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”


Jadeja juggernaut detonates at Bangalore

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


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


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


Ten Cricketing Strokes to Die For – Part II

Ian Bell – The Cover Drive


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


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


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


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


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


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


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!

Sanath Jayasuriya – The Slash Six


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!


The Supreme Soloists of India and Pakistan – A Collection for Time Immemorial: NUMBER 7

Flowing locks and a Lashing willow announce the arrival of Mahendra Singh Dhoni at Vizag  

5th April, 2005 , Vishakapatnam District Cricket Association Stadium, Vishakapatnam


 ‘I knew that even 350 might not be enough’ – Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Talking about Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the stylish Sri Lankan cricketer, Mahela Jayawardene once famously remarked – “One inch here and there and a guy like Dhoni could take you apart. He is a great finisher, he is cool and calm and backs himself. He is a strong character.”

Along with the likes of Michael Bevan, Michael Hussey, Javed Miandad et al, Mahendra Singh Dhoni or ‘MSD’ as he is popularly known all around the world, qualifies as one of the most clinical finishers to have graced the game. A classic example of this enviable attribute is the much quoted, analysed and adumbrated captain’s innings executed by Dhoni in the final of the 2011 World Cup. His unbeaten innings of calm, composure and character, ended a 28 year old wait for India as the much elusive trophy was finally wrested back home.

This pioneer of the ‘Helicopter’ shot, the once-possessor of long locks (a hairstyle that won the admiration of even the former Pakistani President Parvez Musharaff), and the architect of many a thrilling victory first shot into the limelight with a blistering knock essayed against India’s arch-rivals Pakistan. Playing in the 2nd One Day International at Vizag in the 2004-05 home series, Dhoni gave a taste of things to come in future when he stamped his authority in a run-fest.

India’s captain Sourav Ganguly won the toss and on a scorching hot day had no hesitation whatsoever in choosing to bat. Sehwag quickly got into his usual groove and set the ball rolling. Sachin Tendulkar however did not last long to make full use of the conducive conditions as he was run out after scoring just a couple of runs. The young Mahendra Singh Dhoni was sent in to enhance the tempo of run making. When Dhoni arrived at the crease India were 26/1 in the 4th over.

Starting off with a fierce drive off Mohammed Sami that sent the ball crashing into the mid-off boundary, Dhoni signalled his intent and purpose. A blistering drive through the covers off Afridi soon had the Pakistani all-rounder all charged up and expressing his vociferous dissent at the treatment meted out to him. This tirade was first met by Dhoni with a calm smile and then was immediately followed with a monstrous shot that sent the ball soaring over the extra cover boundary. With the impetuous Sehwag going about his patented merry ways at the other end, and with the flat, placid and dead track containing no hint of malevolence, the Pakistanis were beginning to comprehend that the heat being felt was not merely the courtesy of a blazing sun adorning the clear skies over Vizag. The duo brought up the 50 run partnership from just 34 deliveries as India raced to 81 in the 9th over of their innings.

With the score on 122, a breakthrough was achieved by Pakistan when Rana Naved-Ul_Hasan poached Sehwag whose offer of a catch to Salman Butt was accepted gratefully by the latter. Hopes of a revival were given a realistic boost when Sourav Ganguly was bowled by Mohammed Sami after scoring a meagre 9 runs. India were now 140-3, with just over 30 overs remaining. But if the Pakistanis had hopes of firmly planting the brakes on this fast scoring clip of the Indians, M.S.Dhoni certainly had other ideas and he proceeded to firmly implement and impose them in a breathtaking manner. With the score at 146, Dhoni clocked his first 50 in One Day International cricket. With an able ally in the redoubtable Rahul Dravid, Dhoni now proceeded to exhibit an exhilarating array of impetuous shots that had the bowlers in a veritable bind. The spinner Arshad Khan was singled out for some special treatment as Dhoni proceeded to ruffle him up. First going inside out over extra-cover, he smote the bowler for a massive six over the mid wicket boundary when the bowler tried to adjust his line and length.

