The '90s show is back, so is the lost childhood
Some moments need to be frozen in time.
Like at the start of the eighth over of the second innings in the second All-Star Series match in Houston, when Shane Warne brought himself on to bowl. Sachin's Blasters were 69 for 2, chasing a mammoth 263. Brian Lara was on strike. Sachin Tendulkar, who had just pounded his buddy Ajit Agarkar for two sixes and a four, was shadow-batting at the non-striker's end. Kumar Sangakkara stood behind the stumps. Ricky Ponting and Jonty Rhodes patrolled the off side. Jacques Kallis hovered on the leg side. Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq weren't too far away.
Warne drifted one towards leg; Lara unfurled a sweep to fine leg: four. Warne shortened the length; Lara flicked square: no run. Warne threw it up outside off; Lara waltzed down the track and tonked it over Warne's head: four more. This was straight out of a time-capsule: watching Lara dismantle Warne, ball after ball. And waiting for Tendulkar to do the same when he got the chance. The crowd at Minute Maid Park were in thrall. For a brief few seconds the asking rate of around 15 appeared gettable. "That '90s Show," said a banner, "My childhood is officially 'back'."
A couple of minutes later Saqlain came on and did what he often did in the late 1990s: he shattered all illusions. First he fooled Tendulkar with a flighted ball that dipped, rapping him on the pad; next he fired a quicker one that skidded on, struck the pads and ricocheted onto the stumps. Saqlain turned around in half-appeal but quickly realised he had got Tendulkar both lbw and bowled. Not for the first time, he stunned many Indian fans in the crowd into silence. Saqlain got Mahela Jayawardene in his next over. And Andrew Symonds soon dismissed Lara. The game was up.
This was only expected. As in the first game in New York, Warne's Warriors were too strong for Sachin's Blasters. Sangakkara, Ponting and Kallis seem focused enough - and fit enough - to consider unretirement. And Rhodes is still an asset with the bat and on the field. Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden occasionally bring out bullet throws. And Saqlain and Akram have retained bits of their magic. Heck, even Michael Vaughan smashed a six (something he hadn't managed in his two T20 internationals).
Sachin's Blasters have struggled with the bat, hardly inspired with the ball, and found it hard on the field. This is not meant as criticism. Of course these players shouldn't injure themselves trying to dive on the boundary line, of course they can't be faulted for their ageing bodies and slow reflexes. They are trying their bit but, as one would expect, haven't been able to turn back the clock.
But that doesn't take away from the tricky dilemma the organisers and players must soon confront. Tendulkar and Warne have emphasised that this is their attempt to globalise cricket, a serious venture where they hope to inspire kids and introduce Americans to the game. Tendulkar has said T20 offers the best of both worlds: a great chance for entertainment as well as a window to the game's intricacies. He says he wants to see many young Americans play the game at some point in the future and the stars have spent a bit of time with kids in New York and Houston. Some members of the US national team have also been part of the nets; a local cricketer, Usman Rafiq, even fielded for four overs on Wednesday.
On the other hand are the games themselves, mostly one-sided and often lacking intensity - exactly the kind of attributes that you wouldn't want when trying to sell T20 to a new audience. Outfielders have taken selfies with fans, yet Shoaib has not held back when it comes to sending down bouncers. Fun or serious? Serious or fun? With four balls left - in a hopelessly one-sided game on Wednesday - Shoaib walked in to bat without a helmet. Symonds bounced him. Fun or serious? Serious or fun?
Again, maybe that is beside the point. For the moment, many fans don't seem too perturbed. Nostalgia continues to win the day. For Madhav Nyapathi, 33, a Houston-based chemical engineer, here was a chance to go back 15 years, to a time when he followed cricket closely. "I haven't watched a full match since 1999," he says, "just snippets here and there. But I came to the stadium because this game seemed like the 'Greatest Hits of the '90s' on a video tape. I never imagined I would see Sachin and Lara batting together, facing Akram and Warne. This is crazy."
His friend, Vijay Raghunathan, a safety consultant based in Houston, hasn't watched a full game after the World Cup final in 2011. "I somehow thought that was the end of my cricket-watching experience," he says, "because since when I was a kid I had so badly wanted India to win a World Cup. When they won, I just moved on. But this game is making me feel young again. If it happens next year, I'll think of coming back."
And as was the case in the first match at Citi Field, fans flocked to Houston from various parts of north America. There were groups from Chicago, Austin, Dallas, Colorado and Indiana. There was a group from Saskatchewan in Canada and a man from Antigua, here to watch Lara. Many of them came with dhols, flags, cricket jerseys, whistles and banners. There were loud cheers and passionate chants. There was plenty of banter among the Indian and Pakistani supporters, including from one group of Pakistani fans who baited the Indian fans with chants of "mauka mauka" soon after Tendulkar got out. Within a few minutes, though, it was all hunky-dory. The same group chanted: "Saaachin, Saaachin."
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA