There was a moment in the All-Stars game in Houston last week when, amid the din of the Texan crowd, I died and went to cricketing heaven. Brian Lara, the most heart- stopping batsman of recent times, was at the crease and Sachin Tendulkar, who wasn’t bad either, was at the non-striker’s end. Kumar Sangakkara was keeping wicket; Jonty Rhodes was prowling the covers. Then Shane Warne came on to bowl.
With that characteristic half-skip, grooved into cricket pitches and cricket memories over the past quarter century, Warne stepped up and drifted one to the leg-side. Lara, less elastic than in his pomp, with a back-swing less improbably elongated, yet still recognisably his own, dropped to one knee and swept for four.
Suspecting a weakness in his opponent, a possible creaky- limbed reluctance to drive, Warne, two balls later, floated one up outside off; Lara stepped forward and smacked the ball, way back over his head for four more. The crowd, 16,000-strong and Subcontinental in appearance and temper, erupted. With a roar of triumph and delight, it rejoiced in the solidarity of its common cricket-love, in the memory of more serious contests past and it masked, with its volume for that moment, the acres of ugly empty seating all around the cavernous Minute Maid Park stadium, home of the Houston Astros.
As the shout faded, I heard myself chuckling with delight. How often we once saw this, Lara taking apart Warne. How often had I fantasised about it since! How wonderful it was, because the past is never recoverable, and yet this came awfully close to it, to have those memories and those fantasies refreshed.
A cricketing jamboree, showing off the fading talents of an unusually brilliant crop of ex-cricketers, mostly 40-somethings, and including, as well as Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly, the core of India’s best batting line-up, the All-Stars’ tour of America was wonderful in such moments. They were thrilling mainly because deeply nostalgic, like the opening chords of a favourite song, played by the aged band, reconstituted for one last pay-day, that the tourists most obviously resembled. And there was delicious opportunity for strange, ahistoric match-ups, too.
For anyone who doubted whether Sehwag could have bludgeoned all those runs in Multan, in 2003, against an attack that included Wasim Akram, who he never faced in international cricket, here was an opportunity to test the thought. In a more ghoulish way, even the All-Stars’ off-notes—including much poor bowling and worse fielding—could be briefly diverting; for the sporting soap-opera, of aging and frailty in former heroes, they represented. (Though I could have done without seeing Sir Curtly Ambrose humbled.)
Most of the 28 cricketers on display, from every Test-playing nation except Bangladesh, in fact retained enough technical ability, despite their aging limbs and fading eye-sight, to put up a pretty fair cricketing show. Much of the batting and some of the spin-bowling was, within the limitations of wham-bam schoolyard T20, top-class. In the first innings at the Minute Maid, Sangakkara clobbered 70 off 30 balls in a style to suggest his last Test, only six months ago, need not have been. Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis, who each hit 40-odd off less than half as many balls, also looked much like their old, great selves; in such form, it seems there is no delivery Ponting cannot hit for four. Even Michael Vaughan, who retired with broken knees almost a decade ago, had his moment, as he lifted Shoaib Akhtar for six with lovely grace. Not many batsmen have timed the ball better.
Inevitably, the bowlers were more time-ravaged, even if their decline was camouflaged to some degree by the T20 format, which makes fools of all bowlers, and by the short boundaries available on America’s baseball fields, which amplified that effect. It made their job straightforwardly hopeless at times; in Houston, Warne’s team hit 21 sixes off an attack that opened with Shoaib Akhtar and Glenn McGrath.
Given the paucity of recent slow-bowling talent, the All-Stars twirlers on view, though they generally bowled slower and looked fatter than they once did, in fact still looked like world- beaters. Saqlain Mushtaq set up Tendulkar beautifully with his faster ‘teesra’ delivery, which the Indian chopped onto his stumps. Graeme Swann, who did for his former captain, Vaughan, is probably still the world’s best slow left-armer; Muttiah Muralitharan is, of course, still the best offie.
The quicks were more creaky, but offered one real highlight. With his short-run and lightning arm, Akram, now pushing 50, was a vision of his former greatness: lithe, fast, entirely in control and wonderful to watch. By contrast, Shaun Pollock, in good physical shape but with no trace of his old zip remaining, looked like a club player. The tour’s oldest members, Courtney Walsh and Ambrose, respectively 53 and 52, had presumably been included to invoke memories of great West Indian pace; they should not have been.
That memory is too precious, and too distant now. Even by the time they retired, a decade-and-a-half ago, Ambrose and Walsh were almost unbearably loaded with pathos, as the last standard-bearers of a dying tradition. Probably, the way jogged to the crease in New York and Los Angeles, to deliver a mixture of long hops, full tosses and half-decent length balls, was marvellous for their age, but it was a travesty of their former selves. I grew up thinking Ambrose was gigantic, unbeatable; watching him at the Dodger Stadium, bounding in to serve up full tosses, he looked half a foot shorter than he is.
But this was, on its merits, a fine cricketing circus. To deny that, as some have, is to be too unsentimental, to give too little rein to the memories that pulse through cricket appreciation and love. For cricket followers exiled to America, as I am, it was amply enough to justify a domestic flight. But the tour was not, as its captains and promoters, Tendulkar and Warne insisted, a serious sporting contest. To watch two games, as I did, live and on the internet feed that was the only way to watch it on a screen in America, was overkill. To watch all three games would have been awful. Nor was the circus, as its promoters also claimed, any sort of a serious effort to grow cricket in America—or “globalise the game”, as Tendulkar said. That was pure hucksterism, a ridiculous claim.
