly an Odysseus who tied himself to the mast of his ship so as to prevent himself from being distracted by the songs of the Sirens. Although, I am sure that when it came to melody. Paine’s men who formed the close in cordon are incapable of holding a candle vis-à-vis the Sirens.

It would be unwise to lend dignity to the remarks of Tim Paine by discussing his verbal assault, let alone reproducing it here.  Even though he was gentlemanly enough to admit his idiocy with more than just a hint of remorse, it does not detract from the ugly and ungainly conduct he resorted to, to dislodge Ashwin from the crease. Putting one’s limb on the line to ensuring that one’s nation comes out unscathed, if not victorious in any sporting encounter is an indisputable badge of honour for every sportsman. It is also his/her beholden duty. Tim Paine should have been the most appropriate individual to realise this since it was one of his own countrymen who braved every insurmountable hurdle from heat to exhaustion, to the calibre of his opponents, in engineering to produce one of the greatest ever outcomes in a game of cricket. The late great Dean Jones would, in his inimitable candour, have put Paine in his place from the confines of the commentator’s box if he was to have borne witness to the perfectly avoidable fiasco.

When the dust finally settled and the resolution of the Aussies was broken, one over remained in the day’s play. When Tim Paine grudgingly shook hands with Vihari and Ashwin, India still had 5 wickets in hand. One of the Australian channels put up a caption asserting India had pulled off a Great escape. Nonsense! It was the other way around. It was the Aussies who had their lucky stars to thank. The best bowling line up plying their wares today had totally failed, on their home turf to dislodge two visiting batsmen, one of whom was fighting for form, while the other was fighting for his future. The fact that both of them were visibly injured further adds to the import and gravity of this futility. Ashwin and Vihari were literally out on a limb, and yet had managed to successfully evade close to or even over 250 deliveries. They had played out the equivalent of an entire innings constituting a one day international, but without the attendant glitz and glamour. For Tim Paine who condescendingly asked Ashwin how many IPL franchises had turned him down, Vihari and Ashwin had formed their very own IPL – Indian Perseverance League. An IPL to enter which, Paine needs to demonstrate a gargantuan degree of talent and skill, which he is clearly and unfortunately short of.

I realise now that the eleven indomitable spirits who took the field at Sydney were neither besieged by quandary nor besotted with conundrums. It was I who was being apprehensive of their abilities in a genuinely fond manner. While I am more than euphoric to be proved wrong, nothing warms the innermost cockles of my heart more than the fact that they made the Australians eat humble pie in their own back yard. While it might have been Ashwin who was hopping in the middle for a wee bit of time, it was ultimately the Kangaroos who were left hopping mad and bewildered when time was called at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Mendicant In The Middle – The Cheteshwar Pujara Way

Image result for Pujara

Often times, efficacy and effectiveness get obscured if not obfuscated by aesthetics. While this is a fact possessing universal applicability, the contrast is more explicitly and especially brought to bear in the world of sport. The same move executed by two different sportsmen can be as dissimilar as chalk from cheese, even though the outcomes are absolutely the same. A silken smooth forehand cross-court executed with exquisite grace by Roger Federer as against a “Hawaiian Gripped” double handed rustic heave by Alberto Berasategui; a lumbering tackle by Gennaro Gattuso versus a deft hoodwink by Paolo Maldini.  Cricket, then, is no exception to the norm. The supple wrist work of a Laxman or the serene languidness of a Mark Waugh garners more eyeballs than say an obdurate prod of a Chanderpaul.

At the time of writing this piece, India stands on the verge of completing an epochal series win in Australia (an achievement that has eluded the country for seven painful decades). This extraordinary circumstance has been made possible by a combination of intrinsic factors hitherto unusual for a touring Indian team such as a maniacal trio of magnificent pacemen, and extraneous dynamics such as a hapless and seemingly unsettled Australian team all at sea against their opposition. But towering over all other influences has been the colossal presence in the middle of one unassuming, unyielding, and uncompromising batsman, a presence around whom an entire team has revolved.

Cheteshwar Pujara, has in the seven innings which he has played till now (the unenviable position in which Australia find themselves combined with the prospects of an inclement weather with one day left in the final test at Sydney, makes it unlikely that the Indian No.3 will get another knock), has accumulated 521 runs at an average of 74.42. This includes three centuries, and a duck to boot. To quote Nenia Campbell, “all statistics have outliers.” An incredulous outlier layered between the statistics relating to Pujara’s tally of runs and that is wont to go unnoticed is the number of hours spent by him at the crease. Over a period of four Tests, Pujara has batted for more than 28 hours – yes you read that right – frustrating, flummoxing and fending away an exasperated set of Australian bowlers. He has done all of this employing a style of batting that does not produce any paeans to élan or elegance. Grit and gumption, rather than grace characterize Pujara’s stints at the crease. He can never be the flamboyant showman holding his admirers in an ecstatic thrall. On the contrary he is the enlightened Mendicant in the Middle. A mendicant suffused with purpose and blessed with powers of immense concentration.

A Virat Kohli or a Hashim Amla has this unique ability to produce a melody out of every shot and to string a whole song out of an innings. Flowing cover drives, delicate late cuts, and effortless flicks all machinate to manufacture moments of sheer ecstasy. It is as though the magical batsman is putting on a show to please the phalanx of Gods admiringly observing him going about his masterful craft. Pujara, however would beg to differ. A cover drive for him can never be an exercise in crafting melody. It is just a purposeful extension of the arm and lending precise directions to the ball. Thus the spectacle of Pujara paying incandescent homage to a forward defensive stroke by looking down the ball until it drops dead right at his feet, but not before making an uneventful acquaintance with the middle of his bat, is unlikely to elicit either gasps of breath or squeals of delight from his audience.

However, it is this adamant and inflexible attitude that has ensured that India reap rich and fulfilling rewards. In all the Test Matches in the current series, Pujara, has (with the exception of one game where Mayank Agarwal opened with Hanuma Vihari) found himself literally arriving at the crease as an opener. With Murali Vijay unable to find his form and K.L. Rahul his feet, the burden of blunting the new ball has been firmly and invariably foisted upon the shoulders of Pujara. Those shoulders have not sagged. Ball after ball, over after over, minute after minute, and hour after hour, this human metronome has continued to bat, and bat and bat! Beginning his innings with erudite nudges and educated pushes, Pujara articulates a mode of batting that has method for a brain and courage as its spine. Emulating the essence of judgment which his predecessor seemed to possess in abundance, Pujara seems to know the position of his off-stump to the nearest millimeter. This knowledge bars every recourse to ill-fated fishing expeditions. Although adept at judging the length of the ball, and equally comfortable on both the back as well as the front foot, Pujara reserves all his horizontal strokes till such time he has entrenched himself at the crease. While his compatriots exude flair, he emanates stoicism and endurance. Light on his feet to a spinner, the way in which Pujara has played Nathan Lyon throughout the four tests, has been a masterclass in the art of facing up to spin bowling. Sashaying down the pitch at every available opportunity he has either negated the potential turn by smothering the spin or discreetly padded away balls without the risk of exposing himself to a probable leg before dismissal. He has also been quick to rock back onto his back foot to anything pitch short and thereby pulling the ball through the midwicket and square leg boundaries.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist, in a seminal work, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, recognised and named the psychological concept of ‘flow’, a highly focused mental state. Csíkszentmihályi postulates that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The notion of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. In the psychologist’s own words, flow signifies “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  I know not whether Pujara’s favourite book is “Flow”, but I may well be pardoned for nursing such an assumption. However, Pujara seems to be in a state of unique flow when the whole world around him seems to be static. While he is at the crease, time seems to stay still for interminably long periods. The scoreboard stops moving, arms are shouldered as balls innocuously thud into the wicket keeper’s gloves. The only movement of note seems to be when the umpire signals the end of an over, proceeding to hand over the ubiquitous sun-glasses and perhaps a sweater back to the bowler. Yet every single delivery is met with a concentration that is powerful and a motive that is profound. He is after all a mendicant and not a rabble rouser.

Pujara’s fortitude more likely than not ensures that the batsman at the other end can play with a sense of freedom, if not with a downright gay abandon. With Pujara holding one end resolutely against both the menace of the new ball and the mischief of the old, his team mates can express themselves more freely mixing deliberate aggression with considerate caution. After notching up a 50 on a cantankerous pitch in Johannesburg, Pujara remarked: “For me intent is where you defend well, you leave well, and you play on the merit of the ball.”

Beginning four months from now, a new season of cricket frenzy will have millions in its throes. IPL 2019 will be unleashed in India with its usual accompanying fanfare, fervor, glamour, glitz and the temporary razzmatazz. But, not for Pujara, such slam bang stuff. While balls will continue to sail high and soar out of many a ground, goaded on by full throated roars and hollering of hard core fans, a mendicant will in a serene fashion, continue honing his meditative skills by offering the middle of his blade to a thousand deliveries a day.

There after all is a solid method behind this madness too.

Being Tongue-in-cheek about Mr.Kerry O’Keeffe

To claim that one’s remarks have been ‘taken totally out of context’ is a boiler plate damage mitigation mechanism that is resorted to by public personalities in general and politicians in particular, to cover up any inappropriate statements that may have escaped their mouths. Kerry O’ Keeffe is no exception to the stereotypical norm. From the confines of the commentator’s box during the Melbourne Test, O’ Keeffe courted controversy by making disparaging, derogatory and disgusting remarks about the apparent caliber (or the lack of it) of first class cricket in India, before proceeding to question the rationale behind naming conventions of Indian cricketers. Dwelling on a triple hundred that was clocked by the debutant Mayank Agarwal the previous season, O’Keeffe held forth on the quality of the opposition: “Apparently [Mayank Agarwal] got his triple-century against Jalandar Railways canteen staff. Who opened the bowling for them that day? The chef. First change? The kitchen hand. And they’ve got the spinner as well, the casual uni student.” This seemingly irresistible rib tickler was accompanied by raucous guffaws, courtesy Keeffe’s fellow commentators. O’ Keeffe apparently was not done yet. In what can only be termed despicable, O’ Keeffe spewed forth some more nonsense. “Why would you call your kid Cheteshwar Jadeja?” This again to yet another bout of boisterous laughter. So much for an innate sense of humour!

Unsurprisingly, O’Keeffe’s ill-timed remarks did not go down very well with the Indian populace, and rightly so. The former Australian cricketer was lambasted and panned on social media. In response to the deluge of criticisms, O’Keeffe has now penned, what can only be termed, a faint and sorry excuse, for an ‘open’ letter of apology. The letter is neither apologetic nor remorseful. On the contrary, it is a condescending and even arrogant attempt at justification. Justification for remarks which in the first place were directly misaligned with the preservation of professional integrity. Let alone offering a sincere apology which would have placated people, O’ Keeffe brazenly seeks to transfer the blame onto his listeners for misinterpreting and misconstruing his words. “That interpretation is not who I am. It is not what I represent. My style as a commentator is to attempt to find a quirky view to lighten up some of the serious analysis. When I made a remark about Indian first-class batting averages within their domestic cricket competition being made against a “canteen” bowling attack, I was being entirely tongue in cheek. I was certainly not disrespecting Indian cricket, where I toured as a schoolboy and for which I have the greatest admiration as a cricketing nation.”

First of all, there was no pereivable need for Kerry O’ Keeffe to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’ in the context of the game. Tongue-in-cheek is defined to mean, “speaking or writing in an ironic or insincere way” There was neither a need for irony nor room for insincerity on the part of O’Keeffe while donning the mantle of a commentator. It beggars belief to comprehend why a commentator would or should take on tones of insincerity while reporting the goings on of a Test Match!

Secondly ‘lightening up a serious analysis’ does not mean crossing all tolerable limits of dignity and decency. At the outset why on earth would a ‘serious’ analysis need some lightening up? Kerry O’ Keeffe seems to have been oblivious to the fact that there is a definitive line between humour and haughtiness, insight and insensitivity; and lucidity and loose talk. If he really had the ‘greatest admiration’ for India as a cricketing nation and was ‘certainly not disrespecting Indian cricket’, he would not have resorted to such insulting gimmicks in the first place. O’ Keeffe also goes on to state: “I have worked alongside my dear friend and colleague Harsha Bhogle for almost 25 years”, as though this absolves him of all shame and guilt. Harsha Bhogle is not the conscience keeper of India. So what if O’ Keeffe has been partnering Bhogle in the media for 2.5 decades? This fact in itself does not invest him with an unbridled license to shoot his mouth away indiscriminately. This sort of ridiculous escapism transforms the bad into the worse.

O’ Keeffe would have done his reputation a world of good if he had just come clean and unconditionally apologized for his unwarranted remarks. Instead by trying to defend himself by treating the entire unsavoury episode as a ‘transferable option’, and seeking to establish a weak entente, he has further dragged himself deep into a quagmire of infamy. The so called open letter of apology does more harm than good. It makes Kerry O’ Keeffe look like a vain, obdurate and uncompromising apologist trying to wriggle away from a hole which he has dug for himself.

Being untruthful to himself, and deliberately trying to mislead the listeners whom he professes to serve, O’Keeffe has clearly demonstrated that he has lost all credibility to discharge his professional capabilities behind the microphone. That doyen of all cricket commentators, the master and an extraordinary gentleman, the late great Richie Benaud, once famously said, “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up” Mr. Kerry O’ Keeffe would do splendidly well to reflect on this one remarkable quote, and for facilitating such an introspection, we sincerely hope that his employer provides him with an extended leave of absence to ruminate, reminisce and hopefully, remember.

However, Kerry O’ Keeffe amidst all this turbulence has achieved what none of the Australians in the playing level have managed to – deflect the limelight off both India’s memorable and epochal victory as well as Jasprit Bumrah’s coming of age as a fast bowler to reckon with!

I am not for a moment being ‘tongue-in-cheek’ about this here!

