There are so many things that are so quintessential about India that even when doses of these are lacking elsewhere we Indians find it quite unfathomable. Cricket is one such thing. Nine years ago when I visited Hong Kong, the SAR which had been taken back into the Chinese fold only three years ago did not know what cricket was. After searching for EA Sports’ 1997 Cricket Video game at more than five shops – in as many parts of town – my father and I came to the convincing and arguably only conclusion that even if they had it they would not know it because the locals reacted as if they did not know the name of the game. It might as well have been a game played by the insect breed called cricket. Coverage of cricket in the media was sparse: newspapers occasionally carried a report and the TV news next to nothing.
Eight years on, something seems to have changed. A local English newspaper called The Hong Kong Standard has on four of the last six days carried cricket-related news – from Australia’s and South Africa’s triumphs in their previous test matches against England and India respectively, to Tendulkar’s 50th ton in test cricket and return to the Indian one-day team to other bits of trivia. Admittedly, these news items are sometimes briefer than the blurb of a novel but there is something for those interested. The English news at 9:30 on TVB Pearl has also been airing cricket-related news including a few seconds of video clippings or images.
Whether cricket’s finding a place in the local news is a result of the game’s increased popularity among countries outside the nine test-playing ones courtesy formats like Twenty20 or an impact of probable requests from Indian and Pakistani populace in this part of the world or Hong Kong’s own interest in the game – what with its participating in the Asia Cup before the last one and the Hong Kong sixes’ tourney attracting its own share of ‘A’ teams from various cricketingly old parts of the world – is unclear to me and remains to be seen.
And what a season the ongoing one is for cricket too! I had predicted Australia to take the Ashes purely on the overwhelming merit of the robust argument that Australians at home are impregnable like India and South Africa. Pietersen, Cook and Company, however, made me do a pirouette only for Mitchell Johnson on a comeback trail – assisted by Ryan Harris – to give Australia a stunning series levelling victory at Perth. Whether the Perth victory has turned the series on its head only history will tell. From Australian teams of the past the Adelaide loss would merely have been an aberration and for English teams from the past the Perth loss might have been the putting-them-in-their-places summary ritual. But this England team under Strauss will emerge strongly after the stinker at Perth and the Australians though riding high will still have to play unrelenting cricket to regain the urn. With two tests to play and everything to play for, my prediction currently is on an English win or a series draw which would mean than the Britons would take the trophy back home.
As far as India’s performance at Centurion goes the lesser that is said the better. Surely, Dhoni has to find a way to win tosses for currently he finds it as impossible as making his batting appear attractive. The skipper’s most recent wrong call at the toss made sure that the first day of the series was touch-and-go death for the Indians especially against the likes of Steyn and Morkel. But there can be no excuses for getting bowled out for 136; if the much-vaunted batting line up had aggregated half its career average India would have still scraped 200. The bowling performance that ensued might have convinced everyone that a somnolent club side was bowling, only that it was the world’s No.1 side in the absence of one of its strike bowlers. The shoddy showing with the ball betrayed the unhealthy dependence there has been on Zaheer Khan at home and away since Kumble’s retirement three summers ago. After Amla, Kallis and AB De Viliers took toll on the generous Indian offerings, despite the second innings grit from the Indian top order, which was heartening to watch, Tendulkar’s 50th test century and Dhoni’s fine twin efforts – in my opinion his two best outings in tests alongside the match-saving and eventually series-winning second innings 78 he made at Lord’s in 2007 – the match was headed only one way and there it ended. Indians, everyone has been saying, lost another first test and have to play catch-up. But they did not deserve to win. In the meantime, another colossal Dravid achievement was written into the footnotes where it is probably likely to remain with other similar achievements half-forgotten, never to be tickled – his 12,000th run in test cricket. That he could not save the match for the side and got out with his tally on 12000 would have hurt him more than others but that is besides the point. As Harsha Bhogle rightly points out here is yet another case of Indian fans failing to recognise a champion because he has been content to perform and let the “performers” take the spotlight.
The Boxing Day test matches promise to be crackers. The one at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will be closely contested for all money but whether the match at Kingsmead (Durban) will be or not depends a lot on the mindset with which Indians look to the game. Zaheer Khan’s return bolsters the side but the other bowlers need to support Khan ably. And with Durban probably being the fastest deck in the world at the moment, the batsmen need to come good. Sehwag’s runs in the second innings of the previous test augurs well for we know that if he stays for any length of time the opposition will be on the back foot. But if India even fancies squaring the series, the team needs to do more than just depend on certain individuals and find out a way to blood into the unit the espirit de corps that was on display in Australia in 2003 and England 2007 and more recently against Australia at home and Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. After all, great teams do not have One General for all crises, but several loyal footmen who can respond to the call at different times. All of India’s batsmen have rallied in the recent times. It is now a question of playing the game rather than the conditions or the names of opposition bowlers and hoping that Zak and Co can get twenty sticks in five days.