February 19, 2014

On batting rearguards

Written on February 17, 2014. 

There is something about batting rearguards that justifies the 'Test' in Test cricket. Never mind that cricket is a lopsidedly batsman-friendly game these days (minus, thanks be to, Mitch Johnson and Dale Steyn), never mind that grounds are becoming smaller as boundaries are brought in closer and never mind the quality of the opposition's bowling attack; for to bat is to face up to the six (or seven) possible dismissals possible every delivery: that is 1080 possible dismissals in a 30-over session  and 3240 in a day. While numbers in general reduce the spirit of sporting feats to the perfectly ground grey sheen of history, the numbers a batsman keeps at bay as he tries to remain undefeated foreground the (routinely) monumental nature of his task.

As much as the numbers a batsman generates with the bat, it is the numbers he does not generate that puts him at the forefront of all Test cricket, in my opinion. No wonder we old-fashioned aficionados of the game love the guy who can carry his bat, the bloke in the lower middle-order who can defend like his life depended on it, or the frail-looking tail-ender who is still game for a bloody good scrap: it is a romance that fetes the almost physical will of bloody-mindedness (over and) against the inexorably boring press of brain-generated odds. As fans of this glorious game of essentially slow rhythms and subtle music that is an acquired taste - (what can football fans who mock us possibly know about lengthening shadows as a tired fast bowler runs into bowl to a batsman on 94*?) - we may embrace the fast food excitement of an IPL night, the high-strung nationalistic passions triggered by a T20 international, the creativity and genius unveiled in a one-day seven-for or double-hundred and a team's collective stamina revealed in a World Cup triumph. However, what we find most delicious is the anxiety and suspense generated by a batsman (or two batsmen), as he walks to square leg or does some gardening on the pitch, before resuming his battle with eleven players, the field placements, the weather, the pitch, the overall context of the game, his own body and mind and, from to time, the very expectant or very hostile ground. To bat, therefore, is to be blind to everything but the next delivery, just as to live is to not think too much.

Watching McCullum (281*) negotiate every next ball over the last five sessions, I am sure that New Zealand fans and keen-eyed neutrals have experienced at least some nervously knotty moments in their tummy. While I have not seen a ball of the Kiwi skipper's knock, which indeed inspired this post, news of it made me reminisce about other back-from-behind batting masterpieces which have become legends in my memory. Topping that very personal list of mine are two innings played under vastly different conditions, contrasting in style and substance (of runs and outcomes), but united by a sense of context. Laxman's 281 at Kolkata 2001, as almost every Indian cricket fan knows, denied Steve Waugh his final frontier and heralded an all-time great Test series and, later, a fascinating rivalry for the rest of the decade. While I cannot pick out one standout stroke from Laxman's innings - a difficulty writers tend to experience while trying to describe any Very Very Special canvas - I remember its (apparently) relentless elegance belying the steel of the wrists (and heart) that worked it, as it took the game out well beyond the follow-on context within which it was wrought, and took it beyond Australia's reach.

Six years before Laxman performed his fluent Houdini act in Dravid's gritty and generously perspiring company in the coming heat of a March day at the Eden Gardens, Michael Atherton, who also preferred grit over grace but displayed both on his day, had defied Donald, Pollock and Brian McMillan at the aptly-nicknamed 'Bull Ring (which would turn out to be the locale of Dravid's own maiden hundred) before returning to the dressing room, 185-starred. While Athers' tour de force did not help England reach the target of 479 that the Proteas had set for them, it saved England the Test.  Atherton himself, having opened the batting, had batted for thirty seven minutes shy of two days and had faced 492 deliveries in producing a modern-day classic of sound defence (and very Kipling-esque stoicism). I did not watch a single ball of the innings - and have not found any video footage of it - and so, with the dramatising powers of imagination, it grows ever more fascinating in my estimation.  

Having mentioned a knock I watched live and another that was played during my time, I must now mention what in my opinion is the greatest rearguard of all: Hanif Mohammad's 337*, the sort of innings that can inspire in a young child, as it did in me, a slightly unhealthy obsession towards Test cricket (and an even more insane aptitude to draw parallels between that and life especially when the chips are down). The innings, as cricinfo informs, came late in the 1950s against a West Indies side that included the likes of Sir Garry Sobers, Alf Valentine and Roy Fredricks, at Kensington Oval in Barbados. Before being asked to follow-on, Pakistan had replied to West Indies' 579 with 106 (all out). Opening the batting in the second dig as in the first, Hanif Mohammad batted for thirty minutes shy of a thousand and saved the Test, easy peasy (as the Iron Man would say). No innings known to me can better describe a recently popular, if paradoxical take, on cricket: "that it is a team game played by individuals."

Neither Hanif Mohammad, nor V.V.S Laxman, nor Michael Atherton came close to matching their (respectively) match-saving, match-winning and match-drawing rearguard efforts during the rest of their careers: no sir!, not in terms of runs, deliveries faced, or hours battled. On triple hundreds, the late Peter Roebuck memorably wrote that "it is the work of a lifetime expressed in a single innings." Perhaps, one could say the same about a rearguard, as evidenced by the fact that there are not many batsman with more than one triple-hundred (Lara, Gayle, Bradman and Sehwag excepted) or one backs-to-the-wall opus (Faf Du Plessis, take a bow) to their credit. Perhaps, a definitive peak betokens a clear descent. Be that as it may, Brendon 'Baz' McCullum has the great chance of turning a rare rearguard into a rarer third innings triple hundred as the final day gets underway at Wellington. Rest assured, I shall cheer for him; and so, I am sure, will Martin Crowe, who missed the feat by a run at New Zealand's capital city against Sri Lanka, and who has waited twenty-three years to see a New Zealand batsman register his name in the illustrious 300 club.

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