Thursday, March 24, 2011


The suitors have started reaching for the bride. Hands, sweaty and dirty after a long hard day of battle have begun to dream of what it would be like to touch and kiss the one they are fighting for. The mind flits between savouring the tantalising ecstasy of imagining your arms around her and wincing at the thought of the excruciating agony you would suffer if you had to see her leave, cradled in the arms of a bitter rival. The hard brown earth of the subcontinent has been soaked in a lot of sweat and not a little blood. The pretenders have been ground to dust and they have dragged the corpses of their aspirations back home with a lot of deep open wounds and a few honourable scars to show for their ardour. But move aside world, the contenders are here… It’s KO time at the World Cup.

But for just a brief moment, let me take you away from the heat and dust of battle between wood and leather and take you up the Himalayas into a realm where on both sides of the cloud-spearing mountains brew legends about seven ancient sages. These sages are called by different names on different sides of the mountains. They might perhaps be different people too but what is common between the legend of the seven immortals from Bombay to Beijing is that they started out more or less together and since then have shaped and impacted their world and time in a way that has changed it forever. Centuries have passed and yet even today, it is said that the immortal masters are still around, subtly inspiring and guiding the wheels of life along the dirt-tracks of time. Some say they have seen them while others will tell you that it is their ideas that go on forever, showing generations and epochs the light and the way.

Well cricket, especially limited overs cricket, has its own list of seven immortals. And this page is an ode in praise of these seven masters who revolutionised the game within the span of their careers. Every player playing for the cup today, be it captain, batter, fielder or bowler fast and slow thinks of at least one of these seven immortals during the course of a game even today for it is on the shoulders of these giants on which rests the game as we know it today. So doff your hats, pinch your skirts and bow just a touch… for you are about to meet the ‘Immortals’.

Let’s start at the top of the order. Opening the batting in the 70s and 80s in ODI cricket was all about seeing off the new ball. Tough, dour and gutsy men would pad up to the prospect of surviving ten overs of pace and bounce and swing and seam in order to protect the stroke-players in the middle from the fast bowlers. And it was the golden age of fast bowling too. Almost every team had one or two (or four if you happened to be the West Indies) who could put the fear of death, defeat or worse in the minds of the opposition.

Then, in the mid 90s a short stocky man from Sri Lanka with forearms that look like knotted baseball clubs went to Australia to try and prop up a floundering career as a middle order batsman and spinner and changed all that. Promoted to open the innings with a license to kill, Sanath reinvented his own career as well as the first 15 overs in every game of limited overs cricket that was to follow with his first few murderous strokes – vicious pulls and cuts that sent the ball soaring into the stands. Sanath’s heavy hitting at the top of the order on that Australian tour was followed by lots more of the same during the 1996 World Cup in the subcontinent which knocked every opponent out on their way to a cup triumph. Today, every time a Virender Sehwag or a Chris Gayle goes out to open, somewhere in their minds lurks Sanath’s shadow, egging them on…

The next Immortal was a difficult pick. I had to pick a slow bowler with the greatest impact on the game and had to choose between a cricketer who is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest of his era with a train load of wickets – Shane Warne, and another who transformed the traditional whipping boy of ODI cricket, the off-spinner, into an attacking option with a secret weapon. After much deliberation, I thought of batting for the latter. His pile of wickets wouldn’t even keep you warm through the night while Shane Warne’s must’ve cost a few forests and yet you can’t help but pick the man who invented the ball which finally made ever off-spinner feel like a man.

Before he came up with the doosra, off spinners were usually cannon fodder. And today, if the world is wary of Muralidharan and Harbhajan, it is because they owe more than a wee bit to this man who once played for Pakistan but you could find him today rolling his arm over on the English greens. Say hello to Saqlain Mushtaq. The third one might be a bit of a surprise. He was a brilliantly gift ed batsman and decent slow-medium bowler but plagued by a bad knee condition, he never quite realised his greatness in the middle order. But it is as a imaginative tactician that he makes it to this list. Martin Crowe captained New Zealand during the 1992 World Cup and took them within touching distance of the trophy. Although they lost in the semi-finals to eventual champions Pakistan, his innovations left their mark on the game. Four years before Arjuna Ranatunga took a leaf out of the Crowe manual for out-of-the-box tactics and promoted dashers and pinch hitters like Sanath and Romesh Kaluwitharana to open the innings and take advantage of the field restrictions, Martin had pushed a big beefy out-of-form and out-of-sorts batsman called Mark Greatbatch and told him to ‘have a go’ at the bowlers. As it turned out, it was a stroke of genius and Greatbatch and Crowe had started what Sanath then refined, nay forged, into a deadly art. At the same World Cup, Crowe startled a few opening batsmen by opening the bowling with Dipak Patel, an off-break bowler and started a trend that is still being employed by captains to good effect in the current WC.

The next two are my personal favourites but you don’t need me to tell you anything about them. The twin Ws, Wasim (Akram) and Waqar (Younis) are all time greats whose pace, swing and creativity at the bowling crease left a whole generation of batsmen wishing they had been born in a different time. And yet the craft for which they are remembered most today was one for which they were reviled and persecuted by many who lost to them in the early 90s. Reverse swing was an unknown art in those days and when the two of them would move the old-ball around like a yo-yo at speeds beyond 90 mph, many a batsman tried to calling them cheats. But they usually ended up losing both their case and their wicket. Today, no new ball bowler can claim to be worth his IPL cheque if he can’t ‘reverse’ the ball.

Speaking of bowlers, there is one who taught the world how to bowl at the death and won the World Cup for his country while he was at it. Unlike the fast bowlers who traditionally bowled the end overs, he wasn’t lightning fast. Instead of trying to bowl the ball as fast as he could, he tried to bowl it slower than usual, thus foxing the batsman as he wound up for the slog. Steve Waugh used to be an all-rounder in the mid-80s and his calm and subtle changes of pace in the end overs helped Australia win a few tight ones including the final during the 1987 World Cup. Steve’s back injuries might have stopped him from bowling halfway through his career but it was he who set the tone for ‘deathbowling’ with his slow leg-cutters.

And last but not the least stands that immortal little genius who transformed what had always been a chore, for weekend and perhaps even international cricketers, into a glamorous statement in athleticism. A good but not an exceptionally great batsman, Jonty Rhodes never set hearts racing with his bowling and never really captained an international side but standing there at backward point, this great athlete would bounce and pounce on anything within reach, saving hundreds of runs and pouching catches like falcon plucking pigeons in mid-air. The history of fielding can be divided into two eras – there was once a ‘before Jonty’ era and now there is one ‘after Jonty’ where coaches around the world hold him up as an example for their teams.

It doesn’t matter where or who you are watching on a cricket field today for if the cricket you watch and enjoy on your television screens today is so much more enjoyable a spectacle than it ever was, it is because of these seven immortals. We all owe them a standing ovation, and a word of thanks…


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