Martin casts an intoxicating spell
Chris Martin has the most infectiously joyous run-up in the world. Malcolm Marshal would sprint in like an athlete, Imran Khan would leap, Wasim Akram would rush through the crease and Dennis Lillee would pound in furiously. Martin has the bounding run of a kid who is scooting from a mango grove with his stolen fruit. He is also perhaps the most genial-looking strike bowler in world cricket today. His batting is already legendary for its ineptitude, and if you consider his bowling performances from last year - 16 wickets at 47.93 - everything about him seemed genial.
On the eve of the first Test, Martin said he would "decide my future based on how I am enjoying while bowling in the matches". And boy, did he indulge himself today.
The run of his team-mates towards Martin after every dismissal perfectly captured his stature. When feared strike bowlers like Imran or Richard Hadlee would pick up a wicket, their team-mates tended to rush towards them with a mixture of elation, relief, and respect. The moment is packed with the emotion of an imposing ego, which comes from the self-belief of the bowler, and the awe-infused happiness of his team-mates. When Martin picks up wickets during a dream spell like today's, the overwhelming feeling seems to be one of unbridled joy from the other players. They aren't stunned exactly, but there is an element of an 'I-can't-believe-this-is-happening' feeling. Today, Martin gave them five such beatific moments.
Gautam Gambhir must feel like turning back the clock to 2009, when everything was going right for him. This year, everything seems to be going wrong. That fatal poke outside off consumed him today. He nicked the third consecutive delivery that angled away from him, which is Martin's natural delivery. Indian fans might have shrugged their shoulders at that moment, because there was still plenty of batting to come.
Martin's next strike would have made them fidgety. It was a hold-on-what's-happening- out- there moment, especially since Virender Sehwag had already been run out. Rahul Dravid was watching from the other end as Martin consistently got the ball to shape back into Sachin Tendulkar. In the next over, Dravid pushed out at the first delivery, which held its line. He kept out the next two similar deliveries, before defending the inswinger. Away, away, away and then in. What next? Dravid thought it might be the one that came in again, but it was the one that straightened outside off. He stabbed it to the keeper.
Meanwhile, Tendulkar was bothered by the inswingers; there were couple of lbw shouts when he planted his front foot across the stumps. He then re-aligned with a leg-stump guard, and reached out to square-drive one before unfurling a gorgeous off drive. You could could see that he was wary of getting that left foot too far across. Martin then slipped in another inswinger. Tendulkar stretched across for the extra-cover drive but ended up pushing too far away from his body. Clatter! Now the Indian fans were well and truly worried.
After Tendulkar, Suresh Raina must have felt like a soft target. His was a wicket you felt Martin would take. A short delivery was followed by two full deliveries before the over ended. When Raina returned to face Martin in the next over, his feet had retreated deep inside the crease and stuck adhesively to the ground. It felt like euthanasia when Martin slipped a full delivery that swung away to take the outside edge.
Martin then welcomed MS Dhoni with a short ball into his ribcage that Dhoni fended away to the on side. There were no further short deliveries and his first spell, his best ever in Tests, soon ended. It read 9-2-15-4. When Martin returned, 15 over later, he tried another short delivery 10 balls in to his spell. Dhoni hopped to defend it, but could only chop it on to his stumps. Martin disappeared into a huddle of joy with his team-mates.
A decade ago, Martin threatened to disappear into the abyss of an ill-spent youth. He wasn't quite Jesse Ryder, but he had his problems. He was drinking, partying and generally wasting his talent. He would turn up drunk for games for his Canterbury club. The boy was refusing turn into a man. One day, his father, Terry, told him, "If Shayne O'Connor can be out there playing domestic cricket, then so can you." That shook him up a bit then. Now he laughs when reminded of it. A couple of days before this game he said, "I probably didn't recognise my talent then. You just did what your friends were doing."
There was no epiphany that turned things around. It was a gradual walk towards maturity. "I still made mistakes when I was playing for New Zealand. I was dropped from New Zealand contracts for a year and I decided that I have to take things seriously. Sometimes it's not a conscious choice, it's forced on you. When I didn't get the contract, I had to sort myself out."
He did exactly that. Currently he is even preparing himself for life after cricket. He is just three papers away from getting a bachelor's degree in politics. "English and history seemed a bit dated; politics looked more modern. It doesn't mean I am going to get into politics. I write well. It's just for a degree."
But that's in some indeterminate future. In the here and now, he has a game to win. Can he take out VVS Laxman tomorrow and run through the tail? Or will things take another turn so that he has to come out to win or save the game with his bat? Now that would be something to see.
In some ways it's delightfully ironic that New Zealand are so close to ending their 22-year drought without a Test win in India because of big contributions - Ryder yesterday, Martin today - from two men who have battled partying problems. Will the two get to experience a different kind of high tomorrow?