A brief ray of hope flickered in the collective eyes and hearts of Inzamam and his men, when on 77, Dhoni came charging down the track to a Mohammed Hafiz floater and miscued a skier towards the fielder patrolling the deep-midwicket boundary. Much to the collective chagrin and disappointment of the Pakistani team, Rana Naved who came racing in to collect the catch failed to get his hands to the ball. As the ball rolled over the boundary ropes, a resigned Inzamam-ul-Haq went down on his haunches in a show of undisguised dejection.

Determined to ensure that much damage and ruination would be the consequence of the Naved lapse, Dhoni continued to pile on the pressure. Without much ado, he duly raised his bat to the adulation of a packed house as he proceeded to notch his first one-day international hundred. He celebrated the occasion by hammering Shahid Afridi to the square leg boundary for a rasping four. Now playing freely, Dhoni began to open his broad shoulders and strike the ball with venomous power and panache. Coming down the track to a bemused Shahid Afridi, he deposited a seemingly well disguised googly into the upper tiers of the stands situated beyond the deep cover boundary. Even the heat of the blazing sun and extreme tiredness could not contrive to put paid to the intentions of this marauding machine as Afridi was once again deposited high, and wide, over and beyond the deep-midwicket boundary. This particular Shahid Afridi over went for 14 runs with the run-scoring sequence being – 1,0,0,6,0wd,6. Undaunted and undeterred the man with the burgundy tint hair continued like an automaton programmed to wreak havoc. A spell-bound and hollering capacity crowd was treated to an innings the likes of which would be an absolute rarity. Runs flowed freely and flawlessly from the willow of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and every single part of the ground was peppered with strokes of confidence, control and class. Just when a perplexed Aamer Sohail in the commentator’s box began wondering aloud as to how on earth Dhoni could be stopped, the mayhem finally came to an unexpected end. Just when it looked as if M S Dhoni would shatter a few world records and send a nation into excelsis, he perished holing out to Shoaib Malik while facing Mohammed Hafiz.  India were now 298-4 in 41.2 overs and Dhoni has scored 148 of those.

This breathtakingly brutal knock of Mahendra Singh Dhoni was studded with 14 chanceless boundaries, a solitary miscued boundary and 4 gigantic sixes. He had faced a mere 123 balls and had against his name a strike-rate of 120. Though all the Pakistani bowlers were put to the sword without any impartiality and with equanimity, Shahid Afridi was the predominant sufferer, conceding 47 runs to Dhoni from the 30 deliveries that he bowled to him. This incredulous, irreverent and impudent innings that knocked the wind of the opposition sailings was characterised by a combination of brilliance and brute force. With a pitch offering virtually no swing or seam movement, Dhoni repeatedly hit through the line and more often than not was on his front rather than the back foot. Even though he was assiduous in essaying the pull stroke, it were the resounding drives that fetched him most of the 148 runs.

A well-made 52 by the solid & stubborn Dravid and quickfire cameos by Laxmipathi Balaji and Zaheer Khan at the end of the innings ensured that India amassed a huge total of 356 in their completed quota of 50 overs. Even though the Pakistanis responded to this formidable challenge in a game manner, they ultimately fell short by 58 runs. Abdur Razzaq and Mohammed Yousuf (Yousuf Youhana then), distinguished themselves with knocks of 88 and 71 respectively. Dhoni also scalped two batsmen behind the wickets.

The 5th of April 2005 had seen the messianic arrival of an astute, admirable and assiduous cricketer, with whose fortunes in the future, the fortunes of his country would be inextricably linked. And yes on that sultry, sweltering and sun-ravaged day at Vizag, the score of 356 had proved to be more than adequate for India, assuaging the concerns of a young man who felt that ‘even a score in excess of 350 might not be defendable’ on an absolute flat-track’!

