May 13, 2012

Into The Heart of Fandom

The street, the local ground, and my living room - the three places I think of when I think of cricket. 

More than anything else, for me, it has been about watchability, players who I would skip meals for. My peers included a friend who loved spinning the ball a huge amount, a batsman who would be pissed if he did not get to hit a boundary of every loose delivery he faced, and a pace bowler who would forever be frustrated with the 'umpire' for his reluctance to give an LBW in his favor. And the same somehow spilled on to the international scene. I loved players in the same mold for some reason. My idea of watchability has remained more or less the same since my first remembrance of the game (at the age of 7, the 96 WC). For me, elegance, class, and a joy celebrating the spirit of the game are the most important features of the players I enjoy; aggression and explosiveness come later, almost as a by-product. That said, I will acknowledge a few prejudices - I do not enjoy T20 too much, I adore the 50 over game, find the 1st and 4th innings of test matches to be fantastic to watch, and think that the post 2003 era has been much less enjoyable than the period before that. 

When a close friend asked me to rate the best players of our era, I was slightly conflicted about the route the analyses should tread. Should I just give my favorites, with all the prejudices, or go for a more nuanced argument. For a lot of what I love about cricket comes from little special niches. These special niches give me some blind-spots, but more often, they provide a lens for viewing the cricketing world through the eyes of fandom; a unique fandom which I refuse to sacrifice as I understand the nuances and expertise of the game better. So try as you may, you can never convince me that Steve Waugh is a better batsman than Mark, even if you go back in time and invoke the spirit of Border and Barrington. I would concede Steve to be a more useful and match-winning middle order test batsman, but that's as far as I will go. In the same vein, in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to make known all such notions I have on cricketing lore.

I have always been a huge South Africa fan, although in the last few years, they did become a tad bit tedious. No worries, however, Steyn, Morkel and Philander have put things back on track finally. The team which had Cullinan, McMillan, Donald, Pollock, Jonty, Kallis, Klusener, Symcox and Cronje will forever be my favorite ODI team. Daryll Cullinan's batting was a sight of exemplary splendor, something to be savored even after he got out, and I looked forward to his innings every time SA played. Rhodes' fielding was uplifting, a thing of beauty. Pollock was so reliable, skilled and accurate, from a gene pool of Graeme and Peter Pollock. And Allan Donald. What A Bowler. A beautiful classic action, a wonderful shape on the ball, and a spirit to match the best batsmen in history. Kallis can be cumbersome to watch, but his sheer grit and technique are highly praiseworthy, not to mention that cover drive, with a posture fit for a classical Greek statue. He is quite easily the second greatest batting all-rounder of all time, and that is no mean feat. Graeme Smith has also been a revelation as an opener, one of four modern great openers. 

I had a soft spot for the Australian team under Mark Taylor, admiration for the Steve Waugh side, and quiet contempt for Ponting's champions. Ponting himself I do not have much time for as a sportsman. He is a man who has no qualms about taking the grey road if it leads towards victory. That, in itself, signifies a certain lack of the stuff immortals are made of. I would never term him an equal to Lara or Tendulkar in my head.Call it prejudice maybe, but I don't think so. I usually like winners very much - Waugh, Warne, McGrath, Sachin, Sehwag, Dhoni all of them and many more. But Punter does not enter their range. He is a very good batsman, of course, quite splendid in fact. For much of the 2000s, he was supremely dominant, displaying a purple patch better than anybody else in history apart from Bradman. His pull shot is probably the best I will ever see, and nobody trumps him when it comes to making a match-winning first innings century. But he won't make my greatest XIs.

