Having hit 2,000, Test cricket is alive and well. What makes it special is its leisurely pace and the space it allows for eccentricity and an essential national character to emerge and thrive. In our march to the No.1 spot, are we losing sight of what it means to play cricket the Indian way?

Unfortunately for India, the 2,000th Test match will be remembered for what did not happen (an India win, Sachin Tendulkar's 100 th international hundred). Fortunately, it wasn't actually the 2,000t h Test, it was the 1999th, so India and Tendulkar get another chance. Unfortunately that decision can only be made retrospectively since the International Cricket Council has decreed the Lord's match was the landmark Test. Fortunately, the ICC is known for changing its mind and revising the status of matches.

Unfortunately for those who remember it as a wonderful series, the World XI matches against England in 1970-71 were first declared Tests before they were damned with inverted commas. Now they are merely ‘Tests'. Fortunately, if India win the second Test in Nottingham, they can bully the ICC into accepting that match as the 2,000th.  Unfortunately, the simple rule — a Test match is played between two countries — was overlooked when a World XI match against Australia in 2005 was given official Test status.

Fortunately, none of this matters.

The message from the Lord's Test (and who cares whether it was the 2,000th or 20,000th) is that the format is alive and thriving. The sell-out crowds were short-changed by India who did not look like the No. 1 team in the world, keen on imposing themselves on the opposition. Take away the figures and rankings, though, and it was a good Test match. Perhaps there is a hint here.

Statistics are important, but they cannot be allowed to overwhelm.  Some of India's most memorable performances have been neither centuries nor five-wicket hauls, or even victories. This is what makes Test cricket special. The shorter formats have meaning imposed on them by victory or defeat. Test cricket is the one sport where winning or losing can often be merely incidental. Often, individual performances can be taken out of context and appreciated. A brilliant 30 by Ted Dexter or a stunning 40 by Ambar Roy can be enjoyed for its own sake, without the baggage of match result to spoil it.

It happens in other sports too — Maradona snaking his way past five defenders to score, or Pele finding Jairzinho with a stunning pass — but Test cricket's longer duration and greater possibilities make it almost inevitable in every match.

Legendary performances

Sure, India lost the Leeds Test in 1967, but Tiger Pataudi's 148 is part of the country's sporting legend. In an Indian cricketing museum containing centuries and five-wicket hauls, there will be such gems as Tiger's innings of 75 and 85 in Melbourne, where, in addition to making those runs after he had lost an eye in a car accident, he was further handicapped by a hamstring injury. Or Gundappa Vishwanath's unbeaten 97 against a rampaging Andy Roberts in Chennai or the two-wicket spell of Salim Durrani which dismissed Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd and opened the way for an Indian win at Trinidad in 1971. A single catch, Eknath Solkar diving full length and then some to snaffle Alan Knott off Venkatraghavan at the Oval later that year, will also find its place there as will Kapil Dev's four sixes in a row to avoid the follow on against England at Lord's in a match India ultimately lost.

Before India began winning with any regularity, fans always consoled themselves with the individual performances that stood out — from Mohammed Nissar's five wickets in the inaugural Test at Lord's to Chandu Borde's 109 and 96 against the West Indies to Farokh Engineer's 94 before lunch on the opening day of the Chennai Test against the West Indies.

Decades ago Indian fans learnt to divorce the team's disasters from individual highlights — that is still the way some old-timers take their cricket even today when younger fans are so unforgiving of defeat and expect a win every time India take the field. In the recent defeat at Lord's, they would have been excited by Rahul Dravid's century. It is a generation easily satisfied.

Turning point

It wasn't until Sachin Tendulkar arrived on the scene that things began to turn around. Since his debut, India have played 195 Tests, won 67of them and lost 51 for a win-loss ratio of 1.31. In the years BT (Before Tendulkar), India had 43 victories in 257 matches and 89 defeats for a win-loss ratio of 0.48. The story of Indian cricket is contained in that set of figures, yet significant as they are, that is not everything.

In recent years, India, which has had one of the finest batting orders in history, have built on that and on the efforts of bowlers like Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan to rise to the No. 1 spot which they now occupy. That has been a mixed blessing. The focus since then has been on preserving that ranking through some pretty ordinary performances rather than on playing Test cricket the Indian way.

In his much-lauded lecture at Lord's, the Sri Lankan captain Kumara Sangakkara spoke about how as captain he was conscious that his team should play the Sri Lankan way, and not merely copy how the English or Australians played the game. There is a distinctive Sri Lankan way — a Mutthiah Muralitharan or a Lasith Malinga or Tilakaratne Dilshan could only have emerged from that country, to bring to the game a stamp of originality, and provide a sense of enjoyment that communicates itself to the viewers.

What is the Indian way? And have we lost sight of it in our obsession with centuries and rankings and Tendulkar?

It was a question answered easily at one time. ‘Indian' meant wristy batsmen and cunning spinners, flashy if inconsistent all-rounders and flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsmen. The leg glance was invented by an Indian (Ranjitsinhji), the late cut perfected by others (Duleepsinhji, Vijay Merchant). No one had a better action than Bishan Bedi or batted and bowled with the freedom and flair of Kapil Dev.

Test cricket is the theatre that reveals character, that allows individual idiosyncrasies to flower. The great Donald Bradman, average of 99.94 and all, seldom thrilled the senses in the manner of a Victor Trumper, a Charlie McCartney or a Stan McCabe, according to some contemporaries. He was too perfect, too calculating, too mechanical.

 Slave to skill?

When he made 72 runs in an hour at Leeds, Neville Cardus complained that “long before he had got to the end of his innings he was repeating himself; it was as though the sheer finish of technique was a prison for his spirit. He reminded me of a trapeze performer who decided to commit suicide by flinging himself headlong to the stage, but could not achieve the error because his skill had become infallible, a routine and mechanical habit not at the beck and call of anything so volatile as human will or impulse.”

Part of the charm of the great Indian middle order of recent years is its Indianness. Tendulkar is both the most English, with his wonderful technique as well as the most Indian of batsmen, with his creative strokeplay. Dravid, for all his years of worship at the altar of orthodoxy, still plays the cover drive and the square cut in the Indian way, with the wrists doing all the work. Laxman is in the long line of Indian batsmen from Ranji to Vishwanath to Azharuddin who deal in surprises and unexpected gifts. At the top of the order is Virender Sehwag who has re-written the book on opening batsmanship.

Sehwag's relatively poor record in the one-day game, where batting like his is programmed to succeed, is proof enough of Test cricket's special lure. Among bowlers, Anil Kumble was a great original, as is Harbhajan Singh. Ditto Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Despite the tendency to over-coach at the junior levels, Indians still play the Indian way, and that is something we must be grateful to Test cricket for.

The future of the format depends on teams retaining this special quality that makes them unique. Already pitches around the world are beginning to play the same way. Tactics and field placings seem to be steamed up in a central kitchen where these things are decided by cricketing chefs punching the keys of a laptop. Equipment around the world is the same.

What makes the difference is the unique national character (if one might call it that) of the teams. It is difficult to set a field to Sehwag because given three identical deliveries he is capable of playing it to three different parts of the field in three different ways.

Cricket is a numbers game where the numbers don't matter, and this essential character reveals itself best over the five-day game. The first 1,000 Tests took 108 years to play; the next 999 have come in 27 years. The 2,000th Test that is currently on in Nottingham might not have generated the hype of the Lord's Test. But that is part of Test cricket's charm too. It is not always the century or the five-wicket haul that is feted. Sometimes the most significant events are played out quietly.

Suresh Menon writes on cricket and is the author of Champions: How the World Cup was Won.


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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012