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The Long Room

Half the battle

Cricket is perhaps unique among team sports in that individual face-offs within the larger contests matter almost as much as the main event. Tendulkar v Lee, anyone?

Lee v Tendulkar was more than India's best batsman taking on Australia's best bowler © Getty Images
In the buffet that is Cricinfo Magazine, there is, tucked away like a garnish or a bottle of extra virgin Tuscan olive oil, a section called Golden Pairs. Here, a writer imagines which two batsmen he/she would like to see up against which two bowlers. You have the history of the game to choose from. Anything goes. The more improbable the matchings-up, perhaps the better. It's a fantasist's delight. It's a fan's delight. If you have missed it, you ought to look it up now.
Cricket fans are big on parlour games. And Golden Pairs is an absorbing parlour game (Which pairs? Which pairs would you like?), but that's not all it is. It goes to the heart of one of the things that makes cricket - especially Test cricket - unique, one of the things that constitutes its particular allure: the face off between a specific batsman and bowler within the flow of the game's narrative; the tremor of the battle within the war.
Team games are, well, team games, and while it's a truism to say that they showcase the talent and brilliance of individuals, they don't quite, in the way of sport that pits one individual against another, leave room for one-on-one confrontation. Diego Maradona's genius was always on show when he played, but Peter Shilton versus Maradona as a prolonged, engaging theatre of combat? I don't know if we ever looked forward to that, if we ever thought of it as a specific combat at all. No, it doesn't work that way.
But look at what cricket has to offer: the dovetailing of the pleasure of the team game with the joy of an individual sport. Within the amphitheatre of cricket, we always look forward to - and enjoy most - the bare-knuckle thrill of gladiatorial combat between a particular batsman and bowler. When that happens, it's as if the bass line has kicked in or the drink has begun to take hold. These showdowns are repeated, repeatable motifs within the symphony of the game we so adore.
We saw that most recently in the Sachin Tendulkar versus Brett Lee battle in the just-concluded series between India and Australia. It wasn't merely the best batsman of the series taking on the best bowler; there was something else in there: a particular kind of competitiveness, an unveiling of talent, of determination, guile, patience, intelligence, and the keen desire for one to be better than the other. It reached its apotheosis in the magnificent run of play that saw Lee finally taking Tendulkar's wicket after another masterful innings on the second day of the final Test in Adelaide.
Within the amphitheatre of cricket, we always look forward to - and enjoy most - the bare-knuckle thrill of gladiatorial combat between a particular batsman and bowler. When that happens, it's as if the bass line has kicked in or the drink has begun to take hold
Ishant Sharma's working over of Ricky Ponting in Perth has in it the embryo of another great confrontation. But it doesn't qualify, not just yet. Because these things, for them to really work, need a history. It can't be a one-off showdown. The story needs to acquire legs, to run and run. We fans must learn to look forward to them.
And it helps, of course, if the battle is between two legends. Remember Tendulkar and Shane Warne? Series after series, they went at each other, and we would feel our pulses quicken each time Warne would waddle in to bowl to Tendulkar. The batsman had the final say on that one. The numbers will tell you that, but not just the numbers. Asked who the greatest batsman in the world was, Warne did not merely said it was Tendulkar. He said that the gulf between Tendulkar and the next best was as clear and bright as daylight.
Both players raise the bar during these contests and the ones that are most stirring, most pleasurable, are the ones that have mutual respect at their hearts, when the contestants hold each other in very high regard. We saw that between Lee and Tendulkar recently, when each spoke of the other in very flattering terms.
Then there are the ones that acquire a frisson because of extra-cricketing reasons: Harbhajan Singh versus Andrew Symonds; Muttiah Muralitharan versus any Australian batsman. These showdowns satisfy some atavistic impulse in the fan, but I much rather prefer the other kind. There is a stirring dignity to them; they exemplify cricket at its admirable best; they offer the unfolding of certain qualities that now and again seem somewhat anachronistic: respect, dignity, fairplay.
For fans, though, any sort of battle within the war will usually do. South Africa will be in India later this month. Sreesanth versus Andre Nel, anyone?

Soumya Bhattacharya, deputy editor of Hindustan Times in Mumbai, is the author of the memoir, You Must Like Cricket? His new book on how cricket defines India will be published in 2008