The year is 2007. Also known as the year I fell in love…with cricket.
Picture the moment.
An inaugural T20 World Cup final. India vs Pakistan. A packed Wanderers stadium. The energy leading up to the match had been palpable and unlike anything I’d ever known before. Everyone, and I mean everyone, at school only had one topic of discussion. You see, it never really mattered whether you followed the sport or not – an India vs Pakistan final demanded your undivided and complete attention.
The stage was set.
I didn’t have the channel that broadcast the match; so news commentary was how I followed every delivery. Last over. Dhoni hands over the ball to Joginder Sharma. Panic everywhere. Six to win from the last four deliveries of the match. Misbah Ul Haq mistimes the shot. A few millenia pass in the moments that the ball was in the air. Bated breath. Absolute silence. Sreesanth takes the catch. SCREAMS OF JOY! India wins a World Cup after 24 years! A rare and novel emotion of tears and euphoria. This felt…nice!
Everything about my first proper introduction to this sport was near perfect.
I was still learning the rules of the game, but one thing was crystal clear: I’d fallen obsessively, unequivocally, and irrevocably in love with cricket.
That was September of 2007. Fast forward to November that year, and the familiar opponents, Pakistan, were touring India for an ODI and Test series.
I remember very little of the ODI series (probably because I got to see very little of it). But I remember the test series that followed. Vividly. I remember Shoaib Akhtar steaming in to bowl some of the fastest deliveries I’d ever seen against Sachin Tendulkar; repeatedly through the match the latter taught me what a cover drive looks like. I admired the way Dravid batted with unending patience and class. I watched Zaheer Khan and Sohail Tanvir take quick wickets while I simultaneously tried to figure out what the words “seam” and “swing” meant. I recall trying to understand what a spin bowler does while watching Danish Kaneria and Anil Kumble bowl.
“What exactly is the difference between leg-break and off-break? What the hell is silly point? Who is third man? There’s a twelfth man too? Oh, he’s the drinks guy. Wait, what is pitching in line mean? That’s plumb, right? Is it plumb or plump? Wait, hooking and pulling is not the same thing? Wait…”
That series ended with India winning, and my cricket-related doubts doubling.
But yet another thing had been made absolutely clear to me: I LOVED test cricket!
I often find it ironic, and mildly hilarious, how the format that is supposedly meant to garner greater traction and attention was my first introduction to the sport; but I ended up obsessing over test cricket anyway.
In the years that followed, I tried to watch every single test series I could – regardless of which two nations were playing. And every time, with every single match, my love for this format only quadrupled.
There is something about test cricket…
If you asked me to write about why I loved the test format so much…hold on, I am writing about it.
For someone who cannot have enough cricket, there’s the very obvious fact that one match can take up to five days. There are the chess-like decisions that are taken in every single session. The right field setting resulting in a crucial run-out. The odd flurry of sixes and fours from a number eight batsman just when you think there are no more surprises left in the day. When a team is unbearably mediocre for the entire match but ends up winning because of one extremely brilliant bowling session. That sinking feeling when you think your team is safe in the last few overs leading up to lunch on the third day, and then *boom* your best player’s wicket falls, on the penultimate delivery before the break, just because the opposition’s captain decided to bring in the part-time spinner. Gaah! The centuries, double centuries, and triple centuries. The plethora of shots you get to see your favourite batsman play. Then, of course, there are those nail-biting finishes where the last two batsmen fight it out, tooth and nail, to reach a victorious draw.
Graham Onions and Paul Collingwood batted out one such gruelling session, against a strong South African bowling lineup, in the winter of 2009. Jimmy Anderson and Moeen Ali batted out 20+ overs against the Sri Lankans in 2014; only for Anderson to lose his wicket when the end was nigh. Very recently, in 2018, a gritty, resilient 141 from Usman Khawaja ensured a draw for the Australians against Pakistan in Dubai. That I was a mere 10 minutes away from the stadium, working as an intern accountant, at the time is not significant here. But I mention it anyway.
There is something about test cricket…
But it is that series in 2009, between England and South Africa, that remains one of the best memories of my life till date. Winter break from school. Sixteen years of age. And not a care in the world…except for opening my inorganic chemistry textbook.
2009 also happened to be the year I saw my first Ashes series. Graeme Swann’s Ashes Diaries aside, that series was pure entertainment. One-sided as it was, it was still a great series to have witnessed. (I do, however, regret accepting that “the sprinkler” was a cool celebratory dance by the Englishmen.)
But in all these games, apart from the cricketing wonders of the match itself, there were some intricacies of test cricket that set the format apart from the rest for me.
The sounds of test cricket to be precise.
The quiet murmurs and applause of the crowds as opposed to non-stop cheering. The laidback commentary, and the umpteen cricketing anecdotes narrated during a particularly uneventful session of the game. The fact that more often than not I can listen to the inane chatter between the wicketkeeper-batsman-first slip triad. The weird satisfaction in seeing a batsman defend five deliveries in a row. The equally weird satisfaction of seeing a wicketless bowler vary up each of his deliveries in an over. The odd calmness and familiarity of the ambience…until a barrage of boundaries or an eruption of wickets begins. The sweet, sweet sound of willow hitting leather. The joy of seeing stumps being cartwheeled out of the screen.
There is something about test cricket…
The adrenaline rushes of watching live games aside, I’m an absolute sucker for finding life analogies in sports.
Resilience. Patience. The importance of hard work and integrity. The art of staying silent in the face of abuse and slander. The ebbs and flows in a player’s performance being compared to the tidal nature of life itself. All of this can be learnt from any and all sports. But to me, test cricket will always epitomize these qualities.
Very soon, test cricket returns to our lives in the middle of a global pandemic and a new era in a 400 year-old race war. The West Indies playing a predominantly white English team in the middle of all this seems almost poetic to me. The latter team’s cricket board is currently plagued by questions on how its black players are treated. The Windies’ Darren Sammy has been particularly vocal about the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the past few weeks, following a personal realization of how he was racially slurred by teammates during the IPL. The matches will be held in bio-secure stadiums with no audiences. The players can’t celebrate with handshakes or hugs. There is almost a sense of gloom and uneasiness when I think of the circumstances leading up to this.
Yet, amidst all this; despite all this, test cricket will return to our lives on the 8th of July. Some of it will feel new and weird. A lot of it will most likely feel warm and familiar.
And maybe, yet again, we can all learn the importance of integrity, honesty, resilience, and dignity through this wonderful sport.
Maybe those 22 yards will remind us of life – some days you stand in one place and hit glorious sixes; on others you run from one end to the other in a desperate search for some success. Some days you bowl the perfect yorker and send the stumps flying; other days will feel like the personification of a full toss delivery.
Maybe we will finally get to find some much needed solace and normalcy, in the game, in what continues to be a peculiarly frustrating year. And maybe, just maybe, this is yet another opportunity for someone to fall in love with test cricket the way I did in ’07.