For an instant, watching the first game of the Cricket All-Stars Series in New York, it felt we had taken a time machine back to 2003. There was Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat, looking to the heavens as he crossed the rope, opening the innings alongside Virender Sehwag. There was Wasim Akram, running his fingers through his hair one moment, tossing the ball up the next as he waited at the top of his run-up. This was not just about cricket. This was a trip back to the good old days — our childhood, for some of us; our adolescence, for others; our early adulthood, for some.
It didn’t really matter that Tendulkar did not smash the bowling to smithereens, or that he was several kilos heavier than when he last took the field, or that Akram did not make our brows furrow with worry anymore. It was a blissful escape, a journey through some wormhole into a universe where Tendulkar still had a bat in hand, Curtly Ambrose still had something dreadful sprouting from the middle of his head, Jonty Rhodes still fielded at point, and Shane Warne still had batsmen lunging down the pitch and losing their bearings — a universe where our heroes were still young; where we were still young.
The result didn't matter
“He’s in good touch. His straight drive is on fire. I saw him in the nets,” Warne said of Tendulkar ahead of the game. “He’s playing mind-games again,” his rival captain quipped. In the end, the result — Warne’s Warriors defeating Sachin’s Blasters by six wickets — was little more than a footnote. Tendulkar did but unleash his straight drive to great effect only once, when he lofted Courtney Walsh over long on. There was the trademark flick off his hips to send Jacques Kallis to the square-leg boundary but, largely, it was a struggle for Tendulkar. Warne, who in the lead-up had said, “Sachin has owned me for 20 years. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try,” eventually got him, when an attempted pull was held by a leaping Kallis at mid-off.
The crowd, reported to be 36,000-strong, went wild as Tendulkar’s name was announced at the beginning. “I feel God has answered my prayers,” one visibly-moved fan said when he was interviewed on TV. “I expected some decent crowd but not this many,” Ambrose said afterwards. “To be able to be in the same dressing room as this many legends is something I’ve never seen before. So, quite happy to be part of it.”
If this was supposed to be a friendly Saturday game among mates, nobody told Ricky Ponting. He was excellent in the covers, making a diving stop here, rushing in to gather the ball there, firing in ridiculously sharp throws. “I know I’ll be stiff and sore tomorrow,” Ponting said later. “I haven’t done anything for three years.” Rhodes still had it, looking preposterously fit for a 46-year-old, fielding well and later striking the ball sweetly. Shoaib Akhtar hurried batsmen with a couple of rapid bouncers; Sehwag, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene — not long retired from international cricket — were clearly in better touch than some of their team-mates.
Citi Field and cricket
Citi Field — home to baseball’s New York Mets — will now forever be listed on cricket databases. The curator (or whatever they call them in America), spoke of his fascination for what had been done — the drop-in pitch brought in from Indiana, and sunk into the ground along with 40,000 pounds of turf. It was strange, he said, to be “digging a hole behind second base.”
As an exercise in nostalgia, this was a great evening. What grated, though, was the attempt to dress it up as something noble. “I’ve picked up a cricket bat again to globalise the game,” Tendulkar, who conceptualised the event together with Warne, said. “I’m very proud of this. This is our way of giving back to the game,” the Australian spinner added. If the Series was meant to take the game to new audiences, it did not seem like there were too many cricket neophytes around. On TV at least, it appeared that the majority of those who came through the turnstiles were Indian expatriates, with a few Pakistanis thrown in. Three Australian men were interviewed during the innings break, with some English, West Indian and South African fans spotted by the camera.
Before live telecast from New York began, Indian TV viewers were shown snapshots of Tendulkar’s interaction with local children at a coaching clinic, where he patiently answered a number of questions on topics from back-foot play to mental toughness.
Who was the best bowler he had ever faced, he was asked. “All these bowlers here, they were world class bowlers,” he said, motioning around him. “They are retired now but in their prime they were fabulous.” Nobody else, though, needed any introduction and that tells the story.
“You’ve got to understand that we’re here to globalise the game,” Tendulkar explained as he stood in the dug-out after his dismissal. “It’s not going to be cricket at that level. After two years it’s different.” The quality of cricket was never going to be an issue for there were no demands; those of us watching were merely grateful.