Two thousand Tests, I've watched them all
When I find myself in the company of scientists, wrote the poet WH Auden, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes. When I started out as a reporter and found myself in the company of Test cricketers, I had similar feelings.
I met politicians, too, and writers and diplomats and scientists and Nobel Prize winners - none of them made me feel like Lala Amarnath did when I first met him, or Dattu Phadkar or MJ Gopalan. They were from another planet. They had played Test cricket.
In an essay on George Headley, CLR James talks of the "otherness" of the player thus: "A really great batsman is to me as strange a human being as a man seven feet tall or a man I once heard of who could not read but spoke six languages."
The Test cricketer is a unique human being. No matter if, like the Australian legspinner Bryce McGain, he played only one Test, scored just two runs and went wicketless while conceding 149 runs and had no catch to show for his efforts. Or like India's Rashid Patel finished his career with no runs and no wickets in his only Test. Such men are blessed.
When I was growing up, the fact that a man had played Test cricket was enough. It automatically placed him on a level few could aspire to. Perhaps there are only two kinds of people in the (cricketing) world - those who played Test cricket and those who hoped to but didn't. Auden, it must be remembered, started out at Oxford as a science student. Shabby curates spring from unrealised dreams.
On a tour of New Zealand more than two decades ago I met Bruce Taylor, who made a century and claimed five wickets with his medium pace in his debut Test. This was at Eden Gardens, and I recalled some of the strokes Taylor had played, and how he had finally been caught by Budhi Kunderan off a left-arm spinner. I recalled how he had had the Indian captain Tiger Pataudi caught behind for 153. Taylor was impressed I remembered so much.
So was I, especially since I hadn't watched the match. I was not yet five years old. Test cricket creates false memory, in which respect it is significantly different from the limited-overs variety.
Details of matches in one-day cricket (and its bastard offspring, Twenty20) tend to slip through the interstices of the mind. India won the World Cup barely four months ago, and I watched every one of their games. A book I wrote on India's victory, complete with the scorecards, was published recently. Yet if you ask me how many runs Dhoni scored in the semi-final, I'll need to look it up.
No such problems with Test cricket, though. Pataudi's scores in the 1967 series in Australia? Kapil Dev's in the 1982 series in England? Or, better still, individual performances on India's first tour of Australia in 1947-48, almost a decade and a half before I was born?
So vivid are the false memories that sometimes I am surprised when no Christmas card arrives from old friends like Fred Spofforth or WG Grace or Ranji, players I have known intimately. I was at Lord's in 1932, when India played their first Test match, and within minutes had reduced England to 19 for 3. One cover drive by Douglas Jardine finished in front of me; I picked up the ball and handed it to CK Nayudu, the India captain, and another good friend.
I stood with Bradman on the balcony at Trent Bridge when he told his team-mates to come out and watch Stan McCabe cutting and pulling in a ferocious innings of 232. "Come and see this. You will never see anything like it again," he said with the kind of authority he alone carried in world cricket.
Nearly four decades earlier, on August 13, 1902 to be precise, England needed to make 263 to win but were nine down for 248 when the great Yorkshire pair of George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes came together. I heard Hirst tell his partner, as 15 runs were needed: "We'll get them in singles." Earlier there was a famous century by Gilbert Jessop in just over an hour, an innings watched by a bank clerk named PG Wodehouse, who would occasionally walk across to The Oval during his lunch break. The tedious call of duty forced him back to work, which meant he missed one of the great finishes in Test cricket, Rhodes scoring the winning run.
Also playing in the match was Victor Trumper, whose impact on a youngster was so movingly described by the legspinner Arthur Mailey. When Mailey finally got to bowl to Trumper in a Sydney grade match, he had his hero stumped off a googly. "There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure," he wrote. "I felt like a boy who had killed a dove." Is there a more evocative line in all of cricket literature?
I was around when Australian captain Bill Woodfull was getting medical attention after having been struck by Harold Larwood during the Bodyline series. "There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket, the other is not," Woofdull told Plum Warner, England's manager. Poor Jack Fingleton, the only other journalist in the room, copped the blame for making that story public and paid for it by having to miss out on the 1934 tour of England. But Fingleton pointed out it was Bradman who spilled the beans, as he had an arrangement with the Sun newspaper. "At least Bradman was a very good and observant reporter," wrote Fingleton. "He had every detail correct." I remember thinking the same when the story broke.
Not many years later, I was at Old Trafford in Manchester when India's captain the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram (the only active cricketer to be knighted, we must remember, although it was not for services to cricket - he didn't serve cricket till he gave it up altogether as player, captain, selector and broadcaster) called his opening batsman Mushtaq Ali aside for last-minute instructions. Vizzy had been worried about the growing stature of Vijay Merchant, and instructed Mushtaq to run him out. Mushtaq told Merchant, they had a good laugh, and put on 203 for the first wicket.
Test cricket is Tolstoyan, with its long dramas and its ability to sear itself into the minds of the faithful. If Tolstoy didn't already know the difference between happy and unhappy families, he needed to have spent just one season with a Test team. Test cricket is War and Peace and Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov and One Hundred Years of Solitude rolled into one. Shorter-format games are like chick-lit: uni-dimensional and without layers, where what you get is what you see.
Back in 1882, England were set to make 85 to win against Australia, who took the field unhappy at the manner in which WG Grace had tricked one of their young batsmen into being run out. "This thing," said Spofforth, "can be done." And as I watched, he personally did it himself, claiming seven wickets as England fell for 77.
In years to come, I see myself like the Ancient Mariner, stopping people at the rate of one in three and fascinating them with stories of Test matches and Test players. "Can you wrap it up in three and a half hours, please?" someone will ask, and I will reply, "No, I need five days at least."
One thousand nine hundred and ninety nine Tests. And I was there for every one of them.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore