December 17, 2008

Win-win situation

Every now and then a Test match comes along that transcends the moment and lifts the spirit. Chennai was one such

"Two exceptional cricketers, playing highly significant innings": Tendulkar and Yuvraj both proved points to their critics © Getty Images

If ever cricket needed to rise to the occasion it was over the last few days in Chennai.

Emotion plays an enormous part in sport. Try as we might with computers and figures and replays and analysis, sport is still concerned with the spirit and the split-second. Sometimes it sends the spirit soaring, and in that moment all the fuss and attention seems justified. At other times it sinks into the tawdry and mundane and hardly appears worth the bother. But sport is most missed when it is denied, when matches cannot be staged, competitions are cancelled, stadiums closed. It was the removal of the tribute to WG Grace from the Long Room that alerted MCC members that war was coming and long, dark nights lay ahead.

As far as previous generations were concerned, sport was most appreciated after the two World Wars. Nowadays we argue about trivialities, work ourselves into a lather about slow over-rates and no-ball rules and sightscreens that will not shift. In 1919, though, and again in 1946, crowds flocked to cricket grounds and players dusted off old trousers and oiled bats just so that the game could be played. Somerset fielded almost the same team in 1947 as in 1937, yet it was almost good enough to win the championship. Hardly any new players had emerged, a decade had been lost. But the fact that standards had dropped did not matter; cricket was being played, a world had been preserved. It was a life-reaffirming experience

Don Bradman had to be persuaded to play again after the second war, and the strongest argument put to him was the need to raise morale. People were suffering from lost friends and family members, and rations, and bombed-out buildings. All the more reason for sportsmen to get back onto the field and provide entertainment and enrichment. Everyone knew it was going to be hard, everyone wanted to laugh and love, and sport could help in that healing process. After all it is an expression of mateship and youth, and it had tradition and history and health and hope.

Matches between India and Pakistan have likewise often been moving occasions, as the enmity of nations was put aside and everyone remembered they came from the same place, spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, were the same colour, ate the same food, had the same yearnings, and ought to be pals. During the 1996 World Cup, Indian and Pakistani cricketers played in the same side after the Australians and West Indians had refused to go to Colombo, and that, too, was a fine occasion. Pakistan won a close match in Chennai years ago, whereupon Wasim Akram took his players on a victory lap and the crowds cheered. Here is sport's truest self. Often betrayed, often exploited, but somehow intact.

Sceptics might argue that England returned to India after the Mumbai blasts because they wanted to take their share of plums from the IPL pie. Perhaps it was a consideration. Mixed motives are commonplace. It is rare for any act to be entirely pure. But it is dull and dreary to dress every act in the clothes of cynicism, for then a man can never laugh except at his own cleverness. The fact remains that Kevin Pietersen did bring his boys back, all of them and the vast entourage that accompanies England teams through thick and thin. The fact remains that England agreed to play two Test matches in a country still shocked by outrages intended to spread terror and division.

India, too, met the challenge. By all accounts the security was tight but not oppressive, and towards the end the crowds flocked to the stadium to support the teams. By all accounts, too, the visitors were as popular as the hosts, which has not always been the case. Happily, the sides produced a wonderful match. Often it happens that way. Every now and then sportsmen sense that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, an event that reaches into hearts and minds, and a contest that goes beyond mere cricket. And then they reach outside themselves and the petty interests that dominate all our lives. That the match was an epic lasting five days before ending on its highest note with its greatest player surpassing himself added to the effect.

Every now and then sportsmen sense that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, an event that reaches into hearts and minds, and a contest that goes beyond mere cricket. And then they reach outside themselves and the petty interests that dominate all our lives

Of course the Test was closely followed in Australia. Nothing else was happening locally, and anyhow the Aussies had recently suffered at the hands of the Indians and wondered how the Poms might fare. For three days it appeared that a resolute England outfit might prevail. Andrew Strauss batted with skill and gumption, while Paul Collingwood surpassed himself. Collingwood and Ashwell Prince can be listed among batsmen with records that defy the talent apparently at their disposal. Between their mighty innings, Graeme Swann struck yet another blow for finger-spinners by breaking through the Indian top order. Remember when orthodox spin was a thing of the past? Now it is making an unexpected comeback, with all sorts of supposedly humdrum operators troubling batsmen. Jason Krezja, Nathan Hauritz, Swann and Paul Harris have contrived to take wickets.

