May 29, 2015

Where Walter Mitty meets Bharath Reddy

An alternative end to the 1979 Oval Test, featuring a wicketkeeper from Madras in the lead role

Bharath Reddy keeps wicket at Lord's on the 1979 tour © PA Photos

James Thurber's legendary essay "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (first published in the New Yorker in 1939) captures the essence of many a sports fan. Mitty is an utterly ordinary middle-aged henpecked husband who has difficulty backing his car into a parking spot - yet he leads a rich fantasy life in which he is now a daring pilot strafing the Germans and then a world-renowned surgeon unfazed by any emergency, and so on. In his other world, Mitty is a rakishly handsome winner in every encounter with life.

With our imaginations outstripping our abilities, we cricket fans often fantasise about hitting heroic sixes off the last ball to win the match for our teams; of brilliant direct hits from the outfield to run out the opponent's star batsman; and of bowling steepling bouncers that reduce our adversaries to shivering cowards. While all too often such alternative universes feature our own inept selves as the protagonists, sometimes it's as much fun to imagine different endings to matches that were either lost or left tantalisingly poised.

What if Ravi Shastri, instead of nurdling the third* ball of the famous tied Test against Australia in Chennai for a single had instead lofted it over long-on for a boundary? If Sourav Ganguly had elected to bat in the World Cup final back in 2003, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag might have blasted India off to a rocketing start, and then Yuvi and Rahul would have carried them to 300 - followed by the strangling choke that paralysed the Australian middle order… you get the picture.

My favorite alternative-ending fantasy involves the final Test of the 1979 series between India and England. Going to The Oval, India were trailing 0-1 and the best they could hope for was to tie the series. When they were set a target of 438 runs in the fourth innings, even the most diehard fan would have given up hope. Yet as every Indian cricket watcher of my generation knows, they got to 366 for 1 at one stage, and the most improbable of victories seemed within reach.

It all went pear-shaped in a hurry thereafter. Wickets tumbled, Botham did his usual Boy's Own routine, and suddenly the ninth-wicket wicket pair - Karsan Ghavri and Bharath Reddy - were playing out the last two excruciating overs to eke out a draw. Stranded with just nine - yes, nine - runs to get in what would have been the largest successful chase in Test match history.

My alternative-history fantasy stars a most improbable hero: Reddy. He went to a high school down the road from mine in Chennai in the 1970s. I remember bunking classes once to watch a match between our school and theirs. He was tall and athletic, and his wicketkeeping (and long-handle batting) was already the stuff of urban legend. Sure enough, that day our skipper took his back foot off the crease for a split second as he overbalanced on his forward-defensive prod and Reddy had the bails off in a flash. It was quite a stunning piece of work.

With our imaginations outstripping our abilities, we cricket fans often fantasise about hitting heroic sixes off the last ball to win the match for our teams; of brilliant direct hits from the outfield to run out the opponent's star batsman

Reddy was a controversial selection, having ousted the reliable Syed Kirmani for the wicketkeeper's spot. The rumour mill had it that the captain, S Venkataraghavan, had insisted Reddy, his team-mate from Tamil Nadu, be in the side, as he trusted him more than he did Karnataka's Kirmani. (If true, there was a rich irony there, as Kirmani's far superior batting skills may well have pushed India over the finish line that evening).

When Reddy comes out to bat there's about two overs left and 15 runs or so to get. For England, two wickets will win them a match that had seemed all but lost just an hour before. For India, having come so close to such a historic win, at least not losing from here will be a fair outcome. Reddy takes guard and the words of his captain ring in his ears: Venky has told him in no uncertain terms that a win is out of the question and that he should play for a draw.

As the final over begins, Reddy's mind is awhirl: he senses that this could well be his last Test innings. A draw will ensure that he joins the legions of forgotten cricketers, becoming a footnote known only to trivia buffs. He vaguely remembers one of his English Lit classes, where the teacher had gone all rhapsodic about Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - something about a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads to fame and fortune and if missed confines them to a life of humdrum misery.

Having defended the first four balls from Peter Willey, Reddy realises his moment of destiny has arrived. England's captain, Mike Brearley, has every man within a handshake's distance of Reddy for the fifth - the outfield is as empty as can be. Reddy decides he's going for it. He gets down on one knee and hoists Willey's gentle offbreak high over midwicket for a six.

Pandemonium breaks loose. With two to tie and three for a win with one ball to go, suddenly India hold all the cards. They cannot lose from here, for even if Reddy were to be out off the last ball, they would still only be nine down. Brearley spreads the field to stop Reddy getting three off the last ball. Knowing he has already saved the Test, Reddy is as relaxed as can be, while Willey, at the top of his short run-up, is paler than snow. The huge crowd, with its surfeit of subcontinentals, is baying for an Indian victory, and even supporters of the home team sense that may be a fair ending.

The tense Willey sends down a short half-tracker, Reddy swivels and bisects midwicket and square leg with a powerful pull shot. As the ball thuds into the pickets, the joyous crowd surges onto the field. Reddy is borne aloft by them to the pavilion, his bat flashing in the evening glow like a hero's scimitar.

*02:57:03 GMT, May 30, 2015: The article originally said Shastri took a single off the fifth ball of the over

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

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