Result: India won by 58 runs


(Next: Virat Kohli’s vengeful veneer at Dhaka) 

The Supreme Soloists of India and Pakistan – A Collection for Time Immemorial : NUMBER 8

Saeed Anwar’s sublime savagery at Chennai


21st May, 1997 , MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk, Chennai

“I broke the record of my idol Sir Vivan Richards. I hope he doesn’t mind it.”- Saeed Anwar

There are few better sights in the game of cricket than Saeed Anwar in imperious flow. Waxing eleoquent over this cricketer, the former Pakistani skipper and Anwar’s contemporary, Ramiz Raja once painted this exaggerated albeit deserved picture– “He used an eclectic approach to batting – classical betrothed to unorthodox, footwork against spin as quick as a hiccup supple yet powerful to brush the field like a Picasso”.

Beginning his illustrious international career with a shorter version of the game at Perth in the year 1989 during the Benson & Hedges World Series, Saeed Anwar scored a non decrepit 3,before spooning a catch to Carl Hooper off Malcom Marshall. However from such modest and unassuming beginnings, the classy Anwar proceeded to reach exotic and ecclesiastical heights, both metaphorically and literally. Having bagged 31 international hundreds in all forms of the game, he turned to religion for succour in the year 2001 when his daughter calamitously ended her earthly sojourn after a protracted bout of illness.

One of the most flamboyant lefthanders ever to have wielded the willow for his country, this Wisden 1997 Cricketer of the Year’s affinity towards Indian bowling was well known. He has the distinction of being the first Pakistani batsman to score a century on Indian soil in the 50-over format of the game. He clocked up a total tally of 2002 runs with 4 hundreds at an impressive average of 43.52 against the ‘old-enemy’ before he was finally finished.

On the 21st of May 1997, he choose a barmy afternoon of Chennai to play, what arguably was the greatest innings of his illustrious one day career. In the 6th match of the Pepsi Independence Cup, Rameez Raja won the spin of the coin and had no hesitation in electing to bat. A mindless heave by Shahid Afridi off Abey Kuruvilla resulting in a skier for Ganguly at mid-off ensured that Pakistan were on the back foot quite early in the game at 8-1.  Saeed Anwar after a tentative beginning showed signs of getting into his usual portentous groove by slashing a wide one off Venkatesh Prasad to the point boundary. Confirmation of a growing confidence arrived in the form of a stunning and magical flick of the wrists which despatched Kuruvilla high and handsome over the mid-wicket boundary for the first six of the game and for Anwar. The benign and placid track baked by the famed and ferocious Chennai heat proved an able ally as the southpaw employed his blade like a rapier, producing rasping cuts, delectable flicks and divine drives. The man in a mordant mood was turning out to be the fulcrum of India’s woes. The understandable ineffectuality of the fast men (if India’s pace bowling pack of Prasad, Kuruvilla and Srinath could be termed as such), ineluctably led to the introduction of spin in the form of the premier spinner in the country Anil Kumble. The trenchant blade of Saeed Anwar however was in no mood to discriminate between deliveries coming on to the bat a little slower than the ones speeding towards it. Admirable footwork, twinkle toes and dancing shoes all combined to hoist seemingly good deliveries to the boundary ropes and beyond. Bludgeoning Sunil Joshi (the second spinner) over mid-on for a one bounce four bought up Anwar’s half-century off just 44 balls. Afridi’s absence was hardly felt as an extended celebration of the half-century came in the form of Sunil Joshi being firmly and forcefully deposited into the upper tiers over the top of mid-on. Mild hopes stirred in Indian hearts as Ramiz Raja played a Robin Singh delivery onto his stumps and Pakistan were 97/2.

