August 12, and it is almost 3 am. I have been awake for nearly 90 minutes. I have done my stretches. It is going to be a long Thursday. I am up early, patiently waiting for India to take on England in the second match of the five-Test series. (What is Test Cricket?)
They are playing cricket, which is like a not-so-rich royal cousin of baseball. It is the stuttering, sometimes bumbling, mumbling cousin. Let’s be clear, if baseball is enough for you to reach for an aspirin, then cricket needs you to find the company of gin or something more substantial. It confuses, confounds, and challenges even a diehard fan.
India and England are taking each other on at the Lord’s, the hallowed home of cricket. Lord’s cricket ground is a living testament to the English class divide. Beautiful women in their lovely hats. Gentle claps to cheer the individual acts of sporting heroism. It is about champagne corks popping onto the playing green. Any test match at Lord’s is about history, tradition, and dogma. It is everything that is good (and bad) about English cricket.
A test match lasts five days. That is fifteen sessions in total, each session lasting two hours. Three sessions a day are broken up with two breaks, one each for lunch and tea. I did tell you the sport is a unique kind of weird. It doesn’t distract from the fact that 11 players and their two opponents are locked in a battle that needs physical and mental stamina. Test cricket is all about patience, resilience, and momentary heroics, especially when broken into components. Of course, when the game ends, it takes on a certain operatic quality.
For me, an unabashed fan of the new shorter form of the game, I watch test cricket because it is an allegory for our lives. It is about understanding the value of time, whether accelerating or slowing it down. It is about opportunity and being ready for it when it comes. It is about being vigilant to grab luck with both hands.
Watching an India-England Lord’s Test has been on my bucket list, and I wanted to watch this test in real life. I even had a blazer made for the occasion. Like Robert Burns, the Scottish poet said: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley.” The visit will have to wait, and I hope the test cricket itself survives to see the day like me.
After a brief weather delay due to light rain, the game finally gets underway. The English summer gloom, accentuated by dark, brooding skies, is a perfect start to a game that would ebb and flow over the next five days. And when it all ends, India would have won by 151 runs. They weren’t supposed to win, but they did in an almost heroic fashion.
This Indian team isn’t very lovable. Indians, however, get reluctant admiration from their detractors. They don’t much care about tradition either. Whenever they play, things tend to get heated. Perhaps that is why both teams forgot that these were hallowed grounds and not some back alley bar. But that drama would come later, and only add to the texture of what would turn out to be cracker of a game.
Waking up every day at 2.30 am to watch the live stream on my iPad has left me bleary-eyed and perhaps a little incapacitated to do good work. The game moved like a car driving down San Francisco’s infamous Lombard Street on a rainy day. You never knew when the car might skid. A day after India logged their famous victory and bolstered by good night’s sleep, it dawned on me that the first hour of the first session of the day ultimately defined which team came out on top at the end of the day.
Take the first hour of the game’s first day — nearly 75 pitches and a mere dozen runs scored by the Indians facing some disciplined bowling. Under the phlegmatic English skies, England’s (and the world’s) best bowler, Jimmy Anderson, and his new apprentice made you appreciate what it is, deny any extravagance.
That act of denial, on the field, in life, or at work is what defines us. I remember my grandfather’s ruthlessly minimal uniform of white salwar kameez, a tattered tote bag sewn by my grandmother, an aged old watch, and his polished shoes. He denied himself everything so the family could meet its destiny. A lesson was not lost on me and came in handy as a new immigrant and later as a company founder.
Sports, and the reason we love them so much, is because they give us a framework to help us define our own lives. Our lives, our relatively weak acts of heroism, our daily failures, and occasional success are nothing but a feeble reflection of an onfield saga.
By the time the hour ended, it had started to emerge that slowly, but indeed the Indians were on the front foot to use the cricketing pun. And they ended the day’s play looking as if they were going to win.
To an outsider, test cricket, seems weird. Much like life itself. Even though the game is supposed to be a continuum, it is played out in fits and starts. Even though a test is supposed to last five days, it is really all about interruptions. Thanks to a few quick outs, the game changed in the first hour on the second day of the Lord’s test. And by the time the day ended, you could tell, the English had their noses ahead.
Living in America and becoming American has allowed me to escape the trap of nationalistic fandom and appreciate cricket, cricketers, and other teams for what they do, their skills, and their achievements. And one of them is Jimmy Anderson.
A lot of England’s success has come about due to the presence of Anderson, who started playing for the home team right before In Da Club (by 50 Cent) became the club anthem. Since 2003, he has become a bowler with the third-highest wicket haul — only two men are ahead of him. If you look closely, his perpetually grumpy face reminds you of an old English bulldog. One who has been on a keto diet, of course. He goes through life and the game wearing a weary, semi-grimace. If this was a comic book, you could see a bubble with the word “sigh” trailing right behind him.
