The greatest game in the world

Batting is hard. Anyone who has played any serious cricket knows this.

It is an unnatural thing to do: bend over at that curious angle with a piece of wood in your hands, and try to play a ball coming at you with speed, not to mention the bowler’s skill. To do it for more than 5 overs - helmet on head, the Indian sun beating down, and on matting pitches that behave in any way they want - is to subject yourself to a kind of torture most people spend their lives avoiding. But we, those who play this game or have played it, love it. We love it because it means something. We love it because of the feeling of removing the helmet and the pads and the numerous guards after a long stay at the wicket. It’s the satisfaction of achievement, of something we can’t name.

On Day 5 at the Gabba, Cheteshwar Pujara batted. He took blows everywhere, and at least one finger probably needs more medical assistance. But he batted. He has done this before, of course, and has won us games and series, including the last one in Australia. But this series, he has been Australia’s arch-nemesis, not because he made more runs, but because he refused to get out. They had to bowl the balls of the series at him to get him to leave, and even that wasn’t enough on the last day. Young Pant’s exploits will become legend, as they should, but he was able to do what he did because a man from the dust bowls of western India turned up against the world’s best bowling attack, and wouldn’t go away.

Bowling is hard. Fast bowling, even harder.

When a fast bowler lands, four or five times his body weight hits his knee and ankle. His foot slides violently ahead, with the force of delivering the ball bringing it slightly back again. All of this happens in seconds. There are stories of fast bowlers of yesteryear not removing their shoes during breaks so as not to get scared by the blood they knew they would see. And yet, we do it too, willingly, amateurs and professionals, alike - we run in and let rip. The thrill of it, the wind in your hair, the batsman in your sights, leaning into your stride, and delivering one that pitches on off and seams away - how do you describe that feeling?

We love it without knowing why, without understanding why our heart leaps as the ball swings or seams or bounces or screams.

In this last test a lean leftie named Thangarasu Natarajan made his debut. This was a man who bowled with a real cricket ball only after he was 20. He had no money to buy shoes as a junior cricketer, and he almost gave up the game. Well-wishers and teammates from his state side encouraged him, and helped him play in Chennai’s well-funded, superbly organised leagues. He bowled there, a lot. He won a place in the Tamil Nadu first-class side. He matured, he bowled with red balls and white, and kept it straight and tight. He made a name for himself in the IPL, but only after a couple of years of being in it. And then he was invited on this series as a net bowler. As he leaves Australia this week to meet his child for the first time, he has reached the pinnacle of the game.

This man, who first bowled on the famed red soil of his home district of Salem, in which grow the mangoes the world waits for every April, is India test cap 300.

These are just two stories from several that this year’s historical tour has thrown at us. There are so many.

Captain Rahane, leader, almost statesman-like; Shardul Thakur, whose heartbreak of a debut test stands forgotten; Mohammed Siraj, all Hyderabad, all heart; young, fearless Sundar; the immensely likeable, audaciously talented Pant; the Punjab rising again, in rebellion and resistance, in the country and on the field, with Gill declaring his arrival; the old warhorse Ashwin showing his experience; Vihari, holding Andhra and India aloft on an injured hamstring: Phew.

What do I write about? See my problem?

But I’m also lying. I knew what I was going to write about.

In 2005, I watched the series which sealed the primacy of test cricket in my head and heart: Freddie’s Ashes. I have watched cricket for so long after that, lived through the Indian limited overs victories of 2007 and 2011, watched the Stokes miracle at Headingley, and the Sri Lankan triumphs in South Africa. The game has changed, and there’s also a lot of it. They way we watch it has changed, the way we listen to it has changed, the speed of it is has changed.

And that change meant something else too.

Whether we admit it or not, test cricket was waning. The younger, newer nations are concentrating on the slam-bang versions that are televised, and which presents their players with superstardom. They are not to blame at all. They are responding to the incentives, financial and social, that they see.

Fans always worried that this would happen, that this game of attrition, resilience, and skill, this beloved form of our game, would fade away into irrelevance, into something only richer nations play. This fear of ours - that the romance of the five-day game, of long-drawn battles, of ebbs and flows, of cricket at its purest - would be denied to newer, younger fans, is something we carry, even if we don’t say it out loud.

And this is what gives me most joy after this series - not India winning, not all that absolutely marvellous cricket, not all these stories.

No, what gives me joy is that another generation has seen what test cricket can be. And what test cricket can be is life itself - it sometimes all goes belly up, but if you dig in there and brave the heat and the insults, if you have patience and grit and you watch well what’s being thrown at you, you’ll get your chances, and when you get them, you can take some of them, and when you take some of them, you might have an innings worth remembering - a life worth living.

It’s tough. But test cricket is tough because life is tough: Nothing good comes easy, nothing worth having is easily had.

This is the romance of this game, this is its lesson for life.

In the greatest cricket novel ever written, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman, he writes, “The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.”

The world was astounded these last two months at the melodies our game had to offer. This series, and all the cricketers that played in it, have made sure that more people will come back to listen. Those who love this game can’t ask for more.

Written in January 2021, after the Indian team's victory in the final test of the Border-Gavaskar series in Australia.