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Breathless in India

March 7, 2021

I will no doubt be accused of being unpatriotic when I say how much fun I’ve had watching the Indian cricket team grinding England into the dust in the series just ended on the subcontinent.

Much as I would have liked my own team to prosper, what could be better than getting up at 6am, in full knowledge that catastrophe for one side or another had already struck, or would certainly unfold before the end of the day?

The series was special because both sides have some special players, though India’s special ones outplayed ours. Aside from the frequent debacles that reduced the England team to gibbering wrecks by the end of the series, there were other distinguishing features.

One was the commentary, not so much by the legendary Sunil Gavaskar and his Indian colleagues, who struggled heroically to remain impartial, but by Graeme Swann, one of England’s most successful spin bowlers of recent years, who didn’t. He was great entertainment, especially when he tried unsuccessfully to wind up his fellow commentators, who seemed slightly bemused at his humour. I could imagine him having the England dressing room in stitches, though at some stage whoever became the butt of his banter might have been tempted to chuck him off the balcony. When test cricket returns to satellite TV, Swann must migrate with it.

Then there were the players. I have learned that on the subcontinent there’s a tradition of printing first names on the back of their shirts. This required a person of limited intelligence like me to have to learn both of their names, since the commentators often referred to them by their surnames. Such as Pant, for example, which is far easier for a foreigner to remember than Rishabh, for reasons more than the fact that there are only four letters. We also had to come to terms with Washington Sundar, whose first name is a sublime anomaly among the Virats, Ishants and Rohits.

If we had to do this in England, we might have a problem dealing with our heroes running around with Dom, Dom, Jimmy and Joe on their backs, even though Leach, our tenacious spinner and lower-order batsman, became forever Jack in our household a couple of years ago, as he clung to his wicket while Ben Stokes destroyed the Australians in Leeds.

I also learned that English is not the only language in which the spelling of surnames can be widely different than their pronunciation. Granted, Cholmondeley and Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Chumley and Fanshaw) sit on a wilder shore than Pant and Axar (Punt and Aksha), but I’m forever indebted to Sunil Gavaskar (emphasis on the first A, please) for sparing me the need to make unfunny plays on Rishabh’s family name (apart from in the title of this piece).

Rishabh Pant (above) was, in fact one of the main reasons why the four-match contest was indeed a breathless affair. In contrast to England’s willowy heroes, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and all, Pant is a pocket battleship, a cricketing Maradona. When he stands behind the wicket, he chirps the batsmen to extinction, rather like Alexa infected with malware. As a batsman, he has that glorious quality that makes him compulsive viewing, which is that you never know what he’s going to do next. He adapts the tactics of the short game to disrupt the long form.

As for the bowlers, the hold that Ashwin and Axar gained over the English batsmen as the series progressed was another thing of beauty. It reminded you that in common with most competitive sport, cricket is a contest of the mind rather than merely one of physical skills. England dealt with the Indian spinners just fine in the first match in Chennai. When the pitches in the following two games became less placid, with the ball making right angles out of the dust, our lot couldn’t cope. And when the fourth match came along, despite the pitch being relatively snake-free, their confidence was well and truly shot.

I’m not sure if the English included a sports psychologist in their back-up team, but if not, surely a few mass hypnosis sessions on Zoom would have paid dividends. Either that, or someone like Graeme Swann to cheer them up now and again.

The first match was played in an empty stadium, which probably muted the normal home advantage for India. But then the fans returned, and so did India’s power. The few thousand (or hundreds, hard to tell which) who came to the massive stadium in Ahmedabad, made themselves heard, even though they looked like ants in the wide expanse of empty seating when viewed from the drone cameras. Yet, as fans do, they huddled together as if COVID was a thing of the past. Barely a face mask in sight, in a country that has lost 170,000+ to the virus. Then again, with Pant slaying all before him, the virus probably didn’t get a look-in.

As we in England crawl towards the ever-expanding horizon of freedom from lockdown, these mornings of madness in India have been, for me at least, a far better antidote to enforced confinement than slumping in front of the TV late in the afternoon for yet another sterile football match where the main cause of excitement is the crunching of bones and muscle, the false screams of agony and bellowed curses in many languages.

Cricket, on the other hand has a universal language in which a handful of words known to all suffice. Cricketing courage isn’t standing firm in the face of a murderous tackle. If you’re a batsman, it’s staying calm as a potentially lethal projectile whistles past your head at ninety miles an hour. It’s also three or four people crouching a few yards away from a batsman who can dispatch the same projectile into your body at the speed of a bullet. Teamwork is trusting that your bowler isn’t going to deliver a ball that the batsman will use to end your life.

And the joy of long-form cricket is that, at its best, it can deliver in real time at least as many twists and turns as you’re likely to see if you binge-watch a TV drama. Though Breaking Bad has an entirely different meaning when you’re an England batsman facing Ravichandran Ashwin.

A while ago someone anointed football with the phrase “the beautiful game”. To hell with that. Even though a vastly smaller percentage of the world’s population would agree with me, cricket is the ultimate beautiful game.

From → Sport, UK

  1. What a typically marvellous read from you on a lovely sunny Sunday morning here in Hastings.

    Absolutely first rate work Steve.

    I hail from Glamorgan (shire) and of course Wales doesn’t have it’s own international cricket side. The ECB as it’s generally known is in fact the England & Wales Cricket Board, so in this respect at least (please don’t mention rugby and French referees) you and I support the same team.

    I only wish that our England cricket side would play as well and reliably as you write.

    Cheers compadre.

    • Thanks Ronnie. Glamorgan is a fine cricketing county. About England’s cricketers I can only add that form is temporary but class is permanent. Let’s hope we get the latter this summer!

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