When the going is easy, the tough get going
Some time ago, on this blog, I'd written that one of the aims in my posts was to pay tributes to (what seemed to me) unheralded cricketing achievements. Another of my plans was to try and provide counter-arguments to claims commonly made in the heat of a cricketing debate. Here is one example: "this innings by batsman X is worthless because it was made on an easy pitch against a substandard attack."
The sentiment at the heart of this claim is admirable. It is typically made in the context of comparing two players' records, and the intention is to establish a distinction between innings made in more trying circumstances and those made in situations where the batsman is, to put it mildly, not taxed excessively. That sort of difference is often crucial, and it is an interesting example of how the numerical marker of an innings is not enough to judge its quality.
There are times, however, when this claim shades into a more extreme claim, one that would want to completely discount all large scores made in this fashion, to the extent that they are taken to not provide any evidence whatsoever of the batsman's abilities.
That, I think, takes matters a little too far.
The simple fact is that making a very large score is a difficult business and it is not really made any easier when dealing with pie-chuckers and roads. One little cricketing fact gets in the way, encapsulated in the sage advice given to young batsmen over the years: "Make one mistake and you're back in the pavilion." And one thing pie-chuckers and roads do very well is induce a false sense of confidence, which leads to that optimistic drive down to long-on, resulting in, well, that long walk back to the pavilion.
I realized this thanks to a batting experience of mine many years ago. In backyard cricket, no less. My fearsome opponent was my kid cousin, a young lad who was dutifully serving up a mixture of full-tosses, half-volleys, and delectable short-and-wide ones. The boundary was barely 20 feet behind him. I had just seen Zaheer Abbas lay the Indian attack to waste, and I was keen to emulate his feats. I had also never scored a century in any form of the game (my highest score, in any game where scores were kept, is a paltry 38). The stage was set.
I started out promisingly. Boundaries were there for the taking; Sandeep Patil and his five consecutive fours off Bob Willis had nothing on me. I was lashing them straight, over the bowler's head, wide of his despairing reach (did I mention that there were no fielders?). But somehow I couldn't get to a hundred, no matter how many times my cousin and I repeated this little slaughter. Invariably I dismissed myself; I would be bowled aiming an ambitious drive, or would hoick the ball over the back fence (an automatic out as everyone knows). It was all a little too easy. Carelessness and hubris got in the way.
Those twin demons take down batsmen all the time. Sometimes boredom does the trick. Whatever it is, the business of making a large score requires at the least, a batsman to survive long enough to make it.
And that survival still needs to be sensitive to the danger that lurks behind every delivery sent down by a bowler, a sensitivity which requires concentration and batting ability in equal measure.
So, by all means, do take claims of cricketing deification with a large spoonful of salt when you notice that a batsman has racked up runs on a featherbed. But don't write it off completely. That batsman still knows how to not lose his wicket. And that is most definitely one part of being a great bat.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here