August 17, 2011

The Robert De Niro of Indian cricket

The man who is Fred Trueman in Mark Ealham’s body

Saturday, 13th August I was wrong about Praveen Kumar. I thought he would be squad-filler, a scorecard padder-out, the man who dries the handkerchief with which Zaheer wipes his brow. I knew him as a growly plodder, a dibbly dobbler, a bit of a tail-end thrasher. Typical Twenty20 star, you know the type: all goatee and no chest hair.

I was wrong. After three successive Waterloos (or if you like, a Waterloo, a Trafalgar and a retreat from Moscow) he is the only one still standing, albeit with a wonky ankle. That injury is not surprising, considering he has hit the bowling crease 951 times already this summer in exchange for 15 of the toughest wickets runs can buy.

He’s like Fred Trueman in Mark Ealham’s body. He trots in off a few gentle steps, offers a Pringle-esque unfurling of the right wrist, followed by a Ray Lindwall follow-through and the stare of an angry father who knows you’ve been hanging round his daughter. He’s the Robert de Niro of Indian cricket. He’s tougher than Ganguly and cooler than Dhoni. Praveen for captain, I say.

Sunday, 14th August England are top. But people will soon be trying to knock them off their perch, as if they were a row of jelly bean-filled parrot-shaped pinatas. So how to keep it real? Or for those of us used to years of disappointment, who find this outbreak of unmitigated English success makes us dizzy, how to keep it unreal?

Andy and Andrew have already set some new targets. Win in Pakistan. Win in Sri Lanka. The Test Championship. The 2012 Balti Pie-Eating Trophy. KP has a new book of word searches, and Alastair Cook has been challenged to reach Level 3 of the hit console game, Super Mario Takes No Risks In Attaining His Goal.

But there is a nagging feeling that we have forgotten something. It is there in Michael Vaughan’s patriotic ramblings, as he pauses momentarily in the middle of explaining how England are the greatest team ever. What is it? Did we leave the gas on? Did we forget to feed the fish? Oh no, now I remember. We haven’t beaten South Africa.

They are the forgotten contender. The other Klitschko. And I imagine that somewhere near the tip of the world’s warmest continent a collection of burly men are probably getting quite annoyed about it. I imagine Mr Steyn and Mr Morkel sitting by their pool, pet crocodile splashing happily at their feet, a couple of antelope on the braai.

“D’ya see that Morne?” “Ja Dale.” “Think they’re No. 1, eh, Morne.” “Ja Dale.” “Well we’ll show them next summer, won’t we.” “Ja Dale.” “The only recall Bell will be getting is the ambulance to take him home from hospital.” “Ha Ha Ha, good one Dale.” “Shut up now Morne.” “Ja Dale.”

Monday, 15th August After the epic defeat comes the post mortem. As an Englishman I’ve been through this sort of thing before, so I can offer some advice to the BCCI. Trust me, you can get through this. There is, however, a shopping list of psychological props that you’ll need to tick off before you can get closure.

1. Someone to blame. This is the easiest part and much preferable to blaming, say, a system, a culture or a lack of planning. Prime candidates are usually unpopular fringe players or, if you have one, a foreign coach, who almost certainly doesn’t understand how things are done round here, because he is foreign.

2. A minor administrative shuffle disguised as a bold fresh statement of intent for the nation’s cricket. I suggest changing your stationery contract and firing the guy who repairs the photocopier in the chairman of selectors’ office.

3. A country to model yourself on. Australia’s currency in this market is devalued these days. But Sri Lanka managed to put up a decent fight this summer and they seem like fun. So practise saying after me: “I wish we were more like Sri Lanka.”

4. Diversion. Like toddlers, the press are easily distracted. They’ll soon stop complaining if you show them a shiny new toy. What’s that, Mr Manohar? It’s Champions League time again! Hooray! Test cricket? Never heard of it!

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England