The Supreme Soloists Of India and Pakistan – A Collection for Time Immemorial : Number 10

There are few alluring spectacles in the game of cricket than an India v Pakistan encounter. The mere prospect of such a face-off is enough to send cricketing aficionados from the sub-continent into an anticipatory vortex of hope and expectancy. Frayed nerves overpower temperate minds, Faustian emotions overwhelm calculated calm and frenzied passions cloud solid judgements. Many a time I have determined myself to maintain a veneer of stoic civility and a saintly sobriety whilst watching India take on Pakistan and have miserably failed realizing that such attempts merely constituted acts in incongruity. In no other rivalry (the Ashes included), is the dileanation between the victor and the vanquished so searing and so palpable. The ramification of the result are at times beyond mere sporting significance. The players themselves, recognizing such import and relevance dig deep into the innermost recesses of their resilience (even unbeknownst to them), and come out with some stunning individual performances. Since the advent of one-day international cricket, these two cricketing giants have engaged one another on innumerable occasions in contests absorbing, astonishing and awe-inspiring. While it would be an exercise in absolute futility to try and single out every individual performance of merit, there are a few acts of glory which have personally captivated me and held my imagination. Although I have tried to be as objective and rational as possible in selecting the following 10 best solo performances that have formed the corner stone of an India v Pakistan one day epic, an element of personal bias might have wielded a veiled influence in the selection. Even Julie Andrews would have wont to sing in her mellifluous voice – “these are a few of my favorite things”

NUMBER 10:

Jadeja juggernaut detonates at Bangalore

9th March, 1996, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore – World Cup Quarterfinal 

Jadeja

Ajay Jadeja has always been known for his uncanny ability to pace a one-day innings. Commencing an innings with a few nudges and pushes, he continues with deft flicks and honest cuts, before concluding with swipes and smites. Although not as clinical or consistent as the classy ‘Terminator’ Michael Bevan, he has been a thorn in many an opponent’s flesh. He can also lay claim to have been one of the best ever fielders of his time. Unfortunately this mercurial cricketer was embroiled in a murky match-fixing episode which resulted in a 5 year ban. The ban was subsequently quashed by the Delhi High Court in 2003.

However, it was in this classic World Cup quarterfinal against the arch enemy that Jadeja found his metier. The Garden city of Bangalore and a capacity crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium played hosts with unbridled anticipation to this day/night tie between two of the fiercest rivals playing the game.

India won the toss and skipper Mohammed Azharuddin had no hesitation whatsoever in electing to bat. His decision seemed to be vindicated when a determined Navjot Singh Sidhu and a fluent Sachin Tendulkar got stuck into the Pakistani bowling. Pakistan needed to wait till 90 runs were notched up by this pair before getting their first break-through. Sachin dragged an Ata-ur-Rehman delivery back onto his stumps before trudging back to the pavilion. Sanjay Manjrekar lasted for 42 minutes and faced 43 deliveries for his 20 before ungainly smiting one off Aamer Sohail to Javed Miandad on the on-side boundary. Meanwhile the doughty Sidhu carried on hooking, pulling, driving and cutting with great grit and gusto. However the opener completely misread a flipper from Mushtaq to have his stumps castled and falling just 7 runs short of what would have been a deserving hundred. A couple of breathtakingly lusty blows from the Indian captain proved to be deceptively flattering as he edged one from Waqar to be brilliantly caught by a diving Rashid Latif. The skipper made 27.

With India tentatively placed at 200 for 4 in the 42nd over, Jadeja strode to the crease with a sense of purpose. With Vinod Kambli for company, he chose to have a peremptory look at the bowling before settling down into his usual ebullient stride. A searing flick-cum-drive off Waqar signaled his undisguised intentions as the ball sped past a bewildered and ageing Javed Miandad towards the boundary ropes. The fall of Kambli to the wily Mushtaq with the score on 226 neither deterred the concentration of the right hander nor dampened his fervour. Finding able allies in the local lads, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, Jadeja unleashed an amazing array of strokes putting the hapless and helpless Pakistani attack to the sword. Waqar Younis was singled out for special and specific attention as Jadeja surgically took the Burewalla Bomber to the cleaners. A magnificent cover drive in the 48th over sent Tony Greig into an orgasmic frenzy in the commentator’s box as not a blade of grass moved. The very next delivery was nonchalantly and neatly flicked with utter disdain into the stratosphere and into the midst of a roaring, raging and rapturous crowd. Yet another screaming shot off the backfoot had a baffled Waqar contemplating the trajectory of a soaring ball, this time on the off-side over the boundary ropes. When Waqar finally got his revenge getting a flailing Jadeja caught on the ropes by Aamer Sohail, the damage was well and truly done. The carnage in the form of a blistering cameo of 45 off just 25 deliveries had not only lent the much needed impetus for the Indian innings, but had also demoralized the Pakistanis. This orgy of hitting encompassed 4 hits to the fence and a couple sailing over it.

Ajaysinhji Daulatsinhji Jadeja was on the 9th of March 1996, not just a dilettante having his moment of glory under a bank of artificial lights. He was a unique artist who, with his inimitable trick of the trade, had hoicked, smote, swiped, whacked, thwacked and hammered Pakistan, with gay abandon, out of the 1996 edition of the World Cup.

As would be evident from the facts as set out above, India successfully defended their formidable score of 287 for 8 beating Pakistan by 39 runs. Jadeja also twirled his arm round bowling 5 frugal overs in which he conceded just 19 runs although going wicket-less. Navjot Singh Sidhu was declared the Man-of-the-Match.

This game was also was famous for Aamer Sohail’s foot in the mouth syndrome which transmogrified a priestly Venkatesh Prasad into a demonic “Predator” that Arnie himself would have found hard pressed to control, and, more importantly as the final one-day international match for one of the veritable legends of the game, the incomparable Javed Miandad.

Result: India won by 39 runs

Scorecard: http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/current/match/65187.html

Next: Saleem Malik’s caustic carnage at Calcutta (now Kolkata)

https://blogternator.com/2018/07/24/the-supreme-soloists-of-india-and-pakistan-a-collection-for-time-immemorial-number-9/

 

Ten Cricketing Strokes to Die For – Part II

Ian Bell – The Cover Drive

Bell

Sir John Arlott once famously remarked that “one coverdrive from Hutton was a stroke to stir the romantic cricketer to extravagance”. While we cricket lovers are unfortunately deprived of the pleasure of watching the great Sir Leonard Hutton execute Arlott’s shot, the classy Ian Bell has done his very best to remedy the lacunae and fill the void. There is an element of languid grace and lithesome élan to Bell’s batting and no shot exemplifies these two features more than his cover drive. The English batsman’s driving can be encapsulated in one simple word – exquisite. It is a joy to behold Bell essaying the cover drive.

Capable of driving both on the front as well as of his back foot, Bell is the epitome of picturesque beauty when in full flow. Keeping his eyes on the ball till the very last minute, Bell plays the cover drive as a barely perceptible extension of the forward defensive. With his head perfectly balanced and looking over the front foot, he leans into the delivery and with the full face of the blade displaying its maker’s name, gloriously drives, nay caresses the ball, perfectly bisecting the fielders at cover, extra cover and mid off. If the stroke is splendid, the follow through is regal! With the bat facing the path traversed by the ball and the feet in a side on position, Ian Bell post execution of the cover drive is a photographer’s unbridled delight.

While playing the shot off his backfoot, Bell standing tall, plays the ball on the up, with a high front elbow and with a minimum of follow through and fuss, finds the cover boundary. According to Neville Cardus, the great Archie McLaren was capable of playing imperious strokes shooting grandeur over the field. In the world of modern day cricket, the sight of Ian Ronald Bell driving a ball in a silky smooth vein through the covers is a sight of imperial grandeur.

Brian Lara – One Legged Pull

Lara

Brian Lara’s batting exuded flair and was synonymous of flamboyance, two characteristic features typifying Calypso cricket. He was also endowed with an immeasurable appetite for runs and an enviable application at the crease. These two qualities ensuring that he is the only batsman in the history of cricket to have scored a quadruple and a quintuple hundred in addition to the usual suspects constituting the century, double and triple.  Lara never sacrificed either temperament or common sense at the altar of flair and flamboyance. Lara in full flow renders a rarified air to the atmosphere. As the mundane is replaced by the mesmeric, nuanced strokes stem forth unshackled from his worthy blade. Flowing cover drives, delicate late cuts, majestic drives and effortless flicks all machinate to manufacture moments of sheer ecstasy. It is as though the magical batsman is putting on a show to please the phalanx of Gods admiringly observing him going about his masterful craft.

While every sweetly timed or powerfully struck Lara shot is a symbol of dominance and euphoria, the one shot that evokes unabashed admiration and unashamed approbation is his authoritative pull shot played standing high on one leg. Initially Lara stands at the crease with his bat in the most usual and conventional position – by his feet. But he quickly changes the conventional into a pronounced backswing thereby ensuring an extravagant back lift. With unbelievable hand eye co-ordination and using the depths of the crease to incredible effect, Lara latches on to a short delivery in the twinkling of an eye. Lifting his front leg to obtain the requisite momentum and the relevant balance, Lara pulls the ball commandingly and unerringly finds the boundary in the square leg region. This shot is a potent combination of the savagery lent by Vivian Richards and the sublime skills exhibited by a David Gower. The sound of the bat hitting the ball is music to the ears of his friends and murder in the eyes of his opponents.

In the world of cricket there are batsmen and there is Brian Lara. A versatile mixture of power and deftness, Lara has produced many an innings of immense import and incredulous magnitude. All while manage to be elegant, graceful and fluid. To quote John Keats “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.  Brian Charles Lara has undoubtedly been one of the most beautiful things to have happened to cricket and cricket will forever remember him thus.

Ricky Ponting – The Pull Shot

Ponting

There are few spectacular sights in world cricket than Ricky Ponting playing the pull shot. The fact that the former Australian World Cup winning captain is at unbelievable ease while essaying this horizontal bat shot both off his front as well as the back foot, not only elicits amazement but also makes for some scintillating viewing. The viciousness of this shot when played by this marvelous right hander is such that the sound produced by the bat hitting the ball is akin to a ringing gunshot!

