Spotting the red ball against a busy and colorful background is tricky business as cricketers and cricket watchers know too well. As March 2010 dawns on us, we are about to realize that we are going to lose sight of it soon. The background is on the verge of turning awfully busy, even garish at times, making it all but impossible to spot. In reality, most of the red cherries have already been packed up and mothballed away right now.
The third installment of the IPL returns home in March after sashaying away on its honeymoon last year in South Africa. And as cricket braces itself for the all the hubris, hoopla and hullaballoo that it entails, as Bollywood kicks into overdrive to give us our fix of cricketainment, and as cricketers don their costumes and start rehearsing their lines from the script of Dumbslog Millionaire, the red ball and white flannels will become foggy memories for a tad longer. For following in its footsteps is the next edition of the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean in April. This inexplicable recurrence, a Rosemary’s Baby of an event conceived nine months ago at Lord’s, means that Shahid Afridi’s hands will need to be pried off the trophy he is still clutching from his exploits in Pakistan’s stirring victory in 2009. Also, in June comes the world’s premier sporting event, the one involving a bigger ball being kicked around, and the backdrop is only guaranteed to get more Messi.
The period spanning last year’s IPL and the looming one in India was frenetic, to put it mildly. With the T20 World Cup in England, the ICC Champion’s Trophy in South Africa, Champions League in India and a plethora of ODI series strewn about, it was a period of everyone seemingly playing someone somewhere all the time and round the clock. Granted, it was not all in coloured clothing, for there were Test matches sprinkled in between.
But lean back for a minute with your eyes closed and reflect upon the imagery that lingers and endures from this cornucopia of cricket – and a funny thing happens. The montage of special moments and memories that flits past your eyes has the same cast of characters that took part in all forms of cricket during this period, but strangely, they all flitter past clad only in whites! And the soon-to-vanish red ball is ubiquitous; having reverse swung its way into the core of our consciousness.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? Wasn’t this the period when the very viability of Test matches was discussed incessantly as they were subjected to a scrutiny seldom seen before? Fingers were pointed, hands were wrung and heads nodded knowingly as Test matches played out to dwindling crowds almost everywhere. The ICC, with their penchant for ineptitude wandered in, proceeded to jerk their knees and fell back on their modus operandi of “innovating” themselves out of a corner. Four day test matches they said. And under lights too! Don’t worry, they reassured, we have pink balls that have been perfected to fit the needs of our innovative times. And don’t get your udders into a twist, we have UDRS now, they pontificated. The coming of age of cricket to the era of franchises, free agency and contract buyouts seemed to have sealed the case – or the coffin per se – shut. The players themselves complained, pouted, freelanced, announced selective retirements and provided impetus to the premise that yes; Test matches were going to hell in a hand-basket.
But try as they might, the players seem doomed, or destined, to come back and haunt us with their exploits in whites! Irony is easy to dispense in situations like this, but the fact remains that the more they played in coloured clothing for more teams in more countries year round, their exploits in white clothing were the ones we recollected. For every eyebrow Adrian Barath raised in India during the Champions League, hordes jumped out of their chairs joyfully as he went airborne in celebration on reaching his maiden Test century in Australia. He might have made us catch our breath with his precocious ton in the IPL last year, but Manish Pandey was destined to stamp himself onto his nation’s consciousness in whites, with his memorable century in the Ranji Trophy final this year.
The Newtonian optics of cricket of our times perhaps – spin the coloured wheel faster and faster and all it ends up producing is white.
Chris Gayle ignited a furor with his caustic remarks about his ambivalence to the game in whites and deemed its death not even mourn-worthy last summer. But ironically, Daddy Cool regained the respect of the cricketing world with his superb and responsible batting in the Test matches in Australia. It seemed like he was being spanked on his behind with the Man-of-the-Series trophy, stern admonishment that his expressed apathy could now be forgiven.
Andrew Flintoff singed himself onto our collective memory with a superhuman effort at Lord’s in the Ashes with his ferocious spell of fast bowling on a bum knee. He then retreated from his duties in whites, set to pursue a future in tinted uniforms deploying his expertise for moolah, be it in India, Australia or South Africa. But is anyone worth his ounce in cricketing knowledge ever going to visualize Freddie Freelance in anything but whites? Ever? This December came the poignant news of a gimpy Freddie holed out in the penthouse of a Dubai hotel, getting emotional and inspired at the same time, watching videos of him in past incarnations. Anyone willing to wager against the fact that all he watched was himself in whites? Possibly his ten over spell of hostile fast bowling at Lord’s in 2009, egged on by a roaring crowd? His epic over to Langer and Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005? Or the defining cricketing image of the past decade – of him consoling a distraught Brett Lee after the glorious Test match that ignited the same Ashes?
“We (England) are single handedly saving Test right now” quipped Graeme Swann at the Centurion in December 2009, as Freddie’s mates clawed their way to yet another nail-biting draw. England, more than anyone, ended up playing the most dramatic roles on the big stages in recent times, albeit strangely in matches devoid of a result. Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town were Test matches for the ages – not so much for the exceptional standards of the cricket, but for the manner in which England conspired with their opponents to produce sustained stretches of drama that left us drained. In their new blindingly white uniforms, Andrew Strauss’s men enthralled; with moments like Paul Collingwood stonewalling with his stiff Durham upper lip against Dale Steyn exhausting himself in a riveting spell of fast bowling at the other end. Oh, England did play here and there in coloured clothing too, but any memories of those matches faded away overnight.
And India, who as a nation were originally jolted into a hyper-ventilated state about the T20 format with their World Cup win in 2007 and fuelled into a frenzy by His Modiness, found themselves in the unaccustomed, albeit exalted position at the top of the world Test rankings this January. This proved to be a quandary of poetic proportions, given that they had laid the veritable goose-egg in T20 cricket since their epochal win in South Africa. For the egg was on the face when realization dawned that the BCCI had conspired to keep the newly anointed champions out of their whites for the rest of the year, to strut around in blue in a smorgasbord of events no one can even list. Red faces gave way to sheepish flailing as Test matches were conjured up out of thin air against the Proteas and a groan inducing rehash of yet another sojourn in whites against the Sri Lankans.
Again, the irony is inescapable. As the nation thumped its chest in T20-speak, their team aspired to greater heights – but only in their whites! Does anyone actually remember anything worthy of note in blue other than Sachin Tendulkar’s sublime 175 against the Aussies in the ODI at Hyderabad? Think white, and it comes in waves. Gautam Gambhir’s determined five centuries in a row in Tests, Rahul Dravid’s belligerent 177 at Ahmedabad and Sehwag’s extraordinary massacre of the Lankans in Mumbai.
The new generation you would expect should cement themselves in our imagination in anything but their whites, but it was not to be. Mohammed Aamer burst into view clad in green, bringing a smile to our faces with his fiery pace – his toothy grin and unbridled delight at nailing the Little Master endearing him to all. But his enduring image from the period will forever be his blown kisses at Shane Watson after dishing out snorters that threatened to rearrange the burly Australian’s nose in the Boxing Day Test in December, 2009. Kemar Roach warmed our cockles, all poker-faced as he sent down one blistering delivery after another at the startled Australians, capping it with his dramatic duels against the great Ricky Ponting – whose elbow is still twanging from the Malcom Marshall-like makeover Roach gave him.
And speaking of Punter, he led his team to triumphs of all sorts in colours, but remained an aberration in his yellows, looking like he had wandered in after a sleepover at his mate’s home in borrowed pajamas. He, of all people, will remain imprinted forever in our minds skulking in his whites in the slips, biting his nails and spitting into his palms, his tattered Baggy Green casting a grim shadow over his eyes. Like at Cardiff, as he stood helpless while James Anderson and Monty Panesar hatched an escape for the ages.
So, another year and another cycle are upon us. And with the impending blur of colourful imagery that awaits us, only time will tell if in March, 2011 we will be ruminating over montages of players from the year passed – in whites all over again. With its ability to build up and sustain drama, the longer form of the game has consistently proven that the protagonists will endure in our minds. The established contexts that these games are played out in are in no small measure central to the reasons behind their images persisting in our memories. Attempts at extolling the aesthetics of cricket in whites would surely beget catcalls and the epithet of a delusional tragic from the quick-fix junkie crowd. But the fact remains that our cherished memories from the sport continue to gravitate towards the longer format of cricket.
This January, Javed Miandad termed T20 cricket “a virus that will destroy Test cricket”. Miandad’s pathological assessment came in the wake of the contentious IPL auction, one where the oft abused Orwellian expression of “war minus the shooting” to describe India-Pakistan cricket was supplanted by “war minus the bidding”. Not to question Miandad’s heart or his sensibilities in the matter, but it is purely conjecture at this point that the breath of the game in whites will be choked off by the cocky new kid in town. And whether our lasting memories of this year and of cricket and cricketers of future generations will come from the shorter versions of the game. All evidence so far points to the contrary but only time will tell if T20 cricket will begin to smear itself across our consciousness in technicolour, gradually blotting out the white canvas that it currently relies on to even exist. Or if it will end up being merely a jarring image of instant gratification that mars the inherent beauty it is overlaid upon.
Like spray painted graffiti on the white walls of the Taj Mahal.