A Moment in (Indian) Time

Although a lot's happened since - time moves quickly in modern Test cricket - I couldn't shake the feeling that the immediate post-lunch session at Lord's last Saturday was worthy of some extended reflection. Here, therefore, are some words.

Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, Saturday 23rd July 2011, 1.36 p.m. (British Summer Time).

As the lunch interval draws to a close the atmosphere in the Long Room bubbles with conversation, heavy footsteps and lightly suppressed excitement. The rear of the room, where the players walk from either end on their way from the dressing rooms to the field, is segregated with a rope to prevent anyone getting too close to the combatants. Here people are required to know their place.

From the far end of the room the England team emerges, following the umpires, Asad Rauf and Billy Bowden, onto the field. Clapping, closely followed by cheers, echoes around the room, but it remains unacknowledged, if not unappreciated. The England players, most of whom are wearing dark glasses, stare straight ahead. It is a grey afternoon and a little cool for July, but, as is customary during Lord’s Tests, the crowd has eaten and drunk well. Bonhomie hangs in the air like the clouds above the ground, but the players of both sides are serious. They are at work.

At the opposite end of the room the applause from the stairs filters in. The two Indian batsmen are on their way down. They enter the room with a similar air of preoccupation, although there are discernible differences in their demeanour.

First there is Rahul Dravid. A native of the city of Bangalore in southern India, he has played in 154 Test matches and has scored more than twelve thousand runs. In this innings he has just fifteen to his name. Before lunch he was settling in at the crease, but now he needs to do so again. He is a slim, serious man with distant eyes which carry the memories of thousands of hours at the crease. On the dusty, unforgiving grounds of his homeland, on the palm-fringed greens of the West Indian islands and of Sri Lanka, on the fast tracks of Australia, where players’ reflexes are tested to their very limits. This, batting, is what he does.

Following a few steps behind is Sachin Tendulkar. He has spent the majority of his life playing cricket for a living and has played in more Test matches, with more runs and centuries, than anyone else in the history of cricket. He is a small, stocky man, carrying a little surplus weight. An infant prodigy on the edge of middle age. His body language is more private, less optimistic, than Dravid’s. It is possible that he is already feeling the effects of the virus which will keep him away from the ground on the following day, but it is more likely that his hunched shoulders and downward gaze simply reflect the fact that he is his country’s most famous man and he has spent much of his life away from the cricket field trying to make himself anonymous. As usual the ground should bring him a sense of sanctuary and freedom, although he will need runs to feel fully at ease. At the moment he has made just ten, and he is playing at a ground where, unusually, he has never known success.

James Anderson, with the Lord’s pavilion behind him, takes the ball. Tendulkar is facing, and he guides the first ball between the slips and gully for four. The stroke is controlled but there is still a slight air of uneasiness about him. He is searching for the warm embrace of form and it is elusive. Off the fourth ball of the over Tendulkar strokes the ball through the leg side for another four. It is an easy shot for a player of his ability, but it is played with a style and timing which causes the crowd’s collective pulse rate to briefly quicken. While the majority of the crowd are supporting England, many of them would love to see Tendulkar make his one hundredth century in international cricket, and their hopes, seduced by weeks of media coverage, are hostage to the progress of his innings. In the next over, bowled from the Nursery End by Chris Tremlett, Tendulkar hits the ball on the up through the covers for four. The feeling of impermanence begins to fade a little.

At the other end Dravid is the epitome of polished control. His stance is compact, his eyes level, his strokeplay measured and decisive. He picks up a boundary off Tremlett and then three in an over off Anderson.

The players meet in the middle of the pitch at the end of each over. Dravid is expressive and relatively animated, his raised arm describing the path of the swinging ball. Tendulkar is still restrained, absorbing what his partner has to say. These men have batted together through many of the world’s summers, and, as in any relationship which has lasted for years, there are times when no words are necessary. In the modern vogue they touch gloves as they part. When they began batting together some fifteen years ago, batsmen didn’t do this, but Dravid and Tendulkar have not gained their immense reputations by being unable to embrace the game’s changing conventions.

Graeme Swann replaces Anderson at the Pavilion End. His first over is steady, tight, conceding just a single to Dravid. At the other end Tremlett is starting to develop an aggressive rhythm, pounding his feet into the dry turf and grunting as he delivers the ball. Tendulkar remains a little circumspect and tentative, and Dravid paints an emphatic contrast with his partner when he elegantly strokes Swann through the covers for four in his second over to raise his score to 42.

