Vantage point

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Day of Cricket to Regale Grandkids With

Decades from now, when I am an insufferable old codger, I'll occasionally grab my grandkids by the elbow (like uncle Leo from Seinfeld) and ramble on about test cricket. Today's 3rd day of play of the Capetown test between India and South Africa is bound to come up most of those times. For today was one of those rare, almost perfect examples of why test cricket is the most ultimate sport there is.

Sure, some of our best cricketing memories are of splendid individual achievements - double and triple centuries, eight wicket hauls, and close final sessions of play. Most of those memories feature one individual or team being utterly dominant or triumphing in the end against all odds. There's usually a win or loss involved. Be it Murali's mind-boggling 16 wicket haul at the Oval in 1996 or Sehwag's breath-taking 293 at Brabourne or the last day of the 2005 Edgbaston Ashes test, there's usually a winner and a loser.

Today at Newlands, there were no losers. What made it even more exciting - there were no statistically opulent "winners". No one ran through a side in quick time or scored a flawless epic. Heck, no one even achieved, in the duration of the day, those two basic benchmarks of cricketing success; scoring 100 runs or taking 5 wickets. Tendulkar added 97 runs to his overnight score, Steyn added 4 wickets.

And yet, today has to be the most memorable day of test cricket I have seen in many years....maybe ever!

This was the 51st century for Tendulkar, arguably the best batsman to ever play the game. Most of those have been dominant, fluent, and solid knocks. In this one, he looked human. He was made to concentrate hard, guard his wicket, score runs cautiously, and was aided by luck. He had to bat almost 8 hours and put in his best. Considering the flawless form he has been in, if he had faced any other attack today, he'd have gone past a double hundred with ease. But he was made to work hard. He was made to look human by Dale Steyn.

Steyn, easily the most destructive fast bowler the game has seen since the divine trinity of Akram-Donald-Ambrose, got his 16th 5-wicket haul. Most of his previous hauls have seen him run through sides with ease, typically in a couple of sessions. Half those fivers have come in 15 overs or less. Today, he bowled 31 overs, the most he's ever bowled for a fiver. He bowled with pace, made the ball move as much as a leg spinner does, tested the batsmen, and was hostile throughout. Against any other line-up, he would have probably ended up with 8-9 wickets for 30 runs in 15 overs. Tendulkar made him bend his back and work hard. He, and other Indian batsmen, made Steyn work hard for over 4 sessions to get 5 wickets.

It was a day that can't be fully appreciated by watching the highlights. The highlights will be great to watch, of course. But the tension, the drama, the intrigue of watching (pardon the cliche) an irresistible force meet an immovable object as it happens, without knowing how it will turn out, is incomparable. Fight Club is a great movie to re-watch many times even if you know the end. But the thrill of watching it that first time can never be replicated.

January 4th at Newlands in Capetown was one such day. It started off with Steyn bowling a hostile and flawless spell to Tendulkar, with Morkel bowling a brilliant spell to Gambhir at the other end. Both batsmen rode those spells out with fierce concentration, determination, admirable judgment about the length and swing, and firm knowledge of where their off-stump was. Tendulkar's expertise and mental strength is well known, and his negotiating the first hour play, even though laudable, was not completely unexpected. But Gautam Gambhir has been criticized by many (including yours truly) for not possessing the technique to survive in hostile conditions against top class pace bowling. He looked hopelessly out of place facing Morkel on the first day of the Centurion test just 3 weeks ago. From that arduous ordeal to this determined bout shows that what you lack in technique, you can make up in determination. He was assured in his leaves, confident in most of his strokes, a far cry from the first innings at Centurion. He too had some luck, but that was part of the appeal. His 93 may well end up as simply a footnote compared to the centuries by Kallis and Tendulkar. But to me, it was his finest innings yet, yes, even better than his gritty Napier graft.

What makes test cricket so beautiful is that the game moves through roughly 45-minute portions of suspense, with the outcome unknown. In the first 45 minutes, the suspense over whether Tendulkar and Gambhir could survive the opening burst from Steyn and Morkel, had been answered. They had. The question now was, could they and would they cash in on the bowling of the support crew - Tsotsobe and Harris? The could was answered before the would. They could have if the two bowlers had been wayward and sloppy. But the two bowlers, while not as hostile and probing as Steyn-Morkel, were still punching above their weights. There were few easy runs on offer, hardly any four-balls, and although Tendulkar and Gambhir scored more freely, they could not run away with the game.

