Indian cricket’s perennial outsider

On 8 November 2015, there is a Ranji Trophy match going on in Kolkata. Vidarbha are playing Bengal. It’s just another game of cricket. It should mean much more to one man, but it doesn’t.

Wasim Jaffer is playing for Vidarbha. He makes scores of 9 and 3. There’s nothing worth looking back upon. Except that the 9 contains his 10,000th run in the Ranji Trophy. And he’s the first man to get there.

It’s probably the first time he’s right there, at the centre, on top of a mountain nobody has climbed, in the limelight. Except that the mountain is invisible and there is no limelight.

That’s how his life, his career has panned out. As an aside, as the side show. The perennial outsider.

This feat, as great as it is, hardly gets any coverage. There’s virtually no one present at the venue. Those who read about it wonder when he left Mumbai.

There’s no celebration. Jaffer hardly smiles on the cricket field. It’s no different this time. Maybe, 10,000 is just another number in the never ending book of Wasim Jaffer.

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In March 2006, Wasim Jaffer hits his first test century against England at Nagpur. It’s just his eighth test. His first one was six years earlier. He has already been dropped twice. A stop-start beginning. Devoid of any momentum or rhythm.

But this time, he makes his mark. And begins what will be an uninterrupted run of 24 test matches. His time in the sun, yet away from it.

He follows this first century with more substantial, much more important innings. And it includes two double centuries, absolutely magnificent ones. The first is against the West Indies at Antigua and the second against Pakistan at the Eden Gardens.

For most batsmen, these are occasions to rejoice, to experience unparalleled happiness. For Jaffer, it was just another score, just another match. No fanfare. No celebration. Just a customary wave of the bat.

That’s just how Wasim Jaffer was. Quietly brilliant, almost invisible. Always an outsider.

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Apart from those doubles, there were more important innings that he played. On the tours to South Africa and England during 2007 in particular. But he was always overshadowed. He was the Toyota to the Porsche. The Paul McCartney to John Lennon. The Houston to California.

No matter how good he was, there was something bigger, something better. Always.

And it couldn’t have been truer as the end came. The tour to Australia, the one of ‘Sydneygate’ and the Perth victory, was the beginning of Jaffer’s end. Out of the six innings he played, Brett Lee got him five times. It was painful to watch a batsman being torn apart so mercilessly, so badly.

And this was perhaps the only time that Jaffer was noticed by people. To borrow a line from Jarrod Kimber, he “deserved to be remembered for how he stood, not how he fell”. The next series, against South Africa at home, turned out to be Jaffer’s last. Two bad series, five bad tests, and he was axed forever. It’s a fickle world. It’s a fickle life.

As was mostly the case with him, in the eyes of others, the selectors, the people, there was always something bigger, something better than him.

He went just the way he came, just the way he played. In complete obscurity.

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Jaffer returned to domestic cricket. And he scored a mountain of runs. Just the way he always had. Here, in the small circle of Indian domestic cricket, Jaffer was recognized, he was respected. Here, he was a legend.

Season after season, he topped run-scoring charts for Mumbai, winning them many a title on the way. Out there, in the many empty Jadavpur Universitys, the many lifeless Wankhedes, the many silent Sawai Man Singhs, Jaffer lived his best years. Climbing that invisible mountain.

There should have been a recall to the national side. His name even came up in 2012 and 2013. But there wasn’t. For, in our eyes, there was always someone bigger, someone better. An IPL star. A young gun. A dazzling stroke maker. Things that Jaffer wasn’t.

We only remember, we only know things that Jaffer wasn’t. For our eyes were too blind to notice what he was. They still are. They forever will be.

Considering that Jaffer played most of his cricket abroad, he had a more than decent record. 31 tests, 1944 runs. 5 centuries and an average of almost 35. But for a man with a domestic career as supremely amazing as his, it seems that he didn’t do justice to his run-scoring capabilities.

Looking back, we’ll say that there was something bigger, something better.

And we’ll again be too blind to notice the role he was supposed to play in the team, of playing out the new ball, of holding one end up. Too blind to notice how important his contributions were, too blind to notice how important he was.

Too blind to notice who he was.

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Jaffer’s batting was good to watch. Quite classy. More than that, it was effective, it was clinical, it was thorough. More determination than flair. More Graham Gooch than David Gower.

There’s much more to it. There can be pages and pages which can be written on it. But this article was not meant to be about his batting. It was always meant to be about the journey of a man whom India failed to notice. The man who was there, yet not.

He was so much. He could have been so much more. He should have been so much more.

He deserved to live his best years, in the limelight, in packed stadiums in the different cities of the world, as a great Indian test match opener.

Instead, despite his staggering domestic record, he remained Indian cricket’s perennial outsider.

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The one who didn’t give up

28 August 2015.

Naman Ojha’s is set to make his test debut. For the first time, his name is included in India’s team sheet. For the first time, there are no MS Dhoni’s or Wriddhiman Saha’s blocking his entry into the Test side. For the first time, Ojha is good enough. That was his biggest achievement, for he spent an entire life until today trying to be good enough. As a wicket-keeper, as a batsman, as a cricketer.

Today, when Ojha became the 285th player to represent India in Test Cricket, there was a certain joy, a certain happiness that came with it. It felt like it was one of us was making their debut, it felt like it was one of us representing our country, it like it was one of us getting that Indian cap. It felt like cap number 285 is ours. For, Ojha is one of us.

Ojha was never destined to play for India. Ojha had never been considered special. He was not a brilliant hitter of the cricket ball like MS Dhoni was. He was not a teenage prodigy, like Parthiv Patel was. He was not a prolific run scorer like Dinesh Karthik was. He was not one of the best wicket keepers India had ever produced like Wriddhiman Saha was. He was just an ordinary man with a dream. That dream was to play Test Cricket for India, that dream was to be good enough.

It took him 15 years to achieve his dream, but he did. Along the way, he didn’t face any heroic struggles that people will talk about. He was never under the pressure of being dropped, he didn’t have financial troubles, he didn’t have his family not supporting him. The struggle he had was pretty ordinary. His struggle was to be good enough.

For nine years, from 2000 to 2009, he went about playing decent cricket for Madhya Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy. He didn’t score too many runs, he didn’t take brilliant catches. He was just okay. The chances of him representing India were next to zero. MS Dhoni had made the wicket keeping position his own. India had former first choice keepers Karthik and Patel waiting in the wings. Ojha, well nobody had even heard of him.

2009 was the year in which people first heard his name. It was the IPL that year which made people aware of his existence. Rather, it was the Rajasthan Royals which made people aware of his existence. He spent two years with them. He got a lot of chances, opening the batting for them on the big stage. And he made good use of it, scoring consistent runs. In almost all matches, he was one of their top scorers. It helped, this time he spent with the Rajasthan Royals. That first Indian call-up came because of it.

Ojha during his Rajasthan Royals’ stint

After the 2010 IPL, Ojha was selected in India’s second string squad for the limited overs tour to Zimbabwe. While being selected for India was a big thing, the fact that it was a depleted side, missing virtually all of it’s regular players, took a quite some sheen off it.

During the tour, Ojha found out that international cricket was tough, even when Zimbabwe was the opposition. The IPL was no match for it. The same Ojha who was so successful for the Rajasthan Royals only scored a total of 13 runs from three innings. He wasn’t selected on the basis of his first class performances. It was only because of the IPL that he was here. It didn’t feel quite right, his selection. He wasn’t ready yet. He wasn’t good enough. That dream still needed to be fulfilled. After this outing, not many believed it could. But Ojha did.

Ojha spent the next four years in oblivion. His first class batting went downhill, regained form and finally showed signs of touching new highs. The problem was that nobody was noticing. Madhya Pradesh is a team not many are interested in. It was the same situation as before. It was the IPL that was different. It had now become the platform for India hopefuls to carry on the good form they had shown in the first class arena on to the bigger stage. But Ojha was not getting that platform. His new franchise, Delhi Daredevils, batted him very low in the batting order, where he rarely had time to score runs.

His name had begun to slip out of people’s minds. It was strange, given the fact that his first class batting was better than it had ever been. That Indian dream felt more and more impossible with each passing season. But Ojha kept at it. Unlike others, he had never been rated highly, he had never made people sit up and take notice. He was never good enough. But he wanted to be. He had this immense desire in him. There was just no way he would not be. It’s this drive, this spirit, this want to do well that made him admirable.

The period from December 2013 to December 2014, for Ojha, was nothing short of magical. It was what happens in fairy tale sports movies, not in real life. 835 runs from 7 matches in the Ranji Trophy. Selection for the India ‘A’ tour to Australia. A pair of centuries, along with an unbeaten double in three innings there. Selection in the Indian team on the tour to England as a replacement for the injured Wriddhiman Saha. The Double century in the Duleep Trophy semi-final. Selection as India’s back-up keeper for the first test on the tour to Australia. All this when nobody even gave him a chance. This phase was magnificent. It was more than magnificent.

Ojha gets his Test cap from captain Virat Kohli before the third Test in Colombo

Ojha’s batting had taken a major leap. MS Dhoni had retired. He was now in contention for a regular spot in the team. He was still behind Wriddhiman Saha in the pecking order. He was almost an Indian Test cricketer. He was almost good enough. His journey had become special because of its ordinariness. His name was back in people’s minds. This time he made sure it won’t be forgotten.

It was now just a matter of time before Ojha made his Test debut. That time came when Wriddhiman Saha injured himself during the second test of the Sri Lankan tour. Ojha was flown into Colombo. He would be making his Test debut in two days. He would be fulfilling his dream. He would be inspiring millions of others to fulfil theirs.

When he was handed over his cap, it seemed like an acknowledgement for a victory. That of a man who overcame his ordinariness with his grit, determination, will-power, with a drive, with a passion to become special, to become good enough, to become something he never was, to become something nobody ever expected him to.

When Ojha became a Test cricketer, it gave us the belief that no matter how ordinary we are, if we dream, we can become special. We just need that resolve, that spirit. When we have that we become special. When we start giving our dream all we can, we become special. Hidden behind our ordinariness is something special, something magical. Ojha taught us that.

Out of all Indian debuts in recent history, this one was probably the most inspirational. It was not the debut of a man with seemingly limitless talent, as Rohit Sharma’s was. It was not the debut of a man with a massive inner steel on display right from the beginning of his career, as Virat Kohli’s was. It was the not debut of a man who was destined to play international cricket, as Cheteshwar Pujara’s was. It was the debut of an ordinary man who just wanted to be good enough. Even if Ojha doesn’t play another Test match for India, he will know that on 28 August 2015 he was good enough. For these five days at least, Ojha will live his dream. And we will live it along with him. For he’s just one of us.

Of misfortune, tragedy and love

It’s almost been two years.

It’s really hard to believe that it has.

It seems like yesterday when he was around. Slashing balls through the point in his own unique way. Playing the most messed up, yet effective pull one could imagine. Scoring runs, getting out. You know, the things that normal cricketers do. It seems like yesterday that cricket was innocent, that it had not taken the life of a 25-year-old wearing all the protection that had ever been designed.

It seems like yesterday, but it’s not. A year has passed. A year that Phillip Hughes could have should have seen. If only.

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Phillip Hughes’ story is very different, very unlike that of anyone else. It’s a story as much about cricket as it is about him. It’s a story as much about death as it is about life.

Hughes was a natural unnatural. There was a lot to his batting, the nuances of which can’t be put down in words. Not by me, not by you, not by anyone.

There was a truckload of batting talent within him, which sometimes manifested itself in the most unwatchable forms ever. His legs often went one way, his hands and upper body, the other. A major technical glitch. For others, not for him. So much so that when they remained properly aligned, we wondered what was wrong with him.

His batting was messy, but it brought him runs and that’s all that mattered. Until that day.

He made it to the Australian team at 20, for the tour to South Africa in 2009. A duck on debut was followed by twin centuries in his second Test. He was the new kid on the block. He was supposed to be the future star. He was destined for big things. Until that day.

Andrew Flintoff found him out in the Ashes that winter, converting what was Hughes’ strength into his biggest nemesis. He was dropped after two Tests, and never really got a consistent run in the team after that.

Many thought that he would never touch the heights of his debut again. A lot of us believed he would. Until that day.

He was treated pathetically by the Australian selectors. They never gave him a rope long enough to adjust to the rigours of Test cricket. A couple of matches here and there was all he got. They converted the most prolific opener in Shield Cricket into an average middle order batsman. They toyed with him, they toyed with his career. And this has a lot to do with a Test average of just 32. Had.

There were occasional flashes of Hughes’ brilliance as well, like a magnificent 126 at the SSC in Colombo in 2011, and a level headed 81 not out against England in what turned out to be his penultimate Test match at Trent Bridge in 2013.

But, for a man of such capability, of such a phenomenal first class record, his run scoring at the test level was well below par. We expected more from him. He expected much more from himself.

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Three months before that fateful day, Hughes had been described by the Australian captain and best friend Michael Clarke as a ‘hundred Test player’. Clarke said, that in spite of the unfair treatment being meted out to him by the selectors at that point of time, Hughes would go on to play a hundred Tests. He was sure. Until that day.

Opening the batting for Australia, instead of Hughes, was 37-year-old Chris Rogers. In the words of Cricket Australia, a stop gap arrangement. Until Hughes was ready. A week before that fateful day, Rogers was asked about his thoughts on Hughes. “He’s a brilliant batsman. His time will surely come” Rogers said. Like Clarke, he was also sure. Until that day.

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Hughes gets hit on the head of what was be the last ball he ever faced

On 25 November 2014, South Australia were playing New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield at Sydney. It was supposed to be Hughes’ audition for a place in the Australian side to play India a week later, at the Gabba in Brisbane. Probably a second coming.

He had faced 162 balls, and was batting solidly on 63. Everything had gone to plan. He had, in all likelihood sealed his place in the team.

And then, it happened.

The 163rd ball became the last one he ever faced. It was the last time he was conscious. It was the last time he was.

A Sean Abbott bouncer had struck him on the back side of his head. A vein had burst. The doctors described it as a freak injury. One of only about hundred cases there ever had been.

As Hughes battled for his life in the ICU, prayers came in from all around the world. Twitter was flooded with messages giving strength and support to Hughes’ family and close friends. Thoughts were also going to the young Abbott, who was experiencing something we couldn’t even imagine.

With the number of prayers and the worldwide support Hughes was getting, we felt he would be fine. We knew that he would be fine. We were sure. Until that day.

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27 November 2014. That day.

Hughes’ last.

Almost as soon as I came to know about it, a strange sort of sadness engulfed me. It made me feel uneasy. It made me feel insecure. There was shock, there was disbelief. If words were coming out of my mouth, I would have shouted and cursed. But they weren’t.

Above all, I felt a lot of pain. Pain of a very different kind. For a man who I admired and for the game I loved.

That pain is there. I still feel it.

Just like me, there are many others who still feel it.

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What followed the week after, was probably more moving than anything one could imagine.

Twitter, home to the famous hashtags, to tribute to Hughes, carried out what started out as a simple movement, but ended being the most emotional one sport has seen. People from all around the world, cricketers, non-cricketers, everyone put out their bats, with a cap on top in memory of Hughes. For well over a week, #putyourbatsout was trending worldwide.

If ever an indication was needed to restore people’s faith in humanity, this was it.

Then there were the New Zealanders, playing a Test in the UAE, who wore Hughes’ initials on their shirts, didn’t bowl a single bouncer, and refused to celebrate any of the wickets they took.

Clarke delivered an eulogy as tearful as they got. The nation, the world watched from their homes, community centres or cricket grounds. Mourning for one of their own, mourning for one of cricket’s own.

The first Test between Australia and India, now shifted to Adelaide, saw Australian players wearing Hughes’ Baggy Green number 408 on their shirts. The number was painted on the ground as well.

There was also a lot to do with the number 63, the score at which he ended. A 63-second silence before the match started. And Australian players looking up at the sky, looking up at him, whenever they crossed 63, apart from the fifties and hundreds.

David Warner did it twice. Steve Smith and Clarke, with a half gone back, once.

Those few days, our sport was at it’s weakest. Those few days, our sport was probably at it’s strongest.

His death almost broke cricket. It would have, had the world not come together to save it.

There was unconditional unity. A kind which is rarely seen. Sport has this quality. It unifies people. This was the best example there has been. This was the best example there ever will be.

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There have been only a few whose death has had an impact on so many people, whose death has made so many people grieve. Out there, somewhere, Phillip Joel Hughes would look at this and smile back at us for all the love we gave him. He was just that kind of a person. You didn’t know him, but he gave you that feeling. He still does.

A recurring line during Clarke’s eulogy was Hughes’ often used mantra while batting – “Let’s dig in and get through to tea”. That day, Hughes dug in but couldn’t get through to tea. And he’ll never have a second chance.

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This article could have been longer. It could have been happier. It could have been much more. So could Phillip Hughes’ life. If only.

The dream that ended too soon

It has finally arrived.

The moment which we were all dreading, but one which we knew would come sooner or later.

The moment which marks the end of a golden era, when all we want is to cry with sadness, while at the same time relive the career of one of the greatest cricketers to have graced the game.

A reaction like this is understandable, for this player arguably gave us more joy than any other player ever had. Through those powerful square cuts, those turning off breaks, those occasional moments of brilliance in the field. Most importantly, through the way he played the game. Always with a smile, always with that child-like excitement.

For this reason, he was so unlike anybody else, so special that it’s hard to find someone who didn’t like him.

And it is for this reason that  Virender Sehwag will always stand out.

He didn’t have an ideal technique, he never moved his feet. He didn’t follow the coaching manual. Sehwag used his hands, his eyes and his nonchalance to score the runs he scored.

He created his own coaching manual. One which told him to play his shots all the time. When he was on nought, when he was on 100, when he was on 195. All the time. His coaching manual told him to not give a damn about anything else. His score, his form, the quality of bowlers, the nature of the wicket, the overhead conditions. Nothing.

Sehwag’s approach to batting meant he played and missed a lot. It meant he often played the most irresponsible shot you could imagine. It meant his batting could look ugly. It often did, but it didn’t affect him. There was an air of detachment that he carried when he batted. He treated cricket the way it should be treated – as a game.

When he was beaten, when he played an ugly shot, Sehwag always smiled. A toothy grin. Sometimes at the bowler, sometimes at the fielders. Other times, to himself. It was the same smile he smiled after a magnificent boundary or an effortless six. It didn’t bother him, this issue of confidence that affected so many other players.

He never took any pressure, not of how many runs he needed to score, nor of the threat to his place in the team. “See ball, hit ball” hasn’t had a better proponent than him. It never will.

A select few thought Sehwag to be a slogger. To call him a slogger would be grave injustice. To his skill, to his mind, to his sheer magnificence.

Sehwag was a lot more than just a slogger. Sehwag was a genius. Sehwag was magic. At his best, Sehwag was all batting is about.

And as the years passed,  Sehwag’s legend grew. There was Melbourne. There was Lahore. There was Adelaide. There was Chennai. There was Galle. There was Mumbai. Lee was conquered, so were Saqlain, Akhtar, Ntini, Murali, Mendis and everyone who ever bowled to him.

In the last few years of his career, these innings of mind boggling greatness became less and less frequent. Age had started catching up with him. His reflexes slowed down. The hand-eye coordination was not what it once was. The fall of his career had set in. But Sehwag was still smiling.

He knew that, like the period of play when the playing missing became more frequent, he would eventually be able to get over it. When we all believed that Sehwag was on the wane, he refused to believe it. It was this refusal that gave us hope, to the point where people were calling for his selection in the current Indian ODI team.

 

Our connect with Sehwag is not merely to do with his batting. It’s to do with how he was on the field, it’s to do with who he was on the field.

He was not the fittest cricketer there could have been. He was round, he had heavy legs and a paunch. In this world of professionals, those with insane figures and fitness levels, he seemed like an ordinary person with a special talent that had made it big.

Unlike these hardcore professionals, he didn’t take himself, or his failures very seriously.

Unlike the others, who seemed to be out on the border at war, he was just playing a game he loved playing. It’s because of the reason he played the game, that of enjoying it to the fullest, that we were able to connect with him.

When we play start playing cricket, the reason is not to score runs or take wickets, it is to enjoy. Along the way, a lot of us stop thinking this way. We become too preoccupied with success and failure. Sehwag didn’t, and that is why he is so special.

A part of the Sehwag manual was to always go for glory. When people neared milestones, they slowed down. When Sehwag neared milestones, he moved into sixth gear. Almost all of his milestones came via a boundary or a six. It also meant that he missed many milestones. It thus felt that some of his innings, like the 195 at Melbourne, were left incomplete. It left us asking for more.

For the two and a half years since he last played a Test match, Sehwag did all he could to make a comeback. He became a middle order batsman, he started wearing glasses, he switched states, he lost his paunch. He did everything, but with age not on his side, he couldn’t produce the kind of innings which make the selectors take notice.

There were flashes of the Sehwag of old, like the hundred in the 2014 IPL semi final, which gave us the high we so desperately craved, but they were few and far between. We all knew that the end was coming, but didn’t want to believe it. We didn’t want our dream to end so soon. Because for us, Sehwag was nothing short of a dream.

He had fought for these two and a half years to delay the inevitable, because he refused to believe that his decline, his end was inevitable. Through his refusal, his battle away from the limelight, he gave us a glimpse into one last aspect of his character that many weren’t aware of. That he just wouldn’t give up, no matter how tough the situation was, how improbable success was.

For two and a half years, Sehwag fought his decline and his end just because he believed that he was not finished.

And thus we should not look at his retirement as a sign of him giving up, for it was something else, the end of a fight that could no longer be fought.

For a player like Sehwag, this end doesn’t seem befitting. No final match, no one last standing ovation, no guard of honour. For a man who was always in the limelight, this end, in relative obscurity seems unfair. It’s saddening. He knows he deserved better. We know he deserved better. But, unlike us,  he’ll still smile. Unaffected.

Just like some of his great innings, Sehwag’s seems to be an incomplete story. A dream that ended too soon.

The last minute

That last minute felt shorter. It also felt longer. It felt that a lot had happened in the span of what was apparently sixty seconds. It also felt that almost nothing had happened. That minute, the last one, where it all ended.

As he walked out to bat, the Australian team gave him a guard of honour. An eleven-year-old boy, in another part of the country, felt his chest swell with pride. It was his hero who was walking through that guard of honour.

He acknowledged the Australians, he shook the captain’s hand. And, with a clear sense of purpose, he walked. Maybe, it was a march. There were emotions, for it would be his last walk out to the middle for India. That purposeful face concealed them.

As he got ready to face, he took one hard, long look at the field. Australia had men catching wherever he could see. At the top of his run-up was a debutant. An offspinner who had taken eight wickets in the first innings.

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That eleven-year-old boy was praying that his hero would score one last century, give him that joy one last time. He sat as close to the television as he could. Hoping.

That minute was still going on.

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The off-spinner, who would go on to play just one more Test, started his run. The ball pitched somewhere between middle and leg. It spun out of the rough, that a fourth-day wicket creates.

He shaped himself, he aligned his body and his bat to nudge it towards mid-wicket. He closed the face of the bat a second too early. The ball took the leading edge.

The end had arrived. He was caught & bowled, for a first-ball duck in his final innings.

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That eleven-year-old boy shed a tear. Then another. And another.

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Those emotions he had been hiding were on the verge of coming out. He walked back, through another guard of honour. It was not a march this time. That purpose, that reason was no longer there.

On the way back, he glanced towards the sky. As if to thank the almighty for all he had done for him. Those emotions could no longer be hidden. His eyes welled up.

Till the time he reached the boundary rope, he didn’t look up again. And then, at what was obviously the end of a 16-year long journey, Sourav Ganguly mustered the courage to control his tears. He looked up at the half empty stadium. He waved his bat. He half smiled. And slowly disappeared.

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The eleven-year-old had now gone absolutely quiet. His world had just come crashing down.

Disbelief. Shock. Agony. Pain.

For the four years he had known the game, Sourav Ganguly was all there was to his world of Cricket. The provider of bliss. The provider of inspiration. The provider of smiles. The provider of endless memories.

There wouldn’t be any shirt waving. There wouldn’t be chest thumping. There wouldn’t be any majestic cover drives. There wouldn’t be any overboard aggression. There wouldn’t be any Sourav Ganguly.

For him, Cricket would never be the same again.

That minute ended.

With it, ended a part of him.

The invisible Pakistani hero

As he completes his first walk through the famous long room onto the hallowed turf at Lord’s, he feels the noise, the pressure, the burden. He has a dream to fulfil, and this is his opening act in converting it into reality. But he goes unnoticed, for the broadcasters seem too concerned with the previous dismissal to pay any attention to his presence. It’s there on the television sets, on the big screens at the ground. People are still gasping at the almost perfect yorker that got England the previous wicket. There’s always, always something more fancy, something more noteworthy. This time it was the yorker, other times it could be one of the MCC members’ shirts. Just about anything.

He’s used to this, both the invisibility and the pressure. His face, ever so young even at 42 years of age, and now bearded, is finally showing some signs of the pressure it’s been under. Match after match, he’s been bailing out his country from dire situations only for the world to ignore him. The only time Misbah ul-Haq Khan Niazi seems visible is when Pakistan lose, when a scapegoat is required.

Yet he does what he does willingly. Without any reward. Just because he loves the game, just because he has a dream, that of wanting to put Pakistan cricket right up there, at the top. A place not even the most die hard, most optimistic fan felt was possible six years back, when they were down in the dumps after the 2010 spot fixing scandal.

For the whole of Pakistan, Misbah is not just their captain. He’s also their saviour, their superman, their god send. Their angel.

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Pakistan is three down for less than eighty. On the opening day of the most high profile series of the year. A wicket or two here and it’ll be England’s day, England’s game. Pakistan need to grind it out. Just somehow get to a total that’ll allow their much hyped bowling attack a chance to shine. Misbah has been in this situation before, he’s got Pakistan through before.

But there are other factors involved today. It’s his first test in England, a country not too kind to visiting batsmen. It’a tour of redemption for Pakistan, for this is where they reached their lowest ebb in the August of 2010. And he’s not played an international match for eight months.

To lift his country to cricketing greatness, Misbah needs to conquer not just the noise, the pressure and the burden. He also needs to conquer 42 year old bones, top notch bowling and his own mercurial batting line up. Today, Misbah needs to conquer common sense, he needs to conquer reality.

This is by far the greatest challenge this Pakistani side has faced. And whether they sink or they float depends on their captain.

It always does.

****

Misbah looks quite different from what he did eight months back. Firstly, there’s the beard which all Pakistani captains seem to grow by the end of their careers. There’s the shredded physique, with him looking as fit as ever. And there are those eyes. They speak of intent and purpose, of the burning desire to fulfil a dream. He’s ready, and thus is Pakistan.

On a Lord’s wicket which was doing a bit, Misbah brings out his best game. The medium pacers are dead batted, punched and flicked. The slowing reflexes still agile enough to handle 90 mph darts. The offie is swept, reverse swept and then taken out of the attack. There are more dead bat defences, more back foot punches and more flicks. It’s not pretty, but it is effective. Boring yet intriguing, the way he goes about his innings.

