Monday, December 27, 2010
Twenty four winters ago. Sunil Gavaskar late cut Izah Faqih and ran down the wicket with his bat raised to the sky, celebrating his 10000th run in Test Cricket. He would have liked to go on and make the occasion memorable by scoring his 35th Test Century, but, as shadows lengthened in Ahmedabad, Imran Khan brought one back and trapped the great man leg before wicket for 63.
Border, Steve Waugh, Lara, Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis and Dravid have gone past the monumental milestone since then. To the modern day spectators of the blaring brouhaha called IPL, Sunil Gavaskar may have become some tubby old guy who complains on the microphone about everything that the governing bodies of cricket or the modern batsmen do. But to the connoisseurs, his name is etched as a glittering star on cricket's increasingly fickle walk of fame.
Soon, Sachin Tendulkar will be planting his all conquering insignia on summits till very recently unseen and unknown. Cricket's decimal system will be recalibrated as he completes 15000 Test runs and a hundred international centuries. In both the cases he will be the first and may patrol the singular peaks alone for years to come, maybe till eternity.
All these feats are unique. The dimensions of the cricketing Everest have been redrawn, the eternal journey to improve the skills associated with the game has seen the once unscalable pinnacles revised and reset over and over again.
It was just before the second world war that, at Manchester, Walter Hammond caught the West Indian wicket keeper Derek Sealy at slip off Bill Bowes to snap up his one hundredth catch in Test Cricket. It was the setting of a cricketing landmark which has to be reached along the most patient, persevering and painstaking paths.
A hundred catches is a measure of the fieldsman's longevity, endurance and continual vigilance. The one who is entrusted to stand in those key positions long enough to create a hundred opportunities to be pouched must of need be the safest pair of hands in a side. Before the days of the credit crisis, the proverbial phrase for these stalwarts would be 'safe as a bank'. And to ensure that they play long enough to continue catching what comes their way that many times, they have to excel at whatever they do to earn their place in the side. All great catchers were wonderful cricketers, even aside from their catching. Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene, to Gary Sobers, Shane Warne, Ian Botham and Biran Lara, to Walter Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Sachin Tendulkar, Greg Chappel … a hundred or more catches is a roll call of sublime greatness.
And what can one say of someone who has created another Everest on top of the summit of the first one and has climbed it with the calm assurance of unfailing hands?
When the situation does demand, he is not incapable of some of the most athletic movements. Be it catching Herschelle Gibbs at Kolkata in 1996, or Damien Fleming at Adelaide in 2004, or Paul Collingwood at Mohali in 2006 or Dale Steyn at Durban 2010 for his 200th, he can fling himself and take blinders that often leave others short of breath but not him.
It is characterised by his preference for the first slip. After the few initial steps that he took prowling the cover point where he neatly pouched stunners like Lance Klusener at Kanpur 1996, or the beginner's binding forward short leg, where he hurled himself over the same batsman to catch him in Cape Town the following year, he settled down in the first slip and accounted for a major proportion of the wickets of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
As his expertise grew and he stamped his authority as one of the premier slippers in the history of the game, the very best produced by India, he went about it in the same underplayed accomplished manner than characterises everything about him.
He has already climbed past the peak scaled by Sunny Gavaskar's bat and has gone well beyond. And the more his bat has conversed and negotiated with the most vicious of the questions posed by the lethal bowlers of his time, he has kept his thoughts more and more to himself. No Indian batsman barring, arguably, the rejuvenated Sachin Tendulkar, has won more test matches with the bat than him. Yet he has probably spoken less in his entire career than a Gavaskar or a Ganguly has done after single milestones.
Likewise, his catching has also progressed in steady, sometimes sublime, steps. After a spellbinding effort, he seldom carries the ball all the way to the crowd, teeth bared, fists clenched, pumping up adrenaline and popular imagination. After the brief celebrations with the bunch of guys who understand his value more than anyone else – his ten cronies on the ground – he dusts himself, adjusts his cap, mentally prepares himself for the next ball and takes up his position in the slip for any other snick that may come his way.
It was only today, when he snapped up Dale Steyn for his 200th, that he went into a scampering run, celebrating a catch as never before, ending up on Harbhajan’s lap. And he did have his reasons. He had scaled a peak two fold, redrawn the yardsticks that define the game. For once, the unassuming image indulged in celebration.
But, this is one record that will stick like the snicks and edges that have always stuck in his wonderful hands. The first man to reach a double century of catches – from a nation not really known for brilliant fielding. He has not just scaled the Everest, he has discovered a new one in unknown horizons and reached the summit. It is an occasion when even a Wall can afford to display emotions and run wild.