More than a game
I had just finished watching a small passage of play in an India-West Indies Test from the 2002 series in the Caribbean. India were chasing an improbable 408 for victory at Sabina Park, and were around 100 for 3. Tendulkar, after a cautious beginning, was starting to flow. Hereabouts, Dillon pitched one slightly wide and a bit full, Tendulkar went down on one knee and crashed it past cover's left hand for four. The following ball was predictably perhaps, a little shorter, still around off stump. Tendulkar took a short step back and with a contemptuous swing of the bat, sent it hurtling away in front of midwicket.
They showed both the shots a couple of times in slow motion. Tendulkar must surely rank among the most self-effacing sportsmen of all time. His eyes as he waded into those balls showed fleeting disdain. The bat-swing was decidedly dismissive, there was unmistakable flamboyance. The second time, the ball rebounded off the traditional Caribbean boundary wall. It was as if he was driving home a point or two. He was allowing himself a few moments of supreme dominance. For a little while, Mr Tendulkar seemed a touch taller than Mr Dillon.
Cricket, more so than other games, offers deep and varied insight into its practitioners' psyches. Events on a cricket field happen to unfold at such optimally spaced intervals in time that there is just the right amount of pause to draw out the personalities of its occupants. Time is a tangible dimension. A batsman who's been gearing himself for the battle ahead in the protected environs of the dressing room, as he walks out in full view of the crowd and then the waiting opponent suddenly gets transported to a different world.
He looks up at the sky and lets his eyes get used to the light. Eyes still straining to get used to the sun, he twiddles his bat a couple of times. Then, he wheels his bat about. A Shahid Afridi might break into a run. A Steve Waugh would stride briskly out, splayed feet and pads. Rahul Dravid would give his pullover one last rolling tug. They are all mentally readying themselves to face the opponent. Right at that moment, it feels like eleven versus one.
And then their batting partner takes a couple of steps toward them, there is a passing moment of consultation, perhaps of reassurance. The bowling isn't that great, it was just that one ball. Just watch out for Hoggard, he's swinging it a bit, and yeah both ways. The pitch is fairly straightforward, stick to your game. And then it's time for them to get to the striker's end. It's eleven versus one again.
The batsman then marks his guard. Two legs, he says. The slips look like they are a lot closer than they really are. The 'keeper is staring right through you. Together, they seem to be chuckling at your obvious discomfort. The first few balls that you face, you are a lot more aware of them than a couple of minutes later. You pat down a few imaginary loose bits of earth and then adjust your pads. You look down the pitch twice, you are getting your brain to adjust to judging the length of the ball. Short, go back, full length, drive. Good length, the pitch is a touch bouncy, don't go fully forward.
Then it's time for you to settle into your stance. The bowler is ready to run in. You give your toes one last wiggle and remind your feet to move. You tighten your calves and then relax them. Remember, the last time your first ball moved swiftly in off the seam. Mustn't happen this time. It is worse than any other game. For, as a bastman, there are no comebacks. Almost.
Batsmen's mannerisms often remain much the same over their careers. Mostly, they tell us a bit about their personalities and their current state of mind. Generally, Sachin shows outward signs of a hyperactive mind. He flexes his toes, wipes away the sweat from his brow lest it clouds his vision. He adjusts his box, gives his helmet a bit of a push-up. He needs to feel perfectly at ease.
But, sometimes when batsmen find themselves in the zone, their movements at the crease change just a bit, reflecting their present cricketing state of mind. A few years ago, in that magnificent series against the Australians, at the Wankhade, Sachin was again flexing his toes and adjusting his box, but there was a definite, tangible calm to his movements. There was an unruffled inevitability to his run-making that made watching him seem like meditation. Tendulkar was perfection in that Mumbai innings. It was complete, masterful assurance. I was reminded of Gavaskar on that square-turner of a pitch at Bangalore in '87.
Batsmen have their favourite grounds where they somehow seem to perform better. Sometimes, the preference extends to whole countries. None more noticeable than VVS Laxman's liking for Australian grounds. From the time he walks out to bat in Australia, everything seems in soft synchrony. His light, upright walk has an added spring in its step. The open, welcoming feel that the grounds there have gives him just the right amount of space to perform. The bounce in the land's pitches leaves one last lingering thought of a leg-before behind. An artist is liberated.
From Laxman to Matthew Hayden, the contrast couldn't be more stark. When Hayden is at his overpowering best, the eleven versus one point is a bit moot. He chomps on his chewing gum and straddles the crease before settling massively on his haunches, looking down the pitch in the manner of a tank adjusting its turrets. When his bat meets the ball, it's a bit like when Curtly Ambrose holds a ball, it is made to look ridiculously small.
And then as he beats the ball away through mid-on, it ploughs a furrow through the grass on its way to the boundary boards. He grips his helmet by the grill and then squeezes sweat from its brim, a gladiator announcing muscular intent.
Now, to Lara. Almost the moment the ball leaves the bowler's hand, his feet dance back and across. The bat is picked up in a beautiful, uninhibited backswing and at the midpoint of a glorious downswing, it meets the ball. If a long sigh escapes you as you watch Laxman drive, Lara sets the pulse racing. As the ball speeds away off the bat, it is as if several Caribbean drumbeats had suddenly peaked in unison and then fallen away leaving us in their wake. Lara and his bat beat to a different rhythm, the sparkling of an almost uniquely Caribbean flair.
And finally, one quick look at a bowler. I was watching Kapil Dev bowl in an Aamir Khan XI- Kapil XI Tsunami Aid game, played a couple of months ago. Bowling off three light-stepping paces, maybe four, he still had half of that famous twisting last leap. A couple of slow beautifully curving outswingers to an unsuspecting actor-turned-opener and then one gently looping inswinger that had Yuvraj searching for it. The ball took a thin inner edge on its way to the 'keeper. Yuvraj simply grinned a toothy grin, Kapil raised his arm, looked a touch downward and shrugged, tugging that famous post-wicket taking tug at his left shoulder.
Other sports leave us with impressions of its players and their personalities as well. A John McEnroe drop-volley dying softly away on even second-week Wimbledon grass or a Rene Higuita dribbling indulgently past a couple of forwards with not so much as a second thought to the goalpost he should be guarding, both form lasting, if differing impressions. Cricket provides a lot more of these personality snapshots and offers more complex interactions between them.
Cricketing mannerisms are more pronounced as you are required to concentrate for longer durations. It becomes an absolute necessity to develop your own routine to keep focus. You find the game and its habits growing on you. The greatest of cricketers have always played the game the way their personalities have dictated them to. When it is said that cricket is more than a game, this, surely, must be what is meant.
Krishna Kumar is a software designer in Bangalore. He has played cricket in Calicut, Montreal, Ottawa and Bangalore, and reported on it from Toronto and Kochi.
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