On the other hand, Warne will always be a favorite. He had a kind of gypsy flavor in his bowling - slight bits of magic, mystic, and always tantalizingly bold. McGrath was the only fantastic pace bowler after Ambrose-Wasim-Donald-Waqar, and in effect he has surpassed all of them with his brilliance. His awesome accuracy sometimes hid his immense range and diversity. His wicket taking abilities are matched only by his match changing ability. A point to that effect, the greatest defeat Australia suffered with him was the 2005 Ashes, both in the tests he didn't play in. Mark Waugh, though, was my first Aussie favorite. A wonderful leg side player, almost sub-continental in his elegance there. The only other who ever came close to Mark in my opinion was Damien Martyn, whose grace was enthusiastic and easy to watch, though Michael Clark is doing a fine job as of now. Matthew Hayden has been a colossus of opening in these uncertain times. Bevan, one of my blind spots, was the finest finisher of the game, and his sheer class shone through in a relentless quest for victory. Langer, Lehmann, Slater, Taylor have all been poor cousins of their more illustrious peers. 

India has been an average test side throughout the years. I was a big fan of Azharuddin's batting, but never thought much of him as a captain; for Ganguly the exact opposite thought comes to mind, while Dhoni I admire for his courage, confidence and composure. Azhar's leg side play is the best of any batsman I have seen along with VVS Laxman and Mark Waugh. Then Dravid captured my attention with some of the classiest, gutsiest, and most integral innings in Indian test history. With his cover to mid-wicket drives he could be a delight to watch. Laxman is someone I regularly skipped meals to watch, particularly in the 2nd innings when he seemed to be at his best. What elegance, what poise, what a touch. His strokes seemed to strike colors onto the cricketing canvas like an eccentric genius who only comes to the party once in a while. In Kumble, I truly found a czar of his art, exciting with the bite of each testing delivery, carrying the torch on from Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. Sehwag came like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, a once in a lifetime master of madness. An enigma who dispatches Murali and McGrath in the same vein as Panesar and Hoggard. It is time to acknowledge his greatness as a product of extraordinary vision and unique temperament. He is also a weak link when it comes to juicy pitches, as the eyes betray the beholder.

For Sachin, there are no words except a 'Thank you, sir'. He defined batting in the 90s, and has redefined the meaning of genius at the age of 39. The man with genius and joy in his soul is the embodiment of what a truly great player is, and can be. The only question which remains is whether he is the greatest ever. For the love of all that's good and pure, I adore Sachin. And if the day comes when he no more strides the cricketing pavillions (I refuse to believe that day will ever arrive. In fact, I bet global warming will end civilization before that happens), something will change, something will break. 

Of Pakistani teams I have had a poor opinion ever since Wasim Akram slipped off the top of his game, somewhere around 1998. This especially holds true for their batting, where even classy batsmen like Inzy and Yousuf have been patchy and uninspired through the last decade. Previously, I had felt a distaste for the Ijaz-Malik-Anwar era. They seemed to play with a frisky, shady attitude rather than one which celebrates the game. Inzy could be sublime when he really put his 'weight' on it, and he is the one I most enjoyed, also the classiest guy of the bunch. Bowlers seem to turn out of their under-19 teams like honey out of a beehive. So many talents - Akhtar, Asif, Tanvir, Amir, Sami, Kaneria, Saqlain and Ajmal. Razzak's fighting spirit through the last decade has been wonderful. Saqlain was a quite marvelous bowler until he self destructed. Amir was all set to become my favorite bowler after that glorious, enchanting, marvelous summer in England, where he swung the pants off the home team. Alas.. And of course there is Wasim Akram, the man himself. The best left arm pacer in history, the master of reverse swing. He was a joy, a gem who gave his best whenever he played. It was only after he faded did Pakistan become such a lawless mess. His strike partner Waqar was slightly past his prime when I started watching, but he was brilliant at his peak. His yorkers are still the deadliest deliveries in cricket history. The only thing I have against him is that he looked too consumed by the hunger for victory to totally respect the opposition players, something that was never an issue for Wasim.