But today, it was not about the shots he played. It was not about the technical proficiency he showed. Today was not just about cricket.

It was about the triumph of human spirit.

Today was about celebrating one of the most influential cricketers of all time. Today was about recognising Misbah. Today was all about Misbah. The Pakistani angel.

Through the second half of 14th July 2016, Misbah made the strongest statement he’s ever made. He made the strongest statement Pakistan has made in the 21st century. That despite the fact that their administration is in a mess, their country is in ruins, that no team is willing to play in their backyard, that their star players are as inconsistent as they get, that they don’t get half as many resources as other teams do, that they are not adequately paid, that despite everything they can make their mark on the world stage.

Misbah has shown us how superficial barriers, those of age, talent and the like can be overcome through strong will, through unflinching self belief, through the sheer determination to defy all odds.

Even if there are no rewards.

****

Misbah batted through to stumps, remaining unbeaten on 110. Pakistan, a respectable 282 for the loss of six wickets. No matter what happens hereafter in the test or the series, this day, this innings will ensure Misbah’s name goes down as one of the most important sportsmen of all time, even if it had not already.

It was not just about cricket. It was about Pakistan. It was about giving their people hope, that if they can overcome so much to climb to the top in world cricket, they can do it in other spheres as well. It just takes some time, a dedicated bunch of people lead brilliantly, and a lot of courage.

****

When Misbah reached his century, he offered a salute and proceeded to do ten push ups. It was a light hearted moment, a very un-Misbah like moment. But it brought a laugh, along with a warm, very warm set of applause from the sporting crowd. Not something he’s used to, but something he deserves a lot more of.

This article doesn’t mention any other player. Because today, Misbah deserves all the limelight he’s never had, all the appreciation he’s never had.

For today was all about Misbah, and the Pakistan he’s tried so hard to revive.

It’s taken him six years,and he’s almost defied reality.

The Bangladeshi fairytale that wasn’t

Mashrafe Mortaza cuts a forlorn figure at the presentation ceremony after the match against India. To every question, he has just one answer which he puts across in different words – that Bangladesh tried, that they gave their hundred percent.

His eyes say a lot more. They speak about years of struggle, about the years spent being humiliated. They speak of the effort the entire Bangladeshi cricket community has made to get here, where they are respected, where they are considered worthy opponents.

Mortaza himself seems lifeless. He, and his team have had much better days on the field. They have also had much worse. But, this. This seems empty. It’s not the sadness that ensues after a loss. It’s a weird, hollow feeling. Almost like a vaccum cleaner sucking out emotions from the human body. He just looks on, defeated. Bangladesh just look on, defeated.

****

Shakib al Hasan is unarguably the best cricketer Bangladesh has produced. He scores runs. He takes wickets. He fields brilliantly. He is probably the best all rounder in world cricket at the moment. For long, he was their lone warrior. No matter how many runs he scored, no matter how many wickets he took, he was never able to take Bangladesh to glory. This is his chance to carry his nation into sporting glory.

Hardik Pandya is given the responsibility of defending 11 runs in the final over against a rampaging Bangladesh, with Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah Riyad at the crease. He smiles. He playing to his uber cool image. He’s nervous. This is a make or break for him. A lifetime of heroism or villainy. He delivers the first ball outside off to Mahmudullah. He throws his hands. But it’s just a single to deep cover. Oohs and aahs at the Chinaswamy. 10 off five.

Mahmudullah Riyad has had a fascinating career. An proper bowler turning into a full fledged batsman, much like Steven Smith. He announced himself on the big stage during the 2015 World Cup. A century against England to knock them out was followed by another that was almost enough to defeat the in form New Zealand. He is now rated as their best batsman. This is his chance to be the at the forefront of the watershed moment in Bangladeshi cricket.

The second ball Pandya bowls is short and slow. Mushfiqur Rahim thrashes it past extra cover for four. Chinaswamy goes silent. Pandya looks to Dhoni. The seniors converge. It’s pulsating, this over, this match. Mushfiqur pumps his fist. 6 required off four now.

Taskin Ahmed is 20. A man for the future. A man with bundles of talent. He took a fiver on his ODI debut against India two years back. He bowls fast. He bowls well. He scares batsmen. He pushes them onto the back foot, quite literally. He is Bangladesh’s enforcer. He is an important cog in their wheel. They need him. It’s his chance to show he can handle the pressure of being the leader of his country’s pace bowling attack, once his mentor Mortaza retires.

The third ball is again short and slow. On middle this time. Mushfiqur shuffles, and scoops it past Dhoni. Another boundary. The Bangladeshis yell, they start off their celebrations. Pandya looks stunned. Almost as if he’s wondering what the hell just happened. 2 to get off three now. Easy peasy.

Like Taskin, Mustafizur Rahman is also 20. Like Taskin, he also took a fiver against India on ODI debut. He followed it up with a sixfer, and won the player of the series in what was Bangladesh’s first series win over India. Like Taskin, he will also inherit the responsibilities of the pace attack once Mortaza retires. This is his chance to show that those wickets against India, and later against Pakistan and South Africa were not a one off. Like Taskin, this is his chance to show that he can handle the responsibility of leading his country’s fast bowling attack on the world stage.

The fourth ball. That fourth ball. It could have been a single, even a double. But Mushfiqur goes for glory, he goes for a MS Dhoni. The ball is short, and he pulls it to Shikhar Dhawan at deep midwicket. Chinaswamy erupts. Pandya smiles. A small personal victory after Mushfiqur celebrated aggressively  in front of his face after the previous boundary. Nehra rushes to Pandya. So do Dhoni and Virat Kohli. It’s impossible for Pandya to not feel the pressure. 2 off two now.

Soumya Sarkar is a wonderfully gifted batsman. He is beautiful to watch. He times the ball brilliantly, he finds the minutest of gaps. When required, he bludgeons the ball as much anyone can. And he scores runs. Against big teams, against great bowlers, on tough wickets. His consistency stands out. He is also a brilliant fielder. In all, he is an antethesis of the generic Bangladeshi batsman from the previous generation. This is his chance to own the World T20, his chance to ensure that people don’t think Bangladesh to be a land which only produces good bowlers.

The penultimate ball. The batsmen crossed over off the previous ball. Mahmudullah is facing. He is known to be calm, sensible, unfazed by pressure. Off this ball, he is none of the three. Of all deliveries, Pandya bowls a full toss. Mahmudullah can’t resist the temptation of finishing it with a six. He doesn’t time it well, and woosh, it goes to Ravindra Jadeja at deep midwicket again. The stadium exults. Pandya doesn’t react this time. More advice from Dhoni and Nehra. All of India is now behind Pandya, cheering, hoping, praying. Nobody notices that Mahmudullah almost beat himself up on the way back to the pavillion. Maybe the small Bangladeshi contingent in the crowd did. The fairytale, the one Bangladesh had been waiting for since their entry into international cricket, seems to be slipping away. But there’s still hope. 2 off one.

Skipper Mashrafe Mortaza had said before the World T20 started that this would be his last ICC event. We had seen it coming for his body had eternally been in an absolute mess. That his knees, hamstring and the others had held up so long was nothing short of a miracle. He may not have been tactically brilliant, or even excellent with the ball. But he exemplified the passion, the spirit and the courage one needs to play international cricket. Coming back to lead the side after multiple surgeries on his knees, bowling when he could hardly walk, staying on the field just so he could marshal his troops in the best way. This was Mashrafe Mortaza for you. A man with undying will and love for his sport and his country. He needed his body to hold itself for these three weeks. For this was it, his final hurrah. As the rightful leader of the supposed Bangladeshi fairytale.

The sixth ball. The last one. A play and miss by Shuvgata Hom. A phenomenal sprint by Dhoni. A Jonty Rhodesesque run out. Wild shouting in the stadium. Victory for India. An end to the Bangladeshi’s hope.

A cruel end. An unfitting end. An unexpected end.

****

This World T20 was supposed to be the tournament where greatest set of Bangladeshi cricketers to ever play the game together took their team, their nation to a podium finish, at the least. They were spoken of by many as strong contenders for the semis.

Their faith was not misplaced. For this was a team who had, in 2015, defeated India, Pakistan and South Africa in ODI series’. This was a team who reached the final of this year’s Asia cup by conquering Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This was a team who played for each other, a team with great skill, a team replete with stars.

But, at the big stage, they never came together. Mortaza was ordinary with the ball. Sarkar could hardly get bat to ball. Taskin was reported for chucking. Mustafizur failed to live up to his superstar billing, except in the dead rubber against New Zealand. Shakib didn’t play like the world’s best all rounder would. Tamim Iqbal couldn’t conjure a match winning knock in the Super 10 stage. Sabbir Rehman’s big hits were nowhere to be seen. Mahmudullah floundered under pressure against India after a good outing against Australia.

The pieces fell, all at once. The jigsaw, left incomplete.

Bangladesh came to this World T20 to make it their own, to give their captain the best farewell.

They left, lost and defeated. Not knowing when their fairytale would play out.

The beauty of Test Cricket

For some, it’s the perfect utilisation of time, for most, it’s a complete waste. For some, it signifies enjoyment, for most, it signifies boredom. It means everything to some, it means nothing to most. For some it’s life, for most it’s lifeless. In a nutshell, this is what Test Cricket is.

When people ask me how I have the patience to even watch, let alone love a game spread over five days, I often find myself struggling to open my mouth. It’s because there’s so much to say, that mere words don’t seem enough. It’s because there’s so much more to Test Cricket than what appears to laymen. It’s because there’s a whole new world that you set your eyes upon when you explore the beauty of Test Cricket. When you start exploring this beauty, you start understanding what Test Cricket is. It starts meaning life to you.

When I actually sat down to think why those five days of non interesting matches filled with dead bat defences, balls left alone, often defensive bowling ploys still give me joy, still give me a feeling of satisfaction, still make me not want to stop watching it, I had just one answer.

It’s because that beautiful cover drive, that perfectly directed throw from cover point or that match winning wicket was worth it all, the five days of dead bats and defensive bowling strategies.

It’s very tough to comprehend how one moment makes the entire match worth it. How it forces you to watch it over and over again, how it makes you think about it at length, how you can have endless conversations about it with fellow enthusiasts. There’s actually no answer to it. That one moment, of sheer brilliance, just makes it all worth it.

And when these moments happen to be game changing ones, your hair stands on end, you get goosebumps. You feel a rush of adrenaline, you imagine yourself to be in that player’s shoes. It’s insane, it’s unreal. It’s what Test Cricket does to you.

Remember Andrew Flintoff running out Ricky Ponting in the last Test of the 2009 Ashes. It’s moments like this which make Test Cricket worth it, it’s moments like this which make life worth it.

When you have had a pathetic day at work, or fought with a friend, when everything seems to be going wrong, these moments will always to be there. To give you joy, to tell you that life is worth it.

