Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is the heir apparent?

You’ll find this a little shocking but in all the years I spent bowling my heart out in various tournaments, I was always rooting for Pakistan. Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were my heroes. Every autumn, I’d wait for the desert spectacle in Sharjah, where I was happier seeing the Ws hurling cricket balls like 90 mph grenades and blasting through Indian defenses than I was to see Sachin bludgeoning them across and over the ropes, which anyways didn’t happen too often those days.

I wanted to be a fast bowler and had read that the mighty English fast bowler Frank ‘typhoon’ Tyson had said that the ‘coming of guile to a fast bowler was like a creeping paralysis’ – it kills the purity of spirit that epitomises a ‘fast man’. In many ways, a fast bowler’s philosophy is an ode to the purity of purpose, courage, vigour and tragic glory of an Andalusian fighting bull. The odds are against him… The crowd wants to see him brought down to his knees, either by bat or blade. He is but glorified fodder for celebrated cannons and yet he keeps running in… As blood streams into sweat, he serves himself in all his taurean glory only to be carved up at the altar of public entertainment – a public that marvels as much at his sublime physicality, as it enjoys seeing that same physicality tamed and subdued. There is a tragic inevitability to their meteoric explosion, and yet, for those brief magical moments, when a great fast bowler, just like a brave bull, finds a concerted rhythm, the spectacle is both beautiful and devastating … an uncontained force of nature.

In the school nets, I’d charge in at a single stump, trying to find and unleash that force of nature in my own being. But when I sought inspiration, I couldn’t find it in India. In the late 80s and early 90s, Australia had big Merv and Mcdermott followed by McGrath. The Windies had two coconut trees that would sway down from the boundary, pelting ‘perfume balls’ from somewhere up in the sky. They went by the names of Courtney Walsh and very curtley Ambrose. They even brought in a priest to preside over the mayhem – they called him Bishop, Ian Bishop. South Africa announced its return with a burst of ‘white’ lightning that smashed Pravin Amre’s wicket to pieces. The owner of those thunderbolts was Allan Donald, one of the fastest bowlers of our times... Seeing them charge in gave me goose bumps and the batsmen cold sweat… and who knows what other bodily fluids were lost at the other end of the 22 yard strip…

But in the Indian team, the fastest bowler, barring the odd Test when Javagal Srinath got a game, happened to be a tall bespectacled spinner called Anil Kumble… So, when India played, like my friends, I too hoped to see India bat.But while they hoped to see our willow wielders, I wanted to see the opposition bowlers, most of all the guys next door. The Pakistanis proved that bowling fast wasn’t about genetics. The brown man could ball as fast as a black man or a white man. I didn’t care who they bowled against…

Indians, Australians or Sri Lankans… I just wanted to see them bowl… until… Until… I saw Ishant Sharma bowl to Ricky Ponting at Perth…

I’d been reduced to a parochial Indian fan when I gave up my dreams of playing for India. No longer did I enjoy watching sport for sports’ sake. I just watched as did everybody else, to forget for a while that we’re a third world country with news of bomb blasts and deaths two flicks away on the remote. I watched because like everybody else, for a fleeting victorious moment, I too wanted to believe that in spite of the corruption, the communalism and the anger, 11 people could still make us feel like one country…

But when I saw Ishant bowl, I realised that the twin reasons for which I sat in front of a tv watching people run around in dress pants and collared shirts would converge… we’ll see India win more matches more often and see India bowl faster than ever before.

The connection is borne out in the preceding pages (read drop anchor), but let me offer further proof of the inevitable.

In the 90s, when the baton of cricketing supremacy passed to Australia, it didn’t happen with that one defining series in 1995 when the fire of Glen McGrath and the dour will of Steve Waugh finally wrested the prize from the formidable West Indians. The seeds were sown in 1991, when the islanders lost their ODI home series to a resurgent Australia 4-1 (Losing ODIs consistently to a particular opponent implies a narrowing of the gap between teams, especially in batting and out cricket. All it takes is an added edge in bowling to take over in Tests) and barely managed to hold on to their superiority in Tests. Shaken and stirred, the Windies went to Australia, and in Adelaide, won a match they should’ve lost which allowed them to hang on to yet another series before the end came in 1995. A decade and a half later, India began challenging Australia consistently in the ODIs which culminated with India’s victory in the CB series. Similarly in Tests, each series since 2001 has been closely contested with Australia hanging on to the trophy this year in Australia because of a match they should have lost in Sydney, until the fateful Nagpur Test. It’s like a boxing match where the challenger stuns the champion with an early knockdown before the champion realises the threat, pulls up his socks, and fuelled by hurt pride, hangs on to a hard fought victory. But both know that the aura of invincibility is gone… the challenger will be back, and this time, pride won’t be good enough…

The similarities are unmistakable and I will stick my neck out and say that the coronation has begun. India will become the premier nation in world cricket and the series against England (the only other team to steal a series victory over the all conquering Aussies) will prove it. But the Australians have a great domestic set up. They won’t just roll over and die like the Windies… so Dhoni, may your majesty be warned….


Many legendary teams have ruled the roost in cricket, but the gold standard is ‘The Invincibles’ led by Don Bradman. The Australian team of 1948 was the first undefeated touring team to England. Though not as prolific, there have been many follow up acts through the years since. Ian Chappell’s ‘Ugly Australians’ ruled the 1970s (with bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson) while England were worthy opponents, propelled by all rounder Ian Botham. And then the West Indians and their much feared pace battery emerged. It didn’t hurt that they had a batsman with the destructive appetite of Vivian Richards too. Then in a symbolic power shift in 1994/95 Mark Taylor lead Australia won the series in the Caribbean and the most dominant modern team emerged. Powered by bowlers who went on to become legends (Warne, McGrath) and steamrolling batsmen (Gilchrist, Ponting and Hayden) they ruled either side of the 21st Century. And they had two 16 test winning streaks to show for it. And now depleted by the retirement of those very legends, the old order seemingly is at an inflection point. The question to ask is: Would India be the successor? Well, after all ‘tis a season for ‘change’!


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