Order Restored

I figured I would wait a couple days before posting my thoughts on a fairly momentous occasion – mainly to allow time for a balanced perspective to form. To me it was a moment that brought home the point that sometimes the journey is more important the destination.

I could only be referring to the recent series. One that had brought me grief, a feeling of normalcy, provided me escape as usual and finally gave me a sense of order being restored.

There have been comparisons to another great series – the 2005 Ashes. While comparisons are odious at times this one has its merits. The drama, the gamesmanship and the level of interest it generated as well as the emotions it aroused are arguably at comparable levels. Beyond that I would think people would be better served enjoying the lasting memories both series have provided and leave it at that.

The setting for the fourth test match could not have  been more picturesque. The state of Himachal Pradesh is inextricably linked to my growth as an individual. By extension Dharamshala felt like a familiar place you visited when you were young but whose memories now have begun to fade.

My feeling at the start of the match was that it would take a horde of elephants to stop Kohli playing  this match – whatever the injury.  He showed that he was more pragmatic – preferring to sit out when his shoulder had not healed completely. At lunch on the first day I went to bed thinking Kohli would be regretting his decision. The mandatory wake up call did happen and this time it didn’t seem so bad. Australia close to being all out – made for a peaceful last hour of sleep.

Pujara and Rahul started down the familiar path it and I went to bed looking forward to better news early in the morning. 6 wickets down with more than 50 runs behind wasn’t my idea of a pleasant dream but it probably completely a nightmare.

The next day brought forth the full gamut of positive emotions that you would associate with passionate and partisan fans. I gave myself a few minutes before retiring to bed. Jadeja made sure those few minutes turned into an hour. It was cricket at its most intense. Quality pace bowling against batsmen who displayed pluck and panache in equal measure. The sword flourish at the half century mark made you wonder if there would be a similar celebration for a ton. That turned out to be a story for another day.

It was the best wake up call ever.  Resisting the temptation to kiss the phone screen – I refreshed just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. This time I could feel every word on the scorecard morph itself into a celebratory fireworks display. Be still my beating heart – there is still a small matter of 80 runs still needed.

Rahane and Rahul made sure the end was swift. Rahane’s sixes off Cummins were like the icing on the cake – a reminder that IPL was round the corner. With a controlled roar and a rare triumphant smile I retired to bed for the first full night of sleep in a while.

The war of words between the rival teams and media seemed to continue for a couple days. Visuals of Smith reacting to a catch that was overturned on replay wasn’t one of his proudest moment. The cynic in me couldn’t help but remember the catch that Michael Clarke claimed against Ganguly in Sydney in 2008.

At the end of a major series or tournaments there is a sense of emptiness and if a series was as compelling as this one that sense persists for a long time. Next stop IPL.

Escape to Reality

Cricket has always been an escape for me. The poison I picked.  A crutch I lean on in crazy times, a safety net in many ways.

I am not sure how a pastime became a passion and a passion became an escape. These days when daily life becomes dreary I look forward to the comfort offered by the sight of the grassy outfield, men in helmets with contraptions on their body, the eager people around them including one with a ball in hand and the two neutral gentlemen

And it’s not been roses all the way with cricket. When you have something like alcohol as your form of escape you know what the process of gratification will be like. A few pints here and there and pretty soon you are tipsy – the aftermath could be different depending on the day but you could argue that by then you are back into reality. With cricket unless you train yourself just to focus on the moments, the many contests between the bat and ball, you run into the danger of letting this escaped world become your reality.

Part of the trick of maintaining cricket at a level of museum art versus something you run into everyday in your living room is to maintain balance. The ability to treat the imposters of triumph and disaster same. And as I have shown in my earlier posts I haven’t mastered those – either in my real life or in my escaped works of cricket fandom.

Partisanship comes naturally to sport fans. If there’s not a horse you pick in a two horse race you can get bored fairly quickly.  There are not too many neutral observers – it could be argued that while its possible to remain neutral in terms of the bigger picture, you tend to favor one over the other when it comes to the individual moments that constitute the bigger picture.

These thoughts came to mind in three different instances in the past week – all at different times. There was the test series in New Zealand with South Africa visiting, a test series was on in Sri Lanka with the perennial underdogs Bangladesh playing against the home team, and of course there was the India Australia series in India.

In terms of sheer viewing pleasure and the convenience of viewing the New Zealand South Africa test was hard to beat. There seems to be a relaxed air about everything in the Kiwi land. The cricket was fun for most part – I found myself rooting for the Kiwis from the start – something about being the underdog up against a formidable opponent. It was also the way the Kiwis approached the game. Their game was an example of well meaning professionalism struggling to come out of its amateur avatar.

There seems to be a dearth of world class quality players in New Zealand – and this is not a new issue. Through the years they have some world beating players but they are like crown jewels in an otherwise ordinary necklace. It still looked pretty but seldom commanded the ooh’s and aah’s that greet other ornaments.

Without Rosco and Boult, not much was expected. Add Kane Williamson’s twin failures to that and you don’t find much else to talk about. Except there were flashes of promise. Jeet Raval was like the boy on the burning deck for most of second innings – but he seemed to run out of gas after reaching 50. Hopefully the elusive 100 will come and along with it the confidence and the bloody minded “stick-to-it”iveness. The Kiwis were in with a chance after having South Africa six down for less than a 100 but two of my favorites in the Protea side raised their hand up. Bavuma and DeKock are different players but they were attractive together. I would have enjoyed it even more if my neutrality was a touch more nuanced. I was struggling between my desire to have the underdog have its time in the sun and the ability to enjoy two stars of the future.

