Insouciant and insane
At lunch on the third day of the Karachi Test in January 2006, with India two down and staring down the barrel, I sent off a text message to some Indian and Pakistani friends: "Forty-two runs in nine overs. I don't see a problem, do you?" [India were chasing 607 in the fourth innings]
Though Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman were still batting, to imply not only that India would save the match - not such an outlandish possibility - but actually scoot up the vertical mountain-face and win it, was the equivalent of the grinning refusal of the blindfold before the firing squad. It was facetious, but only just so. Had the score at that point been 42 for 0, with Rahul Dravid playing bass to Virender Sehwag's heavy lead guitar, even Pakistani supporters might have been a tad tense if not quite sending out their own pre-seppuku one-liners.
I can trace being able to think like this at all to the doings of one man: Krishnamachari Srikkanth. It wasn't as if there hadn't been hard hitters before Srikkanth, even in the ranks of Indian batsmen, most of whom swore by the God called "Along the Ground". MAK Pataudi had re-introduced to Indian batting the heretical art of deliberately lofting the ball; Farokh Engineer was always busy and burly; Brijesh Patel, Sandeep Patil, and the Palmolive da Jat, Kapil Dev, were all known to be able to hit a ball pretty hard; even SM Gavaskar (the most parsimonious of them all, especially with wasteful energy) had a square-cut with which you wanted to avoid anything close and personal. Outside India, you had thick-shouldered Pakistanis, beefy Englishmen and beefier Aussies, all of whom could send the ball a long way pretty damn quickly.
And then you had those other guys. The other guys comprised a team in which a man called Gordon Greenidge was not the hardest hitter of the cricket ball, or even the second-hardest - that was Clive Lloyd - but the third. By the time I started paying attention to cricket after a five-year hiatus (things such as America and girls having obscured my true calling, which was to sit endlessly before a green-screened TV set) I had only heard of this demon called Viv Richards and how he had brought great fast bowlers to the point of tears. The moment I turned my attentions properly back to cricket was when this Richards fellow hit a high ball at Lord's, and this Kapil Dev fellow sprinted around to pull off a pretty impossible catch. Among other things, the catch then allowed Kapil to replace the ball in his hands with the World Cup.
I watched many replays of that final from the safe shore of victory, and it was then that I began paying attention to the "other things" that contributed to victory. One of them was this mad Tamilian opener who seemed to enjoy facing Andy Roberts and Joel Garner in a cauldron divided between roaring Afro-Caribs and desis. As I followed him on TV, I saw that he also found Australian quicks quite tasty, and Imran Khan and Mudassar Nazar downright yummy, whether on Australian tracks or a first-hour Eden pitch.
|With Srikkanth there was no sense that this was anything but a very enjoyable game he was playing; that, if it bored him, he was capable of turning from the stumps and just keeping on walking, past the square-leg umpire, past the boundary and out of the ground|
After the ball - hit, miss, or near-dismissal - the ritual would always be a long walk away from the stumps towards square leg, as if that was his invisible home base, just as the bowler's is the starting marker. He would return to the crease, never with reluctance but always with the air that he was there only momentarily, to dispatch the silly distraction of a delivery before walking away again to whatever was really occupying him.
With Srikkanth it is the memory of an attitude, a certain taste of confidence in the mouth, that stays. Of course, he got out in some terrible dismissals - first over with nothing on the board, or just when he looked like taking the team through to a sure win - but the chief trace he left behind for me was that of an unstoppable, cheerfully whirring energy turbine of optimism. No matter what the situation, at the start of the bowler's run-up there was no question who this man backed - the bowler, unless he got very lucky, was basically utthapam. In this, King Kris was the first of a kind for India, but, simultaneously, in another sense, he was perhaps the last of a kind as well.
When Tendulkar arrived, he came heavily mediated not only by television but also by advertising - the guy has been a ham actor for almost as long as he has been a great batsman, and when you see him you see all of that attaching itself to him, the Shahrukhs, the Pepsi bottles; tied to his back is the monster radial-belted tyre of his extra-cricketing persona. When you see Tendulkar, or Sehwag, you see a two-legged industry that also happens to bat beautifully. With Srikkanth there was no sense that this was anything but a very enjoyable game he was playing; that, if it bored him, he was capable of turning from the stumps and just keeping on walking, past the square-leg umpire, past the boundary and out of the ground. Even in those days it was not something you saw very often. As for now and the future, I doubt we'll ever see that spirit again.
Ruchir Joshi is the author of the novel, The Last Jet Engine Laugh. He lives in Delhi. This article first appeared in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine in 2006