A word about Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner. I don't like the guy. If he were in India, he couldn't make it to the top Ranji teams, forget the national team. he is low on talent, boring to watch, and quite obnoxious. I think India's capitulation to him at the same venue 3 years ago was disgraceful. And with Imran Tahir becoming eligible to play for South Africa, I am happy that this guy probably won't play many more tests.

But today, I grudgingly doff my hat to the effort he put in. Although he had no answers to Tendulkar's broad bat, he found the perfect line to Gambhir and stuck to it - well outside the off-stump. Gambhir, a much much batsmen off spin than pace, resisted, occasionally used his feet. Didn't look in trouble, but didn't look fully at ease either. Harris persisted. he didn't get much turn. He never does. But one delivery pitched in the rough and turned sharply, clipping the handle of Gambhir's bat. It was a near-impossible chance for Boucher, and Gambhir survived, but Harris' persistence, coupled with luck in form of the one-off turn from the rough, was enough to sow doubts. The next delivery, Gambhir played for the turn which wasn't there, and was safely pouched by Boucher. Harris deserved the wicket. And although Gambhir missed a century, he had fallen in a way that didn't reflect poorly on him.

This contest was typical of the entire day. Like I said, there were no losers. Laxman looked extremely at ease in his short stay at the crease. It was cut short by the unluckiest, most gut-wrenching way a batsman can be dismissed - run out to a straight drive deflected off a bowler's hand when backing up. In walked Pujara.

Pujara survived till lunch, looking generally assured. Steyn was bowling the same probing line to him - sharply outswinging deliveries pitched just outside off-stump. And he looked reasonably solid handling them. Then came what was the ball of the day, even the ball of the decade (yes, I know it's a 4 day old decade!) from Steyn. It deserves its own paragraph.

Usually a right handed bowler gets a right handed batsmen LBW off deliveries that either hold their line, or seam/swing into the batsman. Typically, bowlers set up such dismissals by bowling a few away-going deliveries and then slipping in one that doesn't. I am hard-pressed to remember an occasion when a right-hander, bowling over the wicket, bowled an away-going delivery that trapped the batsman plumb in front. The ball swung inwards after release, landed on the leg stump line, then, quite inexplicably, moved away, hitting Pujara on the pads on middle-and-off. 9 times out of 10...99 times out of hundred, even 999999 times out of 1000000, the delivery would be adjudged to miss the stumps. But this was plumb. NO ONE could have survived it. NO ONE.

On one hand, I was distraught to see India crumbling. On the other hand, I was thrilled to have seen such a physics-defying dismissal. Just as I was wrestling with these conflicting emotions, Dhoni suffered his first true failure of the series. Two wickets for Steyn in the same over. India were behind by 115. Unless the Indian tail emulated the South African effort from the first innings, the test would be in South Africa's pocket in half an hour.

Out came Harbhajan. He started the way he always does - attempting (and sometimes connecting with) flat batted swats after leaving his stumps open. Rode his luck a bit. Got to double figures. Then, the only "bad" bit of cricket happened. Smith spread the field, sending catchers to presumably have Harbhajan caught in the outfield. Harbhajan cleverly shifted gears, now protecting his stumps and playing in the traditional way. He kept scoring, but cautiously. Tendulkar, glad to have found an ally, also kept scoring at a decent pace. Excellent batting triumphed over earnest bowling in that 45 minute suspense interval, and kept going. Harbhajan survived for almost two hours, and by the time he fell to a rush of blood off a Seyn bouncer, India trailed by only 39.

Zaheer also started off with swats, but didn't seem to inspire much confidence from Tendulkar. But some risk-taking brought the deficit down to 20. Then Tendulkar fell to a fine delivery from Morkel, who was finally rewarded for his untiring efforts. It was a good ball, but Tendulkar had kept out most such balls. This time, he left a huge gap between bat and pad. He fell, but had done the most he could.

Some lusty blows by Zaheer and Sreesanth look India past the South African total, but by just 2 runs. For all practical purposes, the first innings ended dead even.

The South African reply started confidently, aided by some wayward bowling by the Indian pacers. Dhoni brought Harbhajan on towards the end of the day's play and he struck twice in 3 overs - removing Smith and the night watchman Harris LBW off deliveries that got more assistance from the rough than Harris' ever did.

The day ended with the test match on an even keel, the same way it had started. The next two days are bound to be absorbing. Barring dramatic collapses from either side, and given the quality of the bowling on offer combined with a wearing pitch, this contest should go to the final hour of the fifth day.

But whatever happens, is only tangentially relevant to the sheer ecstasy of watching today's play. No matter what happens, 40 years from now, I will narrate the details of Day 3 to my grandkids. Or to your grandkids. or to pigeons on a park bench.