India’s latest tryst with a cricketing milestone is seasoned with history. Just as the Gangetic Plains hosts the nation’s 500th Test at Kanpur’s Green Park Stadium, it is time to celebrate a country’s gradual growth in the willow game’s longest version.
This article is part of a series celebrating India’s journey to the 500th Test. To Read more: >India’s 500th Test
It is heartening that a numerical landmark is linked to Tests, especially in the Indian context where popular culture is often bonded to the game’s shorter avatars — ODIs and Twenty20s. To be fair, cricketers have often spoken about their fondness for doing battle in white flannels over five days but fans and brand managers tend to thrive upon and monetise the transient joys of limited overs cricket.
It is easy to stereotype Indian cricket. In the olden times it was about men unleashing oriental magic through their hyper-flexible wrists or spinners luring batsmen into fatal-traps, clichés as old as the ones about the Indian rope-trick and elephants roaming our streets. The current label is all about the country being a commercial behemoth as far as cricket goes and that leads to grumbling about muscle-flexing and a sense of entitlement.
True, India has had its share of batsmen offering aesthetic pleasure, spinners weaving a web and obviously the game’s financial heart beats strong from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. However, being obsessed about just these would do a disservice to the larger picture that has multiple shades ever since India’s maiden Test at Lord’s in 1932.
Being a country where academics took precedence over sport, it was but inevitable that in the early stages, batting and spin bowling — relatively less rigorous than fast bowling, found favour with the masses. But it changed and we have had all kinds of players embellishing our narrative.
If you feel that fast bowling became an attractive option only after Kapil Dev burst upon the scene in Pakistan during the 1978 tour, do leaf through the old tomes and be startled with the descriptions about India’s first pace-duo of Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh, who did duty under C. K. Nayudu’s captaincy at Lord’s.
Under the British, the game was restricted to the metros but after independence in 1947, it acquired wings, gained a wider demography and spread to the entire countryside with perhaps some parts of the North East being an exception. Every player, who emerged, had a different strain, a variable note, perhaps a throwback to cultural moorings, linguistic roots and religious backgrounds.
The result was a squad that had a medley of talent and diverse accents but was united in its fierce desire to play as one unit even when there was the odd whisper about the Bombay-Delhi divide or a North-South friction. Perhaps the greatest gift India could offer Test cricket, was its ability to confound all and defy the status-quo.
The batsmen were never produced off a conveyor belt and had their unique ticks and style-sheets. Angles were conquered as wrists worked their magic with Gundappa Viswanath, Mohammad Azharuddin and V. V. S. Laxman being the artists. The southpaw’s grace was evident in Sourav Ganguly, to cite just one example. Power too was unleashed be it from the broad-bat of a Kapil Dev or a M. S. Dhoni. Assurance and ability rained unabated from the willows of Vijay Merchant, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
Then there was Virender Sehwag, who started as a Tendulkar-clone before refusing to be slotted into any box except for the general impression that he bequeathed — a blithe spirit with a sword of a bat. We also had men with their special moments — Dilip Vengsarkar at Lord’s; Mohinder Amarnath in the West Indies.
Spinners too could never be pigeon-holed. If the quartet of Bishan Singh Bedi, E. A. S. Prasanna, B. S. Chandrasekhar and S. Venkatraghavan lent a classical air, Anil Kumble, never the conventional leg-spinner, stayed true to his craft and topped the wicket-charts (619). Add a feisty Harbhajan Singh, a studious R. Ashwin and an introspective Dilip Doshi to the mix and you have a range of personalities adding colour to the tale of spin and other turns.
The wicket-keepers ranged from the flamboyant Farokh Engineer to the superb Syed Kirmani. And though M. S. Dhoni was not steeped in orthodoxy, he was a mighty fine glove-man. And when it came to fielding when the tripe in the 1960s and 70s was all about Indians escorting the red cherry to the ropes, there were men like M. A. K. Pataudi (outfielding) and Eknath Solkar (close-in catching), who bucked that poor trend.
Much later, Azharuddin sprung forth and the current Test captain Virat Kohli, is supreme on two counts — imperious batting and razor-sharp fielding.
Fast bowling or medium-pace had its share of achievers. Kapil Dev, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath were outstanding. Men like Roger Binny were masters of swing and Manoj Prabhakar picked up reverse-swing from Imran Khan’s Pakistan and spread the knowledge. The wheel turned a full circle when England’s James Anderson said that he mastered reverse-swing by observing Zaheer! Ishant Sharma’s superb spell to a hassled Ricky Ponting is the stuff of legend and is popular on YouTube. And we had all-rounders like Vinoo Mankad or a Kapil, the latter once striking England spinner Eddie Hemmings for four consecutive sixes, just to avoid the follow-on. How is that for dollops of self-belief?
All the above, though not an exhaustive or all-inclusive list, just shows that it is difficult to pen a portrait and say with certainty that this is the ideal prototype of an Indian Test cricketer.
But there are other tropes that get peddled around, that the Indians are nice and soft. There are shades of truth in it but even the most gentlemanly among our players — Gavaskar once stormed off the pitch with his partner Chetan Chauhan in tow while protesting against an lbw verdict given in favour of Dennis Lillee and Harbhajan got embroiled in the Monkeygate issue with Andrew Symonds. Yes, there is a certain dignity that Indian players possess but they are not immune to losing their head or doing some plain-speak in the middle.
An early attribute that India’s Test cricketers gifted to both rivals and their audience was ‘patience.’ May be it has a parallel with the country’s ahimsa template that the great Mahatma Gandhi used in his quest for freedom. A draw was the favoured outcome, a sort of victory for a nation that had just shrugged off the weight of its colonial masters. May be there was a cricketing reason too as often the two arms — batting and bowling — were not synchronised to perfection. But the draw syndrome shows in the overall results at 42.48 per cent, the highest among all Test playing outfits while the winning share (25.85) is just above New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe!
Another offering to the lexicon of cricketing vocabulary is the famous or notorious ‘dust-bowl’ — worn-out pitches that test batsmen’s footwork and add bite to the spinner’s guile. Usually India’s home-made recipe was just perfect except when England’s Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar sprung a surprise in 2012.
Above all is the Indian fan, more prone to throng venues for ODIs, yet one who has kept a grudging faith in Tests. Raucous and at times venting nationalistic ire but equally gracious as evident in the standing ovation that the Chennai crowd gave to a victorious Pakistan more than a decade ago or when Bengalureans embraced South African AB de Villiers as their own, last year.
In a warped way, the ODIs and Twenty20s that India’s corporates fancy bring in the moolah and also sustain the game’s overall health besides subsidising and sustaining Tests.
For sport to prosper, it needs heroes, earlier it was Tendulkar, now it is Kohli and he and his young bunch will determine how long India will stay invested in Tests and the duration it will take to reach 1000 Tests.
By then many of us, be it players, fans or journalists, will be lost to the sands of time. For now, let us celebrate the 500th Test and ideally as you read this, India would have defeated New Zealand. As they say, isn’t sport also about hope and the ‘here’ and ‘now’?
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