At close of play on the fourth day of the last Test of the recent India-Sri Lanka series, I rang up the legendary slow bowler Bishan Singh Bedi. The match was intriguingly poised. India needed a little over two hundred runs to win, and had seven wickets in hand. One of the overnight batsmen was Sachin Tendulkar; the other was the fast bowler Ishant Sharma, sent in as a nightwatchman.
When I rang up Bedi, I reminded him of a Test match played forty years ago between India and Australia at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground in Delhi. The home side had been set a little under two hundred runs to win; these to be made on a wearing wicket and against a high-class bowling attack. When a wicket fell late on the fourth day, Bedi was promoted in the order to protect the mainline batsmen. He successfully saw out the closing overs, and, the next day, batted an hour-and-a-half to blunt the opposition. After he was out, Ajit Wadekar and Gundappa Viswanath took India to victory.
The situation in the Kotla in December 1969 was not dissimilar to that at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo in August 2010. Might Ishant, also a bowler from Delhi, do what his older and greater townsman had done four decades ago? That was the question I posed to Bedi, who chuckled, and said that only a historian would remember a match which everyone else in India had forgotten. So we turned to discussing the game at hand. I complained about the fields set by Mahendra Singh Dhoni earlier in the day. India had Sri Lanka on the mat, at 88 for 7, barely seventy-five runs ahead. Then Lasith Malinga hit one cross-bat shot, and the field scattered, with six men placed on the boundary and only a couple close to the bat. The last recognized batsman, Thilan Samaraweera, coolly took singles, as Malinga and later Ajantha Mendis were inspired to do likewise. The last three wickets added almost two hundred runs, in the end setting India a substantial target.
Bedi reminded me that the Sri Lankan captain, Kumar Sangakarra, had been equally timid the previous day. For the Indian tail-enders he, too, had well-scattered fields, allowing them to play themselves in and take their side to an unlikely first-innings lead. ‘It appears that neither captain wants to win the match’, said Bedi, adding: ‘Unfortunately one of them will have to.’
The next morning I was in front of the television at 10 o’clock sharp. Sadly, Ishant Sharma could not do a Bishan Singh Bedi, being dismissed within fifteen minutes of the resumption of play. Now V. V. S. Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar got together in a fine retrieving partnership. Sachin’s was an erratic innings, well-timed shots mixed with inside edges and desperate heaves to leg. Laxman, however, was splendidly assured, going right back or right forward to take care of the spin and bounce on what was by no means an easy wicket. The Sri Lankan attack was led by Suraj Randiv, the high-stepping off-spinner who was playing in his first Test series. Randiv had got all four wickets to fall, and gave Tendulkar in particular a very hard time. A crucial turning point was when the batsman played an off-break to forward short leg, who spilled the catch.
After Tendulkar was dropped the match moved India’s way. They were helped by Laxman’s composure and by the pusillanimity of Sangakarra, who, on a wicket where his main bowler had the ball fizzing like a top, placed half his fielders on the boundary. This eased the pressure enormously, for with their vast experience the Indian pair took no risks and merely accumulated. Three or four singles an over were there for the taking; and of course, even with five men on the ropes Tendulkar and Laxman were good enough to put the bad ball away for four.
By these methods the Indians added more than a hundred runs. Then Laxman suffered a bout of back pain, and had to call for a runner. The interruption disturbed Tendulkar’s concentration, for he soon edged a ball into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. Did the match still hang in the balance? So it seemed, especially after the new batsman, the talented but inexperienced newcomer Suresh Raina, played two expansive drives, one missing the edge and the other flying just above slip. Then, like Tendulkar before him, he was calmed by the solidity and reliability of the man at the other end. Laxman played two silken hook shots off Malinga, and a cover drive and a leg glance off Mendes, to reach a marvellous and game-changing century. The match was won, and lost, soon afterwards.
The timidity of the two captains notwithstanding, this had been a splendid advertisment for Test cricket. Superb, skilled, greatly accomplished batsmen whose contributions are generally underappreciated had left their imprint on the game. In both innings, Sri Lanka had been rescued from potential embarrassment by Samaraweera, a man who has played much of his Test career in the shadows of the more celebrated duo of Sangakarra and Mahela Jayawardena. On their part, India owed their unexpected victory to Laxman, who scored a fifty in the first innings and a hundred in the second, thus underlining how, in times of crisis, he is as ready to put his hand up as the far more famous trinity of Sehwag, Dravid, and Tendulkar. The match also showcased new or ignored bowling talents, as in the contributions of the youngster Randiv for Sri Lanka, or the crucial wickets taken in both innings by Virendra Sehwag for India. There was also some terrific fielding on display, as in hard, low catches taken by Jayawardena at slip for Sri Lanka and by Raina in the outfield for India.
For me, a historian with a long memory, the match recalled, at the end of the fourth day, a Test played against Australia forty years ago; and, at the end of the fifth day, another victory achieved in Sri Lanka eight years ago. In that match, played in Kandy as I recall, India had been brought back into the game by a superb spell of swing bowling by Venkatesh Prasad. They had still to make 250 plus in the fourth innings, on a crumbling wicket, and against Muttiah Muralitharan. I watched with fascination as Rahul Dravid kept out Murali for over after over while the other batsmen played their shots at the other end.
By comparison with Test cricket—a drama in four acts enacted over five days, with rich and unexpected changes of fortune, invitations to failure and opportunities for redemption—limited-overs cricket is so very uni-dimensional. The pitches are flat, the format predictable, the range of variations minimal and pre-determined. There are very many more 50/50 and 20/20 matches played nowadays than Tests, but although—as a cricket nut—I do watch some or many of them, none ever stick in the mind. I cannot recall the highlights of even Tendulkar’s record-setting double-hundred in a one-day international against South Africa, made as recently as this past February. I have no such difficulty in remembering the methods used by him to save a Test Match in Old Trafford in August 1990 (an innings marked by cover drives off back and front foot), or to win a Test Match in Chennai against Australia in March 1998 (an innings marked by calculated sweeps and pulls against the spin).
I speak here of a particular batsman; but it is only in Test cricket that bowlers themselves get anything like a proper opportunity to show their skills and wares. As Neville Cardus pointed out many years ago, in limited-overs cricket ‘style, spaciousness and variety of technique are not free to show themselves; in fact, are discouraged.’ Cardus was writing of matches of fifty overs a side; the art and craft of cricket is constricted even more by the tamasha of 20/20. I use the word advisedly; between Kalidasa and tamasha, give me Kalidasa any day.
THREE CHEERS FOR TEST CRICKET
(published in The Telegraph, 14/8/2010)
by Ramachandra Guha