In the 19th over, a visibly fatigued Anwar developed an injury of sorts and Shahid Afridi was bought on to don his running shoes for the cause of his distressed comrade. He need not have bothered much about the speed of his running or the depth of his stamina as an injured Saeed Anwar proved to be more treacherous and hazardous than a fit one! His timing seemed to take on extraordinarily dangerous proportions as Robin Singh was merely feathered to the point boundary. The scoreboard did not show any semblance of stagnation and in the 27th over of the innings, an assured flick resulted in Anwar reaching his 12th ODI century. As he acknowledged his team mates and an appreciating crowd with a raised bat and a calming nod, he presented a picture of poise and purpose. Unrelenting and undaunted, the opener continued to harass his opposition with clinical precision as a stream of boundaries bisected the gaps in both sides of the field.

A sumptuous boundary square off the wicket took Anwar past Javed Miandad’s 119 at Lahore – the highest score by a Pakistan batsman against India. With the score at 213, Ijaz Ahmed was trapped plumb in front by Anil Kumble to give India a brief respite. A reprieve for Anwar when an attempted swing over long on just brushed the grasping hands of a fielder to land over the boundary ropes provided incentive enough to step on the accelerator. Carting Kumble for 2 huge sixes, the belligerent opener looked set to score the first ever double century in the history of one-day international cricket. One Kumble over fetched a humongous 24 runs as Anwar ran riot. An astute and deliberate sweep off Tendulkar despatching the ball to the square leg boundary ensured that Anwar became the highest run getter in an innings in the history of ODI cricket coasting past the peerless Sir Vivian Richards. An exhausted but exalted Anwar raised his bat and took a moment to savour the precocious moment. A slash behind point left the class act just 6 runs short of an unthinkable double hundred. However when it just seemed that nothing could come in the way of this unstoppable force, the force itself self destructed in the form of a thoroughly miscued sweep. A superbly judged tumbling catch by the unlikely Ganguly finally terminated an innings of panache and power that was studded with 22 hits to the fence and 5 beyond. Pakistan finished with a match winning effort of 327 for 5 in their 50 overs. The highest score apart from Anwar’s monumental effort was a joint 39 by Ijaz and Inzamam-Ul-Haq.

India never recovered from this brutal collaring of their bowling attack and fell short of the target by 35 runs, in spite of a heroic and valiant maiden 107 by Rahul Dravid, who incidentally also used a runner in the form of Sachin Tendulkar. Saeed Anwar had single handedly played an epic reeking of class, calibre and courage that floored India. Surely Viv Richards would not have felt bad at his imperious record being broken by an adoring fan of his. Or rather he should not have!

Result: Pakistan won by 35 runs


(Next: Flowing locks and a lashing willow as M S Dhoni ‘arrives’ at Vizag )


The Supreme Soloists of India and Pakistan – A Collection for Time Immemorial – NUMBER 9

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


18th February, 1987 , Eden Gardens, Kolkata

“Malik seemed in complete control of the situation. And he did it single-handed” – Ramiz Raja

Saleem Malik would be remembered as the talented, wristy right-handed batsman, who during his playing career formed the bed rock of a formidable Pakistani middle order responsible for plundering runs galore. A graceful timer of the ball, he could also be relied upon to trundle up to the wicket and unshackle a well-set partnership. For a country, historically known for consistently shoddy performances on the field, Saleem Malik was an exception as he could be an electrifying bundle of energy on the field. This talented cricketer, unfortunately would also be remembered as the first ever to be banned from all forms of the game for match fixing – a damning verdict coming on the back of the findings unearthed by the Justice Qayyum inquiry. However after a protracted legal tussle interminably lasting for 7 long years, the Supreme Court of Pakistan finally lifted his ban in the year 2008. Saleem Malik has had a few memorable encounters against India, and like most of his fellow countrymen, he seemed to reserve the best for (or rather against) his arch-rivals.

Saleem Malik chose to essay one of his finest knocks at the magnificent and imposing setting of the Eden Gardens scripting in the process a fairly tale the likes of which are infrequent, improbable and inspiring. A capacity crowd numbering over 80,000 was treated to a stunning and cavalier exhibition of batting that not only shattered the hopes of the home team, but also rendered them numb with shock. In the second ODI of Pakistan’s tour to India in 1987, India batted first in a game reduced to 40 overs, and notched up a score of 238 for 6, courtesy a brilliant 123 by the irascible Kris Srikkanth – an innings studded with 14 boundaries and a lone six. Pakistan began their run chase in an honest fashion with a 106 run opening stand between Rameez Raja and Younis Ahmed. However a flurry of wickets that resulted in the departure of both the openers, Javed Miandad, Abdul Qadir and Manzoor Elahi resulted in the wheels almost coming off the Pakistani batting. Only 55 runs were added in this melee.

With Pakistan perilously placed at 161/5, Saleem Malik strode to the crease. Although the fat lady had not yet commenced her song, she was undoubtedly at the fag end of her preparation. The required run-rate was just over 8 runs per over. The Indians and their zealous supporters were just waiting for the conclusion of the last rites. But Saleem Malik certainly had other ideas. Starting off by sweeping Maninder Singh ferociously to the deep-square boundary, he soon got into a murderous rythm by hoicking the spinner over cow-corner for a huge six. When Imran Khan was bowled by Kapil Dev after scoring a meagre couple, the score stood at 174-6. Saleem Malik was now literally bereft of all batting partners and if Pakistan needed a miracle, he was to be the sole provider. Throwing caution to the winds, he now proceeded to run rampant. One Kapil Dev over yielded 4 spectacular boundaries – shots which included a fierce pull through mid-wicket and a flawless flick. Malik was given a fortunate and what would turn out to be a telling reprieve when Chandrakanth Pandit fumbled a stumping as the batsman tried to ungainly use his feet by jumping out of his crease. Making full use of the magnanimity and generosity of his opponents, Malik proceeded to ruin the bowling figures of the talented Maninder Singh. Giving himself room and exposing his stumps he proceeded to cut the ball with precision and placement and drove elegantly through covers with utter disdain.

Overs 35 to 37 bowled by Maninder Singh, Kapil Dev and Madan Lal had the following ridiculous and maudlin run-making sequence:

  • Over No.35: 6 4 0 4 4 1
  • Over No.36: 0 4 4 4 4 0
  • Over No.37: 1 2 4 4 2 0

As a stunned and shocked crowd looked on unbelievingly with hands on their hips and heads in their hands, Saleem Malik was just tearing a befuddled Indian attack apart with a magic wand. When Wasim Akram departed at the score on 224, it was the end of a partnership that had put on 50 runs, the dismissed batsman’s contribution being a measly 3! Even though Saleem Yousuf was run out 8 runs later, the outcome of the game was sealed when a rasping cover drive hit the fence like the proverbial bullet (or rather Ravi Shastri’s tracer bullet). Pakistan had prevailed in one of the most entertaining and exotic run-chases privy to a one day international.

When Saleem Malik came to the crease, Pakistan required 77 runs for a win. Facing just 36 deliveries, he proceeded to rack up 72 of those runs in a spell binding display of batting. When he was finally finished, Malik had blasted 11 brilliant boundaries and a towering six! Mauling Maninder Singh, carting Kapil Dev and massacaring Madan Lal, a marauding Malik brooked no opposition. Well pitched up deliveries were driven with fierce intent and short ones pulled with fanatical determination. Saleem Malik also won the Man-of-the-Match award (and fittingly so) as his vitriolic cameo overshadowed the blistering century scored by Kris Srikkanth.

Played during the days, when IPL unfortunately was not even prescience, this marvellous and menacing performance would have had many a franchise of the IPL scrambling over one another to sign up Saleem Malik! As Pakistan finished the game with 3 deliveries to spare, all that their stunned opponents could do was to go up to the star of the day and offer him handshakes of appreciation. On the 18th of February 1987, Saleem proved that on his day, he could be the ‘Malik’ of them all!

Result: Pakistan won by 2 wickets


(Next: Saeed Anwar’s sublime savagery at Chennai)


Boycott, Richards and the Dilemma of an Autograph Hunter

The swagger that had etched itself as an integral part of cricketing folklore was unmistakably there. The attitude of nonchalance accompanying every step bordered around being contagious. The dark shades on the broad face hid whatever message or meaning the eyes were intending to convey. As the almost imperial figure advanced towards an elevator manned by two young men wearing jackets with the word ‘Steward’ emblazoned upon them, I clumsily ran towards him and stretching a scrap book that was tightly clenched in my fist, asked in a quivering voice “Sir can I have your autograph please?”. Much to my horror and disillusionment, the man in an attitude that could only be described as brazen, for the want of another appropriate word, refused to even acknowledge my mortal presence and with a cocky jerk of his bull neck calmly entered the elevator whose doors slowly closed upon my perplexed face.  The man in question – the legendary Sir Issac Vivian Alexander Richards and the setting of my disappointment – the hallowed Lord’s Cricket Ground, the veritable Mecca of cricket.

Unfortunately the aforementioned experience was not an isolated incidence in disappointment for yours truly. I was lent the proverbial cold shoulder by a few more masters of this pristine game, the most notable amongst the culprits being Sir Geoffrey Boycott. While I would have been thrilled to bits if the opening great had even scratched a page of my autograph book with a stick of his famous rhubarb, he was utterly disinclined to even give a peremptory look at the stationary. But unlike Sir Vivian Richards, who choose to be bereft of any words, Sir Geoffrey executed the role of a consummate liar to suave perfection, when he said “I will sign for you when I come back after my media duties”. It would not have taken a genius to figure out that a patient and interminable wait for his return would only be an exercise in abject futility.

I must have taken on a pallor of utter desolation after these refusals, for a fellow autograph seeker voluntarily made his way towards me and provided me with a few words of unsolicited but welcome consolation. I for a moment had even contemplated that contemptuousness might after all be a natural fall-out of knighthood. The Good Samaritan incidentally had also been brushed aside in his quest for a signature by Sir Geoffrey. He wryly proceeded to remark that there was a good probability that Sir Viv might have had breakfast with the English legend which resulted in the former assuming the same bearings as the latter! While this thought brought about a good laugh out of me, it also set me into thinking as to what might be a rational cause for a celebrity not obliging a signature seeking.

The practice of offering and obtaining autographs supposedly has its roots in the Greek tradition. The word autograph refers to a document transcribed in its entirety by the author. Thus the practice of collecting autographs from achievers is one that has been followed from times immemorial. The collection of autographs is also a hobby referred to as philography. The act of collecting an autograph epitomizes the adulation and admiration which a genuine seeker possesses towards the author in question. Also the fact that the same can be preserved in the vein of a precious treasure even long after the earthly sojourn of both the giver and the receiver bestows upon a signature, a special distinction. It is almost as if the person signing on an ordinary piece of paper or on his/her photograph is leaving behind a lasting legacy in his/her wake. An autograph is also not without its monetary benefits. It can be extraordinarily rewarding possessing unimaginable commercial value. As an illustration it is estimated that if any of the six original signatures of the immortal bard William Shakespeare were to come up for a miraculous auction, it would probably sell for in excess of $5 million US. But would the Bard-of-Avon himself have had any qualms in the event of such an improbable occurance? A genuine collector of autographs in general would rarely bear to part with them, excepting under dire circumstances. The intangible value in the form of happiness, prestige and pride invariably overrides the tangible and monetary aspects attached to a precocious collection. And even if an autograph is sought in anticipation of a commercial sale in the distant or near future, any paranoia on the part of the giver is hard to fathom. In the current world of cricket, that is characterized by an explosion of innovation and where T20 games take precedence over Test Match cricket, it is hard to envisage a signature of Sir Geoffrey Boycott being a ticket to generating unbridled wealth! Although there have been instances of celebrities charging a ‘signing fee’ for putting pen to paper on the apprehension that the autograph seekers would be professional autograph traders selling the autographs for full profit, such instances have been sparse and scattered. A New York Yankees legend, Joe Dimaggio was a notable proponent of such a practice. However such a practice, in fact might have the invidious effect of putting off fans rather than accumulating admirers.  No fan would like to see his hero donning the mantle of a sophisticated and civilized extortionist by putting a fat price on a signature. At least I would not touch a person who charges for his signature even with a 50-foot barge pole! A predominant motive in requesting a celebrity for an autograph is to capture in permanence a part of history. Nothing pleases an autograph seeker more than laying hands upon a document or an object that has been signed by a notable personality. It is not for nothing that fans brave despicable weather and embark on an interminable wait to just get a scrap of paper signed by their favourite celebrity.

While it is a personal choice on the part of a celebrity to either accommodate or abhor a request made by a fan for an autograph, more often than not, it is hard to digest a refusal. It almost signifies a form of betrayal for the ardent person making the request. It is as though the feelings of reverence,regard and respect that the fan possesses for his idol have gone unnoticed and unrecognized by the latter. At times, while it might be utterly impractical to satisfy the wishes of an autograph seeker (for example where the fan is part of a massive and teeming crowd), it might not be platitudinous to conclude that on more accomodating occasions, the fan would be well served to obtain that invaluable signature.

While I brook no hatred towards either Sir Geoffrey or Sir Vivian Richards and will continue to be a staunch admirer of these two brilliant cricketing legends, and also while there is no doubting that at the next available opportunity ( a possibility that seems both bleak and remote) I would not hesitate one jot before asking these two to sign their names for me, I would be deceiving myself if I were to conclude that I have not let down by the whimsical attitude displayed by these greats. But as the adage goes every rainbow invariably has a pot of gold. I found mine when the disappointments that were Boycott and Richards were more than made up for by the euphoria that was Michael Holding. The Whispering Death not only obliged with his unique signature but also had an encouraging word or two to spare! It was a pure Rolls Royce moment!

“Out of the Blue – Rajasthan’s Road to the Ranji Trophy” by Aakash Chopra

When the compact former India opening batsman Aakash Chopra penned Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other”, he revealed that he had as much dexterity holding a pen as he had flourishing a willow. Now with “Out Of The Blue – Rajasthan’s Road To The Ranji Trophy”, this prolific run getter in the domestic circuit has proved that such a dexterity was not a mere flash in the pan. His second book provides an interesting and at times intriguing account of Rajasthan’s incredible clinching of the Ranji Trophy during the season of 2010-11. This story of rank and unheralded underdogs upsetting many an apple cart and bringing to naught many a well-crafted strategy of much bigger rivals during their course of creating history, undoubtedly warms the cockles of the reader’s heart.

In a queer sense of the way, this book might not have seen the light of the day, but for the supposed intransigence displayed by the Delhi & District Cricket Administration (“DDCA”) in unceremoniously dumping Aakash Chopra from the Delhi squad for the domestic one-day games. This episode, recounted in a calm and matter-of-fact manner in the very first chapter of the book, rankled this batsman so much that he vowed never to represent his State again. It was as though years of unflinching, uncomplaining and undeterred service rendered by a faithful servant of the game were discounted remorselessly in one fell swoop. The consequence of such an action was a move to the ‘surrogate state’ (as succinctly put by the author) of Rajasthan, and as the much used and abused cliché goes ‘the rest is history’.

The initial chapters of the book are dedicated to providing a bird’s eye view of the players constituting the Rajasthan Ranji Trophy squad. Resembling a motley crew, this aspiring bunch shares the enviable values of determination, devotion and dedication and is firmly bond by the glue of togetherness. Any young cricketer aspiring to make an indelible mark would do well not only to read these chapters but also ingrain in him/her the invaluable and precocious lessons contained therein. The trials and tribulations undergone by each of these cricketers not only showcase their mental resoluteness but also a never say die attitude. Some of the incidents narrated in a simplistic and unflattering manner are to say the least, extremely moving. Vineet Saxena continuing to play the game in order to tend to his family, not even taking adequate time to grieve over the untimely passing of initially his father, and later his two month old infant is an exemplary case in point. Pankaj Singh’s teething troubles and a torn allegiance between choosing between volleyball and cricket, Ashok Menaria’s tryst with fame and ignominy, Deepak Chahar’s resoluteness and his polychondritis afflicted father’s unconditional encouragement all serve to prove the point that it takes more than just talent for one to establish oneself firmly in this game. Also immensely and intensely inspiring is the story of the young Gajendra Singh, a left-arm spinner who scalped Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson (yes all five of them) in a practice match and then had his whole world shattered with the death of his father and mother. In spite of adversity staring him point blank at his face, this tough cricketer braved the odds to turn into a determined cricketer and a bowler of note.

The book also embeds within its pages a fair sprinkling of humour. The story of Robin Bist, the young batsman being woken up in the night from the cramped confines of a seat in a rickety bus, by the licking of a goat (with the man tending to it firmly perched on his cricket kit bag), a group of primates invading the playing arena when the author was at the crease during a game at Kota, are a few examples.

Aakash Chopra also highlights the wide chasm in personal comforts and luxuries that are the prerogative of an established national cricketer vis-a-vis a player struggling to make a mark in the domestic circuit and facing innumerable obstacles (both avoidable and inevitable), in a clear and uncomplicated fashion. The obduracy and indifference of various selection committees, a humble family background, a cruel jugglery between holding on to a not-so-well-paying job and playing the game one loves the most are some of the perils that an aspiring cricketer faces in his endeavor to earn a name by playing this great game.

The second part of the book provides a gripping narrative of every game played by Rajasthan, their promotion to the Elite League from the Plate Division. The thrills and spills are entertainingly narrated and performances of note highlighted. The reader is thus regaled with the account of Hyderabad collapsing for an unbelievable 21, with Deepak Chahar being the wrecker-in-chief with an unbelievable haul of 8 wickets, the sleepless nights spent by the author himself on course to compiling a marathon unbeaten triple ton against Maharashtra in a crucial game and the slaying of the Big Daddy or “Australia of Indian domestic cricket” (in the author’s own words), Mumbai in an enthralling game.

A few erudite and technical points of note with regard to the most prudent manner of batting depending upon the state and nature of the pitch also merit a mention. Such an analysis ensures that the reader appreciates the various nuances that are the subtle prerogative of this seemingly simple and uncomplicated game.

A point of crescendo is reached when the indomitable desert warrior s contrive an amazing fairy tale to beat the seemingly invincible Mumbai to secure a place in the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy. Facing a barrage of bouncers on and off the field, the tenacious skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s team ploughs on with their spirit undeterred and hope unyielding. As a visibly shattered Mumbai resign to their fate, a glorious hope is instilled in the Rajasthan players’ hearts with renewed vigour and realization dawns that the seemingly impossible dream is a mere two games away! As Tamil Nadu and Baroda bite the dust following the footsteps of their seven predecessors to have played Rajasthan, a rousing and endearing fairy tale is scripted and the record books rewritten!

In the overall context, this is the story of team work, self-belief and an unflinching attitude of camaraderie displayed by a bunch of talented and determined cricketers, willing themselves to go the distance and take the proverbial leap of faith. And as usual fortune never ever fails to favour the brave!

As I completed the final few chapters of this engrossing read, as coincidence would have it, Aakash Chopra raised his bat to a sprinkling of spectators by stroking a fluent century against Uttar Pradesh in the ongoing Ranji Trophy season. During the course of this elegant innings, he also achieved the enviable landmark of completing 10,000 first class runs. The first thought that entered my mind as I stood in the confines of my living room to generously applaud this feat was that of a young eight year old cricketer who shouldering a heavy cricket kit, hung on grimly to the ladder behind Bus No.442 heading towards Rajdhani College to practice a game of cricket. The boy has indeed grown into a multifaceted and mature man and a marvelous cricketer!

“Out of the Blue” – The colour of cricket, cause and courage!