HOW TEST CRICKET RECRUITED A NEW FAN

19th December 2020, it was supposed to be the first day of holidays for my five-year-old son, Christmas holidays. The time zone ensured that it was early hours that would upset the entire day’s schedule.

Pink ball cricket. On Day one, he saw it briefly after his return, on day two of the test match he saw Pat Cummins rip through Prithvi Shaw’s defences, and before he could watch more of it, stumps were called. So, the Saturday of 19th December would have been an ideal opportunity to show and explain Test cricket in detail to my son. The timings of the Pink Test were best suited for his sleeping hours.

He had questions, and I thought the best way to learn is while watching the game.

The unforgettable 36 happened just as my son woke up. He watched Australia chase down the target, and it was an opportunity lost, there was not enough time to explain the intricacies of Test cricket. As an Indian cricket fan, I was hurting, and he could sense that, and said, “India played badly, right?”

“It is a bad result, and there are three more Test matches to go,” I replied.

CHRISTMAS AND FEVER

Unlike the previous years, this time Christmas and Fever went hand-in-hand for reasons well-known throughout the world. Switzerland was under mini-lockdown, and the kids (my son and my two nieces)  had a different experience of the holidays. As a family, we embraced the holiday, and I was looking forward to spending the holidays leading up to the new year in Zurich, after 11 years.

Of course, there was cricket and the ease of not having to go out to work.

Living in a tiny landlocked nation of Switzerland, cricket is not one of the sports that comes to one’s mind, and as a father who loves this beautiful sport, I wanted to ensure my son wasn’t behind on this front.

In the days leading to the Melbourne Boxing Day Test, we caught up on some highlights of India’s previous Test matches. He absorbed the new names and kept pestering why individual players who played in the IPL aren’t playing with ‘white shirts.’

BOXING DAY

At 12.30 am Central European Time, the match started. I slept and didn’t watch any action until the last few overs of the day. To see Australia rattled for 195 on the first day of the Boxing Day test match reinvigorated my spirits to change my sleep schedule moving forward.

My son and I watched the highlights, and boy, was he delighted to see the likes of ‘Gill,’ ‘Siraj,’ ‘Pant,’ and ‘Jadeja’ in action. On occasions, we watched the entire innings or crucial passages of play.

Thanks to the subscription these days, one could watch (in my case re-watch) the repeat telecast and this way my son didn’t miss much of the action as he could watch it live. Rahane’s hundred, Jadeja’s sword winding fifty ensured India took the lead.

The rate at which my son absorbed the nuances was remarkable, and it always ended in questions. Why is Kohli not playing, he played the previous match. Who is the captain of the team?

Why doesn’t Rahane captain the Delhi Capitals team? Isn’t that wide? How come no free hits after a no-ball?

They are playing slow, and bowlers are not taking wickets.

And, the best of all, why does Paine keep saying ‘bowling Gary’?

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The concept of ‘lead’ is an integral part of Test cricket. Both teams play out the first innings to ensure they take the lead, while the second innings are all about maintaining the lead.

In the end, a team with a lead after the second innings for both teams wins the match. In some cases, one doesn’t need the fourth inning.

The explanation became easy; India won because they scored more than Australia. The series tied at 1-1. By the end of the second Test, Pujara and Vihari, the two-non Iimited over players were etched to his vocabulary. And the test match ended on Day four.

THE NEW YEAR AND THE PINK TEST

It was status-quo when it came to events that were happening around the world. Vaccine administration started to raise the hopes for a better future, and amidst all this, many forgot they still had to deal with the present, and that’s the hardest part.

By the time the pink Test started, his school had resumed, and he had a tough time waking up in the initial days. The test match’s commentary was enough to make him get out of bed, get ready, and the day’s play got over around the same time as he had to leave for school. It worked out perfectly.

Navdeep Saini, Rohit Sharma, David Warner and Will Pucovski played the Test.  Australia took the lead and going into the final day, my son asked, how long do they keep playing. This Test gave him the answer as both teams had to play the fifth day, the last of a Test match for the first time in the series.

Rohit Sharma and Gill provided the start, Pujara led the resistance, Pant gave hope while Vihari and Ashwin guarded the fort to ensure the match ended in a draw against a threatening bowling line-up.

Now, what was a draw? And how do you explain to a five-year-old? Once again, the world of games came to my rescue. From time-to-time, my son and I play chess. He is learning, and occasionally I lose, however most of the time I win. Sometimes I ensure the game reaches a point where we are left with set pieces that result in neither a win nor a loss, hence ‘a draw’ – a conclusion where both teams have won and not won at the same time.

By comparing the parallels between chess and cricket, it was easy to explain the concept of a draw in Test cricket. It isn’t’ a tie, and so far, he knows all ties in cricket are broken by a super over.

He doesn’t know about the 1960 Brisbane Test and 1986 Chennai Test. He will get to this slowly and in time.

IT’S ALL HAPPENING AT THE GABBA

The government announces that the ‘mini-lockdown’ open to multiple interpretations will be extended until February. In cricket, it was a trip to the Australian fortress, the Gabba at Brisbane.

No Bumrah, no Ashwin, no Jadeja and in came the two debutants, Washington Sundar, T. Natarajan and Shardul Thakur, playing in his second Test match after he injured himself in his debut Test match.

The fourth test match was a re-enactment of David and Goliath in a field that has traditionally favoured the Goliath. If India were to lose the Test match, and the series 1-2, it would not have created major headlines or attracted the critics’ wrath as long as they remained in the game for most parts of the five days.

For Australia’s score of 369, India replied, falling short of Australia by 33 runs. Honours even after first innings, with a little over two days left.

A draw or an Australian win seemed the only two possibilities with the weather playing a role towards the end. At lunch on Day five, India stood one per cent chance of winning, while draw seemed the most favourable one with 75% and Australia 24%.

Two sessions left, and 62 overs to be bowled—245 runs to win at a rate close to four an over.

It was three in the morning, and my eyes didn’t flinch, my mantra for each delivery was, one ball at a time. I was in a trance, a sort of Pujara-esque, intensely focussed on every aspect of each delivery that was bowled. I relaxed seconds after the delivery was released until the bowler went back to his run-up, repeat the same thing each ball.

It was meditative, and when there was a break, I closed my eyes for the interval duration. It was back to resuming my duties as a fan for another 25 overs. The umpire called tea with India needing 145 runs in 37 overs at less than four runs an over. Australia needed seven wickets and a new ball due in 17 overs.

ALL FOUR RESULTS POSSIBLE

My son woke up at the start of the third session; he came to me with an evil smile. My trance was disturbed, and I was out of rhythm for a few minutes. As a parent, one has to be good at reacting. No amount of preparation or planning can help if you don’t respond on time.

My son started asking questions, he was like, why any wickets aren’t falling, and I had to explain what was at stake. Wickets will help Australia win, chasing the runs will win it for India. Or else, there might be a draw. I was about to say, maybe a tie, and I stopped myself from uttering that term.

He calmed down, and I moved around in between deliveries to get him ready. No, it isn’t such an issue. I am mentally tuned to work between deliveries or even study. He had his breakfast by the time the new ball was taken. Cummins to bowl, and the next few overs can decide which way the match was heading.

Pujara out and 118 deliveries were in play.

Six wickets left and a round figure of 100 still needed for India.

Pant and Agarwal, the new man at the crease, went about to win the match. Agarwal had a brain fade, he scooped it straight to Wade, and Cummins towards the end of his marathon spell raised hopes for Australia. Crucially, 33 runs were added.

Pant for India, Cummins for Australia, and it seemed only two results were possible. India winning or Australia winning.

My son was now putting on his gear for school. There was time, with a flurry of boundaries, my son could witness what would be a historic finish.

