Every time I pass by my school, St Peter’s in Mazagaon, memories of my first three-figure mark in cricket (in an inter-house match in a junior tournament) come flooding back. I feel like a chuffed 12-year-old again.
A first century at any level finds an indelible place in a player’s ‘mental hard disc’, never to be erased. This happening on debut in Test cricket is exceptional and it would hardly be a surprise if Keaton Jennings wants to take the Wankhede Stadium back to England with him!
Barely a fortnight back Jennings, 24, was not even on the radar of the selectors. Injury to 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed, the classically orthodox opening batsman who also made his debut in this series and batted superbly, suddenly created a vacancy.
Jennings was drafted into the side in Dubai, where he was touring with the England A team. With barely four days to jell with the other players and pinch himself into believing that he would be playing for the national team, he came up with a sublime knock which those who saw it will cherish for a long time.
Incidentally, among the spectators was also Hameed, who made it a point to return from England for this Test. I imagine this is not just because he is of Indian origin, but also feels at home in Mumbai having played in the celebrated maidans — Azad, Cross and Oval — not far from the Wankhede.
Life is sometimes unpredictably, unfairly cruel. But while injury may have cost Hameed his Test place, it hasn’t dimmed his sense of belonging in this team: a wonderfully positive sentiment springing from optimism of youth undoubtedly, but also revealing of his determination and ambition.
As I see it, England’s top order of the future has found definition in this series with Jennings, Hameed and Root, all young, high quality batsmen. That one is of South African origin, one of Indian and Root a tru-blue Brit (with Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid of Pakistani lineage) this England cricket team seems like a classic rebuff to Brexit!
But let’s skip politics to focus on the Test, crucial not only in the context of the series, and also where the 5-day game is headed. Unconfirmed reports say about 18-19k fanswere at the Wankhede on Thursday, extremely heartening considering the widespread concern about falling attendances especially in India. It could be because of the ‘pull’ of Virat Kohli, as one veteran journalist puts it. Clearly, Kohli has emerged as the biggest star in contemporary cricket, matching the great Sachin Tendulkar in public consciousness more quickly than had been imagined.
It could also be the red-hot form of this young Indian team, flush with other players like R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Cheteshwar Pujara, who are fashioning a wonderful script of excellent performances and a terrific sequence of wins.
I think it is a combo of the two that has fired the imagination of Indian cricket fans currently, otherwise assumed spoilt by the razzmatazz of the IPL and T20 cricket. If Tests are played enterprisingly, with a result more likely than a draw, it will always be attractive. And fulfilling.
There is a tendency among old-timers, used to seeing packed stadiums, to write off the 5-day game. But even if the stands are not full, I believe there is a very large universe of people following the game on TV and more particularly the internet.
The challenge is to get ‘bums on seats’; not just for filling up coffers of boards (which TV rights do very well), but to inspire the players, and the next generation.
If this is tackled aggressively and pragmatically (day-night Tests with a pink ball is a step in that direction), dirges being sung about Test cricket will hopefully prove miscast.
The first day’s play in this Test was riveting. Details of this are on the sports pages and need no repeating here. Save to say the contest was fascinatingly see-saw, leaving the match is very delicately poised. To not be at the Wankhede for the remaining days could be missing a real treat.