Cricket’s dark art

It’s Cricket’s dark art. It’s unpredictable, it’s uncertain. It’s a provider of moments, both magical and horrible. Beautiful to watch when it comes off, painful when it doesn’t. It wins your team matches one day, it wins the other team matches the next. It’s the perfect gamechanger. It’s the perfect gamble. It’s an art whose imperfections make it perfect, an art which requires a certain level of insanity to practice it. It’s the art of bowling leg spin.

A hundred years into Test Cricket, leg spin was dying. Some would say it already had. Then, along came a certain Shane Keith Warne, who made leg spin popular, who made leg spin ‘cool’, who made the practice of humiliating batsmen through spin and flight fashionable.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, he inspired millions of kids to take up leg spin. Everyone wanted to be Shane Warne, but they couldn’t, for Shane Warne wasn’t human. He never bowled bad balls, he rarely leaked runs, and he always picked up wickets. This wasn’t the reality of leg spin bowling, as those inspired by him would have realised. It was a lot more.

Leg spin is as much about getting hit for runs as it is about taking wickets. It’s as much about bowling long hops as it is about bowling vicious googlies. It’s as much about dealing with defeat as it is about celebrating victory. It’s as much about having mental strength as it is about having knowledge of the art.

It’s all about the courage and will power. It’s all about juggling success and failure. It’s all about the mind. This is why it requires a certain level of insanity to practice this art. It’s too tough to handle for a meek person, it’s too tough to handle for a normal mind.

There are certain things in life which can be perfected by regular practice. You work hard – day in, day out – and you become brilliant at your art. That holds true for most things in life. Leg spin is not one of them. It never will be. It’s not that easy, it’s not that predictable.

When a leg spinner marks his run, and gets ready to bowl, all those hours of practice help, but only to a very limited extent. It all depends on how the ball is going to come out of his hand, on how much of a rhythm his body creates, how much luck favours him that day.

Leg spinners, unlike fast bowlers or off spinners, always need to be prepared for a hammering. It’s one of those things that comes with being a leg spinner.

This is where the good ones stand out from the bad ones, in how they deal with being hit for runs. Those who have the guts, those who have the will power to persist with wicket taking lines, to give the ball air, to allow it to spin, to still try variations without resorting to bowling flat, are the ones who get to celebrate victory, are the ones who get to hog the limelight. They are the ones who will you matches. The rest, just like their long hops, will fade into oblivion.

This is why leg spin is so tough, so unlike anything else. Leg spinners will, on most days, take wickets. That is not how they should be judged. It’s the way they deal with being hammered, it’s the way they deal with failure that should be the mark of their judgement. It’s how they react in times of adversity that should be the mark of their judgement.

Practising an art so unpredictable, fraught with risks and failure, requires something special. Overcoming these failures, without backing down requires something even more special. All leg spinners are special. But there are only a few that are more than special.

The life of an opening bat

The captain walks into the dressing room after the toss. He tells his team that they are batting first. He points to the two openers while reiterating the importance of scoring runs on this wicket. Their eyes are still, they don’t move an inch. They give nothing away. Nobody who has not opened the batting knows what’s going on inside. It’s a mixture of nervousness and excitement. That sick feeling in the stomach, that restlessness in the legs which stems out of the excitement.

He puts on his left pad. He thinks of the people watching him when he goes out to bat. He puts on his right pad. He thinks whether he’ll walk, jog or sprint to the wicket.

He puts on his box. He thinks whether he’ll stand at the strikers end, or give his partner that opportunity. He puts on his inner thigh pad. He thinks of how he’ll mark his guard and get ready to face his first ball.

He puts on his thigh pad. He thinks of how he’s going to handle the opposition’s opening bowlers. He puts on his helmet. He takes a deep breath. He swallows. That sick feeling in the stomach starts to increase.

He puts on his gloves and walks out of the pavilion, towards the middle. That walk is what he dreads, that walk is also what he cherishes. The nervousness reaches it’s peak, the excitement reaches it’s peak.

As he reaches the middle and marks his guard, his face appears pale. The bowler runs in, and his eyes are as still as they were in the dressing room. They hide his anxiety, they hide his fears.

People say those who have fears don’t belong on the cricket field. Most of those who feel this way haven’t ever opened the batting in their lives. The fear is justified, for the opener doesn’t know how the pitch is going to behave, whether bouncers will arrive at the ankles or the good length balls will smash in to the helmet. He doesn’t know what kind of mood the man given the task of bowling to him woke up in, how well he’s going to bowl to him on the day. He doesn’t have any sighters, a luxury middle order batsmen enjoy. He doesn’t have the opportunity to figure out a way of going about things from watching other batsmen.

Hidden behind these steely eyes is a brave man, a man with all the ounces of courage you can muster. He doesn’t know what’s coming at him, yet he does his job, every single time he steps onto the Cricket field. He does it because of that desire to bat longer than the others, that desire of blunting the heart of the opposition’s bowling, that desire of laying a solid platform for the middle order, that desire to score centuries, that desire to be a hero.

When he is facing, little does he know that he’s already a hero. The fact that he chose to open the batting, day in, day out is enough to call him a hero.

As he faces his first ball, he could get out, he could hit a brilliant straight drive and go on to play the innings of his life, or he could defend or leave it alone in what would be the perfect anti climax.

The possibilities are endless. You know the road is full of challenges, that the end is inevitable. But you carry on, just because you enjoy doing it, just because the memories are worth it, just because those moments of joy are priceless. In a lot of ways, opening the batting is symbolic of life. Rather, opening the batting is life in itself.