The gum chewing Ricky Ponting with eyebrows raised under his helmet taps his bat a couple of times on the pitch as the bowler comes running in.  The delivery is one that is banged in short. Ponting with his natural ability to judge the length of the ball to faultlessness gets into an impeccably superb position, rocks back onto his back foot, and with a lithe swivel of the hips, rolls his wrist to send the ball crashing into to the square leg or mid-wicket boundary. Often times, he also chooses to get underneath the ball and sends it soaring into the stands. With great hand-eye co-ordination and a greater bat speed, Ricky Ponting is capable of choosing the exact spot where he wants to dispatch the ball to with this pull shot. His magnificent positioning ensures that he has that wee bit of additional time which in the game of cricket distinguishes chaff from wheat and a great batsman from the good ones. When the pull is played by Ponting off the front foot, the pirouette or the swivel is less pronounced since the batsman has elected not to rock back onto his back foot. The effect nevertheless is the same. However in this case the shot resembles a remorseless slap and is slightly inelegant in comparison with its back foot counterpart.

Greater the pace, the more effective is Ponting’s pull stroke. Therefore it came as no surprise to anyone when the late Tony Greig exclaimed that Ricky Ponting was the game’s best player of the pull shot! The gun shot effect; the gung ho manner of the shot and the gargantuan stature of the man all contrive to make it a great privilege to watch Ricky Thomas Ponting play the pull shot, play it like none other – and play it to perfection!

Virat Kohli – The ‘Inside Out’ Shot

India v Australia 6th ODI Nagpur

The Nostradamus of all run chases, the Indian captain could give a run to both the FBI and Al Capone in so far as hunting down a ‘target’ is concerned. Adept at all three formats of the game, this marauding Indian batsman has carved out a hallowed niche for himself in the art of batting. Nothing typifies this aspect better than the scintillating ‘inside out’ shot which Kohli has made his own. Every spinner’s (and when Kohli is in the mood, the occasional paceman’s too) nightmare, the inside out stroke is a delectable joy to behold for its sheer aplomb in execution!

Still headed, perfectly balanced, Kohli waits for the right ball to plot his move. Spotting the trajectory of the ball and reading the line and length in double quick time, he gets slightly outside the line of the delivery. Kohli with twinkling feet traipses down the track and his willow comes down from a very short back lift to send the ball hurtling either over or through the covers. A combination of extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination, ability to spot the line and length of the ball with precision and a singularly unique gift of timing contrive to make this shot one of the contemporary delights in modern day cricket. A strong bottom hand surprisingly does not seem to pose any form of impediment whatsoever to the execution of this imperious stroke. Finally a spectacular footwork ensures that the batsman is never cramped when getting to the pitch of the delivery.

The Inside Out Shot – A Kohli Copyright!

Sachin Tendulkar – The On Drive

Sachin 2

You know that the earth is perfectly spinning on its axis and the planets are adhering to their orbital precision when Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar essays the on drive! The Teutonic grace and incorrigible perfection with which Tendulkar plays this stroke makes it a veritable master class.

Peter Roebuck once famously compared Sachin’s straight drive to a “bullet fired from a most efficient gun.” The on drive is by general consensus regarded as one of the most daunting and difficult shots to play in the game of cricket in addition to being a purist’s allure. And no one accords more delight with this shot than Tendulkar. If the on drive is an art, then Sachin Tendulkar is its Vincent Van Gogh.

With a perfectly still head Sachin dissects the length of an even fractionally over pitched delivery and in a flash pounces upon it with the instincts of a predator. The heavy blade of his is impeccably close to his left pad. Slightly leaning forward, Tendulkar brings his full face of the bat ramrod straight to meet the ball and just punches it either past the bowler or past the fielder at mid-on. The left elbow is high and in picture perfect position. The shot is entirely bereft of an extravagant or extended follow through. It is as though the bat is just a natural extension of the hand. The moment the bat makes contact with the ball, it is send thudding towards the boundary at the speed of a furious meteor. The timing is exquisite, the placement precision perfect and the result glorious.

The scintillating genius of Sachin’s on-drive lies in the punctuating stillness which is in sharp contrast to the ball hurtling towards the boundary. The batsman immediately after playing the stroke is statuesque in his bearing; the hapless bowler stands shock still unable to comprehend the mastery of the stroke; the fielders are inevitably motionless while the non-striker just stands admiring the grass being seared by the speeding ball.

With over 30 thousand odd runs in the two major international formats of the game, this champion from Mumbai has ensured that he has etched an indelible place for himself amongst the pantheon of immortals in the world of cricket. However cricket itself will remember him the best for his coruscating brilliance and unsurpassed excellence with the on-drive in the same way the world of poetry will remember William Blake for his verses and visual artistry.

