Every once in a while, there comes a day that makes me fall in love with the game of cricket all over again. Thursday, July 11, 2013 was a day like that. It was a day when a young man batted fearlessly, threw caution to the wind and played a Test match as if he was playing with his friends in his backyard. Late in the night, a not-so-young man played the most amazing limited-overs innings in a long, long time and made sane grown-up people jump around and dance at 3.15am.
These have not been the best of times for a cricket lover. In April and May, bookies and fixers were discussed more than cricket and cricket teams. Board appointments were given more prominence than team selections. The Champions Trophy was a welcome relief and the Indian team's performance brought a lot of joy. But this was followed by a triangular series in West Indies, which was so irrelevant and whose coverage was so bad, that one often wondered if the broadcasters actually wanted you to switch off the television and go to sleep.
Then the Ashes arrived. Australia picked a rookie 19-year-old left-arm spinner. He bowled seven overs and looked innocuous on day one. Bad, desperate selection, one thought. Jimmy Anderson then bowled a spell which only confirmed the long held belief that he is the best fast bowler in the world. On the second day, Australia were nine down for 117 and looking down the barrel.
Ashton Agar, batting at No. 11, then played such a refreshing innings that everybody, including the English fans, wanted him to score a hundred. Batting at No. 11, yes No. 11, he made Test cricket look ridiculously easy. He smashed the best fast bowler in world all over the park, and Graeme Swann, who was supposed to gobble up left-handers, was dispatched out of the park. All this was done with a smile on the face. When he fell on 98, scored with the enthusiasm of a school boy playing his first inter-school match with a new bat, the entire cricketing world was applauding. The sun was shining, cricket was played in whites and everybody had a smile on their face. Life could not be better.
But it got better. A few hours later, MS Dhoni scripted a victory that, at one stage, looked beyond him. Sachin Tendulkar fans might disagree, but MS Dhoni is possibly India's greatest limited-overs cricketer. The number of impact performances and match-winning efforts he has put in have taken him to a level much higher than anyone else. On Thursday night, he had the game measured to the last possible decimal. You often wondered what MS Dhoni was doing, but in his mind he was clear on how the target was to be achieved. One mis-hit, one unplayable delivery, one mix-up and it was all over. But Dhoni played almost the perfect innings and guided his team to an unforgettable victory. Only Javed Miandad can claim to understand one-day batting better. When he smashed Shaminda Eranga for a six to seal victory, one had to stand up and applaud, even though it was 3.15 am.
Days like Thursday make it worthwhile to be a sports fan. Call it paranoia, stupidity or as my wife often says, an unhealthy obsession, but there is no greater high in the world than watching a good performance on the sports field. There is no greater joy than watching your team achieve sporting success. Forget sponsors, forget players, forget officials - the game is played for the fans. Sport makes you the experience the worst lows and the most incredible highs. No sporting contest is ever irrelevant because someone somewhere is going to be happy or sad based on the result of that contest.
With his simplicity and boyish enthusiasm, Ashton Agar made us fall in love with cricket again. With his absolute brilliance, MS Dhoni made us sing and dance in love.
Such days are rare.
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