As the fourth innings began, India needed to score 387 to win. Of course everyone knows the story, but that has never mattered in books or movies. Probably England had already lost the initiative with a timid batting display on the fourth afternoon. Far from imposing themselves they seemed scared of defeat. It never takes long for sentiments of that sort to be sensed by an alert opponent. By the time the home openers marched to the crease the Indians had a spring in their step. Sport is a state of mind

Judging from their responses to his vivid innings, England had not previously seen Virender Sehwag at his most audacious. Bear in mind that 12 months ago he had lost his place in the side. Australians, on the other hand, are well aware of his powers. Now he caused such disarray in the opposing ranks that in a trice fieldsmen were running hither and thither, most of them ever further from the bat. Yet Sehwag is no mere thrasher. Rather, he is an intelligent and consistent batsman who has managed to remain instinctive and creative. It is a most unusual combination. He is not remotely as barmy as he seems. Although he was removed before stumps, he had given the Indian innings its momentum and caused a furrowing of brows in the England camp.

Happily, the last day lived up to expectations. Of course, the match might have gone the other way, but India was not to be denied. No less significantly, the home side was sustained by two exceptional cricketers playing highly significant innings. Until a month or so ago Yuvraj Singh was cast as a lasher of bad bowling suited to slow pitches and lacking the footwork needed for five-day cricket. True, he had belted hundreds against a Pakistani attack lacking the services of its fastest bowler, but the track had been as dead as pacifism. He seemed to be destined for a brilliant but brittle career, to become a glamorous millionaire with a shallow record.

Accordingly it came as a surprise to discover that respected domestic players and Yuvraj's supposed rivals held him in high regard. One explained that he had stood at the bowler's end while the lofty lefty played some of the most stunning shots he had seen - blocks that went to the boundary, and effortless clips that cleared the ground.

Next came a sturdy showing against England in the ODIs. Yuvraj constructed match-winning performances, indicated in a weight of mind as well as stroke. Still he needed to back it up at a critical moment in a Test match.

No losers here: England were beaten, but not disgraced © Getty Images

For his part Tendulkar had managed to become the highest scorer the game has known without quite convincing local thinkers that he was a match for Brian Lara. Although his qualities were acknowledged, the harsher observers felt he had let India down at vital moments on the fifth days of Test matches. In short, he had won matches from the front but not the back. They questioned his temperament, pointed towards the quixotic Trindadian's mighty efforts in run-chases. Nor were these sages persuaded by arguments that no man has ever been without fault, or that taken as a whole, Tendulkar outstripped any contemporary and almost all predecessors . As always in these cases, there was just enough merit in the argument to demand a response as opposed to a scornful dismissal.

And there was only one man capable of making that reply. Time was running out. Tendulkar had shown signs of his best form against the Australians, but had also displayed growing vulnerability, suffering from several bizarre lapses of concentration. All the more reason to take the opportunity presented on the fifth day in Chennai. No champion likes to leave anything on the table. And Tendulkar did seize his moment, did play the conclusive innings, did win a Test against the odds, did keep his head for five intense hours.

It was not merely a superb innings. It was a veritable masterpiece. And so the match ended with Yuvraj and Tendulkar supreme and England beaten but not disgraced. Over the years I have sung Tendulkar's praises many times, pondered upon Yuvraj's merits, and condemned English softness and lack of self-awareness. Now I am happy to salute everyone taking part in this stirring contest, especially India's triumphant fifth-wicket pair, and an opponent that lost a match but made a lot of friends.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • anantha on December 18, 2008, 19:53 GMT

    Well done India. Thanks to England for brave comeback. Once again sachin prove is extraordinary skills in chennai. But this time he stayed till the end. He atlast realise that his CV will not be praised without team victories. Indians are most emotional character persons. Thus they cheer when their superhero hits and they tear when he ducks. Sachin's fame is still maintained same. Thanks for people, media and sachin. In analyst point of view, he still may not be an all time best. But, nobody can entertain like him for a long period.

  • Sridhar on December 18, 2008, 4:07 GMT

    Peter, good article, as is normally expected from you..but to describe that Yuvraj could have become a 'glamorous millionaire with a shallow record' ..well, it is unfair and does not come across very well.

