Gladiatorial combat versus Shakespearean drama

The moment had come and gone, inexorably as it turned out.

Those who were at The Oval that day many years ago would tell you they could have heard a pin drop. Minutes earlier a man with back-brushed hair under dark cap had jogged down the pavilion steps, his approaching 40 years light on his loose white flannels.

Now he was walking back, bat under his left arm, peeling his gloves off as he had done so many times before but agonisingly early this time.

“Silence, absolute silence…,” came the commentator’s voice as Don Bradman exited the beguiling stage.

It was August 1948. Bradman, less than a fortnight away from his 40th birthday, had just been bowled for a duck in what would be his final Test match innings, departed forever from the arena like an ache that precedes emptiness, so pre-eminently dominant he was.

Four more runs would have ensured a never-before average of 100 but providence had resolved to hold back just that much.

Thirty-nine years later, another of the game’s biggest centurions was on the brink of another hundred, grinding out a palpitating struggle towards victory, when a hush fell on the ground.

March 1987, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore. Sunil Gavaskar was on 96 — and India deep into rearguard retrieve against Imran Khan’s Pakistan — when the umpire’s finger went up on the Little Master and the collective expectancy of the nation.

You could have heard a pin drop then too as the import sank in; the series was no longer for the taking. And so it turned out to be.

There is something about memory and the present; they invariably knock hand in glove, like partners in reminiscence.

The two images from the past — one seen on YouTube over and over again, the other both heard and seen — kept coming back as the 2019 Cricket World Cup got under way last month.

The irony is hard to miss: the boundary that eluded The Don and Sunny is the unexceptional norm here; a strolled elegant single barely tolerable.

Sooner than later, you would expect, the pounding to begin; only occasionally, more rare than occasional, would guile get one to slip past the marauding blade. Then the barrage would begin again, as if the game’s genome had already been mapped and sequenced in fours and sixes. Like those that had cannoned off Chris Gayle’s explosive bat that Friday, May 31, the 2019 World Cup’s second match.

Three sixes and six fours had barrelled off the Jamaican’s blade that day. “If you want to get going, bring on Gayle,” someone lathered it on social media.

Were cricket ever to be held up as a metaphor, it must be as a counterpoint. If the modern limited-overs game is breathless affray, more akin to the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome, the five-day act is a battle of attrition or redemption, much as in the high drama of Shakespeare and Sophocles where the end unravels as in life, not always apparent but possible nevertheless.

The game’s shorter version has a riveting pull to it, but it’s the lure of ceaseless action, not the subtle compatibility of the desultory and the dynamic.

It is in the turns, decisions taken or declined, not immediately discernible, where life’s caprice plays out. Or in the second chance that it offers sometimes but passed over often.

One name springs to mind; Steve Waugh at Eden Gardens 2001. Australia, at its seeming apogee of empire, India at its nadir, when Waugh, superstar captain of an all-conquering team, invited the hosts to follow on.

Enter V.V.S. Laxman, wristy and elegant, perhaps a shade laidback, but exquisitely perfect at the point of execution.

There was a tide in the affairs of the game and Laxman, as Brutus advises Cassius in Julius Caesar, had taken it at the flood. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who would have thought that when the Indian openers walked out to bat again that day, 270 runs adrift, Waugh’s invite would trigger a spectacular turnaround? It would halt Australia’s 16-match triumphant run and eventually their bid to conquer the final frontier.

Seldom has a back-to-the-wall fightback produced such a masterpiece of revival. If the previous Test — the first of the three-match series — was annihilation at Thermopylae, to lift an example from the boondocks of history, this has to be cricket’s Battle of Salamis.

Fate has its own way of reasserting itself. Like it did long back in the fabled realms of Thebes. Things might have turned out different had Oedipus, prophecy’s fugitive and decoder of the Sphinx’s riddle, spurned the kingdom on immediate offer and a queen much older.

A lasting legacy of the Eden match has been that teams now think twice before enforcing the follow-on.

It is not that the game’s one-day act is bereft of quirks of fortune. Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep in the 1987 Cup final against Allan Border’s Australia was much more than desertion of individual sangfroid. It cost his side the game’s ultimate chalice that had till then eluded England, cricket’s original homeland. That wait ended on a palpitating summer day in 2019.

Younger viewers would remember another instance: in 1999, when Herschelle Gibbs “dropped” Waugh and, in hindsight, maybe the cup too.

Retribution — or reward — is suddener in the 50-over version. It’s the five-day game that comes closest if play is a synonym for life. In the luxury it offers for rumination and leisured pursuit.

Or even in the choice not to press ahead.

Doff your hat, folks, to one man who did that. If ever a sabre sheathed in full flow won the battle for transcendence, it was Mark Taylor, the former Aussie captain, who declared when he was on 334 in deference to The Don.

Sixty-eight years earlier, in 1930, Bradman had made 334 at Leeds. It remained his personal best in Tests.

Test cricket — like life — does offer such scope to step aside, in between moments that come and go.

4 thoughts on “Gladiatorial combat versus Shakespearean drama

  1. Sport is a strange invention of humans, combat without an obvious cause but for intangible glory, a higher calling, somehow, a discipline which calls for a rhythm of the mind and body (and if there is a separate thinking entity called heart). not surprisingly perhaps, sports inspires fine philosophical writing. This piece is one of the best I have read. thank you for writing.


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