Jimmy, can’t believe that at age 39, he still has to keep bailing out his team and do the impossible. They say he is old. He certainly acts like an old dog. You can hear the creaking of the bones through the speakers of my iPad. (Or maybe it is lack of sleep that is making me hear things.) But Jimmy is still a magician. Scratch that. He is more than that. He can make the red leather ball do very rude things with his fingers and the way he grips, caresses, and bowls. It is almost pornographic—the distant moans of the crowd are enough proof.
If Jimmy is the grumpy old bulldog, their team captain Joe Root, is the quintessential public schoolboy. Three decades on the planet have not dented his boyish charm, his public school manners, his carefully chosen words, and his sense of fair play. He is a remarkable batsman — one of the very best in the world and perhaps tied for the top spot as one of the nicest. He is in such great nick that is he is carrying the entire team on his back. He bats and bats and bats till he runs out of partners.
The third morning of the test match featured glorious sunshine, ordered from Harrod’s, of course. And almost from the word go, you could hear “Root” chant, which oddly sounds like a “boo” in normally retrained Lord’s cricket ground.
Every time I see Root bat, I think of Sir Galahad, known for his gallantry and purity, the most perfect of all knights. He wields the willow-like sword, slices, dices, and beats his opponents into submission. He has been in such sublime form — in eight months so far this year, he has scored over 1250 runs, and there are still four months to go, including a much-awaited Ashes tour of Australia.
By the end of day three, England is in complete control of the game. But before it all sends, something else has happened. Indian fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah has bowled a hostile over of yorkers, bouncers, and bodyline stuff at Anderson, much to the annoyance of the old man Jimmy.
Things got heated and verbal. The game of the gentlemen transformed into a schoolyard scrap. Anderson is the talisman of English cricket. To pick a fight with him, you are picking a fight with the English team.
Day 4 of the Lord’s test opened with Anderson’s enforcers doing his job. The first hour has left the Indian team bleeding and bruised. The lunch is taken with three of its best hitters back in the sheds. Indian captain Virat Kohli, a divisive figure if there is any, has been off-color for nearly two years now. He got snared playing a nothing-shot and made a fool out himself. As a result, Indian hopes are resting on its two aging stars. They have both been woeful and out of form.
One of them is Cheteshwar Pujara. His is a face only a mother (or a true love) can love. His game is woefully out of place in a world that moves at the speed of the Internet. I suspect in a timelapse of paint drying and Pujara’s batting, the paint might win. But I totally and absolutely love this guy.
Remember the “Greek god of walks” from the book Moneyball? Pujara is the equivalent for the Indian team — he bats, and bats, and bats. He wears down the opposing pitchers. Earlier this year, he broke down the Australian offense at Gabba. He took more body blows than George Foreman in his fight with Muhammad Ali. The worn-out Aussies were put to the sword by the more flamboyant of his colleagues.
Anyway, Pujara overcomes his demons and shortcomings to help steady the ship, alongside his under siege partner, Ajinke Rahane, who famously led an underpowered Indian team to victory earlier this year. Cricket fans, especially Indian cricket fans, have short memories and are always clamoring for the new.
Pujara is a good reminder of that famous saying by the great General Dwight D. Eisenhower:
What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
The dogs of war don't negotiate The dogs of war won't capitulate, They will take and you will give, And you must die so that they may live Dogs of War, Pink Floyd.
England has been on top for days 2, 3, and 4. They were favorites to win. And they got out India’s young maverick Rishab Pant quickly to get into what is called the “tail.” The Indian tail is among the longest and the weakest. Think of four baseball pitchers hitting in a row: you get the drift. The game was England’s to lose.
The ball was new. The overhead conditions favored the good old-fashioned swing and seam bowling. For the English team, it was not just about winning the game. Remember the end of Day 3 skirmish between Anderson and Bumrah: well, it was time for payback.
Bumrah was going to get what he had handed out, the English team had decided. In reality, Anderson, the alpha male of the English team, had decided it was time for revenge.
The barrage of short bowls, bouncers, and rapid bowls was peppered at the Indian quicks who were getting a taste of their own medicine—anything to get them to hit and fly out—none of that happened. And within an hour, whatever advantage England had built up over three days was lost.
As I watched the drama unfold over the first hour, all I could think was, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” In India, we have a similar saying, “vinaash kaale viparit buddhi.”
India was going to get away from being second best for most of the test match. Fate, of course, has a mind of its own. It can be cruel. Indians came back into the field and proceeded to bowl out England and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In hindsight, what should have been a minor incident, ended up defining the outcome of the test match. It was another reminder that sport often is an allegory for life. A small decision to switch from making a video game to communications software turned Stewart Butterfield into a billionaire. When I look back on my own journey, small, minor incidents suddenly become red-letter days.
I didn’t go to Lord’s, and thanks to the Internet, Lord’s came to me. It didn’t disappoint in reminding me, in the end, whether it is sport, business, or life itself — it is all about humans. Humans, with their egos, shortcomings, their struggles — and their very brief moment under the sun!
August 17, 2021. San Francisco.