March 13, 2008

Indian Cricket

The Beginning of the End

Mukul Kesavan
Sachin Tendulkar looks toward the heavens after bringing up his half-century, Australia v India, CB Series, 2nd final, Brisbane, March 4, 2008
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Listening to Tendulkar declare that the CB series win counted as the greatest moment of his cricketing career, I felt dismayed, then scornful, and then just old.

The dismay was defensible: here was the best Test batsman India had ever produced, back to sublime Test form (he had just struck two centuries and a fifty in the four Test series against Australia), the spearhead of the Indian charge to a gloriously implausible victory in the third Test in Perth, telling the world that India's triumph in a trivial three-nation tournament in its last season (the tri-series tv ratings are so poor that it's being put to sleep) ranked higher than any Test match triumph of which he had been a part.

So, I thought, building up a rhetorical head of steam, this was bigger than the 2001 Test in Kolkata where Laxman's double and Dravid's century and, yes, Tendulkar's three wickets, helped us clinch our greatest Test victory ever? Bigger than the win at Chennai in the final Test of that series, where Tendulkar's hundred won us a series victory against Waugh's Invincibles at full strength?

Bigger than the last Test series in Australia when we got the better of a 1-1 draw. Bigger than winning our first Test rubber in England in twenty years last summer? Edging a struggling Sri Lanka in the league stage and blanking an ageing Australian side in the finals of a small limited overs tournament was a bigger deal than all of the above?

Dismay drove me to derision. I told myself that till recently, till Tendulkar's resumption of the mantle of genius in the Test series in Australia, I had always classed him as the second-best batsman in the history of Indian cricket. I should have stuck with SMG. Gavaskar is unbearable in his present avatar as television pundit, but at least there is the reassurance of knowing he is too bright to embarrass himself (and us) with a comment as crass as Tendulkar's. Would Kumble ever say such a thing? Would Dravid? No and no. This is what comes of not going to college.

Derision didn't work. It's impossible to condescend to Tendulkar. Cricket-wise, he's so colossal that even the all-knowing Indian fan finds patronizing him a stretch. So I did the next best thing. I tried to explain his statement away. He probably meant the whole tour, I thought hopefully. The total Oz experience: Perth, Harbhajan, match referees, Andrew Symonds, Malcolm Conn, the one-day victories, all taken together. That didn't work either. This is how the Telegraph reported Tendulkar's statement:

'If captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was a picture of calm even after a terrific tri-series win, senior-most pro (and his idol) Sachin Tendulkar was overjoyed. "I'm feeling so proud… It's probably the biggest moment in my career," Sachin told The Telegraph at the team hotel, the Sofitel.' There was some wiggle-room in that 'probably' but the only honest reading of that statement was that Tendulkar thought that the CB series win was the high-point of his cricketing life. And with 39 centuries in Tests and 42 in ODIs, I had to accept that he had tasted triumph often enough to know which victory was sweetest.

This is when I defaulted to feeling not just old, but superannuated as a fan. More than any cricketer in the world, Tendulkar embodies the modern batsman because of his absolute mastery of the two main forms of the game. He has scored more runs in ODIs than any other batsman and it won't be long before he's on top of the Test match heap too. He's played international cricket since 1989 and he has felt the game seesaw between its long and short forms. So when he says that this small tournament victory was the highlight of those twenty years at the top, we should pay serious attention because it marks, I think, a tipping point in the precarious balance between the five-day and the limited overs game, a decisive turn in the history of cricket.

Tendulkar's comment sprang partly from the thrill of defeating a bunch of Ugly Australians in their backyard after a long summer of squabbles. But it sprang also, I think, from a sense of achievement in being the only veteran to have transitioned to the Twenty20 epoch not by the skin of his teeth, but triumphantly.

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I don't think Tendulkar enjoyed forsaking a place in the Twenty20 team that won the World Cup. I have no way of reading the great man's mind, but given his record in the limited overs game and his competitiveness, I find it hard to believe that it didn't gall him to have to make room 'voluntarily' for the young brigade. The team that won the tri-series in Australia was in large part the same as the team that won the Twenty20 World Cup. Dhoni had asked for his merry men and got them; Tendulkar was the odd man (old man?) out. At the age of 34 he was eight years older than the captain, who, at 26 was the next oldest player in the team.

In this company, with the player auction for the BCCI's new Twenty20 league as context, to have steered this young team home with a fifty, a hundred and a near-hundred in the three matches that counted, was a triumph, a triumph of Tendulkar over Time and particularly sweet for that reason.

Tendulkar was a prodigy when he started out in 1989 and he's now the game's grey eminence. But he isn't just cricket's durable genius; he has also been for fifteen years, it's hottest commercial property. Both the brand and the batsman unconsciously grasped that cricket had mutated decisively, in one of evolution's leaps, away from the longeurs of Test cricket towards the compact formats of the limited overs game. Dhoni's charisma, the hysteria after the Twenty20 World Cup win, the meteoric valuation of young potential at the expense of proven achievement and experience in the IPL's auction, signalled the end of an era when Test cricket had sort of held its own. The surest sign of an epochal change was the fact that the largest sums of money in cricket were now being invested in the newest and most trivial form of the game.