Strauss rings the changes once more, bringing Stuart Broad on to replace Tremlett. Tendulkar, now on 34, is able to leave two of the over’s first three deliveries, but the fourth is straighter and slightly full, drawing him into a firm-footed drive. The ball barely swings, but it holds its own and takes the edge of Tendulkar’s bat. Graeme Swann drops to one knee and takes a low catch at second slip with some ease.

As the England players celebrate, Tendulkar returns slowly to the pavilion. His head is held high, but this is partly because he spends the early stages of his walk looking to the heavens, regretting his shot. It is uncommon for Tendulkar to be defeated by a bowler but it has happened here and his highest score at Lord’s remains a meagre 37. As he returns to the pavilion he receives his second standing ovation of the day. The crowd know that there is a possibility that he will never again bat at Lord’s in a Test match, although it seems more probable that he will have a second opportunity in this game.

The forty-eight minutes between the end of the lunch interval and Tendulkar’s dismissal has been an interlude, a departure from reality. The conjunction at the wicket of two great players whose careers are nearer to their conclusion than their commencement, but who are still very far from batting from memory.

After Tendulkar has gone, and the applause has died down, India bat for most of the rest of the day without notable fluency or permanence. Dravid, though, is an exception to this. Before the day’s end he reaches his thirty-third Test century, and, when the Indian innings closes on 286 with him undefeated on 103, he receives his own standing ovation.

It is something that he will remember for the rest of his life.


Lessons from a Master

The phrase 'Master Batsman' is an old one. But it is one which you rarely hear these days, possibly because there are few players in the modern game to whom it can be accurately and satisfactorily applied.

It conjures a vision of completeness, of finely-honed technique - both in the matter of defensive and attacking strokes - allied to patience and the priceless ability to see and grasp an opportunity in an instant. To repel good bowling for over after over, and then, when the bowler drops short or full, drill the ball to the boundary without missing a beat.

And then re-mark your guard with the type of nonchalance that can break strong bowlers' hearts.

Rahul Dravid is a master batsman.


Prior Refinements

Five compelling days at Lord's are hard to distill down to an individual, coherent memory, because there was so much to enjoy. Pietersen's unusual but ultimately commanding double century, Dravid and Tendulkar batting together after lunch on Saturday and briefly threatening to produce something to match the breathless hype, the resurgence of Stuart Broad, the skilled swing bowling of Praveen Kumar and Jimmy Anderson.

But, in my dotage, I suspect I'll settle for Sunday. Sunshine which sharpened to brilliant evening light, a packed, enthralled, crowd, and the sublime batting of Matthew Prior, surely now the finest wicket-keeper batsman in the world.

In many ways there's little that is sophisticated or unusual about what Prior does, but he does it with such style and composure, and, yes, intelligence, that you long to watch him again and again.

And, as you do, you notice refinements which aren't immediately apparent, such as the way in which, confronted with a deep off side field designed to neutralize his greatest area of strength, he is able to manipulate the ball into gaps by subtly twisting his shoulders and hands as he plays his shot. Singles become twos, the fielders tire, and, when the ball is really struck, boundaries come like candy from kids. If the bowler becomes fed up with being punished on the off and straightens his line, runs are seamlessly collected through and over the leg side.

At times like these the greatest cricketer in the world can only stand and watch, impotent.


Strange Days Indeed

It'll be a while before we know whether Kevin Pietersen's strange double century was the landmark innings which it might just prove to be.

Why strange?

Well, because, for the first 130 or so runs Pietersen was unusually patient, but also scratchy and, at times, hesitant. He gave the impression of a man whose determination to eschew risks and headstrong strokes was taking him away from form rather than towards it. Things only really changed after he passed 150 and he chased down his double with the assurance and haste of a man realising he is allowed to go back to doing what he is best at.

Schizophrenic the innings may have been, but it will be a surprise if it doesn't spell danger for the bowling attacks of the world. After a long period of under-achievement, KP is back in what players sometimes call 'the zone'.

Tomorrow we will see a player who entered 'the zone' in November 1989, aged sixteen, and has never left.


England to Win

My most vivid memories of the last fifteen years of England-India Tests at Lord's (much of which I've been lucky enough to see live) begin with Tendulkar's early dismissal by Chris Lewis in 1996 and the way in which the debutants, Dravid and Ganguly, dominated the rest of the day, laying potent markers down for the future.

Then there was Sehwag in 2002, unfamiliar, flashy, apparently impermanent, but also giving notice of his potential with a rapid 84 before Ashley Giles snared him.

And then 2007. Rain a constant threat, but a gradually evolving match which was drawn with India nine down in enveloping gloom. On the Sunday afternoon I took a photograph of Tendulkar returning to the pavilion after he was dismissed by Monty Panesar (above). I felt the moment was worth recording because I never thought he'd be back. I'm glad I was wrong, and I look forward to savouring a similar moment or two this week, when the air of finality will be all the greater.

