India and South Africa: Two teams with varying fortunes, who are in a similar state
I love the way Ramchandra Guha views cricket, he always finds small narratives here and there, for him cricket is more than a game, it is a conglomeration of myriad narratives that unfold on a single stage, and I agree with him when he says, ‘it’s a game which is more watched and less understood’.
Dare I say, I have been a witness to more interesting times than the timeframe international cricket is going through at this stage. There are underlying narratives to every event that unfolds on a cricket field, a story that needs to be told, an emotion that craves expression, a game that commands an explanation, and a play that needs enactment.
Skedaddling South Africa
This is a tale, not many augured with the start of 2015. Because, South Africa emerged as the most well-balanced and impressive side come 2015, AB de Villiers was coming into his own, and undermining the power of numbers and statistics with the ease with which he bludgeoned them, one after the other, Dale Steyn seemed to swing balls at will and run through sides like no other bowler could.
Fresh faces emerged, and Francois du Plessis rose to the fore as someone who could fire on days when AB failed (can’t recall how often that happened). South Africans were batting like the modern-day game wanted a batting side to, were bowling like it was the 70s (with reference to the iconic fast bowling one witnessed then) and were fielding the ball like a group of ravenous tigers after a hare.
The world believed, South Africa believed, the dream wasn’t as proximate ever before, they weren’t as ready, ever before, to be the World Champions.
Grant Elliot, on the penultimate ball of the 1st Semi-final at Eden Park in Auckland, lifted one over long on, what followed were scenes you rarely associate with a largely male sport which is supposedly played by tough and exceptionally professional men. ‘Steyn-Gun’ as he is popularly called, lay flat on the pitch, the tall and lanky Morne Morkel was in tears.
So was their captain who was within touching distance of a dream he had been as close to earlier too, but never so attached to. These were heart-melting scenes, this was the best side South Africa had sent, and they had it all in them, everything that they talk of as ingredients of success in those books, but there are times when ‘everything’, is just not enough.
A cruel game this!
Dwindling South Arica
Fast forward to the New Year, 2016. It didn’t start as the previous one did, the characters seemed weary, and the side that seemed well-balanced and ready-to-win was now in a lurch, like a scuppered boat with too many technicians aboard, but no captain to execute their skills into a repair act.
Steyn-gun seems rusted, and injured, De Villiers seems weary, and the homegrown saint, Hashim Amla, too bogged by the weight of captaincy. Ironically, this is where the beauty of the sport lies; all of these names have colossal reputations attributed to them, and still, as a unit, they haven’t clicked in quite some time now.
As I type this, the ICC ratings will show a new incumbent at the Number 1 spot in tests, because the former incumbents, South Africa, have gone down to England, in yet another test, at the Wanderers by some margin.
What a continuum of events this, at the hilt of success and momentum once, South Africa now look everywhere for names to head their bowling and captain their outfits. The world sees a façade in the throne that South African cricket wore for so long, and it will take some time for them to reverse that mindset.
While South Africa struggle with their quagmires, there’s another captain who isn’t in the best possible frame of minds. Read on to know more.
The approaching horizon for a setting sun
When people start categorising your performances into two clearly bifurcated phases, you know you’ve been around for quite some time.
MS Dhoni is one such man in one such situation. Every time he misses a stumping chance (yes, that’s a reality now, he missed one off Ashwin in the 2nd ODI at The ‘Gabba) or holes out to a fielder in the deep, the nation exhorts in anguish, “Ye purana Dhoni hota na, toh...” (If it were the Dhoni of the former days)
While people might agree or disagree as to whether this is the ”naya Dhoni” (new Dhoni) or not, they can’t deny that his problems are pretty much the same, his batsmen pile on mammoth targets and his bowlers spend everything in a failed attempt to defend insanely high totals.
He has issues with a seam-bowling all-rounder, he has issues with his openers and his finishers- you could’ve read this even in 2010 and found everything so relevant. So, while Dhoni might have changed, his problems remain the same.
The only thing that makes it tougher for him to still churn out wins is the fact that time is slipping away for him. The media is after him and the crowds expect him to deliver, given the precedents he has set.
Whenever he comes out to bat higher up the order now, which alone is enough to signify that he isn’t the same flamboyant swashbuckling finisher who could pummel right from the first ball, it shows that his ageing instincts need time to adjust to the scenarios, but does Indian cricket have enough time to allow him that luxury (something that he has rarely had as a cricketer on the field).
There are questions that stare him in the face. There are promises that he needs to fulfill and dreams that he needs to metamorphose into reality. But, the question is, does he have the time to do that, and the ability to stand such pressure?
Will he retire, or wait until the next World Championship? Will he leave on a high like the great Sunil Gavaskar, or just leave, like he did after the MCG test in 2014? There is so much that rides on someone who is surely approaching the horizon. Can his Midas touch illuminate that hope, once again? Bring home the glory, once again?
Time will tell.
He slept with his Test jersey on the night before he announced his retirement! He must have wanted that night to be the longest.
This is the journey of a small town boy who dared to break the shackles that embargoed his abilities. This is the journey of a man who has taught so many youngsters from smaller hinterlands of the nation to believe. The journey of a man who has taken India to a dream, not once but twice, and if all goes well, hopefully the third time, in a few months.
Cricket- a folklore
There is so much that a game of cricket offers, there is a fielder who hasn’t batted well and wants to make up with his fielding, there is a bowler who is trying to read the batsman and a batsman who wishes to outdo the bowler. There is a captain who knows the importance of a victory, and what would defeat mean.
It isn’t just a game where the contest is between a bat and a ball, it is a saga with varied characters and changing plots. It’s a game with a heart. Try watching a game with this perspective, who knows, you might find a narrative unknown to others.