Few months before the injury-ravaged Indian team’s gladiatorial battle with Australia stirred the soul, Shane Warne was asked if Test cricket, in which his magical leg-spinners once made the aesthetes drool, was dying a slow, painful death.
It was the sort of question that reminded me of that old-fashioned former England opener Michael Atherton, whose ability to endure blows after blows, perhaps inspired Cheteshwar Pujara when this remarkable Indian batsman was honing his defensive skills on the dust bowls of Rajkot.
But no, it was not the memory of Atherton’s defensive masterclass at the Wanderers in 1995 — when he defied Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock for 10 hours and 43 minutes to earn a famous draw — that came flooding back to my mind.
Rather, I was reminded of Atherton’s lesser-known ability to conjure riveting prose. The former England captain once wrote in the Wisden Almanack about the challenge of facing Brian Lara in Test cricket.
Lara, who made watching Test cricket an enthralling experience, gave opposition captains sleepless nights because of his unmatched ability to pierce gaps “with a turn of the blade and flick of the wrists”.
Setting a field for the West Indies genius, according to Atherton, was a futile attempt.
“Lara made captains, not bowlers, look silly,” wrote Atherton.
“If you knew you were going to die, you’d prefer a single bludgeoning blow to the head, or a quick bullet to the brain, rather than death by a thousand ever-so-precise cuts.”
Now imagine a batsman of Lara’s ilk not getting a canvas to paint cricketing masterpieces if the five-day format dies a slow, painful death.
Not that Lara was a slouch in white-ball cricket. But it was in the red-ball affair that the Prince of Trinidad was at his fertile best, producing a body of work that entices connoisseurs like Shyam Bhatia, Dubai’s famous collector of cricket memorabilia.
Over the years, Bhatia’s cricket museum that nestles elegantly in the backyard of his Jumeirah residence has left some of the most revered cricketers lost for words.
And it was only three months ago that Warne joined a list of visitors that includes names like Viv Richards, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh, Anil Kumble and Kumar Sangakkara.
It was during that visit to Bhatia’s museum that Warne was asked if Test cricket could survive the explosion of T20 tournaments.
“I love Test cricket. There is nothing like the drama in a Test match,” Warne had said, months before likening the Gabba thriller to the Thrilla in Manila, the legendary heavyweight fight in which Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier after 14 lung-busting rounds.
Perhaps, Warne was inspired by the unflinching spirit of the battle-hardened Pujara who took 10 painful blows to the body from the hostile Australian attack on a fifth day pitch that offered uneven bounce and the 23-year-old Rishabh Pant’s ability absorb pressure without missing out on a chance to exhibit his range of audacious strokes, albeit without the left-handed grace of a Brian Lara.
And on that evening at the cricket museum in Dubai, Warne admitted that Test cricket’s future depends on finding the balance between the old (Pujara) and the new (Pant) before opining that both formats need each other to survive.
“I can describe it (Test cricket) like this. We all love the Sunday roast, right? The three-course meal, you have a conversation, it takes a while. To me that’s a Test match. You can’t have it every day. But then you drive through the McDonald’s and have a big burger, that’s your T20,” Warne smiled.
“If you get your balance right, it will help each other. I think T20 has helped Test cricket become more exciting and Test cricket has given the players the foundation to play T20 cricket.
“You need both. If we have too much of one, then I think we are in trouble. So too much T20 cricket or too much Test cricket will not be good. But if we get the balance right, both can survive.”
It’s hard not to be moved by Warne’s perspective because Pujara is the quintessential Test cricketer, someone you would want to bat for your life, and Pant has shown how the traditional format could still appeal to the youth.
As Sachin Tendulkar, the other modern icon, rightly said, cricket needs both Pujara, who doesn’t feature in white-ball formats anymore, and Pant, who perhaps would not have dared to script the most dramatic Test victory if the multi-format demands of modern cricket had not made him an attacking batsman.
“On our hand, each finger does a different job, and that’s exactly what Pujara and Pant did for India,” Tendulkar tweeted after Pujara and Pant’s compelling last day partnership in Sydney had served as a prelude to their Brisbane epic.
And who are we to argue with the most complete batsman ever to have set foot on a cricket pitch?
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