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After a dozen years

Another GREEK tragedy

 

TWELVE years ago, a cricket match ignited the kind of passion that a lot of us thought we would never see again. In Chennai last week we did. As the match embraced one twist after another, the mind kept going back to that unforgettable match in Bangalore.

For a couple of reasons this one will rank higher in the minds of cricket lovers. The wicket at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in 1987 was a shocker. The pitch was troubling the batsmen more than the bowlers and two good spinners in Tauseef Ahmad and Iqbal Qasim were made to look larger than they were. The surface in Chennai was wonderful and even as late as on the fourth day, it played largely true. Forty wickets were taken, but not a single player could say that the pitch was the villain. As a result, the game became a genuine contest between bowler and batsman and we saw cricketing skills of the very highest order.

At Bangalore, the pictures were poor and watching from home or office, as so many of us did, it was boundaries and the fall of wickets that painted a picture of tension. Here in Chennai, the cameras captured every emotion; the lines on Wasim Akram's face, the determination in Tendulkar's eyes and the frustration as another poor decision snuffed out a promising innings. This was a spectacle because viewers could feel part of it. They could grieve at Ganguly's bump-ball dismissal and share the delight as Prasad bobbed successfully on his follow-through one more time. At Bangalore, the viewers were like spectators; they weren't participants. These memories will throb in sparkling colour, those are like shredded black and white.

But there was much in common apart from the closeness, and the seeming inevitability, of the result. For the two matches produced two of the greatest innings you will see. At Bangalore, Sunil Gavaskar was like a dancer even as his floor increasingly resembled a snake pit. Hemmed in by a crowd of fielders, their admiration masked by hostility and words, his skill was his shield; and his bat, now a sword, now a wall. When he left the crease for the last time, he left behind a benchmark. Even if he didn't actually say so, it was clear that anybody who desired to be spoken of in the same breath would have to match that monument.

We thought, and our reason was tinged with passion and worship, that it would last forever; that nobody could quite build a structure to match that one. Twelve years later, Gavaskar's masterpiece has found company. Sachin Tendulkar played an innings of such passion that a mere whiff would intoxicate instantly. This is being written almost 24 hours later and I can still feel the flavour in my nostrils. May it never go.

Sunil Gavaskar had to fight the situation, the pitch and the bowlers. Sachin Tendulkar had to fight the situation, the bowlers and his own temperament. There was in Gavaskar the philosopher, the listener. When he batted you thought he was weighing his options and picking the best. He was temperamentally suited to play the waiting game. If the world hadn't changed in six balls, he didn't mind. He carried his camping gear with him to a cricket ground.

Sachin Tendulkar @ Chennai 1999

Sachin Tendulkar redefined his own limits at Chennai, but still ended up on the losing side.

Tendulkar carries with him the harvester's sickle. The opposition has to be cut through on the belief that every moment it stands, it grows taller. He has to dominate, to decimate even, for he has the touch of the bully in him. And bullies don't wait to listen. We saw that in the first innings. But in the second, the horseman emerged in the garb of the gentle nun, Bhima had wrapped himself in the beautiful Draupadi's clothes. He had to, for one wayward swing of the gada and the battle would have been lost.

It was because he so successfully embraced the unnatural that this innings ascended to such rare heights. A player who is used to seeing the scoreboard moving can choke himself if it stays static. Tendulkar overcame that as he showed levels of concentration that we thought had been masked by the instinct to dominate.

There is in him a Gavaskar after all!

Ajay Jadeja told me once that he measured Tendulkar's greatness by his ability to redefine his own limits. "Everytime we think this is what he is capable of, he does something more," he had said after Tendulkar's two blasts at Sharjah. That is what he did in Chennai and he showed us once again that behind that great ability lies a very sharp brain.

His encounter with Wasim Akram on the third evening and briefly, on the fourth morning, was sublime. If you are a pilgrim, this was the ultimate destination. The world's greatest left hand bowler and the world's finest batsman were locked in combat. Wasim Akram was making the ball swing late, sometimes like a serpent catching its own tail. Tendulkar's bat came down straight as a pendulum, his hands loose enough to counter any sudden changes. Twice Akram overpitched and twice Tendulkar leant into his shot, seeming merely to push the ball and yet, sending it crashing into the boundary. A few times the ball hit the pad and the stadium gasped, relieved that the ball was going down the leg side.

There were two other shots he played that were unparalleled in beauty. On the third evening, knees only slightly bent, he played a cover drive off Waqar Younis, surveyed his art and skipped back. There was no question of moving for a single; the thought of it would have been like offering a penny for a Picasso. Then on the fourth evening, after Akram had taken the second new ball he played a shot off the back foot. There was minimum movement and no follow-through, just an imperious slap of the elbow as if the bat weighed no more than a skipping rope. Mid-off wasn't wide, but he had no chance.

Sunil Gavaskar Sunil Gavaskar, the master of defence, played a peach of an innings in Bangalore against Pakistan 12 years ago. However, India embraced defeat.

Yet, two innings of unsurpassed beauty ended up being played for the losing team. The Greeks found beauty in tragedy, they wrote about it with great feeling and they preserved it for posterity. Will our great works of art have to be similar? Will they forever have a coat of tragedy on them? Or will Sachin Tendulkar one day sit down to paint another masterpiece, a grand mural that celebrates victory? But will he have to paint it alone?

He might want to have a word with his predecessor. Sunil Gavaskar is just a touch rounder in the middle and the first rays of grey adorn him now. But his mind is as sharp as ever and he will happily tell the young man of the need to finish something that he has started. The last pinch of salt, the last sprinkling of coriander on the curry. Small touches, but without them the dish is incomplete. The master chef must provide those, he cannot leave them to the apprentices.

At Chennai, Tendulkar did everything he could. Or did he? Only 10 runs out of 258 were scored in his absence. Hasn't he a right to expect more from the others? Can he not say 'I did my bit, let's see what you did?' Can he accept sympathy for all that he achieved and the others didn't?

No. Because different people are measured on different scales. On the path to greatness you frequently walk alone. Maybe it is in his destiny that he does so. Maybe he realises now that the last step can undo the previous 2000. Maybe in Chennai it did, but we will embrace the memory of everything that came before.

Remember too, that the wise Gavaskar was 36 when he played in the Bangalore Test, Tendulkar is still only 25.

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