Tendulkar, like Dravid and Ganguly, wasn't bid for in the IPL auction because they were designated champions of their state sides. Of the three, Tendulkar is the one who is there on merit; the other two seem to have been included out of a strategic deference to seniority. I wouldn't be surprised if Tendulkar finds a place in the Indian squad that plays the next Twenty20 World Cup; he may well use the arena of the IPL to try to force his way in. I'm certain, though, that he plans to be around for the next ODI World Cup, to see if he can't add the World Cup to his trophy cupboard.

If Tendulkar's valuation of the tri-series is the first sign of the slow death of five-day cricket, some of us, specially middle-aged nostalgists who live for Test matches, might find it hard to follow the game down this new road. Still, my initial outrage, my sense that Tendulkar in saying what he did, had betrayed the long game, was daft. Old men rail at History; great men master it.

A version of this post was published earlier in the Telegraph

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi

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Posted by Vikram on (March 31, 2008, 20:05 GMT)

My Dear Mr. Kesavan. I surely hope you will read this. I think the biggest problem with sports writers/ analysts is that the analyse too much. Whether its the cricket or the statements. Please, Please, be aware that Sachin Tendulkar is a cricketer and not a diplomat. Hell, even a diplomant would e surprised if you could conclude so much from one statement. It could have just been a statement out of sheer excitement of the moment.. have you thought of that? Don't people just say things impromptu sometimes. You had hours to write this up. Stop being over-analytical. Please. It's frustrating.

Posted by R.Thangadurai on (March 24, 2008, 13:35 GMT)

Hello, Tendulker is like a superstar Rajini, whatever he does or speaks is a frontline news. Why u people critize words of a champ which he spakes out in the moment of Joy. Leave his alone and let him enjoy.............

Posted by Raj on (March 23, 2008, 17:00 GMT)

Hi Mukul, as an aspiring writer, I think I spotted the tool you used to introduce your topic ... unfortunately the introduction was so incendiary (you are talking of the TAV after all) .. that your topic was lost.

Posted by Cahanna on (March 23, 2008, 10:20 GMT)

I think dude you need to go back to school to lear some mannaers yourself though I wonder they will allow you in any decent school.

Posted by Manish Mittal on (March 23, 2008, 10:03 GMT)

Mr Mukul did you go to college? Surely you are one bloody south Indian does not have any manners.

Posted by Roy on (March 22, 2008, 18:13 GMT)

MK has obviously never studied Economics. There is this little matter of 'Opportunity Cost' - had Sachin gone to College instead of concentrating on Cricket he would have lost out on centuries on the cricket field and millions off it. Why did Tiger Woods not go to College? or, Michael Jordan? Anyway, snobs like MK can continue to wallow in the smug pride of their boarding school education and leave cricket analysis to the professionals.

Posted by karun on (March 22, 2008, 11:35 GMT)

thanx mukul for ur last post..just came to know of that..and if u care to know..i kind of liked ur blogs..but that was ages ago...and if u think going to college has anything to do with ur amazing wisdom..i fear my future..

Posted by vikram on (March 22, 2008, 4:26 GMT)

sachin has been successful in both forms because of the lack of "test cricket is the thing,ODIs is just fastfood cricket" philosophy.not that i disagree with that entirely,but he just loves batting,and competing.whether its a test, competing against bowlers,or ODI,competing against the run rate,or an IPL 20/20,competing against his 35 years,he is going to try equally hard and enjoy equally what he does best:bat.and millions have already mentioned what you chose to forget:it was said in the spur of the moment, and should not be over analyzed,and later, he did speak about the importance of the perth victory, but even if he did mean it, so what? aging aussie side for sure, but we made them look that bad.and how different was the much touted 2003-04 tour?no warne and mcgrath,and surely lee is as good as gillespie.and finally,gavaskar's puke-worthy commentary and your comment about sachin's college education are way crassier than sachin rating a series win higher than u want him to

Posted by V.S.S.SARMA on (March 21, 2008, 15:12 GMT)

The greatest cricket player of all time says that CB series win was the high point in his career. I am also aghast like Mukul, having seen the rise of such great players like Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. If the great man says, perhaps so, or is it ? Somewhere along, I feel that while Tendulkar proves a point with his hard performances on the field, I do not see a great lot of wisdom in his words, like say Ravi Shastri or an Ian Chappell or Geoffrey Boycott. While I admire his game, I have never really seen Sachin talking of strategies and relative merits of players and teams. I have not seen critical analysis of a series gone by from this prodigy. I agree with Mukul that this series win was an incosequential as it was against an 'out of the form' Aussies. What was consequential was that India was pushed out of World Cup in 2007 by minnows Bangladesh under the watch of some of the greatest players of the game of cricket.

Posted by ravi on (March 21, 2008, 8:53 GMT)

for once your analysis of Tendulkar is correct. Tendulkar has never really contributed much to the greatest triumphs of Indian cricket in the past decade and a half. For once, he managed to score a hundred when it was desperately needed in the finals. That has given him the thrill of a lifetime. No wonder he called it the greatest cricketing moment. He was and will always be an immature boy who doesnt want to grow up. For he knows not what he'll do once his career is over. His personal attack on Manjrekar on a couple of valid cricketing comments was pathetic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mukul Kesavan
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.

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