Between Pimm’s and Bira
To some folks, Test Match cricket is just an insipid snooze-fest — five days of nothingness, with matches potentially ending in a draw, sporadically disrupted by rain delays and filled with fielding positions that sound more like an insult than a strategy.
Some of these fielding positions include the not-so-grandly named “backward square leg” or “deep third man”, which are met with eyerolls and laughter by non-cricket folks. But hold your horses, skeptics — there’s more to this storied game than meets the eye.
How about a fresh, spanking new “cherry” to bowl and swing or a “rock” to showcase your spin skills? The possibilities are endless, whether you’re a fan of the “green top”, “road”, or “feather-bed” or a “bunsen burner” in a Delhi “dustbowl”. And on those gray, drizzly days in Headingley, watching the bowling masters whip up unplayable “Jaffa” balls or “swing the ball around corners” that trap hapless batsmen “dead” or “plumb” in front of a “castle” or “wickets” is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Of course, the less said about fielding positions such as “silly mid-on” or “silly mid-off”, the better it is.
Sure, it can be confusing — with teams coming in, then out, out, then back in, follow-ons, declarations, and strange terminologies like “googlies” and “zooters” floating around.
But to call this game boring?
The ebbs and flows of a game of test match cricket cannot be denied and must not be ignored. The team who lost the WTC final in 2023, those cricketing stars from India under the command and guidance of Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma were inarguably behind throughout the match, but on days three and four of this five day match, they gave the Indian cricket fans more than a glimmer of hope.
Now back home after an impulsive short trip to London, and assimilating the two days of test match cricket I got to watch live, I am glad I got to be at The Oval, exactly on those two days when India put up a wafer of a fight to keep the match alive. As I start writing about the match, the first thing that I remembered was the occasional chants of “Gabba” in the stands where I was sitting, just to taunt a row of Aussie fans who were buzzed and making merry but were deliberately not making an effort to be heard. After all, they were surrounded by a sea of blue which would have drowned them.
India was so far behind at the end of Day 2, that I was a bit anxious if Cummins would get a chance to enforce the “follow-on”, another of the sport’s beautiful quirks whereby if the second team falls in excess of 200 runs short of the first team’s innings, well, you politely ask them to bat again. From the beginning. In and Out. Out and back in again.
But when I walked into the stadium on Day 3 and looked at the weather forecast, I knew the longer Rahane and Thakur stayed at the crease, the less inclined Cummins and his bowling platoon would be to come out again to bowl in that 82 deg F (29–30 deg C) heat. It was hot and a bit toasty. But India managed to shrink the lead to 173 runs before getting bowled out. Which meant, the eventual winners today, Australia, a team that has consistently managed to build and nurture separate streams of specialists for all formats of the sport, came out to bat again. By the end of Day 3, they had lost 4 wickets and scored 123 runs, giving them an overall lead of 296 runs.
It was not too long ago, Rishabh Pant fought back in Australia’s own backyard, to clinch India that famous victory at The Gabba. India chased 328 runs successfully in the fourth innings after conceding a lead to Australia in the first innings. Some distant similarities between that match and this one, and sweet memories of that match, kept many Indian fans’ hopes alive, as we walked back home that evening.
Day 4 was going to be special.
My son was going to join me and we were going to have a day just for ourselves, bonding over some live cricket and some football later in the evening on the telly (Champions League Final). To his credit, he has been following the sport of cricket and is somewhat familiar with the current crop of Indian players. Of course, test match cricket was still a bit exotic to him, and he has read all the jokes one reads about test cricket with lunch breaks and tea breaks and what not! And here I was hoping this experience at The Oval would give him a different perspective.
Australia declared their 2nd innings just before tea break, as soon as Cummins got out, setting India 444 runs to win in the 4 coming sessions spread over 2 days and across roughly 120 total overs. It was as predicted and as bold as their rapid run making exploits in the morning sessions.
444 was daunting even before the first ball was bowled in the new innings. Anything over 250 would have been at The Oval. But the way Rohit Sharma and Gill started connecting cleanly from the first balls they faced in the second innings, it felt like a new shot of euphoria was injected into the stadium. The ‘dhols’ were back, the chants were back, and the Mexican waves were back.
