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Gently down the stream

The Oxford has over a dozen entries for drift. It could have been invented for cricket

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Golf, said Mark Twain, is a good walk spoiled. What, then, would he have thought of roly-poly Arjuna Ranatunga taking an easy single? Cradling his bat, jiggling his paunch. Not running, not ambling; not even, seemingly, interested. But slowly, aimlessly, drifting across the pitch, like a log of wood floating on a river.

Ranatunga's slow saunter was strategic, not lethargic. Grinning from cheek to cheek, he pissed off fielders, taunted captains and frustrated bowlers. He conserved energy. But above all he slowed the clock, dictating the game's tempo. A long Ranatunga innings drove teams to distraction. And those watching could drift into a reverie.

The Oxford English Reference Dictionary gives us 16 definitions for the word drift - most of which are applicable to cricket. Ranatunga was the master of one form of the intransitive verb but errant bowlers fall prey to the second. Take Heath Te-Ihi-O-Te-Rangi Davis, a fast bowler from New Zealand, who repeatedly drifted down the leg side against India in the Independence Cup, 1997. Six wides and four no-balls. The Bangalore crowd screeched after every digression, demanding more. Davis bled 54 in five overs. And he never played another international - exposed, helpless, drifting away.

While we're still in Bangalore… mention the name Erapalli Prasanna to the city's old-timers and they will almost certainly pop the word. It's Pavlovian. One elderly gentleman told me that Prasanna was so good he could get a batsman out "legspin-offspin-bowled". He gave me a demonstration: his eyes lit up, an index finger snapped a thumb, his body gently whirled, and his mouth opened in wonder as he raised visions of a portly, grinning Pras bounding in, luring a batsman out of the crease, teasing him with away-swerve, tempting him to drive, and then, kaboom, snaking it through the gate. All thanks to a mysterious, sinister and magical drift.

Few sports can match cricket when it comes to slowness. The game can elevate and inspire but it can also depress and bore

Sometimes whole teams drift, like a ship on course to smash into an iceberg. In the final three Tests in England this summer the Indian team were one distracted bunch. They dropped catches and ran poorly between the wickets. The slip cordon often stood too deep. Batsmen repeated mistakes. Bowlers showed little discipline. And the team management didn't try to change the batting order (refer definition four for the noun form of drift: "a state of inaction"). As Gideon Haigh wrote after India were routed in Australia in 2012, there were no "signs of panic, of disorganisation, of fraying tempers, of dissolving patience", as India drifted from one thumping to the next. "If it is possible to cruise to defeat, MS Dhoni's team did so."

Few sports can match cricket when it comes to slowness. The game can elevate and inspire but it can also depress and bore. Some sessions are pointless, especially when a match drifts to a draw. In 2005, Railways had all but sealed the Ranji Trophy final but Punjab still had to bat for a session and a half. The players had little to do but wait. Batsmen picked off runs that didn't matter; bowlers and fielders itched to celebrate; administrators prepared for the presentation; reporters twiddled thumbs; and some of the ground staff enjoyed a post-lunch siesta, drifting off on the pavilion stairs.

"Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game," wrote the American essayist Roger Angell about baseball. And so it is with cricket. Take the fourth day of the Kolkata Test in 2001 when VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid made time stand still. India began the day 20 runs adrift; they finished 315 ahead. No wickets fell. On and on and on they went, warding off threats, inching to safety, gaining the advantage, consolidating the lead, sniffing victory, and then, glory of glories, batting Australia out of the match. They could have been explorers at sea, drifting across vast spaces of blue, discovering a lost continent and basking in their immortality.

One of the joys of commentary - especially on radio - is to hear pundits drift from one topic to the next. Take the delightful Henry Blofeld. Of all my memories of listening to him, precisely none have to do with the game he was calling. I remember earrings, traffic, pigeons, cakes, buses, aeroplanes… and "my dear old thing", but I cannot tell you what Blofeld said after Mohammad Azharuddin's magnificent straight six in one of the many Sharjah tournaments of the early '90s. The shot is stuck in my head but his words elude me. Maybe Blofeld spoke about Azhar's manic charge down the track. Or the dent that the ball left in the stadium's roof. Or maybe he told us about the man in orange trousers who ran from the ball as it harmlessly rolled back into the stands. Or maybe I'm imagining things. But I'm sure you get my drift.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA