March 18, 2008

Half the battle

Cricket is perhaps unique among team sports in that individual face-offs within the larger contests matter almost as much as the main event. Tendulkar v Lee, anyone?

Lee v Tendulkar was more than India's best batsman taking on Australia's best bowler © Getty Images

In the buffet that is Cricinfo Magazine, there is, tucked away like a garnish or a bottle of extra virgin Tuscan olive oil, a section called Golden Pairs. Here, a writer imagines which two batsmen he/she would like to see up against which two bowlers. You have the history of the game to choose from. Anything goes. The more improbable the matchings-up, perhaps the better. It's a fantasist's delight. It's a fan's delight. If you have missed it, you ought to look it up now.

Cricket fans are big on parlour games. And Golden Pairs is an absorbing parlour game (Which pairs? Which pairs would you like?), but that's not all it is. It goes to the heart of one of the things that makes cricket - especially Test cricket - unique, one of the things that constitutes its particular allure: the face off between a specific batsman and bowler within the flow of the game's narrative; the tremor of the battle within the war.

Team games are, well, team games, and while it's a truism to say that they showcase the talent and brilliance of individuals, they don't quite, in the way of sport that pits one individual against another, leave room for one-on-one confrontation. Diego Maradona's genius was always on show when he played, but Peter Shilton versus Maradona as a prolonged, engaging theatre of combat? I don't know if we ever looked forward to that, if we ever thought of it as a specific combat at all. No, it doesn't work that way.

But look at what cricket has to offer: the dovetailing of the pleasure of the team game with the joy of an individual sport. Within the amphitheatre of cricket, we always look forward to - and enjoy most - the bare-knuckle thrill of gladiatorial combat between a particular batsman and bowler. When that happens, it's as if the bass line has kicked in or the drink has begun to take hold. These showdowns are repeated, repeatable motifs within the symphony of the game we so adore.

We saw that most recently in the Sachin Tendulkar versus Brett Lee battle in the just-concluded series between India and Australia. It wasn't merely the best batsman of the series taking on the best bowler; there was something else in there: a particular kind of competitiveness, an unveiling of talent, of determination, guile, patience, intelligence, and the keen desire for one to be better than the other. It reached its apotheosis in the magnificent run of play that saw Lee finally taking Tendulkar's wicket after another masterful innings on the second day of the final Test in Adelaide.

Within the amphitheatre of cricket, we always look forward to - and enjoy most - the bare-knuckle thrill of gladiatorial combat between a particular batsman and bowler. When that happens, it's as if the bass line has kicked in or the drink has begun to take hold

Ishant Sharma's working over of Ricky Ponting in Perth has in it the embryo of another great confrontation. But it doesn't qualify, not just yet. Because these things, for them to really work, need a history. It can't be a one-off showdown. The story needs to acquire legs, to run and run. We fans must learn to look forward to them.

And it helps, of course, if the battle is between two legends. Remember Tendulkar and Shane Warne? Series after series, they went at each other, and we would feel our pulses quicken each time Warne would waddle in to bowl to Tendulkar. The batsman had the final say on that one. The numbers will tell you that, but not just the numbers. Asked who the greatest batsman in the world was, Warne did not merely said it was Tendulkar. He said that the gulf between Tendulkar and the next best was as clear and bright as daylight.

Both players raise the bar during these contests and the ones that are most stirring, most pleasurable, are the ones that have mutual respect at their hearts, when the contestants hold each other in very high regard. We saw that between Lee and Tendulkar recently, when each spoke of the other in very flattering terms.

Then there are the ones that acquire a frisson because of extra-cricketing reasons: Harbhajan Singh versus Andrew Symonds; Muttiah Muralitharan versus any Australian batsman. These showdowns satisfy some atavistic impulse in the fan, but I much rather prefer the other kind. There is a stirring dignity to them; they exemplify cricket at its admirable best; they offer the unfolding of certain qualities that now and again seem somewhat anachronistic: respect, dignity, fairplay.

