Vantage point

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Australia - Walkin' on Sunshine in Barbados

Every once in a while, test cricket says to other sports "Who's your daddy? I am!" Today is one such time.

Five days ago, if you had said to me, "Australia will win the Barbados test", I'd have responded, yeah, probably...for sure... so?

The beauty of test cricket is its ability to engineer the most bizarre dramas, replete with unexpected reversals, and above all, often making the the audience switch their loyalties.

Five days ago, I was sure that Australia, the side that whitewashed the kinda-mighty Indians, would make mincemeat of West Indies. It didn't even seem like a test series worth following on Cricinfo. But follow it I did. Once you love test cricket, you can't help but follow test cricket, no matter how foregone the conclusion might seem.

Then came the first major twist in the tail. The Windies, marshaled by that old fox Chanderpaul, posted a 400+ score. It's not often that a team loses after scoring 400+ in the first innings. Even better, the Windies bowlers got rid of the Aussie top and middle order fairly soon.

Holy crap! The Windies were set to get a substantial first innings lead. And even win the test! Go West Indies, I thought. Yessss! Schadenfreude is a cool-sounding word, but it truly finds its meaning when the Australian cricket team is losing. Go Windies!

And then test cricket showed why it's everyone's daddy. The Aussies, reverting to a sickening old habit, fought back. Their tail wagged, chipping away at the deficit. Their 10th wicket partnership was going strong, reducing the deficit to a mathematical factoid. Heck, they might even wipe off the deficit.

And then.... huh! Clarke decalred! What!??! He declared, with his 10 wicket pair going strong and the deficit still 43! He declared to, ostensibly and obviously, have enough time to actually win the test.

I have generally disliked the Aussie team. And I don't like Michael Clarke. But this decision won me over. What a declaration! True, his 10th wicket was at the crease, so to posterity, it might not seem like much. But in the context of the match, it was quite a doozy.

Turns out Clarke shocked not just us fans, but the Windies batsmen too. They promptly collapsed in a heap. And suddenly, it seemed like Australia might win this. It wasn't easy. Sure, it seemed easy - 192 in 60-odd overs. But the fading April light meant there was no chance to get more than 50 overs. On a 5th day pitch.

Then came the inevitable sad flashback. India at Dominica last year. The #1 test team in the world. Set 180 in 47 overs. And India decided to play it safe and accepted a draw after a half-hearted attempt. As an Indian, the whitewashes in England and Australia hurt, but didn;t come close to the shame and outrage I felt for the Dominica cop-out.

Surely Clarke with his brave declaration wouldn't pull a Dhoni and play it sickeningly safe? He better not. Aussies better win this.

And that's the weird journey I made in a handful of days. From "Oh, Aussies will definitely win" to "Wow, WI are batting well." to "WI may get the lead! Wow! WI can win this!" to "Oh no! Oh damn! Aussies might save the test" to the final leap "Please please please Australia, win this!"

For that is the beauty of test cricket. It can shake your convictions and loyalties. The action in the middle can make you forget your prejudices and switch sides to support the side playing truly in line with the game's true character. If you've seen Rocky 4, you might remember how the Russian spectators stop cheering for Ivan Drago and start cheering for Rocky, going against all their loyalties and convictions. Well, that was a (rather badly) scripted movie. This is the reality of test cricket.

By the 3rd session on day 5, I found myself, for the first time in well over a decade, cheering for an Australian win. It may seem like an odd, even fickle reversal to cheer the side that I was so dead set against just 5 days ago.

But that's what test cricket does. And did. To me. My heart raced as I groaned at every Australian wicket and cheered every big hit from the Aussies. I kept trying to calculate how long sunshine would last before the umpires closed the proceedings for bad light. And I kept hoping the Aussies would make it.

Aussies - the pre-match favorites, and Windies the underdogs. But test cricket when it is in its element, can make you cheer for the favorites as if they're the underdogs.

Finally, Australia won. They walked on sunshine. And have most likely ushered in another era of self-belief and dominance that will be the bane of other teams in the next decade.