Mukherjee true to ageless tradition
At 83, especially when your blood pressure is high, it is best to keep life on an even keel. As Prabir Mukherjee has observed a Kolkata Test honouring the slowly-evolving traditions he has known for a lifetime he must have allowed himself a sigh of contentment at a job well done. His doctor would have approved.
Complete rest, no undue excitement, doubtless followed up with an additional reminder to wrap up warm (it is winter in Kolkata after all) was what Mukherjee's doctor reportedly advised after his spat with India's captain, MS Dhoni, over his calls for a pitch that would turn from the outset. "Immoral," was Mukherjee's implacable judgement on Dhoni's wishes before he presented a surface that would do rather more for his own health than the Indian captain's.
Dhoni's desperation for a quick fix was always unlikely to sit easily with a groundsman of such longevity. It is natural for a captain, at the peak of his ambition and physical prowess, to concern himself only with short-term solutions, a way (perhaps the only way) to try to mask the inadequacies of an ageing India side. And it was natural for Mukherjee to protect his domain, to care not about the present, but to put his faith in tried-and-trusted methods that had served him for much of his lifetime.
This is a used pitch, true, but only in the manner of a used, beige cardigan, one that might even be found in Mukherjee's wardrobe, one which might no longer be fashionable but which still has bags of wear. England will anticipate that it will become moth-eaten well before the final day. If it does, and an India defeat is the consequence, Mukherjee will regard the outcry that follows as noise from afar, of little consequence.
Mukherjee has served India well. They have lost only two out of 14 matches under his supervision. He might well see them lose this one, especially if Alastair Cook continues to bat in this fashion. Mukherjee has watched many great players pass this way. Perhaps this was the day to say about Cook something that has never quite tripped off the tongue: that he, too, deserves that accolade of greatness.
Cook, Mukherjee must have reflected, is not only dominating this series, he is easy on the eye. You can either observe him intently and note the solid defence, the scrupulous shot selection, the certainty on the sweep - rare for an Englishman - and the gradual unfolding of a more expansive game, or when fatigue takes hold you can simply soak him up, as men of his age are wont to do, by staring into the middle distance, bathing in the serenity of his innings.
Cook, from the minute he made a Test century on debut in Nagpur, has been attuned more to the patience of India than its clamour. When he reached his 23rd Test hundred, an England record, and took off his helmet to acknowledge the applause, Mukherjee, if his concentration had held, might have noticed how boyish he looked, still so youthful of countenance that he should be dreaming of records not already breaking them. Achievement comes so soon only to those most blessed, their greater challenge not to break the records that come their way, but to cope with the great expanse of life remaining when the ambitions have been met.
Mukherjee's reputation in his own profession has been built rather later in life. He was 56 when he first prepared a Test pitch at Eden Gardens 27 years ago and he remains spritely enough to have ushered Michael Atherton, a former England captain turned journalist and broadcaster, away from his precious square before the match. Standards must be maintained; it is his job to do the staring, to sniff the wind, to roll and water and contemplate the meaning of existence.
The last time England played on his Test pitch, 20 years ago, it certainly turned. England picked four fast bowlers plus the wing-and-prayer legspin of Ian Salisbury; India fielded three spinners and won at a canter. Graham Gooch's 100th Test brought only unhappiness and Ted Dexter, in a misguided attempt to deflect criticism, took refuge in a chance dinner conversation with a professor of his acquaintance and announced he had commissioned a study into Kolkata pollution levels. He admitted in Kolkata this week, shortly before he was driven around the outfield in a short procession of former players, that he never did receive it.
Gooch, now England's batting coach, looked on in happier circumstances as Cook progressed dependably towards his record. Occasionally the TV camera caught his mentor's eyes half-closing, a little wearily. On the day that Cook breaks Gooch's record as England's leading Test runscorer, it will probably be Gooch who feels more tired. But if he did doze for a second or two, it was a contented doze, brought about by his pride in a batsman he has treasured since schooldays and the slumberous, second-day nature of Mukherjee's Test pitch.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo