500th Test, the Monk’s cap and a ’90s Test cricket loving hopeless hipster

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Cap on against the Black Caps: Vijay goes old school at Kanpur

First things first, Kane Williamson will become one of the finest modern era captains. Not that he has much competition but the diminutive Kiwi displayed immense leadership to snatch the control from India on Day 1 at Kanpur.

Then again, he might end up being whitewashed in this series.

Test cricket is back in India and after a long time, I did nothing but watch cricket. I did express my ‘expert’ opinion on Twitter but I had no alerts to send, no ticker to fire, no copies to write, no galleries to compile and I couldn’t care less about Virat Kohli’s new hairstyle.

Instead, the day was spent admiring Neil Wagner’s doggedness, Cheteshwar Pujara’s comeback, Mitchell Santner’s accuracy and Kane’s spirited kaptani.

However, my biggest takeaway from Day 1 was Murali Vijay’s cap.

The Indian opener went past his fifty and asked for his cap to continue his innings. There were two spinners bowling in tandem but nowadays, not many cricketers ask for the cap while batting.

They shouldn’t, especially after the Phil Hughes incident. But, there’s something enthralling about a batsman when he removes his helmet to opt for his cap.

Cricket is a dangerous game because there’s a hard spherical object hurled at a batsman six times an over. The helmet is a must but the cap brings the batsman closer to the audience. It conveys the message, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’

It also portrays a dash of arrogance.

Remember Michael Clarke, standing on the verge of a hundred on Test debut, asking for his Baggy Green?

For all the strategies and number crunching, it’s hard not to be romantic about Test cricket.

But over the last couple of years, my interest in cricket has dwindled. Not because of T20s. The game has just failed to deliver on the promises it made to me.

Growing up, Test cricket was serious education. As Ian Chappell often says, “Test cricket is aptly named because it tests your skill, your courage and your intelligence.”

And all my life, I’ve been a humble student of Sachin Tendulkar’s hunger, Wasim Akram’s skill, Shane Warne’s showmanship and Rahul Dravid’s determination.

Don’t get me wrong, the modern greats like Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Ravichandran Ashwin, David Warner and AB de Villiers are no less. They’ve taken the game to the next level and Kohli in particular, has set unbelievable fitness goals for every sportsman.

But the education isn’t there anymore.

The sweat’s there. The blood’s there. But, the tears have gone missing.

Cricket, as a game, has become a tad plastic. It’s too perfect. It’s too elaborate. It’s too gaudy and everything is directed towards one goal – winning. Winning is important, trust me it is, but to my limited understanding, Test cricket was not designed with a ‘winner takes it all’ objective.

Test cricket was played to inspire excellence.

At the end of each day, a player came out with a better understanding of the game. A fan came out with a better understanding of life.

India are currently playing their 500th Test match and I, being an ardent Tendulkar fan, have bore witness to almost 200 of them. After Day 1 at Kanpur, I closed my eyes to recollect my favourite memories.

The last few years drew a blank.

It did because now Team India, like most teams, play Test cricket the wrong way. They have got the strategies spot on. They have assembled a strong team. They have Virat Kohli. But somehow, they have failed to keep the heart of Test cricket in place.

Murali Vijay didn’t last long with his cap on but those 10 minutes were a major #Thursdaythrowback to a different era – an era where the finer touches had more meaning than the broad strokes.

India might go on to win the series emphatically but those 10 minutes were special.

Thanks Monk for adding a small image to the imaginary sepia tone montage of a ’90s Test cricket loving hopeless hipster.

MS Dhoni and his race to the finish

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As Jaspreet Bumrah walked away after the 19th over, Virat Kohli ran up to Hardik Pandya. Kohli left after a couple of pats on his back. Suresh Raina arrived. After a brief neck massage, Ashish Nehra was in his ears. By the time Pandya reached MS Dhoni, everyone had a twitchy bum. They knew what was coming. A famous Dhoni punt.

***

Harbhajan Singh went for 36 in his three. RP Singh was done with his overs. India’s best bowler Irfan Pathan had capped off a brilliant spell. The options left — Yusuf Pathan and Joginder Sharma. India’s new captain didn’t seem flustered as he tossed the ball to the man from Haryana. While entire India screamed -“WTF” in anguish, India’s long-haired captain shouted – “Upaar daalna” and walked back to take his position behind the wicket.