I have never given much thought to Sri Lanka - as in I know they are a good team, but I don't really care about their brand of cricket - it has been too functional and uninspired. They seem to do things just to get to the winning post, and at most times it does not seem to be borne out of elegance and beauty. The two big exceptions being Murali and Aravinda De Silva of course, who were geniuses in their own right, and sometimes Jayawardene when he is at song. Murali has been a smiling assassin, a genius of wicket taking and foxing batsmen all over the world. Perhaps the toughest bowler to face in history. Aravinda was the one Lankan you could never take your eyes off. With a punchy style and fresh aggression, he rose to new heights in a manner which was similar to Cullinan, with panache. I was always highly disappointed with Jayasuriya for placing too little prize on his wicket, especially with his weakness at point. That kind of behavior shows an insufficient sense of love for the game. Sangakkara again exemplifies the functional aspect of Sri Lankan cricket though his cover drives are quite wonderful. Dilshan is too error prone to be considered too highly. One unusual career was Attapatu's. A string of ducks in his first few tests left way for a glorious career. But again, nothing to really speak about when it comes to greatness. Chaminda Vaas was of great service to a nation starved of good pace bowling, but stripped of that, there remains a good bowler, not a great one.

It has been neither possible nor fair to judge New Zealand because the quality of players they produce is not the best. If anything, they have massively overachieved in these times, thanks to some fantastic fighting spirit and heart, which is sometimes in a class of itself. Given that, the all out attitude of Astle, McMillan, Cairns, and Harris was very endearing and massive fun to watch. Shane Bond has been a pacer of huge pedigree, a terror on his day, and brilliant to watch. He is the only one of the trio of Akhtar and Lee who has remained true to the spirit of the great pace bowler, who runs in and wants to tear apart the wickets, and excepting that, the pads.

Of English cricket I have the lowest opinion among the lot. They have insisted on being so conventional it has made me want to grab them and shake them hard. They do not seem to be able to produce players who think out of the box. Their bowlers have been extremely piteous throughout my life, including the likes of Gough, Caddick, Tudor, Hoggard, Harmison, Giles, who can only conjure figments of magic on grassy seaming pitches. The non existence of their spin options has been mortifying and their batting has been insipid, lackluster. Testament to the fact is that their best batsman before Pietersen was the temperamental Vaughan who seemed at sea against quality spin bowling on most occasions. Of course the current crop of players are an exception. Cook and Pietersen can be quite brilliant sometimes, although still very suspect against spin, and an inspired Flintoff was indeed a joy to watch in that Ashes. Swann has been a bit of a savior, and Broad, Anderson and Bresnan are good to watch. So maybe there is hope for them after all. 

Lastly, the sorry tale of the Windies. Considering that they had the magic of Ambrose, Walsh and Lara, it is a shame what happened thereafter. Ambrose is my favorite pacer. He had a presence magnifique, his bowling skills were awe-inspiring and his attitude was full of integrity, and class. He was brilliant to watch thundering in and making the ball move and spit off the pitch. Walsh was a very worthy support to him and later took up the mantle after Ambrose took leave. Lara... is there anybody else who can light up a boring test like Brian Charles Lara. The most stylish batsman I have ever witnessed, he put a smile on every face when he was batting, even the bowlers and fielders. What grace and elegance. I just wish he was a little less temperamental, because then he could have been the greatest.  

My first memories of player awesomeness were captured by Aravinda de Silva, Daryll Cullinan, Allan Donald, Curtly Ambrose, Brian Lara, Jonty Rhodes, Mark Waugh, Azharuddin, and yes, Sachin Tendulkar in the aftermath of that WC. Almost immediately followed Warne, Wasim and Murali. Then Bevan, Dravid, Bond, McGrath, Laxman, Martyn, AB de Villiers and Amir. More than anybody else, though, Tendulkar has left a defining memory and my fandom bows to him, for the memories. So many dreams, so many heroes, so much style, so much courage. 

Now that some of the more brazen opinions are out of way, I hope that my views on the best players of this era are more clear.

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