The end came pretty swiftly for the New Zealanders but whatever I had seen whetted my appetite for the next round of battle between the two sides.

The second instance involved a series I had referenced earlier and it was like the Wooden Spoon Derby judging by the recent performance of the sides involved. Bangladesh a team of honest triers who never seem to advance to the next level against a home team that just a drubbing in South Africa. The first two tests played according to script – Bangladesh being nearly there but not quite.

As an aside one of the pleasures of Sri Lanka series is that its covered by one for the finest and most under rated cricket writers around – Andrew Fidel Fernando on Cricinfo. He just does not leave anything else for people to say. More on him in a later post.

Once Sri Lanka had a middling first innings score I am sure the Bangladesh fans must have sat up – what was it forming at the back of their minds? Surely it can’t be the beginning of another dream? Surely the team can’t sustain it? Can it? Can it ever?

Sustain it they did. Barely – creeping, crawling and climbing with bruised and battered fingers on to the the edifice occupied by top quality test teams. Their seniors led the way. Shakib so shaky to start with showed why he is rated so highly.  The time difference and the fact that this test coincided with the third one referenced above made it hard to follow live. But there was always the highlights package to fall back on.

Left with a score of less than 200 to make to achieve a rare away test win, Bangladesh faced a moment of truth. I could not ignore this moment regardless of the partisan interest elsewhere and sat up late to watch the start. As it always happens with great sporting stories, the start was wobbly. Two wickets in two balls and Herath made the home crowd start to believe. Was it going to be so near yet so far again for Bangladesh?

A 3 am wake up call for a test that did not involve India, a test that involved Bangladesh of all teams would have been hard to imagine ever. But this was no ordinary test match for the Bangla tigers. They trusted their natural attacking instincts and made it. As the ubiquitous commentator would say – Test cricket was the winner. But it was so much more than that – it was a sporting story that can be relived time and again without losing anything in terms of heartache and thrills.

Needless to say – my neutrality evaporated after the Sri Lankan first innings and I was egging the Bangladesh team along silently. Would it have been same if the home side was India – probably not but that would be a story for a different day.

The third instance was where I couldn’t even pretend to be neutral. In the third India Australia test partisanship was at its most ferocious in my mind. I couldn’t bear to watch Steve Smith bat in the first innings. By all accounts and the shots in the highlights package it was a beautiful innings. Wish he had saved it for another day. But the second and third day were like a taste of heaven. Pujara, my fellow Saurashtrian, how my heart puffed with pride. It was slow going, unbearable to watch at times but he was still there at 3 am in the morning. At around 5 he was gone and so were two of Aussie batsmen trying to play out the rest of the match. They were able to do exactly that the next day – another one that was tough to watch as a non neutral spectator but one that enabled the Aussies to effect a great escape in a very good test match.

For me its back to reality now – till the next heavenly escape.

Normalcy restored …

Fresh guard. Fresh perspectives.

As they say out of despair emerges hope. But when it shows up it tends to tantalize a bit.

Acceptance at the end of the first test was hard – you feel you are ok but any news of that event brings the pain right back. At the end of the first day of this test it seemed like all the bad memories had never completely gone away. They were just hiding in the shadows ready to occupy every corner of the mind.

And occupy they did. It was another 3 am surprise for me. Not sure what it is with test matches in the Indian time zone and 3 am wake up calls. Its like there is a mental alarm clock that sets itself up automatically. Earlier It was 6 wickets in the blurry bowlers analysis that got a dull ache going – this time it was a figure of 8 in the wickets column that got the dark clouds to gather.

Cricket fans have to be resilient, they need to be willing to take the knocks and come back for more. Whoever spoke of sport as a metaphor for life knew what he was talking about.

Feeling mentally bruised I followed the second day sporadically. Expecting a wicket to fall every over – like it threatened to do. But it was a hard day of toil and surprisingly the silver lining of today’s wake up call was that like the wickets, the runs were hard to come by also.

Watched an hour of the Indian second innings on the third day. There was intent but there was also luck – on equal display. Figured it would be an interesting read at 3 am. And it was. Pujara still batting. The Gods must be relenting.

The next day was spent in anticipation for a night time date in front of the TV. It was topsy turvy – the guys never looked comfortable in the crease but still managed some runs in between. One of the great paradoxes of the game then played up – on a pitch that was considered a spinner’s paradise, the pacemen came to the party. Hazelwood wrapped it up and with that it was time for me to down the shutters too. Thrills would have to be packaged into a 3 am surprise – there was no way I could take that stress live late at night.

The body clock played a little trick on me with the time and I woke up at 4 am. Eyelids droopy more with dread than sleep and fingers shaky I manage to get to the score. See some pics of the guys celebrating. Can this really be happening? Trying hard to keep excitement in check I sit up and look for the score in multiple websites. The facts sink in. Redemption is complete.

Wide awake now, this time I have no qualms about digesting all the analyses. I never said I was not partisan !!

No series between these two teams is complete without some questions on gamesmanship. This seemed to follow the same pattern of coverage in the media – partisanship more visible than perspective.

Tomorrow can take care of itself. For now it feels good to live in the moment.