Left and right of perfection

N. U. ABILASH

IN the words of Ezra Pound, all what needs to be said in art is conveyed through the image. Pound, the mentor of T. S. Eliot, might well have been foretelling, a hundred years early, the physical existence of the greatest batsmen of our generation. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, on scoring his 35th Test century, looked heavenwards, presumably to thank everybody out there including his late father. He has enacted the ritual a few times before in Test matches on crossing centuries and double centuries. Brian Charles Lara, on crossing Sir Garfield Sobers' record of 365 in Antigua in 1994 against England, went down on his knees and kissed the earth. It was an action Lara was to repeat when he scored his 400th run on the same ground 10 years later against the same opponent.

According to the image-making industry of modern times, the Indian is the model citizen; the paragon of emotional and moral rectitude, committed worker, the owner of the right temperament needed to succeed in sport, the personification of discipline. The West Indian, on the other hand, is the maverick; the best advertisement for the art-for-art's-sake flagbearers, the enigma whose emotional and mental co-ordinates are in a constant process of wild fluctuation. The Indian is subtly religious; television channels snapped him offering thanksgiving at a temple near his Bandra residence with family after his world record in the Delhi Test. The West Indian is blatantly hedonist; after breaking the world record for the most number of Test runs, Lara stated that he celebrated the achievement with a good drink with his teammates and the Aussies after the Adelaide Test.

Deviating from Newtonian physics though, heaven and earth are bound together by space and time. English academic and cricket writer, Chris Searle, called Lara's innings of 375 the apotheosis of Caribbean batting. He saw in Lara's innings the immaculate, precise and perfect fusion of the instinctive and inventive shot-making of Wilton St. Hill and Learie Constantine and the disciplined batting of the great Jamaican George Headley, who was called the `Black Bradman' by the English media. Nobody, not even the three Ws, Sir Garry Sobers or Sir Vivian Richards, achieved the perfect mix, according to Searle. In other words, Lara had elevated the science of batting away from its spatial co-ordinates into a universalist sphere.

The man known as `White Headley' to West Indians, or Sir Don Bradman, declared in 1998 that he had once told his wife in a private conversation that the batting style of the `little fella from India' reminded him so much of the heady days between 1929 and 1948 when he ruthlessly scored 6996 runs at an average of 99.94. The biggest achievement of `little fella from India', according to Indian cricket writer Suresh Menon, was that his batting had a universalist template as opposed to all the leading South Asian batsmen who preceded him such as Hanif Mohammed, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Mohammed Azharuddin, all of whom could not escape being identified by the English and Australian media as carriers of a distinctive Asian style of batting.

Tendulkar and Lara are not just the significant batsmen of our age, they are the embodiments of the moment in time when their nations made the precise intersection between art and science, style and substance, instinct and intelligence.

They are young men who have had significant parts to play in forging the cultural and psychological identities of Trinidad and Tobago and India at a time when the economic systems in these countries were in a change of flux; from socialism to global capitalism. They are, as C. L. R. James wrote about cricket's first batting superstar W. G. Grace in Beyond a Boundary, "strong with the strength of men who are filling a social need."

We have all seen this strength of purpose when the batting masters scored double centuries — Tendulkar in Sydney 2004 and Lara recently in Adelaide — in what could be their last Test match in Australia, the dominant cricket team of their age.

If only we see it in the manner in which Lara held truth to power during the recent ambush marketing controversy in the Caribbean when he declined to play a Test match because it was a team chosen not on the basis of cricketing merit.

If only we see it in the answer of the then West Indian captain, who was asked during the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy in England as to why he had made little verbal fuss about `walking' unlike Adam Gilchrist: "I believe more in action than talk," Lara had quipped. If only we see it in the action of Sachin Tendulkar in early 2000, stepping down from the Indian captaincy, taking "moral responsibility" for a string of overseas defeats suffered by his team.

He who thinks that `the Gentleman Amateur' is a Victorian concept knows nothing.