By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
One of the hardest things to explain is why one falls in love. You can list a few reasons, rationalize some emotions, articulate feelings, whatever. But you are unlikely to ever be able to put into words all that is happening within. Those unexpected jitters – brief yet powerful. Those times when you behaved so differently, when you wondered if you were changing within. Seeking out irrationality, favoring extremes, taking mighty risks. How to explain all that?
One of my early cricket memories is of Greg Matthews bowling in two full-sleeve jumpers and a cap in the Madras furnace in 1986. Some of his team-mates were dehydrated. Journalists still shudder when reminded of the humidity on the final day. But Matthews was wrapped up for a wintery morning. I can’t tell you much about his spell – I was five then – but I recall how my family was talking about his attire nonstop. Common sense suggested one thing; Matthews did the opposite. I didn’t know why he did it – and I find his subsequent explanation citing the laws of thermodynamics quite laughable – but the point is he did something no one thought sane. He also took ten wickets in the Test. And he bowled the final ball in the second tie in Test history.
Why am I telling you this? Because my journey as a cricket watcher is dotted with moments such as these when I fell deeply in love with the game. Before I knew what an arm-ball was, before I understood field placings and strategy and all the other complexities of the game, I began to realize that cricket is this capacious canvas that makes ample room for the extremes. A 19-year-old legspinner, bespectacled, head-banded, smiling like he had just topped an exam, dismantling the mighty West Indies on debut. Sixteen wickets! What on earth had I just seen! I spent the next month trying to bowl like Narendra Hirwani, cracked a window, and got butt-whacked. But how to explain to my parents that I was in love? The feel of the ball on my palms, bounding through my run-up, the fingers tweaking the ball, seeing it listen to my command, beating imaginary batsmen in the air … that was so much more powerful than a butt-whack. So much more lasting.
I am thinking of all this because Australia and India are taking me back to more carefree times. The teams are engaged in a titanic struggle in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy – which currently stands at 1-1 after a magnificent draw in Sydney. There is no need for me to rehash the context: you know the Indian players who are missing, you know the players who were injured, you know all about Covid bubbles and about how tough it is to beat a full-strength Australia at home. You also know how ruthless the Australian bowling attack has been through the series, and that Steve Smith’s Test record makes him a worthy candidate for the second-greatest batsman of all time. And you saw how mercilessly he found a way to roar back to form. These are details. Important details. And journalists covering this series have written eloquently about how evenly matched these teams have been and how well a weakened India have coped.
But I began talking about love. And for me, this series has been about possibility. India falling for 36, their lowest Test score, in Adelaide. India battling for 131 overs in the fourth innings in Sydney – their longest fourth innings since 1979. Pujara scoring a 176-ball 50 in the first innings in Sydney – his slowest in Test cricket. Pujara whooshing three successive fours of Cummins in the second innings, briefly raising hopes of a great chase…
There is something arresting about the elasticity of a Test match. Some sessions taut, some explosive. Drip, drip, drip. Jaffa, edge, collapse. The pendulum has stayed still for extended passages. Then it has swung at wild amplitudes. Cummins, Hazlewood, Bumrah, Starc: you miss their spells and you could miss the ball of the series. Ashwin: delivering geometric puzzles, some decipherable, others unresolved. Lyon: such delightful changes of line and pace, challenging a batsman of the caliber of Pujara to take him on. Sessions haven’t meandered. And barring that manic collapse in Adelaide – games have been alive, simmering, promising something special.
I am one of those who goes to bed thinking about cricket, imagining fictional scenarios, pitting dream XIs against each other. A recurring theme is a team being 22 for 2 or 33 for 3 followed by a dreamy counterattack, usually in the fourth innings, with an improbable target to chase. Lara has figured often in these scenarios. Laxman and Aravinda de Silva have pulled off great wins.
Rishabh Pant walked in for the second over of the fifth day in Sydney. India needed 305 more to win. They had to bat out a whole day to draw. His first 33 balls brought 5: tap, tap, tapping to the infield, briefly considering the pull shot as if to test out that elbow he had injured on day three. Then came the Lyon over when Pant decided to open up the box of possibilities. First ball, beaten. Second ball, two to midwicket. Third ball, defended. Fourth ball, prances down the track and lofts against the turn for four. Fifth ball, prances out and monsters the ball for a straight six. Last ball, stretches to meet the ball and picks up a single. Thirteen off the over. Could he? Seriously?
Pant is a cricketer who makes you dream. This is the reason it can be so frustrating when he is out: the feeling that he has to leave with so much quality unrevealed. On Monday he held little back: taking his chances, biding his luck, lambasting Lyon on a fifth-day Australian pitch, and cover-driving the fast bowlers like there was no danger. There was something deeply moving about his innings: the sound the ball made as it impinged the bat, the arc of the bat-swing, the ferociousness with which he charged down the track. Here was a batsman revealing himself, body, mind and soul. This is who I am, he seemed to be saying. Love me or leave me.
And therein lies the agony of watching the fifth day counterattack. One cannot miss Pant going for it. Equally, one cannot bear the thought of him getting out. Another ball, another charge, oh god, please, wide of the fielder, heart in the mouth, I can’t do this. Six. Four. Beaten. Dropped. Stop it! Don’t stop it! I love it so much. I can’t bear it. Leave me. Never leave me.
The dream ended on 97. But what a dream it turned out to be.
Towards the end of the Test match, I was thinking about fiction. The end of some Tests leave me with the same wholesomeness (and emptiness) as some novels do. I am glad (but also sad) they are ending. I slow down the pace and read paragraphs over. I restart the final chapter, just to be sure I haven’t missed anything. Of course I can read the book again and savor all the details but there is only one first time. And that will soon be over when the last few pages finish.
The Vihari-Ashwin partnership lasted 256 balls. So few runs were scored, yet so much happened. Body blows, edges, near-edges, near-near-edges. Hobbling between the wickets, choosing which bowlers to face, smothering the spin, willing the body for one final stand, shutting out the chirp from the fielders, occasionally chirping back…
As much as I wanted the session to finish in a hurry – with India saving the Test and heading to Brisbane with the series at 1-1 – a part of me also wanted to slow down time. There came a point when it became clear that India would likely see out the remaining overs – that they were going to avoid defeat thanks to a batsman with a torn hamstring and another with a crocked back, with another injured batsman waiting to bat. Each ball the batsmen survived was a moment of triumph. But each ball they survived was also one ball closer to the end of this Test. I could watch the entire day’s replay whenever I wanted. But there will only be one first time.
As with love so with cricket.