  • Apyboutit on December 18, 2008, 3:53 GMT

    A note on - "Tendulkar .. without quite convincing local thinkers that he was a match for Brian Lara". The locals are unforgiving! Even after several consequtive failures, Lara can afford to go out in his own country for a mug of beer. Tendulkar cannot do it ever in his life! If a Sehwag, Gambhir, Zaheer, Shastri, Vengsarkar, or anyone for that matter, fails - consistently or not - to win anything for India, or throws away a match, all of them will be pardoned! They will at best face the call for axing from the team. BUT, Sachin (as the annointed God of the "locals"), can, should, must, never "fail". He Should Play, BUT never ever NOT Deliver. When Sachin is in the middle, A game of cricket is not what is Watched by the locals! Eternal Excellence that surpasses, physical frailties, age, sanity, miracles, or other similars, is what is EXPECTED. Where else will "a run of the mill century" (if ever there was one) is never enough. It always has to be coated with the spiciest of masalas!

  • Apyboutit on December 18, 2008, 3:35 GMT

    Hats off to both the teams for a wonderful game of cricket, irrespective of the context. Hats off to the England team for their show of solidarity againt terrorism - whether it was along with other intensions or not. Hats off to Strauss, Dhoni, Zaheer, Ishant, Harbhajan, Collingwood, Flintoff, Sehwag, Yuvi and Sachin for staging the perfect script. More than cricket or the teams or the individuals, It is undoubtedly the "spirit of Freedom" that Won - or should I say - that was felicitated. In a diameter of a few light years of distance from Earth, we seem to be the ONLY inhabitants! If some of us (the perpetrators) cannot value the tremendous uniqueness of our mere existence on Earth, with such possibilities of emothions and excellence of such high standards, then the rest of us ought to stand up against them, united and strong. That is the least that we can/Must do to "Live Freely". I am mighty grateful to have existed now and witnessed this match!

  • sachin on December 18, 2008, 3:33 GMT

    After this test, i am prettys sure all doubts about the viability of test cricket will be laid to rest. Such an absorbing, entertaining, roller-coaster and emotionally charged game could only bring laurels to the sports. Also, one must appreciate the English Team for the mighty effort they put in this test and i am sure they have won billion hearts lest not worry about the test. Long live Test Cricket!!

  • krishna on December 17, 2008, 22:33 GMT

    Quote: "It is rare for any act to be entirely pure. But it is dull and dreary to dress every act in the clothes of cynicism, for then a man can never laugh except at his own cleverness." ~ Peter Roebuck

    True in every sense...

  • jay on December 17, 2008, 21:36 GMT

    Excellent article Pete! I have read a few articles talking about what happened in Mumbai and it's relation with the Test match in Chennai. None so explained better than you did by drawing a comparison between World War II and Mumbai attacks.

    Well written!

  • gul on December 17, 2008, 21:18 GMT

    nothing new at all in this article. what i would like to comment on is the praise given to the england players for returning to india. make no mistake, the only reason for the return was money. india is the powerhouse behind cricket due to its vast advertising revenues and therefore it controls the distribution of the wealth. pakistan has suffered similar attacks, but generally not directed at foreign nationals as these attacks were. (NB i do appreciate that mainly indian civilians died in the attacks, but they were directed at tourist areas). if these attacks had occured in pakistan while england were touring there, they would have not returned as there would have been no financial incentive for the players. i dont mind them returning for the money, its the lies they that they are returning for the good of cricket that annoys me. the only english citizens who should get praise are the supporters; they are in far more danger than the players,but they are there for the love of the sport

  • Amit on December 17, 2008, 20:13 GMT

    No Doubt games like these would keep the interest alive in Test Cricket.I hope that the mohali Game and the Aussie-SA series should also provide such good entertainment.

  • Varun on December 17, 2008, 18:29 GMT

    Yet again, I am amazed at Mr. Roebuck's ability to eloquently summarize what cricket-lovers experience after a great match. Every day since the Chennai test match got over, I have been returning to cricinfo to see if Mr. Roebuck's column has been published. As always, he does not dissapoint - IMHO, he is peerless among comtemporary cricket columnists (no disrespect to the other cricinfo stalwarts, who are also very very good).

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