Monday, November 14, 2011

When I met Peter Roebuck

First published In Madras Musings in April 1998

“It’s a different kind of audience—so well behaved and appreciative of the finer points of cricket," remarked my brother Sivaramakrishnan, the former Tamil Nadu opener. "Test match crowds are so much more knowledgeable than the one-day variety, whose sole aim, it seems, is to have a good time, the cricket be damned," he continued, warming to the theme that Chepauk draws a good, old-fashioned segment of the population to watch Test matches staged on its turf. "It also produces some wonderfully competitive cricket and, yes, the crowd is distinctly different from its one-day counterpart," agreed Mike Coward, the Australian cricket writer and broadcaster.

Yet another honorary Australian, cricket critic Peter Roebuck of Somerset — he fraternises with the old enemy rather more than the average Englishman, spending six months of the year in the former colony writing for newspapers there — thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Chennai, especially the comforts and friendly ambience of the Madras Cricket Club where he stayed for the duration of the Test match. (After the match, he took a train to Mysore and a breather from the cricket.) Roebuck proved a friendly, amiable visitor, ever willing to talk cricket with the locals. He had a special word or two of encouragement for Rohit Mahendra and Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, youngsters who bowled to both the Indian and Australian batsmen in the nets. To the sixteen year-old left arm spinner Vidyut, he gave some words of advice on why a good education was as important as bowling, batting and fielding — "What happens if you get knocked down by a bus and can never bowl again?" To which the youngster quickly added: "Yes, and there could be a world war and no cricket for the next five years. At least that's what my mother says." "Mothers! They get it right every time, don't they?" mused Roebuck, and in this great state of mother worshippers, he will find many who will agree with him.

Neil Harvey, the stylish Australian left-hander — he was delighted to meet so many ardent fans of his batting in Chennai 35 years after his retirement from Test cricket — endorsed the view that the Chepauk Test had brought a superior type of spectator to the ground. Harvey simply detests one-day cricket. He loved every moment of the Test.

Harvey considers Sachin Tendulkar the best batsman in the world. "His thinking is like my thinking on cricket. Just the way I decided to go after Subhash Gupte 40 years ago at Bombay, he decided to attack Shane Warne here." And how!
Harvey remembers that a Bombay newspaper had carried a titbit on what Gupte had allegedly said he would do to the Australian batsmen. "I was at the breakfast table at CCI, Brabourne Stadium, when my captain Richie Benaud walked up to me and without a word, put a clipping of that newspaper story on my breakfast tray and walked away. I took up the challenge and managed to knock Gupte’s bowling around, getting a hundred in the process. Soon, they dropped him from the team and we were delighted. He was a fine bowler."

Another pressman I ran into after a long gap was Rajan Bala who in the Seventies loomed large on the Indian cricket scene. He is now a great admirer of Mumbai cricket. "No player who has to take a train from Mulund or Virar to Churchgate every day to practise in the nets would like to fail in a match." This was Bala's 210th Test match as a reporter/critic and from the unending flow of cricket conversation and impromptu calypso songs that poured forth from him late into the night, it was obvious age had not dimmed nor custom staled his love for the game. Some of his comments on some of the players on view were unprintable but uncomfortably close to the bone.

The talking points of the Chennai Test other than Tendulkar's batting were Rajesh Chauhan's bowling action and the umpiring, particularly in the fourth innings. Several spectators were convinced that Chauhan threw the odd ball ("What does it matter when he throws so badly?" remarked one cheeky youngster). The question uppermost in their minds was, why aren't the umpires calling him? As for the umpiring, "That must be Venkat's first mistake in a Test," said a long-time cricket enthusiast and former TNCA office-bearer, referring to one of his dismissals. His neighbour in the stands was quick to point out, "I am sure he has made mistakes before, after all, he is human, but he is a fine umpire, one of the best".

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Will India play safe?

The most interesting aspect of the new-look Indian team to meet West Indies in the forthcoming Test series is the presence of three spinners in the squad. One of them, Pragyan Ojha, is a proven quantity in Test cricket, quite unlucky to have missed the tours of the Caribbean and England.

The left-arm spinner has immaculate control, and makes it well nigh impossible for most batsmen to dominate the bowling, thus facilitating the fall of wickets at the other end even when he is only containing the flow of runs. He can be an attacking option, too, when he is on song.

Off spinner R Ashwin and leg-spinner Rahul Sharma are similar in that they both rely on subtle changes of pace and trajectory in planting doubt in the batsman’s mind in limited overs cricket and both display excellent control.

Ashwin, who seems certain to play in the first Test next week, can look forward to his moment in the limelight. With the West Indies not too formidable an opponent, he has a great chance to prove that he is a Test match bowler ready to step into Harbhajan Singh’s shoes. If he does well in the series, the selectors may be tempted to replace the sardar with him on a more permanent basis. While there seems no doubt that he has big match temperament and a sharp cricket brain, the big question is: Does Ashwin have the genuine spinning ability to win Test matches for India? Can batsmen play the waiting game and fare better than they have against him in ODIs and twenty-twenty cricket?

The Indian selectors also have an opportunity to play three spinners in the side plus two seam bowlers at the expense of one of the batsmen, as a moderate opposition in Indian conditions should be the ideal scenario for such experiments. Knowing the general conservatism of the five wise men, such adventurism can however safely be ruled out.