For fans, though, any sort of battle within the war will usually do. South Africa will be in India later this month. Sreesanth versus Andre Nel, anyone?

Soumya Bhattacharya, deputy editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai, is the author of the memoir, You Must Like Cricket? His new book on how cricket defines India will be published in 2008

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • debasish on March 20, 2008, 10:00 GMT

    In response to the last comment, I would like to say that Warne had indeed hinted that the gulf between Sachin and the rest was as clear as daylight. This was way back in 2004 when Warne said "Sachin Tendulkar is in my time the best player without doubt -- daylight second, Brian Lara third".

  • GM on March 19, 2008, 14:51 GMT

    Good article. Shane Warne did not say that the gulf between Tendulkar and the next best was as clear and bright as daylight. He wrote- and I quote the exact words - 'I place him very slightly ahead of Lara because I found him slightly tougher mentally. It is such a close call, but here is an example of what I mean: in Australia in 2003-04 he was worried about getting out cover driving so he decided to cut out the shot. I saw the wagon wheel for his next innings: he scored 248 without a single cover drive. '

  • Sydney on March 19, 2008, 9:46 GMT

    How about V. Sehwag v/s D. Steyn? Competions are fun to watch. I can't wait to see these two greats ... face-2-face.

  • Nameer on March 18, 2008, 17:13 GMT

    This is precisely why I always look forward to these meaningless 3-match test series; because of the battles within the war like you said. That is also precisely why I so badly wanted to see Australia play Pakistan in Pakistan. Imagine Hayden v Akthar in the Karachi heat, or Younis and Yousuf fending off Lee and Clarke after the openers inevitably fell in foggy Lahore. Guess I have to live off the patient and guileness of Kallis v Kumble and the fast-paced aggresivene battle of Steyn v India's top order.

  • Barath on March 18, 2008, 15:22 GMT

    A nice article. But haven't commentators over the entire series said enough about it already? I am a great fan of cricket journalism, but it's getting pretty boring of late. Indian writers cannot stop waxing lyrical about Tendulkar (ok, in some guise). At the other end of the spectrum, Peter Lalor and Malcolm Conn cannot stop spewing venom at every (non)incident involving the Indians. Balance, anyone? Time Richie Benaud started writing them articles. Now, that would be amazing.

  • Waqar on March 18, 2008, 12:38 GMT

    No doubt rivalries are fun to observe! From the old days, Wasim Akram VS Srikanth, Ravi Shastri VS Seed Anwar!

  • Tarun on March 18, 2008, 12:09 GMT

    Cricket history surely contains a good number of these great contests. Such rivalries add flavour to the game, bring everyone on his toes when such players are in action. From recent past, contests between Brian lara- Mcgrath, Tendulkar-Warne, Atherton-Mcgrath, Atherton-Donald,Ponting-Flintoff are unforgetables. May be the coming India-South Africa series give rise to new rivalries. It would be interesting to watch Kallis-Ishant, Tendulkar-Steyn in particular..some new chapters can be on the verge to begin.

  • Dimuthu on March 18, 2008, 11:42 GMT

    intriguing.. everyone has their own idea of great battles they've witnessed and ones they could only imagine.

    Murali v Bradman? Akram v Gower? It is nice when it's pure skill versus skill (say, Kumble v Boycott) bt it's always more fun to see/imagine guys with a combo of ego+skill take on eachother!

    Warne v W.G.Grace... how fantastic would that have been?!

  • Shafiq on March 18, 2008, 11:39 GMT

    Imran Vs Gavaskar Wasim vs Lara Waqar vs Jadeja (96 onwards) Qadir vs Englishmen Asif vs Peterso Shoaib Akhtar vs Tendulkar

  • Madan on March 18, 2008, 5:17 GMT

    Oops, Andre Nel v/s Sreesanth won't happen this time because Nel is out of the Test squad. Another one was Michael Atherton v/s Alan Donald.

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