January 8, 2014

How hindsight helps make cricket history

The game is full of turning points and momentous events, but they can be recognised as such only in retrospect

Gatting b Warne, 1993: you'd be excused for thinking it was Warne's first ball in Test cricket © Getty Images

Cricket is a game of meditative beauty punctuated by moments that crystallise either brilliance or disaster. A match, a career, a series, hinges on such turning points - and yet our ability to make sense of these momentous events is often post-facto. When Steve Harmison delivered that first-ball wide, fielded at slip, to inaugurate England's disastrous Ashes campaign Down Under back in 2006, no one could have known how emblematic it would come to be. As they were dismantled 5-0 in the ensuing weeks, everyone turned on Harmison and pointed at "that ball" as the beginning of the end for England. It supposedly exemplified the disarray of Flintoff's men, their hubris and underestimation of a tough opponent. If England had been competitive and retained the Ashes, would anyone even remember Harmison's first-ball wide today?

In sharp contrast to that episode, everyone commends Harmison for sending a message in that phenomenal opening spell he bowled on the first morning at Lord's during the fabulous Ashes of 2005. Barely half an hour into the series Justin Langer was sporting a bulging raspberry of a wound on his elbow and Ricky Ponting wore a scar on his cheek - courtesy a Harmison bouncer that crashed into his grille and drew blood. Many remarked on how that opening assault signified a new and energised England who were not going to take a backward step.

We tend to forget that that opening morning's barrage by the English fast men was followed by the utter capitulation of their batting later that evening, falling short of Australia's measly 190 by as many as 35 runs. In the end, England were thrashed by 239 runs in less than four days. In the very next Test, Australia came within two runs of a 2-0 lead and all but retaining the Ashes. England were saved by a dicey call by the umpire to give Michael Kasprowicz out caught behind (a decision that might have been reversed on review today). Indeed, even in the fifth and final Test, had Shane Warne not shelled a simple catch when Kevin Pietersen was on 15 and England tottering at 89 for 3 (and their lead less than 100), Australia might well have retained the Ashes at The Oval by squaring the series.

Since none of these came to be, England won the Ashes 2-1. The myth of Harmison's brilliant opening spell as an augury of things to come has been burnished with every passing year.

One can think of other moments supposedly pregnant with significance, though again it's the aftermath that matters. Shane Warne's first-ever ball in an Ashes Test, the one that curled from leg stump to crash into Mike Gatting's off stump, is justifiably celebrated, though calling it "the ball of the century" seems a bit over the top. In time to come many will think it was Warne's first ball in Test cricket - if they don't already do - and his relatively ignominious debut against India earlier all but forgotten. David Gower's effortless swivel-pull off the very first ball he faced in Test cricket hailed the arrival of the golden-haired one - and we remember it because of the stellar career he had thereafter.

Sachin Tendulkar's feet-off-the-ground slashing six over third man off a screamer by Shoaib Akhtar in Centurion during the World Cup of 2003 set the tone for India's dramatic win over Pakistan. And it is spoken of as the riposte that finally exorcised the hoodoo that Javed Miandad's last-ball six off Chetan Sharma in Sharjah in 1986 had cast on the Indians. It was pulsating stuff, no doubt, as 18 runs were plundered in Shoaib's over and India raced to 27 without loss in two overs, chasing 270-odd. But remember, Yuvraj and Dravid calmly knocked off the last 100 runs after Sachin had departed and India had lost four batsmen. One might say their partnership ensured that Sachin's six has attained immortality as a statement of intent. Had India lost, I fear Sachin's phenomenal 98 would have been cast into the oft-told narrative of a player who rarely carries his team to victory on the big occasion.

One of the few instances of a player predicting - and then orchestrating - a turning point occurred in the summer of 1994, when England played South Africa in the final Test of a three-match series. England's Devon Malcolm has a fairly pedestrian career record (128 wickets in 40 Tests at about 37 apiece) and had conceded 81 runs for his solitary wicket off 25 overs in South Africa's first innings. As England's first innings ended with them 30-odd runs adrift of South Africa's 332, Malcolm, a genuine No. 11 with a Test batting average of 6 and 16 ducks to his name, was hit on the helmet by a bouncer from Fanie de Villiers.

Storming off the field, an angry Malcolm reportedly said to the South Africans, "You guys are history." By the sixth over of their second innings, South Africa had one run on the board and Malcolm had three scalps. His 9 for 57 bowled them out for under 200 and England knocked off the runs they needed to level the series. De Villiers must have rued the moment he bounced Malcolm: a Test and a series win well within their grasp slipped away as a result.

While I am sure the list of such momentous events is long and storied, for India fans, Kapil Dev's catch to dismiss Vivian Richards in the 1983 World Cup final will remain the gold standard. As Sambit Bal, Mukul Kesavan, Stephen Alter and so many others have eloquently written, that moment and the victory it enabled transformed not just Indian cricket but the game itself for ever.

And yet, I wonder. What if after Kapil's catch, Clive Lloyd and Larry Gomes had dug in and ground their way to a win? (Remember, it was a 60-over match, West Indies still had seven wickets in hand, and a scoring rate as low as three an over was enough to overhaul India's trifling 183.) Would Kapil's catch have any of the momentous significance it has today? Would that moment be seen as one that awakened the Indian juggernaut that dominates the game today? Obviously not. Which then raises the question: is there any way of knowing the significance of a cricketing moment, a turning point, except in retrospect? I don't know.

What one can say is that the moment Kapil closed his fingers around that ball, an unexpected and tantalising thought filled the mind of every Indian on that field, and those watching: "We could win this game." And in a beautiful counterpoint, West Indies thought: "This game is not over."

I guess what ultimately makes these moments momentous is that they suddenly and explosively widen the range of things that could happen. And yet, their own significance and endurance depends on which of those many things actually does happen. In other words, we can very rarely pronounce on the significance of any given moment in sport at the time it happens; we can only weigh that in retrospect. And that inability and suspense are ultimately what draws us to a sporting contest.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu