July 19, 2013

Of great series and sucky DVDs

The India-Australia series in 2001 gave us much joy. Too bad those who put it on disc for posterity weren't up to the task

The greatest series, but where's the DVD that does it justice? Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

For the kind of build up this Ashes series witnessed, it was going to take an extraordinarily dramatic first Test to live up to the hype. And we got one - the kind that leaves you with a rare sense of fulfilment.

A match as competitive, tense, and rewarding as the one at Trent Bridge also leaves you wanting more. Thankfully, we live in the Youtube era.

I woke up the next day and it hardly felt like a typical, unenthusiastic Monday morning. If that is not reason to invest in a sport, I don't know what is. On my way to work I searched for the complete highlights of the Test on Youtube but they weren't there yet. Whaaaaa! Why can't they upload the whole damn thing instantaneously? Aren't we in the information age?

Before I could express my frustration, Youtube started offering attractive alternatives. There it was, a documentary on the mother of all Ashes. One hour, 41 minutes, 49 seconds. On a Monday morning. Kill me now.

I snuck out from work every once in a while to watch it. Then a colleague joined in. And that was that.

It's incredible how a video compilation of less than two hours is able to capture the essence of such a diverse range of Tests, with so many nuances and standout moments. It's a fantastic experience to relive the series, but that's not all. It adds more perspectives as well.

The silken voice of Mark Nicholas; the intense, animated, passionate Peter Hayter; the insightful Gideon Haigh; and the cricketing sense of Athers… this really is the way to experience an epic Test series second-hand. Even if you didn't watch it as it happened, it's easy to appreciate the exalted status that it commands. It comes with a bit of retrospective hyperbole too, but what the heck, as they repeat so many times: it was the greatest series ever.

Oh, wait. That's where it gets a bit odd. The moment people start calling it the greatest series ever, I distance myself from all the over-romanticising, step back, and politely but firmly disagree. Greatest Ashes ever? Perhaps. Greatest series ever? Not even in my lifetime.

If you have talked to me for half an hour, you will know of my bias for the India-Australia series in 2001. That was cricket on steroids. It didn't need the history and context of the Ashes, or the misguided notions of a quasi-war a la India-Pakistan. This was superlative cricket played by a conglomeration of legends and young stars at the peak of their powers. The series wasn't decided by dropped catches or the weather gods, rather it was almost turned on its head by a singular effort from Mark Waugh.

Who can forget the whoever-blinks-first intensity of Mumbai, the Houdini act in Kolkata, and the dramatic, high-voltage see-saw battle in Chennai? It's a pity it wasn't a five-Test series. But that doesn't diminish it. If nostalgia is the convenient trap that a long-time sports fan willingly surrenders himself to, mine has a very narrow zone - just these three Tests are enough for a lifetime.

But there is a problem. I can't quite relive that series the way I can with the Ashes of '05. There is very little literature on it, and most of that is in the form of the biographies of the Australian cricketers who were part of it. There is a video compilation available on a DVD, but it sucks: it's just a poorly compiled long highlights package.

There is no outside perspective. Except on the cover of the DVD, where it is dubbed as the greatest series ever, it never quite does hyperbole well. It even misses out on the most crucial aspects of play. McGrath goading Tendulkar to go for the hook in Chennai is missing. So is the way he set him up in the first* innings at Kolkata. The worst of all is the time allotted to McGrath's batting in the second innings in Kolkata - just two balls. One boundary and then the lbw. Holy duck, that's a travesty.

That McGrath, along with Michael Kasprowicz, played out nine of the most nerve-wracking overs out of the 15 mandatory overs is deemed irrelevant. That the greatest Houdini act didn't nearly happen at all is not worthy of being captured for posterity. That Sourav Ganguly's face showed he might live the rest of his life ruing his ultra-conservative declaration is an unwanted detail. Yeah, India won, but I read that in the newspapers.

Now watch the 2005 Ashes. Go to the Old Trafford Test. Watch the part after Ricky Ponting gets out. There are 24 balls to go with one wicket in hand. Brett Lee and McGrath in the middle. That is how you capture drama.

I can at least trigger a worthwhile debate on which is the greater series between the two, but if you see both DVDs on the shelf and you can pick only one, there really is only one credible choice.

And that is such a pity.

14:17:33 GMT, July 19, 2013: Corrected from "second innings"

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets here