John Jameson is run out off a deflection by Bhagwath Chandrasekhar

After it, the slide: the Jameson run-out at The Oval, 1971

© Getty Images
8

Essay

Non-epic

Chandra and Qadir, Gower and Viv - a case for the transformative power of the miniature

Christian Ryan |

A ball, a legbreak, once written of by Sunil Gavaskar, beat his bat, missed the off stump and caused no wicket, no run, leaving a pencilled dot for a trace, and would now exist only in select eyewitness memory or be zapped entirely if not for Gavaskar's telling and Ramachandra Guha's retelling of it later. This ball was that non-epic.

Chandrasekhar bowled the ball, although the ball was only part of it. The rest of it was Chandrasekhar, who neither winced nor groaned but instead followed through down the pitch and confided in Gavaskar's ear, "Suna kya?", meaning "Hear that?", referring to a song he liked by the Hindi movies singer Mukesh drifting into earshot out of one of the spectators' radios. Fifteen seconds, that was it, this mini-episode was over. But what sensations must have shot through Gavaskar. To be beaten, only to survive, given pause to admire this one ball's arc and trickery, then lifted out of that world and put in another, free from the old world's tentacles, liberated - aesthetic bliss. Vladimir Nabokov invented a phrase for it. Jeffrey Eugenides seized on the phrase on a writers' panel some years back.

"Sounds," said Eugenides, "a little rarefied. Aesthetic bliss. But I know what Nabokov means. I look for it in books… It's what I read for."

Two instances in cricket: David Gower's 72 in Perth and a 76 by Viv Richards in Adelaide. Don Bradman was at the ground for the 76. The master of the epic sat in front of this masterpiece of the miniature. We know of Bradman's presence thanks to journalist Frank Keating who had gone looking for him. In a chair in a dim corner of the South Australian Cricket Association committee room was Bradman. Bradman watched with "fierce, observant eyes". Surrounding him were "veteran charcoal grey…" - this detail screams far-fetched, and is therefore vintage Keating - "…bodyguards". Keating would "love to have known what Sir Donald" was thinking. I wonder too. Did Bradman get this 76? Or did he recoil and scoff? I do know Richards murdered 76 in the morning session, was caught behind fourth ball after lunch, and Bradman and his wife Jessie left at teatime. Maybe they always left then. Or else had watched in a fog of absorption until that post-lunch pratfall by Richards which was like a lemon to their senses. Whatever it was that he was thinking, no Bradman hosannas rained down on Viv's 76. Garry Sobers' 254: sure. Forty-nine years and seven months earlier, Bradman had hit a 254 himself, a 254 he gave a tick to, a 254 secreted behind the apron flap of a maid's gown which he fished out and shook the dust off anytime conversation turned to the all-time super knocks. Two-five-four was a language that spoke to Bradman. Speaks to many, for reasons both obvious and weird.

It is not clear how much epic and bliss may coexist. Sometime in the course of a 200 or 300 it generally becomes less about the team or the pure art of batting

And structural: you play for your team-mates. The cricketer who makes a perfect 37 then cuts it off to not risk wrecking the perfection is a cricketer with a sociopathic bent to not much longer be their team-mate. This play-for-your-team-mates rule holds ten-elevenths true. And that odd player out, when he gets to 37 he too thinks and craves: more. A 37 no matter how fine is in our culture a next-to-nothing. It is valueless. Perfect 37 is a broken currency, it is talking in tongues. Except Harold Pinter did say of Len Hutton,

one day in Sydney he hit thirty-seven in twenty-four minutes and was out last ball before lunch when his bat slipped in hitting a further four, when England had nothing to play for but a hopeless draw, and he's never explained why he did that.

But that was 1946. After a war, longer equals better is a less straightforward equation.

Another time. But consider also other cultures. Including music. For a pop song to veer towards seven-minute territory yet not be megalomaniac tosh and an insult to ears it must have at its heart a ripping tune. (There once was a batsman, name Greatbatch, who endured 10 hours, 55 minutes with a bat with no melody.) Including the world and its fabric right down to the weather. Few are the citizens other than farmers who wouldn't take a sunshower's brief, sweet release over an all-rainy day.

Lillee, Thommo, who? Before the Adelaide 76, Viv Richards made 140 in Brisbane

Lillee, Thommo, who? Before the Adelaide 76, Viv Richards made 140 in Brisbane © Getty Images

Gower's 72 was sunshowery, Viv's 76 a thunderclap, and occasionally the weather metaphors actually are the best metaphors. Refusing caution, eschewing risk, these were innings played in our airspace but coming also from far, a place deep-buried; the watcher's eyes, alert to the curious wild of the shotplay, feel tugged towards the batsman's hands; but the action is at foot level, with three steps taken down or sideways to the spinner; to the fast bowlers it is always one step, though always different, variously jerky, striding, liquid, or a ghost step, to tilt body weight. The resulting shot may scatter all expectations. More often it is the expected shot played with a perfectness that redefines people's previous ideas of what perfect is, now was. So we come away slightly shifted; we are lifted, newly prone to a faint disappointment, as well; for what chance of our expectations, raised like this, being met again more than twice, three times in a cricket-watching life? Our imaginings have been unloosed, and our moorings. These innings have showed us what is possible.

Seventy-six, only! Blew it - 72! Sadness attaches to them being cut off so soon. But human temperament is tough enough to stand melancholy, embrace it even. Still, instinct is to push sadness away, say not epic enough, to diminish these innings. Doesn't have to be an innings. A shot can have similar explosive effect, shrunk down. Out in the world it is well understood that a song or a rainbow can change your day, your year. So can a late cut. Nearly no one in cricket keeps sight of this. One shot. Or ball - a Tasmanian named Burrows, in bowling a man, once sent a bail flying out of the entire ground, before my time, circa 1920s, but reading that it happened is enough.

If exiled to the desert with a satchel and room for five books only, one of them cricket, I'd pack the essays of Crusoe - RC Robertson-Glasgow, dead half a century this year. No cricket writer gave us heavier sentences, with an undertow, and none has written sentences lighter, such that the essays read like postcards, stay in you like a curse. Forced to tear out the pages for a makeshift blanket in the freezing desert night, and sparing myself one essay to savour, it would be a tie between, tonight at least, "The Questioner" (322 words long) and "Cricket Will Out" (327 words) - in either case, fewer words than Hutton made runs at The Oval in 1938.

Out in the world it is well understood that a song or a rainbow can change your day, your year. So can a late cut

Not that Crusoe was immune from being in thrall to notions of epic. He was there at The Oval in 1938. It was purportedly he and another writer who stopped the drinks waiter on the stairway. Hutton was on the tip of overtaking Bradman's 334. Crusoe dreaded disturbance to Hutton's concentration. By the time the waiter was let past Hutton was safely into his high 330s.

Back at the writers' panel Jeffrey Eugenides is still talking.

Writers' panels, like international cricket matches, have proliferated (no TV rights so far, that's still coming).

This panel's subject is: The writers' writer. Loosely a writers' writer is a writer who, possibly though not necessarily a flop sales-wise, other writers take a leap and a lead from. Caring readers may too.

"I think," Eugenides is saying, "of the sports metaphor. Perhaps it" - the moat between a writers' writer and a regular writer - "is the difference between perfection… and somehow getting some kind of major achievement done that is more clearly recognised on the stat sheet than by the observers, the connoisseurship."

Qadir: one to grab a game by the scruff of the neck

Qadir: one to grab a game by the scruff of the neck © Getty Images

"I think we all," says writer #2 on the panel, Jhumpa Lahiri, "start out in a certain place, nobody knows what's going to happen, but at some point something brings us to our desks and we start writing something and it turns into something that is our first book. And we write in complete ignorance and darkness… But everybody writes a first book with a certain purity of vision, a certain innocence, and a certain intensity, and a certain integrity. I think a writers' writer maintains that integrity, even if he or she is on his fourth or fifth or tenth book… partly it's a stubbornness… a certain flying in the face of reality and bill-paying."

That happens to be the best accidental description I've encountered of Gower, of Richards.

There is something about your first time in cricket. It is the one time you get judged more for how you play than the number you make, or take. Then your debut's over and the criteria changes. Perfect 37s get you nowhere. They f*ck you up, perfect 37s. Many are the cricketers - batsmen, especially - who when we picture them at their most sparkling, it was the first time. After that, something crept in, a businesslikeness. Few can stay totally their selves.

Gower did, and Richards.

Only a pencilled "run out" for a trace, but the Hand of Chandra suffused those few Oval minutes with the disorienting force of the otherworldly

Interesting how Eugenides, in painting the successful but lesser gifted non-writers' writer, looks to sport, where sales-wise (translation: runs-wise, wickets-wise) is the only wisdom, and aesthetic considerations a kind of wilful nonconformity.

It is not even strictly clear how much epic and bliss may coexist. Sometime in the course of a 200 or 300 it generally becomes less about the team or the pure art of batting, or both, and subtly more about other admirable traits, like willpower, but also, necessarily, about oneself, which is not the same as greed, or if it is a little bit greed, it's a greed that's good, or at least a greed that's harmless, but even the faintest snatch of a waft of a sniff of greed is ill-conducive to bliss.

In music, the weather, writing, they have a language for this stuff.

A cricketers' cricketer: was Bhagwath Chandrasekhar one? Gavaskar would say so.

