Ishant Sharma runs in hard, steaming in at Steve Smith. The ball, just moving minutely off the seam, is well left. But what follows is a social media phenomenon. The hurried commotion of Steve Smith’s follow through inspires a head jiggle that Ishant copies, truth be told, a bit horrendously.
It’s not even mimicry. It’s blandly emotive. Still, a slew of cricket commentators and fans turn up online with their own versions of a slice from the game that hardly had serious cricket written on it.
If you examine the current series, there’s been more drama in it than pure cricketing intensity. Whether you’re a fan of India or Australia, you’d have to make time to fathom any real merit stemming from Harbhajan’s needless jibe at O’ Keefe’s dream spell at Pune. What was the point of it? They bowled well. India collapsed.
Next up, Bangalore. Australia collapse and India claw back. Handsome win. It’s fair and square, you think.
But no! Could a series under captain Virat Kohli, with all due respect, continue smoothly? Kohli is no Buddha on the pitch. You won’t see sage-like abstinence, with him avoiding what could otherwise be lame encounters with the opposition, such as the stare at Matt Renshaw. Of course, we can conveniently have our own interpretation of Ashwin’s very visible pushing of Renshaw. The guy simply laughed it off. What else should he have done? On the other hand, Steve Smith, for mocking Virat upon dismissal, is no great either.
We saw yesterday how Smith and Maxwell were quick to point to their respective shoulders in Virat’s aftermath. As fans, you ought to wonder: was there a real need for it? Why mock an injured cricketer? In between, there was the series’ brain-fade moment. Smith agreed that he had been in the wrong. What followed was an earnest apology. All good, you thought. But still Kohli lodged a complaint, before suddenly suggesting it’s wise to move on.
What the hell was going on? Wasn’t cricket about bat and ball action?
This is contemporary cricket culture. Rivalries may not necessarily speak the language of plundering heaps of runs or the noise from disturbed timber. It’s all histrionics nowadays. And yet, not at all times. Not when batsmen like Smith and Pujara strike magnificent hundreds.
In the Ranchi Test, we saw pure cricket, pure magnificence with the bat. No talk. No cheap animosity. No dramatics. No irritations or umpires trying to calm nerves in the middle of the pitch.
We just saw the gentle, customary raising of the bat. The Australian captain struck perhaps the most vital knock in the context of this series- a fluent, brave 178 not out. Till then, no batsman from either side apart from Smith himself had struck a hundred. You could say, he was his own man here in Virat Kohli land, fueled by a reason to fight back not lamely sledge as many of his contemporaries in the past have.
You could call Smith’s innings at Ranchi redeeming but it won’t suffice.
So what do we really learn from this?
Obviously that much of Australia’s first-inning compilation of 451 at Ranchi had Smith written all over it. But, importantly, that amidst frequently occurring jibes and verbal volleys, cricket still is a method game. It’s about mind over matter, not mind games. That you could be what fans hail as immortal talent, even though you are just flesh and blood but that you can change the complexion of a competition at the back of your genius. Human genius.
The relationship between a Test cricketer and the 5-day contest has undergone tremendous change. Changing vagaries of culture and waning concentration levels nowadays could be blamed for it. It’s unfair to only blame the rise of T20s for Test cricket’s decline in popularity.
But moments when your team needs you and you raise your hand, taking responsibility during crisis, you transform a normal game of Test cricket to an awe-inspiring competition. This is what Smith did. And must we remember, there’s more to him than needless ranting. Dogged determination. Pure focus. Playing long hours. Cultivating boundaries instead of stomping balls. Accumulating runs instead of belting fours. He did all of these; facets that make a Test hundred special. Even more when top order batsmen don’t contribute much, such as Warner and Renshaw in this case.
At the core, 178 is fantastic statistical reading. But the Ranchi hundred signified meteoric rise of a batsman who was leading by example whilst staying coolly aloof from the pride that comes with rescuing his lot from a spot of bother.
Not dissimilar to Smith’s stupendous century was Cheteshwar Pujara’s double hundred. But you’d be wrong to think Pujara’s heroics were ‘answering back’. It wasn’t retaliation. Not fury. Just calm demonstration of a top-notch cricketer’s abilities when most needed. Numerous texts have been furnished marking respect to a man often described as ‘unsung’. But must we ask ourselves, if being unsung bothers Pujara?
Some men are about hype. Some are about rubbing their personal landmarks in the faces of others. Pujara is neither. He is no monk. He is, once again, flesh and blood, but with a marked difference. A strand of selflessness.
You could actually analyze his indomitable 202 at Ranchi from multiple viewpoints, each hailing the man’s fabric of incorruptible absoluteness.
So helpful was Pujara that upon finally falling, after his marathon 600 plus minute knock, he handed Nathan Lyon his first wicket since Bengaluru. Even then, comfortably taking India well beyond Australia, a knock where he overtook Dravid (facing 495 balls vs Pakistan, Rawalpindi) for facing maximum deliveries ever faced by a Test batsman in an inning- there was dejection on his face for losing his wicket to a shot he would not advice any cricketer to attempt, a lofty mishit that fell flat. And then, came in Maxwell, close to the dignified number 3 bat, patting him on his back.
At this point, cameras zoomed in on Smith. He didn’t have the expected ‘oh finally’ look on his face. He clapped silently, perhaps speaking to himself that that is what Cricket is about. A game of solid reassurance. A sport of decency, pride and team spirit. Not just mindless histrionics.
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