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.
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.
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.