Published on Yahoo-Cricket, Aug 22, 2010
I woke up on the morning of the 26th of July, 2010 – at an unearthly hour – to start my five hour drive up north from Toronto. I had a boat to catch. Manitoulin is a remote island paradise in the middle of Georgian Bay, straight up from the tip of a peninsula jutting out like a middle finger from the northern tip of Ontario. It is accessible only by a ferry, and it was to be a two hour sail over choppy waters to reach the island. A week of complete silence, wilderness and peace on my mind. No newspapers, phones, TV and hallelujah! No Wi-Fi access up where I was going to be. Only Phillip Roth to keep me company as I sat lakeside, my cooler full of German weissbiers handy. Silence and darkness of the kind we have forgotten enveloping me. And needless to say, no cricket!
A cursory check the previous night had shown that the second Micromax (What exactly do they make? Thongs?) Test of the India-Sri Lanka series in that island paradise off the Indian peninsula commencing that very day had injury issues. Gambhir and Yuvraj had been ruled out and Suresh Raina would get his first look-in. As I loaded up the car with sustenance for a week, mulled over the fact that it had taken intervention of the knackered sort for Yuvraj to vacate the lineup. And though I was still perplexed about Cheteshwar Pujara not being considered for this tour, I would take Raina over Yuvraj anyways.
The drive up north was an idyllic one through the rural countryside, giving away to lush forest greenery on both sides. It felt kind of surreal to think about the match underway right then. For I was to miss this one in its totality – right from the toss all the way to the draw of stumps on the fifth day. I tried to remember the last time I had been incommunicado with events involving a Test match for its entirety. And gave up. I wasn’t even sure of the eleven India had picked either. Would Munaf’s legs get to do their impersonation of a DNA strand on the field at the SSC? Would tyro Abhimanyu Mithun continue to rue his past misdeeds that begat the purgatory that Lankan wickets now subjected him to? And how would the post-Murali era unfold for the Lankans? As I drove off the ferry onto the island, I wondered if India would opt for two spinners. Surely Dhoni would be anxious to give himself the chance to pick up twenty (gulp!) wickets? It was the last time I remembered thinking about the match.
The time flew by. Sitting on the banks of the inlet at twilight, surrounded by deafening moonlit silence and looking over water glistening off into the horizon for hundreds of kilometers in each direction as I sipped on a cold one – blissful and gorgeous. Like a V.V.S Laxman innings. On hiking trails around pristine lakes through quiet wooded areas, I could see the effects of recent storms that must have hammered the island. Uprooted trees could be spotted everywhere. Like the aftermath of a Sehwag blitz. All those trees falling in all those forests and no one there to…well…you know.
Over in that other island paradise, the Test match had just ended when I blew back into town. A Test match had happened on the other island and I hadn’t been there to see or hear any of it! Scanning the scorecard once back in Toronto, I could only marvel at what I had missed. But what exactly was it that I had missed out on?
Bollocks, it turned out.
For at its core, this abomination of a Test match stands as cricket’s version of a Christopher Nolan-esque mindjob. A multi-level cock-up that leaves you disoriented when you have unraveled it, descended through its levels and landed back to cricketing reality. At the first level lies the sheer wastefulness of its very inception. An inception rooted in a flailing cricket board’s panicky attempts to nurture its cricket team’s apex positioning. A hastily conjured up afterthought of a series that should never have happened in the first place. The third year in a row that the two countries had played out a Test series. Now layer on top of it the next level of the conditions at the SSC. Conditions that should warrant the ground from being barred from ever hosting a cricket match in the future. And finally, a thick layer of preachy reactions to the abhorrent spectacle that had just unfolded from our erstwhile experts and analysts of the sport itself.
Truly, this was a mind-boggler of Test match in all its twisted glory.
When we were conned into watching the first Test, we succumbed grudgingly but willingly. For that match came with a poignancy that occurs very few times in one’s following of any sport. A gem of a cricketer was to grace the occasion in his swansong after providing memories that would be cherished forever. And it was a time to bury one’s hatchet and acerbic opinions and relish the sight of those googly eyes, mesmeric wrist and disarming smile for one last time. Not to mention his bowling. How one wishes that Murali could have bid adieu under more meaningful cricketing circumstances. One felt cheapened by being made to indulge in the packaged fare that the series stood for solely because of his impending exit. Felt like the conniving boards had been bailed out and redeemed by his presence in Galle. Just mad at yourself; like you would feel if you walked in for dinner at a Hooters franchise, conned into sampling the crappy unappetizing food by tight tank-tops and cleavage. Cheapened. But we did it and did it for the great man.
