SOMEWHERE in the Valhalla of cricketing greats, Ranjitsinhji must be smiling. Not at seeing his countrymen scale new heights of glory. But at seeing them do so playing the highly original, flamboyant brand of cricket that was his hallmark. No boring statistical player, no respecter of rules, he was the greatest of the subcontinental maestros who imbued oriental cricket with a rope trick mystique, inventing the elegant leg glance, sending the ball singing to the boundary with wand-like waves of his bat. Much like Sachin Tendulkar. And Sanath Jayasuriya. And Romesh Kaluwitharana. And Vinod Kambli. And Saeed Anwar. And Aamir Sohail. And Ajay Jadeja.
In the spirit of a great tradition, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have in this World Cup announced that they are reinventing the game, and this time around they are marrying flair and flamboyance and a nose for victory. They are throwing out the occidental wisdom of cut-and-dried strategies and percentage cricket and beady-eyed calculations, and bringing back the armoury of magical spin, flashy batsmanship and adrenalin-throbbing aggression. No wonder they've been setting the stands alight.
When India won the Prudential Cup in 1983 it was hailed as a freak victory. One of those fortuitous events that sporting history is necessarily punctuated with to jolt the bookies. "Hey fellows," these sporadic bursts of unexpected statistics say, "you can't go right all the time or even most of it." There's this performance insanity that grips even the rookies sometimes and makes them do great things. For instance, right now, in the sixth World Cup, it's made the Sri Lankans perform some mumbo jumbo on the cricket grounds.
Nobody ever belted 397 runs in 50 overs. No openers ever logged the kind of mileage on a leather ball that Sri Lanka torch-bearers Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana are clocking. Not even West Indian opening legends Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. No cricketing manager ever set a target of 100 runs for the openers in the first 15 overs till Sri Lanka's Duleep Mendis thought it was time. Only to find himself being obeyed to a fault. Jayasuriya, in his match-winning quarter-final knock of 83 off 42 balls against England at Faisalabad, had a strike rate that bordered on 200 per cent—he finished off a match before it had even got under way, single-handedly and in the most definitive fashion. Krishnamachari Srikkanth was cricket's number one entertainer not so long back. But these innocuous-faced marauders make his performances echo in memory like those of some gifted amateur. Says Roy Dias, former Sri Lankan captain: "In the past year Sri Lanka have twice posted totals of 300-plus and one of them was against the West Indies." In fact, even the Windies never batted like this possessed team, who seem to think national disgrace lies in wait for them if their scoring rate dips below a run a ball.
And through the Wills World Cup there seemed to be some kind of subcontinental conspiracy at work. What Sri Lanka could do, Pakistan decided they could do as well. And that too on the same day. Facing a daunting Indian total of 287, playing in enemy territory, makeshift captain Sohail and fellow opener Anwar rattled 113 runs in the first 15 overs—an average of nearly eight an over. The leather was flying all over the ground as if it was a Sunday club match, not the tense, future-sealing battle of two cricketing superpowers. And they were merely carrying on where the slightly-built Jadeja had left off. He had, for the second match in succession, hoicked and hoisted bowlers into the stands like so much kid stuff, smashing 45 runs off 25 balls. It was cricket at its most exciting, bordering on the edge of insanity, or perhaps genius. At least in the case of one Tendulkar, the answer was quite clear as he went about stringing amazing scores in amazing fashion.
What was being re emphasised each time a sub continental team went out to play was that the excitement once seen as the Caribbean's special gift to the game was now the property of the subcontinent. One of the raving admirers of Sri Lanka, Tony Greig, exulted: "Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya are the most exciting openers in world cricket. They represent the sort of nightmare opening bowlers try not to think about, let alone experience."
And the magic flows not merely from the blade. In the wake of another great tradition, there were on display the great weavers of turning spells, the wizards of supple wrists and nimble fingers and guile-filled heads. Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed, Venkatapathy Raju and Muralitharan ventured into evolved duels that no pacer can dare, fencing with teasing rapiers instead of bludgeoning with clubs. And no one could quite put them to the sword. Time and again the subcontinental captains fell back on them to perplex batsmen who easily smote the plain pacers. For once they were offensive weapons, premier arsenal. As an Indian Express reporter wrote of Kumble: "If you escape Srinath's clutches, who do you encounter? Kumble, whose next-door-neighbour looks and docile image hides a brain that is as adept at handling computers as it is in plotting the downfall of a batsman." Former Australian captain Ian Chappell was even more effusive: "Any side that does not play spin well will have no chance against India as Kumble is sudden death to players who are not quick on their feet." The outstanding performance of the spinners led Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga to comment that players like Kumble and Muralitharan should have been born in Australia, a tongue-in-cheek remark directed on the way Shane Warne has been promoted there.
It's for the first time in the history of the World Cup that teams from the subcontinent have been in the driving seat. No longerare they the minnows in a game dominated by the big Caribbean shark or the humpbacked whale from Down Under. They are the teams setting the standards now, they are ones spelling out the rules, they are the ones demanding emulation. And they are originals, with the desire to win and excel. Says Bob Woolmer, South African cricket coach, comparing England with India and Pakistan: "England does not want to be better than good. India and Pakistan want to excel."
And, of course, Sri Lanka wants to go into a firmament even beyond. Occasionally, you feel, as their blazers try and set fire to the ball, that they are poised to venture into territory where none has gone so far, the four hundreds, and maybe on a particularly good day, when all of them are on song, and Kaluwitharana lasts for full 15 overs, into the five hundreds. Of course it is reason for sub continental grief—and that of cricket—that the arbitrary algebra of the draw ensured that it could not be an all-sub continental final. But perhaps that was too much to wish for.
In a way, it is perhaps apt that when the curtain goes up at Lahore there will be arrayed on opposing ends two differing styles of play. On one side will be passion and oriental magic, willow wizards and smiling assassins gently pulling the pin on explosive googlies; and on the other will be the percentage players, with clinically calibrated scoring charts, and a mien and a style as prosaic, if effective, as the gallows hangman.
Finally, the hangman may get his victim, and the smiling assassin miss his target, but it is clear where the romance of cricket lies. As Greig wrote of the Cup: "The cricket fever, as only India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka can generate, has exceeded my expectations." And that's because with this World Cup the subcontinent has finally shown that it can shed the constricting robes of a borrowed style and dance to its own genius. Oriental magic has been revived. Ranjitsinhji has reason to smile.