By far the biggest support for the All-Stars was in India. In fact, chiefly because of Indian interest in Tendulkar’s involvement, the games attracted more traffic on Cricinfo than the concurrent India-South Africa series. That is a horrific indicator of the health of international cricket. In Australia and England where, as in India, the games were televised, they also attracted some interest; certainly more than the late-night broadcasts of beach cricket which, until the advent of T20, used to be all that veteran cricketers were good for.
It is nonetheless doubtful whether, in at least this inaugural edition, those broadcast contracts raised enough to make the tour profitable. To cover their costs—including $75,000 for each player apart from Tendulkar and Warne, who were playing for a profit-share—the organisers allegedly needed to generate $15 million from ticket sales and on-ground advertising. The swathes of empty seating—mitigated, in every venue, by a flurry of last-minute giveaways—suggested they struggled.
Perhaps they can do better next time, because America is already a big cricket market. It produces more traffic on Cricinfo than any country except India, almost all from America’s four- million-odd citizens of South Asian descent. They were also represented, Almost exclusively, in the crowds who watched the three All-Stars games. Collectively, around 60,000-strong, they were smaller than Warne claimed, but still impressive in their number and passion for the game.
To my left in the Minute Maid, was Nitin, a retired engineer, desperately homesick for Baroda. He hadn’t watched cricket for 13 years, he said. But he had clearly spent much of that time meditating on Gul Mohammad, Hemu Adikhari, CS Nayudu, Vijay Hazare, great cricketers of Baroda’s past. Hearing his thoughts on them, as the All Stars trundled up and heaved their sixes before us, improved my experience at the Minute Maid a lot.
To my right was Uzma, who had swapped Rawalpindi for Texas a decade ago. This was the first cricket match her 10-month-old son, Nay, who she dandled on her lap, had seen. But watching cricket was nothing new to her family. Her husband, sitting beside her, and elder son, both played in Houston’s vibrant local cricket leagues. “We call the city Little Karachi because it’s hot, humid and there are Pakistanis everywhere,” she laughed. “Though of course there are more Indians—they always outnumber us.” Wonderful as it was that the All-Stars were bringing cricket to those who love it, this was hardly a case of opening up a new frontier. Nor did the tour’s other big marketing claim, to be an exercise in coaching young American cricketers, hold any water. The claim rested chiefly in a solitary pre- match clinic, for local schoolchildren, held in each venue. But they were shambolic, brief, affairs, clearly held mainly of the benefit of the press and recalling nothing so much as the similarly bogus claims to be watering the grass roots that attended the IPL early on. The truth is, it would be astonishing if almost any Americans took up the game because of this tour.
If the exaggerated claims for the All-Stars were beneath Tendulkar’s and Warne’s dignity, they also did a disservice to America’s cricket history, which includes plenty more serious contests than the All-Stars offered. The first ever international cricket match, between America and Canada, was played in New York in 1844, and drew crowds of up to 20,000. A tour of America by a representative England side, in 1859, was remembered as the country’s biggest sporting event of the pre-civil- war era. An estimated 25,000 people attended the game in New York where, at that time, most newspapers gave more space to reporting on cricket than baseball.
The English tourists, including John Wisden, founder of the Almanack, wiped the floor with their American opponents, a disappointment that some pointed to as an explanation for a subsequent slump in American cricket interest. Others discerned a native antipathy to a game that was too long, too slow, too ambiguous and too unpredictable for hyperactive Americans. Or they said that cricket’s residual association with British toffs just got too far up American noses.
Probably all that, and also a surge in enthusiasm for baseball, which was played by the armies of the civil war, contributed to cricket’s failure and baseball’s growth. By the end of the 19th century, the latter ball game was firmly established as America’s national recreation, an association that compounded its success. There have nonetheless been, every decade or so since, many attempts to revive American cricket; including an Australian tour, in 1932, starring Sir Don Bradman. Naturally, he was billed as the ‘Babe Ruth of cricket’—just as, this month, some American journalists billed Tendulkar as the ‘Michael Jordan of cricket’.
America, in short, has seen more and better cricket than Warne and Tendulkar brought to it, without ever really threatening to succumb to its charms. What was most novel about this tour was not what it said about cricket’s potential for growth. It was what it indicated about the threat of diminishment that now hangs over it.
The All-Stars represent the last generation or two of elite cricketers who learned their skills and won their Tendulkar and Ponting—the reason these Goliathan sportsmen were so great, for why they were so loved and the explanation for why they can step briefly out of retirement and make a decent fist of T20, is because of how relentlessly they honed their techniques, for both long- and short-forms of cricket, for the international competition that combines them all.
Modern players, in Asia especially, are increasingly forgoing that apprenticeship, and it shows, in the paucity of current bowling stocks especially. Where, today, are spinners or fast-medium swing bowlers being produced to rival these wonderful has- beens? Maybe, nowhere, which is a horrifying thought. It is an augury that the cricket of tomorrow may be less than it was yesterday. To me, that seems likely to be the case. And I found it, as I watched the All Stars with delight, almost unbearably sad. We may not see their like again.