***

Dhoni walks back after a long chat. He didn’t want this. It came to this. He would have preferred Bumrah or Ashwin or Jadeja or Nehra or anyone but a spunky 22-year -14 games-old medium pacer. Bangaldesh had played it perfectly. They pressed India. They have forced Dhoni’s hand. He had to bring Ashwin early. Soumya Sarkar’s assault has messed with his plan. As Pandya ran in, the nerves jangled. Wide and full — Mahmudullah steers it past point looking for a two. Rohit Sharma sprints like a gazelle and keeps it to one. Nehra sprints up with his advice. Dhoni prowls behind the stumps. His discomfort visible, surprisingly.

***

It’s never comfortable when you have Ishant Sharma on the other end while you’re chasing 15-runs in the last over. MS Dhoni had been farming the strike — pushing singles, denying singles. He wanted to take the game deep. He had. Now, he had to deliver. Shaminda Eranga ran up. Full and wide outside off-stump. Dhoni swung. Dhoni missed. Dhoni tightened his velcro.

***

The pressure showed on Pandya. Wide half-volley outside off-stump. Mushfiqur Rahim goes deep into his crease and away she went through covers. Pandya needed help. Hardik needed Mahi bhai. Time for a mid-pitch conference.

***

Six off three — Vinay Kumar on strike. Lasith Malinga steamed in. Dhoni at the non-strikers end looked calm. He hadn’t been timing it. He had missed the first two. Kumar got one. Dhoni got one. Kumar ran himself out. Dhoni on strike. Umesh Yadav had walked in. Four needed to win. Dhoni had to muscle it out, somehow. Malinga fired it in, wide. Dhoni stretched out on one leg, reached it and scooped it over extra-cover.

***

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Dhoni doesn’t like talking. With Pandya, he has to. He wants him to listen to the plan. Memorise it. Execute it. Pandya – sporting a dazed look – runs in and delivers. Back of length. Mushfiqur swivels, gets a bottom edge. Dhoni dives, in vain. As the balls rolls over the boundary, Dhoni lies flat on the ground. Mushfiqur lets out a roar, punches the air and celebrates. Bangladesh isn’t losing this. Bangladesh can’t lose this. Surely, not from here.

***

13-runs needed off the last over. Xavier Doherty had bowled a gem of an over — got wickets, kept runs in check and bowled dots to Dhoni. Clint McKay read Ashwin’s movements. Dot. McKay followed Ashwin again. Single. Dhoni on strike. McKay made the mistake. Length.

***

Nehra’s talking. He talks some more. A little bit more. Mushfiqur loses his cool. Slaps the ball high up in the air. The Bangla tigers let off a desperate cry. Wasn’t needed Mushy. Shikhar Dhawan settles under the ball. Mahmudullah has crossed. India still can’t win this. India shouldn’t win this.

***
Dot, six, wide, wide. What is wrong with Dhoni? – the crowd yelled – Why Ishant? England was romping home with Eoin Morgan guiding the ship. Then, the English fleet hit the iceberg. Morgan, Bopara, gone. Both caught by Ashwin. Hang on. When did MS move him from mid on to square leg?

***

Two runs off two balls — surely Mahmudullah has got this. Pandya has to get it right. Full toss. Knee-height. Mahmudullah goes for glory. Six? Four? Will it land safe? Ravindra Jadeja runs, turns and pouches it. Super catch under pressure. Heck, brilliant. Hang on. When did MS swap Dhawan with him?

What happened next will be played on a loop in every TV channel, for years to come. In international cricket, you don’t win games. You win moments. MS Dhoni is a master of moments. He senses it before most. He sees it coming and when he does, he pounces on it. Just like he threw away his keeping gloves before the last ball. Just like he asked Pandya ‘not’ to bowl a yorker. Just like he beat a young fast bowler in a 30-yard sprint.

Call him lucky. Call him smart. Call him whatever you want but in a race to finish he seldom comes second and the legend of Dhoni grows richer with every passing game. He is the ultimate finisher — with bat, with the keeping gloves and with his supercomputer brain. Forget the fat lady, it’s not over until MS Dhoni decides to finish it.