See, there is a huge difference between watching the game on television and watching it live with the crowd in stadiums. Ironic as it may sound, when you are in the stadium, you have time to appreciate life outside of the sport, after every ball, every shot, and every wicket.
You see a mother asking her son to hold a handwritten banner when the camera points at them and start wondering if the child really wrote that. You see a father pushing his son to call out the fielder standing close to the boundary ropes to ask for his autograph and start wondering who is really interested in that autograph — the father or the son. You see a friendly banter brewing between an Indian cricket fan and an Aussie fan, and start wondering who started it. You see a security guard forgetting his role for a few minutes and starts signaling the crowd to cheer for India. You see a fan tirelessly running around the stadium in the front, every few minutes, orchestrating the crowd like a conductor of a symphony, to do a Mexican wave. You see the fielder trying hard to ignore the taunts being thrown at him as he walks closer to the boundary. You see dozens of professional cameramen focused on only one thing. And more.
In test match cricket, there is so much time for you to observe life in between these moments of action.
It was a hot day, Day 4 — that Saturday was. My son was listening to me analyze the game with the person sitting next to me on the other side. My neighbor (Roy) and his friend (Varghese) had traveled all the way from Kuwait to watch this match. They had tickets for Day 1 to Day 4 but not for Day 5. Roy and I exchanged our disappointing and disapproving glares when Rohit and Pujara threw their wickets away, one after the other, through poor shot selections. Disappointing because it was such a pleasure to watch them both bat until that point. They were not troubled by the Aussie bowlers much and were middling the Dukes quite well.
Then there were Kohli and Rahane for the rest of the day. While Kohli was blemish-free from the first ball he faced, Rahane was a bit more careful, perhaps because of the finger injury he was nursing. Soon, it was an hour of cricketing delight we paid for. My son and I. We cheered for every shot. We joined the Mexican wave and we joined the chants. What they say is true. It brings sheer joy to watch Kohli bat like that.
“Fielding looks a lot easier on television. But when I watch it live, I can feel the difficulties and I totally appreciate the effort that goes in.”, remarked my son.
India ended Day 4 without losing any more wickets.
The mission for each team on Day 5, should they have accepted it, was simple:
India needed a local (at The Oval) record breaking 280 runs to win.
Australia needed 7 wickets.
Or if India failed to reach 280, they needed to bat through the day without losing all its wickets to ensure a draw. This was the least likeliest of the outcomes and neither team would have accepted this as their first choice. This was a title match. A chance to lift the World Test Championship Mace, after all. First time for either team.
And from the precipice of a humiliating defeat for India on Day 2, with Kohli and Rahane still at the crease at the end of Day 4, we believed and hoped we may have an incredible finish befitting a Test Match Final.
The ebbs and flows of a test match do give you hopes.
That’s where my version of The Oval match ends.
I want to remember the match for the opportunity I got to explain the nuances of the game of cricket to my son. I want to remember this day for all the Pimm’s and Bira I consumed with my son at The Oval. I want to remember the day for the long post-match discussion we had while riding the tube, about the good and the ugly side of cricket fandom in India. I want to remember the day for the opportunity my son got to teach his father, a thing or two about Manchester City and Inter Milan — their players, their management, the fans, all while chugging pints of Guinness at a historic pub — the pub where the Russian revolution split into two factions and Lenin became one of the founding members of the Bolsheviks. I want to remember the day for all the Parisian stories my son shared with me and his many summer adventures in the French land. I want to remember the day for simply being with him and letting him know through my act how happy I am with all the things that bring happiness to him, because I truly am.
That’s where I want my version of The Oval Test Match to end. On Day 4. With a personal win.
What really happened on Day 5 of this historic test match at The Oval, the World Test Championship Final 2023, will stay on the record books forever. I am sure I will have enough time in the future to sulk over the result, over-analyze the same, discuss the team selection and strategies, and do more in-depth arm-chair punditry.
That’s not for today.
Why I decided to fly to London on a whim and how cricket memories, old and new alike, never fail to make me smile.
Dear Roy and Varghese,
I hope your version of The Oval Test Match ended on Day 4 too.