A Moment in (Indian) Time

The early stages of the first session after lunch on the third day of the first Test between India and England at Lord’s in July 2011 was a period of play which will live long in the memory of anyone who saw it.

This was how I saw it.

Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, Saturday 23rdJuly 2011, 1.36 p.m. (British Summer Time).

As the lunch interval draws to a close the atmosphere in the Long Room bubbles with conversation, heavy footsteps and lightly suppressed excitement.  The rear of the room, where the players walk from either end on their way from the dressing rooms to the field, is segregated with a rope to prevent anyone getting too close to the combatants.  Here people are required to know their place.

From the far end of the room the England team emerges, following the umpires, Asad Rauf and Billy Bowden, onto the field.  Clapping, closely followed by cheers, echoes around the room, but it remains unacknowledged, if not unappreciated.  The England players, most of whom are wearing dark glasses, stare straight ahead.  It is a grey afternoon and a little cool for July, but, as is customary during Lord’s Tests, the crowd has eaten and drunk well.  Bonhomie hangs in the air like the clouds above the ground, but the players of both sides are serious.  They are at work.

At the opposite end of the room the applause from the stairs filters in.  The two Indian batsmen are on their way down.  They enter the room with a similar air of preoccupation, although there are discernible differences in their demeanour.

First there is Rahul Dravid.  A native of the city of Bangalore in southern India, he has played in 154 Test matches and has scored more than twelve thousand runs.  In this innings he has just fifteen to his name.  Before lunch he was settling in at the crease, but now he needs to do so again.  He is a slim, serious man with distant eyes which carry the memories of thousands of hours at the crease.  On the dusty, unforgiving grounds of his homeland, on the palm-fringed greens of the West Indian islands and of Sri Lanka, on the fast tracks of Australia, where players’ reflexes are tested to their very limits.  This, batting, is what he does.

Following a few steps behind is Sachin Tendulkar.  He has spent the majority of his life playing cricket for a living and has played in more Test matches, with more runs and centuries, than anyone else in the history of cricket.  He is a small, stocky man, carrying a little surplus weight.  An infant prodigy on the edge of middle age.  His body language is more private, less optimistic, than Dravid’s.  It is possible that he is already feeling the effects of the virus which will keep him away from the ground on the following day, but it is more likely that his hunched shoulders and downward gaze simply reflect the fact that he is his country’s most famous man and he has spent much of his life away from the cricket field trying to make himself anonymous.  As usual the ground should bring him a sense of sanctuary and freedom, although he will need runs to feel fully at ease.  At the moment he has made just ten, and he is playing at a ground where, unusually, he has never known success.

James Anderson, with the Lord’s pavilion behind him, takes the ball.  Tendulkar is facing, and he guides the first ball between the slips and gully for four.  The stroke is controlled but there is still a slight air of uneasiness about him.  He is searching for the warm embrace of form and it is elusive.  Off the fourth ball of the over Tendulkar strokes the ball through the leg side for another four.  It is an easy shot for a player of his ability, but it is played with a style and timing which causes the crowd’s collective pulse rate to briefly quicken.  While the majority of the crowd are supporting England, many of them would love to see Tendulkar make his one hundredth century in international cricket, and their hopes, seduced by weeks of media coverage, are hostage to the progress of his innings.  In the next over, bowled from the Nursery End by Chris Tremlett, Tendulkar hits the ball on the up through the covers for four. The feeling of impermanence begins to fade a little.

At the other end Dravid is the epitome of polished control.  His stance is compact, his eyes level, his strokeplay measured and decisive.  He picks up a boundary off Tremlett and then three in an over off Anderson.

The players meet in the middle of the pitch at the end of each over.  Dravid is expressive and relatively animated, his raised arm describing the path of the swinging ball.  Tendulkar is still restrained, absorbing what his partner has to say.  These men have batted together through many of the world’s summers, and, as in any relationship which has lasted for years, there are times when no words are necessary.  In the modern vogue they touch gloves as they part. When they began batting together some fifteen years ago, batsmen didn’t do this, but Dravid and Tendulkar have not gained their immense reputations by being unable to embrace the game’s changing conventions.

Graeme Swann replaces Anderson at the Pavilion End.  His first over is steady, tight, conceding just a single to Dravid.  At the other end Tremlett is starting to develop an aggressive rhythm, pounding his feet into the dry turf and grunting as he delivers the ball. Tendulkar remains a little circumspect and tentative, and Dravid paints an emphatic contrast with his partner when he elegantly strokes Swann through the covers for four in his second over to raise his score to 42.

Strauss rings the changes once more, bringing Stuart Broad on to replace Tremlett.  Tendulkar, now on 34, is able to leave two of the over’s first three deliveries, but the fourth is straighter and slightly full, drawing him into a firm-footed drive.  The ball barely swings, but it holds its own and takes the edge of Tendulkar’s bat.  Graeme Swann drops to one knee and takes a low catch at second slip with some ease.

As the England players celebrate, Tendulkar returns slowly to the pavilion.  His head is held high, but this is partly because he spends the early stages of his walk looking to the heavens, regretting his shot.  It is uncommon for Tendulkar to be defeated by a bowler but it has happened here and his highest score at Lord’s remains a meagre 37.  As he returns to the pavilion he receives his second standing ovation of the day.  The crowd know that there is a possibility that he will never again bat at Lord’s in a Test match, although it seems more probable that he will have a second opportunity in this game.

The forty-eight minutes between the end of the lunch interval and Tendulkar’s dismissal has been an interlude, a departure from reality.  The conjunction at the wicket of two great players whose careers are nearer to their conclusion than their commencement, but who are still very far from batting from memory.

After Tendulkar has gone, and the applause has died down, India bat for most of the rest of the day without notable fluency or permanence.  Dravid, though, is an exception to this.  Before the day’s end he reaches his thirty-third Test century, and, when the Indian innings closes on 286 with him undefeated on 103, he receives his own standing ovation.

It is something that he will remember for the rest of his life.

Different Shades of Green, 31st July 2011

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