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By Suresh Menon
Sunday was meant to be a special day. The planet Jupiter was getting closer to the earth than it had in the last half century. There was an outside chance of India beating Brazil in the Davis Cup (which, they did, incredibly after being 0-2 down).
For cricket lovers, there was the promise of another rare celestial event. Anil Kumble bowling to Sachin Tendulkar. Forget their combined age of 77; ignore the fact that it would be for a maximum of 24 deliveries only. India’s most successful batsman had never played India’s most successful bowler in a Ranji Trophy game, and we had to take what we could get.
There was too the possibility of Harbhajan Singh bowling to Rahul Dravid. India’s top spinners hardly ever bowl to India’s top batsmen in first class cricket, and it was an event well worth waiting for. Jupiter kept its date; sadly the Tendulkar-Kumble occultation, awaited with such eager anticipation did not come to pass.
In the 1970s, when another generation of Indian spinners was at its peak, the dream battle was Barry Richards versus Bishan Bedi or Ian Chappell versus Erapalli Prasanna. Indian audiences were spoilt. We simply took the domestic battles for granted. We saw Bedi bowl to Gundappa Vishwanath and Prasanna trouble the great Gavaskar. And these were in Ranji Trophy matches. In the year that Karnataka ended Mumbai’s 15-year reign, it was a delivery from Prasanna that clipped Gavaskar’s off bail that set them on the road to victory.
What a shame then, that we have to depend on the slim pickings of a T20 tournament played in another country to enjoy our best playing the best!
Tendulkar made his Ranji debut in December 1988 and Kumble eleven months later. In 22 years, as Makarand Waigankar has pointed out in a column indicting our domestic system, Tendulkar has played just 33 Ranji matches, less than a fifth the number of Tests. He has played Kumble most often in the nets.
The IPL and the Champions League have earned their share of criticism, but they have given us a chance to see India’s best batsmen squaring up against their best bowlers. Tendulkar playing Dale Steyn or Jacques Kallis is not as exciting as his playing Kumble for the sheer rarity of the latter event.
When Viv Richards was at his peak, many critics were reluctant to give him his due because all the best bowlers – the fast men – were on his side. And in the national championships back home, his record against the likes of Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding was pretty ordinary. For years Indian batsmen have had a reputation for being the best players of spin in the world – but it is a distinction earned without too many challenges from the best bowlers in their own country.
The great disappointment of the Mumbai Indians-Royal Challengers match was, therefore, the early dismissal of Tendulkar who fell long before Kumble came on to bowl.
But we were, luckily, not denied other treats. Dravid driving Zaheer Khan past cover with a mixture of ferocity and balance or pulling the same bowler when he pitched short. No wild slogging here, just a nuanced understanding of the art of left arm seam bowling. His 71 came off just 58 deliveries – and only in the T20 format could such a knock, at a strike rate of 122 be termed an ‘anchoring innings’.
Harbhajan Singh was dealt with almost casually as Dravid both hit through the line and on occasion drew back to place the ball between fielders. It was the connoisseurs’ delight which somehow made the final result irrelevant.