Sundar took on Cummins, Pant went after Lyon, and my half-hearted meditative trance was completely thrown off. Pant dictated it, he took it upon himself and sooner I gave in, the better it was. The southpaw dictated the match and my mind.

India reaches 302 with 37 deliveries left in the Test match. Twenty-six runs, surely there isn’t a twist to this fairy tale, a fleeting thought.

The four byes off Lyon is an indicator that it isn’t Australia’s day. After completing the over, the deficit was further reduced by 15 runs, India needed 24 runs.

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I am at the door watching my son as he put on his cap, shawl, his traffic band, and his snack box.

In between, the flow of commentary makes it possible for me to run back to watch the action. I would have made my son stay longer if there wasn’t a German class, 30 minutes before the kindergarten started. Reluctantly he left, one of the tasks from the morning was ticked.

Hazlewood to Pant, two runs off two consecutive deliveries and in between I checked to see if my son had crossed the road and was he walking towards the kindergarten.

Pant takes a single off the third delivery. Hazlewood to Sundar, five wickets to take, 19 runs for India. The memories of Hazlewood taking five wickets for eight deliveries crossed my mind, but the four leg byes off the next ball brushed aside that thought.

The runs were coming in a hurry; five runs more added to the total bringing down the equation to ten runs.

And, then Sundar lost it for a moment, Lyon took his 399th scalp. Four wickets left. Pant takes on Hazlewood, scores a boundary, safely hands the strike to Thakur. Two more runs and Thakur mistimes his flick, one more wicket. From an Indian perspective, Pant crossed over. Two balls from the over, will Pant be able to take the strike?

A wide delivery, intentionally bowled by Hazlewood to ensure Pant doesn’t go off-strike. It was late in the day, Hazlewood was bowling the last delivery of his 22nd over, he tries to bowl wide of the off-stump, doesn’t get it right, a full toss timed down the ground, they take one, they scamper for the second, and before they start the third run, the ball trickles to the boundary. Siraj and Shaw start running towards the middle.

India wins the Test match, the fortress of Gabba breached, and importantly India wins the series.

A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME WIN

Seldomly we label events in our lives as once-in-a-lifetime unless you are a person who is habitually into using such clichés.

The words “Can’t wait to get to the Gabba” must have been echoing in an endless loop on Paine’s mind. How fitting it would have been if Ashwin were to be at the crease when India hit the winning runs, maybe it tasted even better without Ashwin, India’s most experienced bowler and player.

I was nervous watching the 2001 Test match in Chennai when Harbhajan Singh hit the winning runs off Glenn McGrath, here, I wasn’t anxious, I had no control over my emotions, Pant had owned it, for most of the final two hours.

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In the Western Hemisphere, the cricketing world woke up to this stunning display of cricket by Indians who lived in a bubble for the past four months. First, it was in the Middle-East during the IPL and immediately after that in Australia. Personal sacrifices only make this victory taste sweeter.

Working with IPL closely, I had come to know first-hand about the progress and processes placed by the BCCI. The back-to-back series wins in Australia are no fluke, or down to sheer luck, every achievement though seemed impossible has a backstory, a narrative worth discovering.

My son missed it, and after his return, his first question was, unsurprisingly, how much did Pant score? I had assured him that I would show him the repeat of the action he missed in the morning.

He rejoiced and saw the match, and I relived watching him enjoy as India chased down the target. He starts running, jumping saying Pant scores 89 and imitates what Pant does on the field, buoyed by the win.

My five-year-old, Test cricket’s newest fan!

One month on, India finished victorious after an embarrassing display when all went wrong on Adelaide’s Test’s third morning. At 36, I saw that score of 36 as a one-off anomaly. From what we know in life, the moment passes, the memories remain, once the hangover of the defeat settles, the next challenges present itself. You are continuously defined by how you handled the challenges, especially after the failure.

Yes, we must enjoy this victory for as long as possible as such successes are rare in cricket, and these experiences are once-in-a-lifetime.

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