But the second Test is a poster child for the ignominy that is inflicted on cricket watchers and fans alike round the calendar these days. No cricket board is guiltier in concocting these up as India’s. The BCCI have now succeeded in manufacturing three Test series for the team in a row (Australia to follow in October). Three coerced opponents indulging the mighty strong-arm’s vice grip and agreeing to squeeze in Test matches where none existed. An embarrassing makeover to a money-grubbing schedule that had been previously lined up for the year. And no cricket boards are more complicit in providing pitches so benign that they prove to be malignant to the sport itself as those in the subcontinent. And Colombo has always provided some doozies – whether at the Premadasa or the SSC. The trauma of the 1997 orgy that yielded 1489 runs and only 14 wickets over five days is still raw in the minds of anyone who was subjected to it.
The FTP in cricket is after all a MacGuffin. Like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Doesn’t have a sod of an impact on the narrative. A Farcical Tour Program for the ICC. And now abused to be a Frantic Tour Program by the BCCI. Events unfold throughout the year now at surreal speed with the schedule being constructed on the fly. By someone on crack. It is the unsettling nature of it all that rankles. And when the contrived events are slathered with the thick layer of insulated ground conditions, conditions that contravene any pretense of a contest between bat and ball, the effect is numbing. And frankly disgusting. And in a sport which had the gall to squeeze in three limited over world championship events in the span of nine months last year, any hope of succour is squashed when one is subjected to such drivel.
Pontification about the state and health of Test cricket needs no instigation or inspiration in these times. But in the reactions to this Test match were some stunners. Sanjay Manjrekar probably had the most astonishing or disturbing one: “Test cricket is an outdated concept and we should start taking T20 cricket seriously”, he said. Really Sanjay? Outdated? Well, if that is the sole conclusion one draws from the second Test, he or she is full of it, my friend. And it certainly makes one wonder what could have prompted this reaction. Just a lame attempt at instigation and sensationalism? Or an overt attempt at ingratiation?
For what is not outdated is Test cricket in itself. What is outdated is building up excitement and expectation with regularly spaced encounters between countries. What is outdated is a schedule that any cricket fan can rattle off like in every other major sport in the world. What is outdated is providing an even chance to half the playing eleven i.e. the bowlers, by not neutering pitches at grounds to bolster the shits and giggles blast-fests that sprout like weeds. What is outdated is avoiding ad hoc and selective implementation of ill-thought out fundamental changes to the sport itself, a la the UDRS. And really outdated are prescient thoughts and opinions expressed by respected and regarded past greats of the game not trying to cuddle up to the fat cats. And for helpless fans, what is unfortunately outdated is savouring a true contest.
The third Test was now destined to be contrived drama. Even before one could rinse away the foul taste from the fiasco at the SSC, the coin had been tossed for the eyeballs in India to watch with bated breath whether their team could stave off the threat to their ranking. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t capitulate and be conned. Regardless of what unfolded. Hell, Sachin had scored a double at the SSC and the echo of silence it elicited in my consciousness was deafening. Honestly, I had sworn to bury my head in the ground, retreat to some remote forest of my cricketing mind. It wasn’t fickleness, fate or bad luck that put my well heeled plans to naught.
The culprit was V.V.S Laxman.
Oh V.V.S!! You had to? Had to force me to turn on the television for the last day’s play? Agonizing over missing a chance to watch the angles, languor, delicacy, subtlety and grace of your artistry, I did capitulate. And without any regrets in hindsight either. Those brush strokes beckoned, and I gave in promptly. And therein lies the irony. An ode to a departing genius at one end of the series and complete subjugation to an artist’s canvas at the other – sandwiching an inert and toxic slab in between – and the only feeling that lingered at the end of it all was relief! That I hadn’t missed Murali’s swan-song or Laxman’s match winning innings. And I felt conned again. That I was being hoodwinked into retaining fond memories of the conniving boards’ handiwork. Cheated.
“The stars are indispensible” wrote Roth in the mesmerizing end to his gem of a book. As I closed the book, sitting out on the edge of the vast expanse of the waters the previous week and looked up at the crystal clear dark skies, I had concurred.
And here I was, finding myself concurring again.