Ten Cricketing Strokes to Die For – PART I

The unparalleled Sir Neville Cardus waxed eloquent over the immortal genius of Victor Trumper thus: “You will no more get an idea of the quality of Trumper’s  batsmanship by adding up his runs than you will get an idea of the quality of Shelley’s poetry by adding up the lines written by Shelley.”  While it is debatable as to whether in modern day cricket there are batsmen who match up to either the panache of a Trumper or the poetry of a Shelley, there is no semblance of doubt that cricket over the years since Trumper’s untimely demise has abounded with batsmen reeking of class and oozing with caliber. The unfortunate absence of television and technology has had the invidious effect of masking the talents of very many such wielders of the willow. The avid cricket lover is left to either rely on the powers of his imagination on the basis of meticulously recorded chronicles of a particularly orgiastic stroke, or is demanded to make an informed judgment on the basis of carefully preserved news reel footages (which more often than not are more a coalescence of grainy pixels than the capture of an elegant stroke). However with the advent of television and the uninhibited rampage of technology, the fan today is in an enviable position not only to grasp every nuance of the game, but also to obtain an untrammeled and vantage view of his favourite batsman plying his wares or his beloved bowler exhibiting his  befuddling variety. While I personally do not consider bowlers to be children of a lesser God, the sight of a batman negotiating the trickeries of bowlers and neutralizing the treacheries of a pitch invariably whets my appetite and leaves me asking for more. A perfectly executed forward defensive stroke by Rahul Dravid gives me the same delight as an exquisitely timed silken cover driven by Kumar Sangakkara. While it is close to impossible and an exercise in utter futility to rank the whole gamut of cricketing shots (as made popular by their classy patrons) in the order of their excellence, it might not be an exercise in audacity to arrive at a personal rating of 10 best cricketing strokes essayed by its 10 best practitioners. The following attempts to do just that!

 Robin Smith – The Square Cut

Robin-Smith

While cricket has generated its fair share of batsmen well known for their prowess in executing shots square of the wicket, very few could lay claim to either matching or overcoming the power or ferocity displayed by this burly English and Hampshire batsman. A formidable foe of pacemen, Robin Smith was accomplished in his stroke play on either side of the wicket. However he will be remembered most for his brilliant and brutal perfection of the square cut.

Playing with a high back lift and a predominantly leg stump stance, Smith is all intensity as he lays in wait for the bowler. He allows the bowler to have an undisguised peek of all three of his stumps until the moment of delivery. However a last second adjustment of the feet ensures that Smith is across the stumps at the point of impact. If the ball is pitched even slightly short on or outside the off stump, Smith rocks back, gets into perfect position and the blade comes down over the ball to send it rocketing between cover and backward point. The sound of the ball hitting the bat, is at once sweet and ominous. Judging the length of the delivery to perfection, Smith plays the square cut more in the vein of a square drive. He is also a photographer’s delight with this particular stroke. With his left knee slightly bent, body arched back to lend the requisite balance, and the Grey Nicolls blade flashing hard and honest, Smith presents an intimidating picture.

Robin Arnold Smith possessed power, had the gift of placement and exuded panache. And boy could he use those three to play a square cut!

Kevin Pietersen- The Switch Hit

Switch

Arguably one of the marvels of modern day cricket. No shot has universally and unequivocally evoked such a wide array of emotions as KP’s ‘Switch-Hit’. Label it controversial or term it cavalier, the shot still remains singularly unique both in its conception as well as in its execution. Even though there exists imitations galore and competing variants, the original brooks no comparison. The beauty or rather the bewilderment of the ‘Switch Hit’ lies in its deception and nobody does it better than its pioneering master Kevin Pietersen.

With legs splayed wide apart and his huge frame slightly hunkered over the bat, Pietersen crouches and waits for the slow bowler to deliver the ball. After the unsuspecting spinner has just delivered the ball, KP much to the incredulity of all concerned and to the chagrin of the bowler in question, switches his right handed stance to metamorphose into a left handed batsman. This transformation is done in the twinkling of an eye with a violent movement, nay a jerk of the feet and hands. When the ball makes contact with the bat it is struck, or rather smote with utter disdain and extreme ferocity either along the ground to what would have been a right hander’s cover point boundary or even way over it right into the stands. The switch hit is a stroke of instinct, innovation and above all unconstrained ingenuity and no one executes it better than the now out of favour English Legend – Kevin Peter Pietersen.