As to the result of the match and the series, much will depend on the weather over the next month and how England bowl. If conditions remain helpful and England - especially Anderson and Tremlett - perform as they can, India will struggle. If the sun begins shining and the wickets flatten out, things will be closer. But the Indian attack can't be discounted. Zaheer is short of practice but will surely come good at some stage, Ishant looks back to his best and Praveen Kumar looks as though he could swing it anywhere.

For me, though, it is England to win.

My train for London leaves in the morning.


'Whatever knowledge and experience I have gained...'

The recent Test series between the West Indies and India passed without comment here. I saw bits and pieces of each of the games but rarely enough to hold the attention. The largely deserted stands at Sabina Park and the Kensington Oval were unbelievably depressing, although the third game in Dominica showed the value of taking Test cricket to grounds, and countries, where it hasn't been before.

Both sides had their issues. India weakened by injuries and the need for players to rest but struggling through; West Indies in the same position they've been for years. A general dearth of quality but the constant hope that better lies around the corner. For the moment hope lies with the gradual progress of Ravi Rampaul and the arrival of Kirk Edwards and Devendra Bishoo.

The same spectre - that of the inevitable retirement of senior players - hangs over both teams. In the case of the West Indies, as his thirty-seventh birthday looms, Shivnarine Chanderpaul is bound to be the focus of their concerns. In the final years of a career that has been as testing and stressful, but still as brilliant, as they come, it is easy to wonder how long he can, or will want, to go on. A part of their side since 1994, and now their most capped player, it seems hard to imagine the West Indies without Shiv.

Welcome reassurance was provided by what he said in an interview conducted in the glowing aftermath of his second innings century in Dominica, an innings which he felt was among his best:

'High point? I'm still looking for it. There is still more to come. Whatever knowledge and experience I have gained I would like to pass it on and help the other members of the team with their game.'

We look forward to seeing him try.


Different Questions

Sometime in the early years of this century - 2002, I think - I was driving with a friend to a rugby match in the Midlands. We spent much of our time talking about cricket, and I wondered aloud who the next 'truly great' English batsman would be.

At the time, with the England of Fletcher and Hussain just starting to emerge from years of disorganisation and inconsistency, the obvious choice, in retrospect, would have been Michael Vaughan. However, although I hadn't seen him play, I had already absorbed the hype which surrounded Ian Bell and suggested that he was the one.

Alastair Cook's name never entered my head. I knew of him but his first-class debut was still for the future and he was just too young to be a contender.

Scroll forward a few years, and, with Bell still flattering to deceive, Cook is an England player, and one or two images from his early Test career remain in the mind. The first comes from the initial stages of his first Test innings at Nagpur. Irfan Pathan drops short and Cook creams him through midwicket in a languid, dismissive manner which signifies a rare combination of talent and temperamental impregnability. He goes on to reach 60 and then passes a hundred in the second innings.

A few months later I'm at Lord's watching him play his first Test innings in England, batting at three after Strauss and Trescothick. With Cook past fifty, one of the Sri Lankan seamers, Maharoof or Kulasekara, drops short. With a field athlete's sureness of foot, Cook rocks back and caresses the ball through mid-on for four. It is a stroke which speaks of heady ability and resonates a sense of belonging. It appears obvious to me that he will be at the heart of the England team for years and years to come.

He has, of course. But, as for everybody, the game has become harder, more testing. By late in the English summer of 2010 his foothold in the side is loosening. He has problems around off-stump and he is regarded solely as a Test player. It is assumed that he cannot play one-day cricket.

He battles his way to a century in defeat at The Oval, then goes to Australia and makes 766 runs in the series as England humiliate Australia. When Andrew Strauss decides to retire from one-day cricket, Cook is appointed captain. Still, though, the runs come, and with a previously undiscerned fluency. Different questions begin to be asked. Instead of whether he is worth his place in the team, people wonder how just how good he is.

Cook is no genius in the manner of a Lara, or a Tendulkar, or a Ponting. And, among his England contemporaries, both Bell and Pietersen are blessed with greater gifts. He can be stylish and pleasing to the eye, but he relies more for his runs on patience which is unusual by modern standards and a mind which overcomes perceived obstacles as if they don't exist.

As I've written before, there is a quality that is at once both utilitarian and natural about Cook. While there are players who make the game look easier, there are few who give a stronger impression that it is what they were put on earth to do.

In the widest sense of the term he isn't a truly great player, but, as we enter the taut second half of England's summer, he currently looks as good, perhaps better, as anyone they have had in a very long time.

Cook is still only 26 years old. He, and his England side, will have many more days in the sun.

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