The repeat telecast is an important sub genre of world cricket that the fans of the sport can’t possibly do without. Watching an old game on TV is like reliving cricketing history — we are riveted by the narrative unfolding on the screen, despite being fully aware of every twist and every turn, all the progressions of the scorecard, that are to follow. The experience is not unlike revisiting an old, once-read novel that you still cherish. It scarcely matters how the story ends; more important is the fact that we get to rediscover ourselves in the activity of re-reading an old book or, by the same token, reappraising an old game of cricket.
I was barely into my teenage years when I witnessed, live on television, what’s now considered one of the most celebrated games of cricket — a true classic of gladiatorial encounters in any sport— ever played. The series was called the Coca-Cola Cup, a tri-nation tournament between India, Australia and New Zealand, hosted in the badlands of Sharjah, a place where all sorts of gangsters and fixers first realised the true commercial potential of cricket.
The air was thick with intrigue, glamour, the smell of money: all this somehow adding to the already charged atmosphere out there in the middle. New Zealand, obviously and avowedly an underdog, were making a pro-forma appearance, considered a third wheel even before the series had begun. The real competitors were always going to be Australia and India, with the former having a decided edge in the race.
A respectable defeat was what we, Indian fans, were hoping for as the best-case scenario. But then, the winds changed: I remember the interruptions during one of the matches, with Sachin Tendulkar batting on one end, caused by a desert storm – a term that would come to be identified with Sachin’s thrashing of the Aussies during that series and his back-to-back centuries that helped India win. One of the greatest rivalries of cricket was born that day, between Tendulkar and the leg-spinning master wizard Shane Warne. Whenever Warne came to bowl at Tendulkar subsequent to that Sharjah series, you could sense the tension of great colliding forces in the middle — even more so if you were watching not live as part of the stadium audience, but on the television, because on TV you could see their expressions change and their gaze harden as they faced each other.
So it ought to have been a supreme delight for the average sports fan when the two cricketing greats came face to face once again recently for a charity series in, of all places, the United States of America — a setting as unorthodox, though not as scandalous, for hosting a cricket match as Sharjah once was. Cricket All-Stars Series opened earlier this month with an exhibition game between Sachin’s Blasters and Warne’s Warriors, played to a capacity audience in New York City.
There was much media build-up in the days and hours leading up to the inaugural game. “Lots of little rivalries will come alive during this game,” Warne said in a pre-match interview, sitting cosily next to his erstwhile nemesis Tendulkar. And these two weren’t the only ones to watch out for. You had Brian Lara playing in one of the teams; also Allan Donald, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and many more. An All-Stars game to beat all All-Stars games, this was going to be a historic moment in itself — the players on the ground, luminaries of the highest order in the history of the game, were poised to make history all over again. Or so we were told.
Exhibition games are great as public-relations exercises, charity events or spectacles meant to push some campaign agenda. As pure sporting encounters, however, they tend to come across as forced, clumsy and awkward enterprises.
But what transpired on the field during the celebrated T-20 game was distinctly less legendary. The match — won by Warne’s team, but that is just a detail — was a disappointment, fair and square. What else were we to expect, though? There are legitimate reasons as to why sportspersons retire; the ebbing of physical strength and sporting ability being not the least of them. And watching All-Star games is one way of telling ourselves why timely retirement of cricket players is a wonderful idea.
At the New York game, Tendulkar opened the innings with Virender Sehwag, and just as he was beginning to get his eye in, Sehwag got his eye in and straight away stole the show. It started to rain sixes as Sehwag hit Donald and Walsh and Ambrose — spent forces all — out of the ground for cricketing equivalents of homeruns (the game, after was, was being played at a baseball stadium). One of the commentators, Ajay Jadeja, taking into account Sehwag’s total domination of the bowling unit, said that it was somewhat unfair that a batsman who has until recently been playing domestic cricket was facing bowlers who had retired from all forms of the sport more than a decade ago. But the crowd, mostly South Asians with barely a white face visible on the stands, loved this one-sided contest.
As for that other significant “little rivalry” between Tendulkar and Warne, it turned out to be a none-sided contest, won eventually — again, just another detail — by the bowler. Just as Sachin wasn’t able to connect most of his shots, not finding the middle of the bat as a matter of course, Warne wasn’t able to get his line or length right. It’s tough to imagine a leg-spinner bowling back of the length on a flat wicket and a batsman not being able to dispatch him into the stands on a consistent basis. Which was exactly what was happening here: while Warne repeatedly bowled short, Sachin repeatedly missed. Worse, the little master even holed out on a short delivery, towards mid off, at 26 from 27 balls. Could have been worse; could have been better.
But the point remains: such exhibition games are pointless for the most part. They are great as public-relations exercises or charity events or spectacles meant to push some campaign agenda. As pure sporting encounters, however, they tend to come across as forced, clumsy and awkward enterprises, managing not to so much to help fans relive their memories as, for some of us, turning those memories sour. The last thing we want to remember about our sporting heroes is their bungling on-field struggles to at least partially live up to the standards they’d once set themselves. We want our heroes to stay heroic, and so we’re better off watching the many repeat telecasts of the Sachin-versus-Warne faceoff in Sharjah any day, than pin our hopes on the possibility of the old magic returning somewhere on a baseball pitch in New York.