As a microcosm of life, sport too has its I-was-there moments, occasions that made you believe it was more than just a game. If away victories in the West Indies and England in 1971 were akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall for Indian cricket, then the agony [the Miandad six in Sharjah and narrow defeat in Sunil Gavaskar’s final Test, both against Pakistan] and the ecstacy [upsetting the West Indians to win the World Cup in 1983] of the decade that followed were like Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Those were the games that defined a generation of players and fans alike, the faded photographs of the lover whose face has become increasingly blurred with time.
Test cricket, with its drawn-out plots and Hitchcockian twists, is an anachronism in the 21st century, and you half-suspect that there are those in the game’s administration that wouldn’t mind seeing it go the way of the T Rex. After all, it’s one-day cricket, the Govinda movie with popcorn, and Twenty20, the five-minute cartoon, that have the cash registers going ker-ching. Test cricket, though, is a resilient beast and from time to time, it throws up matches that captivate a nation and bring in a whole new breed of fan.
English cricket is ineffably richer for the Ashes series of 2005, five matches where Dame Fortune didn’t seem to know which team to favour. From Ricky Ponting’s bloodied cheek at Lord’s to Kevin Pietersen’s dashing final-day century at The Oval, a generation that had never seen English Ashes success lapped it up.
Sadly, in India, where respect for elders is a way of life, the most venerable form of the game has often been given short shrift. Every other major Test-playing nation has its traditional matches, the ones that people plan their holidays around. Whether it’s Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the New Year’s Tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground or Newlands, or Lord’s in summer, these occasions have become part of the social fabric. Whatever happened to the Pongal Test in Chennai? Why not play at the Eden Gardens during Holi, or in Mumbai during Diwali?
Those that run the game won’t give you any answers. After all, board politics meant that Kolkata didn’t host a Test in 2008 or ’09, while games were played at venues like Nagpur and Mohali in front of largely empty stands. Ask the players where they’d rather play and they’ll tell you. “Eden has always been special,” says Harbhajan Singh, one of the heroes of the innings win that kept India at the top of the Test tree. “I have not heard this kind of noise anywhere in India. In Test matches, we don’t always get crowds but at Eden, you do for the whole five days. It’s fantastic.”
The game was too, with India resurrecting its hopes after a dire first two sessions that saw South Africa canter to 218 for 1. The famed Eden roar, that helped bring Steve Waugh’s Australia to its knees back in 2001, then came into play as the middle order fell apart. India never looked back, with Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni all scoring contrasting centuries as a massive lead was built. Then, without Zaheer Khan, the pace talisman had picked up a thigh strain, and in spite of the magnificent Hashim Amla – who batted 499 minutes for his unbeaten 123 – the patched-up attack bowled India to victory.
When Harbhajan trapped Morne Morkel leg-before with only nine balls left to be bowled, there was bedlam in the stands. Reports of Test cricket’s imminent demise had clearly been exaggerated. Keeping it healthy in the age of popcorn cricket may not be impossible after all.
*This was the latest column for the Sunday Guardian, a new newspaper published out of Delhi.