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Wow! What a fantastic Test match! It has been a really long time since India came back from the dead to win a game like they did today. The last time we had a comeback as impressive as this was back in 2001, also against the Aussies and spearheaded by the same here, VVS. Coincidence? I think not! The man has found it in him to dig deep, motivate himself and take us home, time and again. It was only recently in Colombo where Sri Lanka had us on the mat, and it took another special edition from Laxman to redeem things.
Yesterday, was a few notches higher on the difficulty scale though. When the scoreboard reads 124 for 8 and you have a fiery Australian attack to contend with, the target of 216 is more than just imposing; it is almost in the realm of impossibility – if you leave one crucial factor, the Laxman factor. The name is so appropriate – the man is so lax, he is deception personified. He caresses, he nudges, he glides, he glances…all with the grace and elegance of a Russian figure skater and yet with the precision and purpose of a surgeon wielding the knife, any innings of his is a delight to watch. And I won’t even begin to talk about the back spasms – the man pulled off what he did when his back was so bad that he needed to bat with a runner all through. Facing an Aussie onslaught for a few hours is bad enough – and when you have to take stance 79 times in the course of that four hours, bending back and forth, that is just a lot of punishment. It takes a great fighter to just endure that battle, so one can imagine what it would take to come out on top at the end.
Those of us that have had the good fortune to meet Laxman in real life, we know he’s a class act. He’s been consistently under-rated and under-appreciated, and ferried in and out of the team more times than anyone else I can recall despite arguable being one of India’s biggest match-winners – to his credit, he has taken it all in stride and never let it get him down. Having watched him practice at the St Johns facility in Marredpally, it is no surprise that success follows him. A terrific work-ethic and really strong motivation to perform at the highest levels, the effort and commitment that he puts into the game is nothing short of remarkable. No wonder he’s able to pull one out of the hat almost on demand – and we do seem to demand that kinda performance quite often when it comes to Laxman, don’t we?
In all that celebration, lets not forget Ishant either – and again, how appropriately named. I-Shan’t! Another one that was ruled out of the first innings because of injury, he played the knock of a lifetime in shouldering the load with Laxman. One statistic that will probably get forgotten is that he faced more balls than any other batsman in the Indian innings. For someone coming in at No 10, that’s an accomplishment in itself – and when you consider the circumstances in which he accomplished that, it speaks volumes of his poise, his confidence and his resolve. And lets not forget the inspired spell in the second innings to destroy the Aussie top order and set up the win to begin with. It would have been poetic justice had Ishant stayed till the end to finish it off, but he got us close enough and that makes him a match winner in my book. Way to go, Ishant!
This is the first time, by the way, in India’s history that we’ve won a test with just one wicket to. Don’t know about you, but that tells me that comebacks aren’t our biggest strength. In fact, we usually seem to be at the receiving end of those comebacks – especially against an Australian side that is known to never give up. So it sure was nice to see us give it back to them for a change. There is a lot of talk about how special this test match was, how it was one of the best ever played and how its going to revive Test cricket’s popularity – I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it certainly was a very special finish to a very special game, and one that made several peoples’ day yesterday. Go India and Go Laxman, success couldn’t come to a more deserving individual!
Heroes don’t come along everyday, and when they do, they occupy a special place in our hearts. Their actions, their accomplishments, their spirited and persistent efforts to overcome the odds that were undoubtedly stacked against them, and the manner in which they carry themselves and their success after they have arrived – the rest of us draw inspiration from all of that, and that’s why it is easy to put them up on that pedestal. One such hero for me is the Smiling Assassin, the ever so cheerful Muttiah Muralitharan, who recently climbed a peak that no man ever has, and no man ever will. 800 wickets in test cricket, more than double the number of any other currently playing cricketer, averaging more than 6 wickets a game with each wicket costing a miserly 22.7 runs! Get this – if Murali were the only bowler to bowl for his team, what that means is the opponent would be bowled out for 227 runs on average! It is easy to understand why he won so many games single-handedly for Sri Lanka. And oh btw, he is also the world’s leading wicket-taker in the One-Day version of the game.
Murali recently announced his retirment from test cricket and it is sad to think about the fact that we will no longer see him in action in whites – the hunger in his eyes, his drive for perfection, his consistency and just his plain passion for the game – all of those will be dearly missed as will his disarming smile and the class with which he carried himself on and off the field. In Murali’s case, the numbers tell the story – but there is clearly much more to the man than just those statistics.
Born in Kandy in Sri Lanka and of Indian descent (his grandfather hailed from from Trichy in Tamil Nadu), Murali was a player from a minority community trying to make it in the big leagues. And any of us that has played cricket in the local circuits in the sub-continent, knows only too well how much of a challenge that can be. Forget being in the minority, just making it on the basis of your efforts was hard enough because it was never about just the talent or being in the right place at the right time; it was much more about who you knew and how well. Hell, back in those days in Chennai, if you weren’t from Santhome or Don Bosco or St Bedes, you hardly got a look-in; the selection trials were nothing more than a joke, a farce. So imagine not just having no advantage in terms of influential pull, but also coming from the minority Tamil community. A community that was increasingly detested in a region rife with conflict, with the Tamils at the center of it all. And now, to look back at how far along he has come, how much he has endeared himself to all of Sri Lanka and the rest of the cricketing world, and you realize he’s special.
A controversy that dogged him for a good part of his career was his bowling action – not just a needless distraction, it was also utterly disgusting and in very bad taste, on the part of the people that made it an issue. Of course, where else would something like that originate except Down Under? Umpire Darrell Hair, not a new face to controversy first no-balled him because Murali was “chucking”, in his eyes. Other notable cricketers joined in the chorus to quickly deride and dismiss Murali off, the crowds in Australia booed and jeered him whenever he took the field. In fact, on one of their tours, the Sri Lankan contingent once had eggs thrown at them as they were returning to their hotel after dinner. Of course, Murali in his typical style, dismissed the incident off saying “You expect those kinds of actions in Australia!” The Aussies have rarely shown the ability to acknowledge class when it was outside their shores. And this was understandable – Murali was destroying them with his bowling and this was the only retaliation they could possibly offer? Of course, Murali being Murali, took it all in stride. He undertook a series of bio-mechanical tests (which were conducted right in Australia); he had to actually bowl with a steel brace molded into his right arm as part of the test. And mind you, this was AFTER he had established himself as one of the game’s premier bowlers, not when he was starting out. Count on the Aussies to come up with something like this. Thankfully, the experts saw reason at the end of the day and blessed his action on the basis of those tests – that was good enough for the ICC to let him continue playing. Of course, the Aussies continue to complain but no one’s listening any more. (The great Don Bradman is an exception to that rule, of course – he actually ridiculed the entire episode, calling it one of the worst examples of Umpiring he had seen)
For me, it is also his actions outside the game that make him special. The man is a champion of social causes and puts his money and influence to telling effect in improving the lot of the impoverished people in Sri Lanka. Most notable amongst the causes he drives are his support of reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka post the Tsumani of 2004 that devastated large parts of the island nation. Among other things, his Foundation of Goodness has helped rebuild more than a 1000 houses in the Seenigama region in southern Sri Lanka. He also serves as an ambassador for the UN World Food Program, helping to fight hunger amongst school children. While we will no longer see him in action on the cricket field, something tells me we haven’t heard the last of him off the field; he is getting involved in a bunch of different causes across the island nation, and his exploits off the field might soon overshadow everything that he accomplished on it. The world needs more like you Murali, but sadly, we know there won’t be another like you. Adios, my hero – the world of cricket will certainly miss having you around.