April 10, 2014

Test-match moments I won't forget

The scorecards of these three Tests reveal fairly one-sided games, but that wasn't the case if you had been there

Ravindra Jadeja: has heart if not the skill to make it as a Test cricketer © Getty Images

Test match cricket often has a meditative rhythm, and over time we tend to forget details and merely remember who won or lost or whether it was a draw. Yet in many matches there are moments of such surpassing incandescence that we remember them vividly and for long after. In this essay, I'd like to illustrate the truth of this by focusing on moments in three Test matches that stood out for their brilliance - but which, when we look at their final scorecard, seem to be matches that were unexceptional, even one-sided affairs. Indeed, these Tests may well be forgotten - except by those who witnessed these events (live or on television) and will cherish the energy and the possibilities that they captured, if only momentarily. Two of these Tests were very recent while the third goes way back to 1980.

When the Aussies, riding on a 5-0 shellacking of England in the 2013-14 Ashes, arrived in South Africa to take on the No. 1-ranked Test team for a three-Test series, it was a mouth-watering prospect. The first Test, however, was a surprising no-contest. South Africa were totally outmatched, bowled out for barely 200 runs in each innings, and lost by a colossal 281 runs. What is more, they were manhandled by the Aussie fast bowlers, with Mitchell Johnson producing the sort of pace that made their batsmen - consciously or otherwise - long for the safety of the pavilion. When the second Test began in Port Elizabeth, the series was poised on a pivot: would it live up to the hype or would South Africa fold like they had in the first Test? A look at the scorecard will show you that they came roaring back to win by 231 runs. It will also show you that Morne Morkel returned unexceptional figures of 3 for 63 off 17 overs in the first innings and 1 for 46 off 15 in the second.

What the scorecard does not show, however, is the massive statement Morkel made during the Australian first innings with a spell of incredible hostility in which he had the batsmen hopping, ducking, weaving and swaying, peppering them all over their bodies and helmets. With the exception of David Warner, who held his own, all the others looked distinctly uncomfortable. Morkel telegraphed his intention of being the enforcer - going around the wicket and into the ribcage of the batsmen, with fielders positioned for both the hook to the deep and the desperate fend to short leg. The message was clear: it was not just about squaring the series, it was about erasing the humiliation of the first Test, when Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith and others had worn red leather on their bodies, courtesy Johnson. When Morkel nailed the latter on his helmet and cracked it, you knew that irrespective of the series result (the Australians would win it 2-1) South Africa could hold their heads high. Morkel had ensured no one could accuse them of having bottled it under pressure, or of not having the gumption for a fight. One might even say that the spell Morkel bowled in that first innings enabled the destruction that the other South African bowlers wrought all around him.

Indian fans dread overseas Tests and with good reason: our teams are possibly the world's worst tourists among the major teams by some distance. When in Auckland this February, New Zealand built up a 300-run lead in their first innings and then set India a target of 407, we expected the familiar curl-into-foetal-pose-and-die routine. If at 222 for 2 hope glimmered, the second new ball made it 270 for 6 and dashed it to pieces.

However, the next 5.4 overs ensured that I will always remember this match with a smile. Ravindra Jadeja and MS Dhoni went hell for leather and blazed away for 54 runs at ten an over. Suddenly the New Zealanders were misfielding, their captain biting his fingernails, and the crowd had sprung to life. When Jadeja scrunched a short and wide ball outside the off stump over long-off for a six to take India to 324, you could feel the adrenaline rush through your body. Another few overs like this and this game is won, you thought. It ended a ball later, when Jadeja's ambitious charge and slog ended up skying the ball to mid-on. But that 30-minute berserker cameo did two things, at least: one, India went down all guns blazing, and there is much to be said for that; and two, while I still doubt Jadeja has what it takes to be a genuine Test cricketer, I will always have to respect his heart. He has pride and is up for a fight.

Which brings us to my third and last moment of brilliance: India versus Pakistan, fifth Test, Pongal time in Madras, 1980. A look at the scorecard will tell you that India won by ten wickets, knocking off 70-odd runs in their fourth innings. It will also tell you that Sunil Gavaskar's iron-willed 166 and Kapil Dev's dashing 84 in the first innings, along with his 11 wickets in the match, were the real reasons for the victory. Yet what I remember most about this match was something that happened on the fourth afternoon. Trailing by 158 runs on the first innings, Pakistan had subsided to 58 for 5, their galacticos (Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Sadiq Mohammad and Asif Iqbal) back in the hutch. An innings defeat by close of play loomed as a distinct possibility.

At the crease were a young Javed Miandad and the incomparable Wasim Raja. You could not find a greater contrast than those two. If the stocky, right-handed Javed resembled the crafty Karachi streetfighter he was, the lefty Wasim looked like the lithe libero on a Brazilian soccer team. Slender in physique, bearded, and with bouncy jet-black hair, Wasim was a dasher. Electric in the field and given to hitting enormous sixes with a flick of his rapier-like bat, he was one of those players who kept your attention riveted. Surrounded by close-in fielders, and with the crowd baying for blood, the two Pakistani pirates launched a counter-attack of breathtaking audacity. They added 89 runs; Wasim scored 57 off 66 balls with 11 boundaries. Javed was content to play second fiddle, racing through singles to give Wasim the strike.

The moment Wasim reached his 50, to a person, the entire crowd of 50,000 was up on its feet for a standing ovation. Nationalism, home-team support, defeating Pakistan - all this faded into the background as we applauded him for a memorable knock. Wasim fell soon after, flashing at Dilip Doshi to be caught at slip by Gundappa Viswanath, and the match was duly won. But that partnership and the crowd's reaction to it was one of those sporting moments you live for.

Three Tests, in two of which the counter-attacks could not avert defeat, and another in which all it did was postpone the series loss to the next game. Test matches whose scorecards seem to reveal little out of the ordinary, and yet were punctuated by surpassing brilliance. Country music and cricket are, literally, worlds apart. Yet a lyric from a recent song by singer George Strait captures the point rather well: "Life's not the breaths you take but the moments that take your breath away."

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