India’s Independence Day gift to England

Mint, 18 August 2014

There are many reasons why we should be grateful to the British Raj. The British took charge of an India which was, at that time, little more than a collection of kingdoms large and small headed mostly by effete wastrels, yet not demoralized enough by the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali to stop fighting one another. Maratha power had waned dramatically, and only Punjab retained some of its military might and glory. The Mughals had lost their relevance, and India was a Balkanized land mass, sliding back into ignorance, superstition and anarchy.

Even the greatest British-hater would have to acknowledge that the new invaders brought in a governance structure, better law and order, Western education, scientific temper, a justice system, modern technology and, unwittingly, the powerful ideas of liberty and democracy.

For all this and more, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Indian cricket team offered a small tribute to England in the fifth and final Test at the Oval that began on 15 August, India’s 68th Independence Day.

It was a small tribute, but a very significant one, for English cricket. Over 42 days—indeed, less than that, over a mere 30 days, if you discount the first two Test matches, the Indian team took a broken-down, dispirited, confused, vilified side and transformed it into a confident, fearless, tight-knit team that looked good to take on any 11 men in the world. What sweeter gift could England have asked for, in return for all that it had blessed India with?

When the Indian team landed in London one-and-a-half months ago, England was still reeling from a humiliating 5-0 defeat at the hands of Australia. In fact, ‘humiliating’ is an understatement. After the second Test, the team’s leading batsman Jonathan Trott cited stress and anxiety and simply took the next flight home. After the third Test, England’s best spinner Graeme Swann abruptly announced his retirement from international cricket with immediate effect and vamoosed.

The team that returned from Australian shores was a shattered one. The coach, Andy Flower, was sacked. Kevin Pietersen, supremely talented but always a rebellious spirit, was told by the English Board that he would no longer be considered for the national squad. Every cricket commentator, including several former England captains, bayed for captain Alastair Cook’s head every day on every TV channel and in every newspaper.

Cook, till months ago, the golden boy of English cricket, was now a contemptible loser. It didn’t help that his batting form, too, seemed to have deserted him. Already, at the young age of 29, recognized as one of England’s greatest batsmen ever—the third highest Test aggregate among all England batsmen and the highest number of centuries, he had been reduced to prodding around at balls, desperate to get a touch. Very often, when he got a touch, he was caught.

And then India decided to take matters into their own hands.

The first Test was drawn, and India won the second one at Lord’s comfortably. After which, with a determination rarely seen on a cricket field, India set about the task of rebuilding the England team.

The first step was of course to give Cook back some confidence as a batsman. Self-assurance as captain would surely follow. So, Ravindra Jadeja, one of India’s best fielders, dropped Cook in the third Test on 15. It was a strategic move that paid off handsomely. Cook went on to make 95, and his instincts as a captain began looking suddenly better when England took the field.

But this was only the beginning of India’s game plan. The team’s two best batsmen—Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara—decided to forget where their off-stump was. Kohli chose James Anderson as the man he wanted to bestow his manna on, while Pujara opted for Stuart Broad—both strike bowlers, after all, needed their full powers restored. Neither Kohli nor Pujara sweated too much about how they would go about their mission. They just did the same thing over and over again. Kohli decided never to play for the movement of the ball off the pitch, managing to close the face of the bat a bit too early, and nicking it to the slips to grateful Englishmen. Pujara relied on sending faint outside edges to the wicketkeeper or first slip. And in an act of charity that would have brought tears to the eyes of any descendant of Sir Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, they went beyond the call of duty, and dropped more catches than they held through the series.

But even such efficient graciousness did not satisfy the Indians fully. After all, England had lost their best spinner, Swann, and they seemed in no mood to call up Monty Panesar. So our batsmen, in a frenzy of love and sharing, focused on a part-time spinner called Moeen Ali. Ali—I am sure somewhat to his own astonishment—ended up taking 19 wickets, as many as Broad! This must have confused the hell out of Cook, because in the final Test, he hardly let Ali bowl. But the Indians weren’t to be taken in by such tricks. They chose young Chris Jordan, and lavished four wickets on him in the space of 19 deliveries to finish off the Test series, with the third largest defeat ever in Indian cricket history.

You don’t mess with the Indians. They can adapt to any level of opposition facing them and escort them lovingly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In this glorious evocation of the spirit of Mother Teresa, and by eagerly turning the other cheek as soon as they had been resoundingly slapped on one, the Indians have given the world an example of selfless love and forgiveness that should be required reading in remote Himalayan gurukuls.

These are real men, with a sense of civilizational values and historical context. You gave us Jallianwala Bagh, we give you three resounding victories and a resurrection. Happy Independence Day, old men, what?

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One Response to “India’s Independence Day gift to England”

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