The early days of April are a time of contrasting joys for the avid cricket fan. The international calendar is thread bare and yet there is much to be played. In England, the County Championship begins and the woollen jumpers are donned as the gusty winds of the winter remain blowing. The spectators are few and yet the games will carry on, the history and tradition of each ground inescapable.
Thousands of miles away another cricketing show is underway. Some question whether it is even cricket or a carnival of Bollywood glitz, glamour, and the occasional hit around. The Indian Premier League has entered its tenth year, and it appears that its allure is yet to fade. How could it? Despite the numerous scandals that have dogged its history, it is cricket on LSD.
It isn’t about sturdy defences or prolonged battles between bat and ball. It is short and snappy, easy and enjoyable to watch, and even easier to forget. It is 100,000 Indian fans screaming the names of every cricketing superstar on the planet. The names of Kohli, Dhoni, and Maxwell chanted beyond an audible level of decibels. The sponsors are galore as each batsman transforms into a walking multinational billboard.
It is money the game hasn’t seen before and it is slowly becoming the pinnacle for every young cricketer. Why not? Bowl four overs a match and make millions. Clear the rope a few times and the bank account is secure for a couple of decades.
I am no traditionalist. I do not despise the IPL. It is excitement. It has its moments of outrageous brilliance. It has AB De Villiers scooping Dale Steyn for six. It is a spectacle, and when the cameras aren’t on the owners or cheerleaders, there is high-class cricket to behold. What is my problem with the IPL then? What is my problem with T20 cricket? Well, I wouldn’t say I have a problem with any of it. I just want something a bit more. The IPL is meant to be pop. I want pop, I want heavy metal, I want jazz, I want the blues, I want Mozart, I want Miles Davis, I want The Ramones.
I spent most of my childhood with my friends firmly obsessed by football. When I talked of Test cricket, they couldn’t comprehend its practicality. Five days of standing in a field, with the grand possibility that it all might just end in a draw. I struggled with a response. Test cricket can be boring. It can drive me to sleep. I often question my sanity when I’m watching Youtube clips of Shane Watson’s failed DRS referrals. And yet, it is Test cricket. There is nothing better. There is nothing original about this article. From the inception of the shorter forms of the game, people have harped on about how the longest form shall always be the greatest. Nevertheless, I wish to add to the broken record. This is my personal tribute to the game I love.
I am an eight-year old sitting on the staircase of my grandparents’ house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. My mother’s side of the family are all in the living room, with plenty of chatter flying around the walls. In the background, my grandfather’s ancient television is just about hanging on for its life.
What is playing? It is the fourth day of the second Test of the 2005 Ashes. It is England vs Australia. It is the most historic rivalry in the game. England are 1-0 down in the series but have fought back valiantly at Edgbaston against possibly the greatest side of all time. They head into the day with a series-levelling victory looking very likely. They begin the day needing just two wickets for victory, and Australia needing 107 very improbable runs. A win for England is a formality. They have a pace attack of Flintoff, Hoggard, Harmison and Jones, all at the peak of their powers. The sun has invited itself to join with the impending English celebrations.
Standing in front of them are the tail-enders of Australia. These aren’t any tail-enders though. Brett Lee and Shane Warne face a barrage of hostility, the ball not just flying towards their stumps, but their ribs, throats and heads. They battle and battle, and the formality of victory becomes questionable.
The murmurs of the crowd can also be heard in Rawalpindi. The chatter in the living room takes brief pauses. It is no longer just myself and my uncle with our eyes glued to the screen. It is my sister, my aunt, my mother, my cousins. England are desperate, and so are Australia. England’s calls to the cricketing gods are finally answered when Warne perishes. England rejoice but their job is yet to be finished.
Michael Kasprowicz walks out to bat. He is only playing because in the pre-match warm-up, Australia’s great fast bowler Glenn McGrath rolls over his ankle. Kasprowicz shouldn’t be here and yet he is. He is in the position of winning his country a Test match. England remain favourites, but they can’t break through. They are nervous. They are so so nervous. My uncle is fidgeting. The England fans are fidgeting. The wills of Kasprowicz and Lee are not. They are defying everything. As every run ticks over, hearts pump faster and the silence of the living room is deafening. Australia are now just three runs from the win to end all wins. They are one shot away, one trickled edge to the boundary away, towards breaking the spirit of every Englishman.
Steve Harmison has the ball. Harmison isn’t the most accurate bowler in the world. But he is frightening, he is quick and he is volatile and he can knock your block off. His job here is simple, get a wicket. Please, just get the wicket. He runs in. The arms wind up. The ball doesn’t kiss the turf, it thumps it. It flies towards the chest of Kasprowicz. The man who has fought for his country takes evasive action. He hangs his bat out to dry.
All that is left is for England’s wicket-keeper Geraint Jones to get to the ball. To get there and catch the ball. The jaws of everyone in the living room are momentarily suspended. The ball drops into the gloves of Jones.
Our jaws drop. I leap from the staircase, my uncle enters some sort of jig and the feeling is a rush, which will forever remain indescribable. We are in Rawalpindi but we are also at Edgbaston. We are watching cricket and yet we’re also at the theatre. Lee and Kasprowicz are down on their haunches, heartbroken as they are left at the altar. Harmison and his team-mates erupt. They are all over the pitch, screams that are more of relief than joy. Amidst the celebrations, Flintoff kneels to console his opponent Lee. He wishes to heal the man he has tried to break. It is love. It is war. It is anguish. It is terror. It is beautiful. It is cruel. It is everything and anything. It makes a Pakistani family in Rawalpindi dance for the efforts of eleven Englishmen. It is Test cricket.
The IPL will soldier on till the 21st May, finishing at what will probably be a packed house at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad. There will certainly be some exciting innings, some big-hitting, spectacular fielding and more. It will be some great television. It just won’t be Test cricket.