Mohammed Azharuddin – The Whip-Flick

Flick

The ball is pitched slightly outside the off-stump. The fielders expecting the batsman to play the delivery with a straight bat towards the off side region expectantly wait in their respective fielding positions. Much to their collective vexation and amazement, the batsman with an ubiquitous black amulet dangling from his neck, moves across his stumps, fetches the ball from outside the off-stump and with a delectable use of his wrists, whip-flicks the ball wide of mid on! The front foot is right in line with the middle stump and the back foot is raised to provide the perfect balance and position. As the ball is retrieved from the leg side boundary and the appreciating oohs and aahs of the spectators die down, the batsman unable to comprehend the fuss revolving around him, unassumingly goes down the track, has a few words with his awed non-striker and modestly takes up his stance to face the next delivery.  What seemed unique to a majority of batsmen, was merely ordinary for Mohammed Azharuddin. This lanky former India captain from Hyderabad had the gift of timing and an eye for placement. But most importantly, he was blessed with a pair of phenomenal wrists which made him a special batting talent – a talent which when in full flow was a rapturous sight! Batting with a willow, that for its weight (or rather weightlessness has been compared to a cigarette and a feather, amongst various others), Azharuddin’s dazzling wristwork compensated for any lack of power and enabled him to play with wanton grace and place the ball with impetuous ease. Bowling at the legs of Azhar was plainly asking to be murdered. While those wrists could play havoc with the leg side cordon, their ability to irritate the offside ring of fielders was grossly underestimated. Azharuddin who was labeled as an onside genius could execute his drives to great effect. Getting his front foot out of the way, he could get to the pitch of the ball and drive it to perfectly bisect the cover and mid off region. He was also equally competent in playing the drive off his back foot. Sunil Gavaskar once famously exclaimed that Azharuddin had “wrists of steel”. He also quickly went on to add that those steely wrists were “flexible”. A veritable paradox if at all there was any! Yet it was this paradox that endeared Mohammed Azizuddin Azharuddin to fans and opponents alike across the cricketing spectrum. It was also this paradox that made his silky smooth batting such an exhilarating sight! Anyone doubting the last claim would do well to ask Lance Kluesener!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni – The Helicopter Shot

Helicopter

The best way to describe this most peculiar of cricketing shots would be in terms of the bat speed generated in essaying it. For its mere (and unsurpassed), bat speed this shot would go down in history as one of the most innovative of cricketing strokes, if not the most. The patented perfectionist of the Helicopter Shot, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a World Cup winning captain in all three international formats of the game, never fails to evoke gasps of disbelief whenever he plays this shot. More often than not, success is a guaranteed outcome of this bizarre hit. If the back-lift prior to essaying this stroke is incredible, the follow though post its execution, is downright incredulous. Defying description, challenging elaboration and inconveniencing reason, the Helicopter shot is a magnificent invention of modern day cricket by arguably the greatest ‘finisher’ of the shorter version of the cricketing game. The whip lash effect and an astounding recoil combine to give a deceptive image of the batsman trying to swing himself off his feet while all the time………………………………….Bloody Hell! Just watch it!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGFSvVU7QkU

Sanath Jayasuriya – The Slash Six

Sanath

In a television interview, when asked to name two cricketers who served as role models and idols to be emulated in his cricket career, the prolific Sri Lankan wicket keeper batsman Kumar Sangakkara did not hesitate one bit before coming out with the names of Sanath Jayasuriya and Brian Lara.  Sanath Jayasuriya, along with the pint sized dynamo Romesh Kaluwitharana will be poignantly remembered for revolutionizing the art of batting in one day cricket – a revolution which won Sri Lanka it’s first and only World Cup (thus far) in 1996.

Sanath Jayasuriya over a glittering and accomplished cricketing career has put to sword many a vaunted bowling attack. With aggression and intent as his allies, Sanath wades into a bowling attack with great gusto. While there are many memorable Jayasuriya shots that send a chill down the spine of his opponents, there is none more intimidating and awe inspiring than the slash which sends the ball soaring over third man for a six. This exceptional shot, has, as its recipe for success, unbelievably strong forearms (upper body strength), a bottom hand that works over time, an open bat face, an uncanny ability to get under the ball (please forget rolling the wrists over and trying to keep the ball on the ground), and perfection of the slash.

If the above formula for success sounds to anyone like an esoteric combination of malarkey and hang over, then that unfortunate soul has committed the travesty of not seeing Sanath Jayasuriya in action. Even if the ball is pitched fractionally short on the off side, Jayasuriya pounces on it mercilessly and quickly gets underneath the ball. The bat face is open and pointing towards the cover region. With a strong bottom handed grip, Jayasuriya generates immense bat speed and proceeds to slash the ball over the third man region. Since there is no roll of the wrists, the ball is deliberately sliced in the air. While most of the times third man is a mere spectator waiting for someone in the crowd to retrieve the ball, the slash hit has on a few occasions landed Jayasuriya in trouble – one of the more important occasions being the infamous World Cup semi-final against India in 1996 when Azhar laid a deftly crafted trap and Jayasuriya succumbed to it. But failure with this shot has been an exception rather than a norm. While it is a scintillating sight to see this marauding left hander from Sri Lanka bat an opposition out of the game, it is an unforgettable sight to see a ball disappearing hard, high and handsome over the head of third man – courtesy a rasping square slash! Sanath Teran Jayasuriya – Master of the Square Slash!

(TO BE CONTINUED)