Test cricket has rekindled hope, once again
The world remembers the legend of John Lennon. They reminisce his immortal music, they still groove to his harmony, no one has forgotten him, and no one will…ever.
Remember his words: “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one.”
Perhaps he muttered them to summarize his own life, his struggles, the way he never stagnated, the way he marched on even if his destiny appeared foggy. But in many ways, he could well have encapsulated Test cricket with those words.
Meandering along, battling for survival, encountering detractors, gaping at uncertainty, Test cricket is not in peak health. And this is not a recent occurrence, it has been this way for years.
All the evidence points in one direction: the dwindling number of spectators for Test matches, the plummeting television ratings, the excitement of Twenty20 cricket, and the plethora of players making a beeline for franchise-based leagues. What is left behind is a beautiful product gasping for breath, splashing around for hope.
But there are people - cricket fans, not T20 followers - who have not yet shunned all their ideals. They have been eroding for sure; no amount of coercion seems enough to get these principles back. They have become heavy. And yet the cricket fans still carry the weight, for there is this belief that someday, the beauty, the purity will peek out from all the vacillating obstacles and the charm will capture us again, all over again!
Thus as the first Test match between India and Sri Lanka in Kolkata was being played out in the din, amidst the gloom, amidst the sparse yet vociferous crowd, a strange sense of hope shimmered through. Those ideals of Test cricket: when two teams throw in everything they have, but there is no sign of a decisive result; when a stalemate appears to be a drab affair on paper, when even after five days of incessant pressure, no one sits on the winner’s podium. But the charm of Test cricket walks away with the vigour of a champion.
The pitch, those 22 yards which dictate the outcome of any cricketing encounter, looked more like the part of the outfield when the rain abated on the first day. The clouds hooped around Kolkata, the lights were switched on, the surface was damp - it was everything that opening batsmen cringe at, and it was everything that Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul had to encounter.
If there were doubts about the nature of the pitch, the first ball from Suranga Lakmal quashed all the qualms. He pitched the ball on a length, and got it to seam and bounce, kissing Rahul’s glove and nestling in Niroshan Dickwella’s webbings.
How can you not love Test cricket? How can you ever lose your faith in purity?
End of Day 1: India 17 for 3. Only 11.5 overs bowled.
The clouds stayed put on the following day, the covers remained on the pitch, the Indian batsmen struggled, and the ball zipped around. Yet, only 32.5 overs were bowled.
End of Day 2: India 74 for 5.
Just what the authorities feared, just what the fans do not like, just what Test cricket should be isolated from… the match was meandering along. Here we go again!
India were dismissed for 172 in their first innings, and as if it was all scripted, the sun started peeking through the gloom. The pitch settled down, and perhaps for the first time in more than two days, the batsmen got a chance to assert their presence.
Suddenly, the overwhelming favourites, the No. 1 side in the world, the hosts, were under the pump. They were chasing the game, looking to drag the match on. They were made to do all the running… yes, this is the charm of Test cricket.
End of Day 3: Sri Lanka 165 for 4.
There is this notion of purity, that no fickle maquillages can usurp modesty and humility; no amount of cosmetics will ever be able to trump a poignant temper and calmness of spirit.
When underdogs do the talking, when they force the favourites to look at themselves with trepidation, it defines sport. And this Test match seemed poised to rekindle hope in the sport, again.
The sun continued to bask in all its glory. Sri Lanka’s lower-order decided to dig in and scrap for runs; no matter the aesthetics, the runs were piled on.
Sri Lanka were dismissed for 294 with a lead of 127. Suddenly, the rampant Indian team were backed into a corner.
Uncertainty is perhaps the only constant in life. The biggest falsehood would perhaps be an antidote to uncertainty…and this is why Test cricket is so much like life.
It bites you when you are not ready, it drags you when you are down. But then if you stare back, it offers you a chance to fight and do something to reverse your fortunes.
As KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan walked out, perhaps with scars from the first innings, they decided to stare back. And just like that, Test cricket gave them a chance to hit back.
With some style, the openers cruised past the 127-run lead. They were motoring along and such was their intent that almost miraculously, they were soon poised to dictate terms.
Perhaps Sri Lanka had enough of being dictated to. For when no one around claps for you, when no one is bothered with your existence, that is exactly when you decide to snap back; you etch success with your own brush.
Life they say…Test cricket we say!
India looked to press down on the accelerator, but Lakmal had the brakes under his command and pounded on it, all over again. The green pitch had become brown, but Lakmal was not flustered. He picked up three wickets in a lively morning spell.
India’s plans were sabotaged, Sri Lanka started believing again.
But then Virat Kohli sauntered in. He weathered the initial storm, and as wickets tumbled at the other end, he changed gears. India breezed ahead, Kohli flicked a switch and cruised to his 50th International century, setting Sri Lanka a target of 231.
The favourites bounded around with a lot of positivity; they decided to stamp home their tag. When Bhuvneshwar Kumar got rid of Sadira Samarawickrama in the first over and then Shami disturbed the timber of Dimuth Karunaratne in the 3rd over, Eden Gardens found its voice.
Tea: Sri Lanka 2 for 2.
The prologue was just the initial few words, the entire chapter was yet to be read out.
45 minutes of absolute chaos devoured Sri Lanka. Bhuvneshwar, Shami, and Umesh hurled grenades at the batsmen and consumed Lahiru Thirimanne and Angelo Mathews.
Sri Lanka 22 for 4.
Six wickets left. The battle was no longer between bat and ball, it was between ball and light, men battling against nature.
Niroshan Dickwella and Dinesh Chandimal decided to play a few strokes to break free from the tight grip, boundaries flowed, verbal volleys were fired from all quarters, tempers flared, umpires intervened.
“Let me keep talking, they are only losing time, it is harming them more than us.”
This was what Dickwella conveyed to his captain. He had chosen his fight and picked one at the most opportune moment.
However, if words could win you games, cricket would have a different context. Shami was fired up, he zoomed in, bowled a perfect in-ducker. The ball pitched in and swirled past the attempted flick of Chandimal. Five wickets down!
Sri Lanka's embattled history with batting collapses was waiting to pounce again, and the first few steps were taken when Bhuvi pinned Dickwella right in front of the stumps.
6 down, 69 runs on the board, light fading away. Runs were irrelevant, light was Sri Lanka’s only straw of hope.
Dilruwan Perera came out, faced six nervous deliveries, and perished on the seventh. Bhuvneshwar bowled the ball of the match on a brown surface with a 24-over old ball. It pitched on middle and off stump and seamed away just enough to knock over the off peg.
Perera walked out, cameras panned towards the Sri Lankan dressing room, and the look of shock summarized the entire day. From bossing the match to now depending on the fading light, they had dug themselves into an almighty hole.
Umpires stepped in to shoo the physio away who had no intentions of tending to a player, but instead to waste some time. The light meters made their entry, Chandimal stomped around in the dressing room, Bhuvi bowled another beauty, Chandimal was now sitting down. The umpires looked at each other and the light meter and decided to carry on.
Sri Lanka were not impressed; the gloom had descended not only on Eden Gardens but had also taken control of the Sri Lankan dressing room.
The umpires got together again, took note of the reading on the light meter, and decided to call off the match.
Chandimal was now sipping some tea, and Kohli was smiling; perhaps he too knew that he could battle all odds, but nature is something which always has the last laugh.
The players got together, handshakes ensued, the hostility was dispelled, and the match came to an end.
No winner, no loser, and yet so much drama. It was theatre: it was riveting, it was cringe-worthy, it was cruel, it was beautiful, it was life, it was… it will always be Test cricket!
Test cricket, an ocean full of stories, has rekindled hope again; it has asserted that no ocean can be polluted with a few stray dirty pools