The piece you are reading accompanies a 50-year survey,

FIFTY GREATEST TEST PERFORMANCES

not contributions, to a team's win or draw, but performances, for an audience. Audience matters. Last week on my TV a Test was happening in Dubai where there were a hundred empty blue seats for every sad, sitting spectator. Despite that, audience matters. And through tiny windows may be glimpsed the greatest mastery of craft.

Gower, Perth, 1982: done in an hour and a half

Gower, Perth, 1982: done in an hour and a half © Getty Images

"Maybe the writers' writer," says writer #3, Nicole Krauss, "offers freedom… the shock of everything being possible."

When a bowler grabs between his thumb and little finger a five-day match that is headed unrelentingly one way, and twirls it, in a blink, in the exact opposite direction, that has to be the most fun on a field that can possibly be had or seen. Qadir in 1986 in Faisalabad. Akram in 1992 at Lord's. Nabokov should have been there. Above all, one other: and the one is Chandrasekhar on a slow pitch at The Oval in London in a country, let alone a city, in which India had never won a Test. Summer of '71, the series was tied 0-0 and theoretically at stake, but England led by 71 on first innings and were no wicket down in their second innings. With lunchtime imminent, Chandrasekhar came on for his first over.

Jameson - run out. Edrich - clean bowled. Fletcher - taken at short leg.

Three wickets only but England were a goner already and didn't hang around for the scheduled lunch. Everyone went off two balls early and ate.

Out in the world it is well understood that a song or a rainbow can change your day, your year. So can a late cut

In the player guides Chandrasekhar had been classified as a slow bowler. And for an elongated second as his two hands touch in front of his narrow moustache, all is slow, but after that the eyes can't keep up. Edrich: Woodcock in the Times called it a "perfect googly", Chandra said it was his fast one. Fletcher: standard bouncy legbreak? He had little clue then and, on the replay now, it is as muddy as ever.

Jameson's run-out started the slide, a Luckhurst straight hit deviating off Chandrasekhar's hand into the bowler's-end stumps and leaving Jameson stranded. No official credit went to Chandrasekhar, only a pencilled "run out" for a trace, but the Hand of Chandra suffused those few Oval minutes with the disorienting force of the otherworldly. A couple of clips may be found on the internet but the Jameson run-out has been edited out.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country and Rock Country

 

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  • POSTED BY Jay on | January 21, 2016, 1:56 GMT

    A long-delayed 'Non-epic' moment: Fast forward 44 years to autumn 2015 when I was thrilled ('aesthetic bliss') to meet Wadekar, Gavaskar, Chandra, Engineer & Co at a celebration to honour the Indian team's Epic win in England! I got to chat with them back-stage about those fleeting memories. Chandra, who now has a walking disability, agreed it was the Non-epic 'deflected run-out' that was the real turning point in the game. Plus the fantastic catch by late Ekki Solkar at forward short-leg amid the superb close-in fielding ring of Ajit, Sunny, Venky & Farokh (chatterbox) behind stumps. Incredibly Ajit & Sunny at slips were not distracted. Our debonair Brylcreem man of old outsizes & outgreys them all now. He regaled the audience with colourful stories about his college rival Ajit in their Dadar/Shivaji Park days. On a serious note, Sunny pointed out how Chandra & Ekki were special individuals, overcoming adversity to shine at the international level. Epic & Bliss can co-exist!!

  • POSTED BY Jay on | January 13, 2016, 1:49 GMT

    Non-epic = Epic win! I was there at The Oval at the epochal match in Aug 1971 - a tipping point in Indian cricket history as India won a Test match/series for the first time on English soil. Yes, the turning point was the Hand of Chandra that caused the 'deflected run-out' of opener Jameson for 16 before lunch on day 4. The same polio-stricken Hand that spooked the Poms in Chandra's 'otherworldly' match-seizing spell of 6 for 38. Maybe it was triggered by the 'divine visitation' of Bella the elephant - loaned from Chessington Zoo to a faithful Indian audience - at the 'auspicious' lunch break. After all, the elephant-headed Ganesha is the remover of obstacles. By karmic happenstance, Bombay-born Jameson was also run out in the 1st inng (82). The keeper was Bombay-born Engineer. Maybe it was ordained at the other Oval (Churchgate) their paths would cross again? Those fleeting Oval moments are etched in my memory as I ran on to the field on day 5 to celebrate! 'Aesthetic bliss' indeed!!

  • POSTED BY Cardinal on | January 12, 2016, 11:51 GMT

    I suppose this is better than Ed Smith's laboured truisms, but only in the way that breaking your little toe is better than breaking your ankle. The pretentiousness of it...do we need Nabokov and Eugenides to appreciate an innings by David Gower?

  • POSTED BY Vinod on | January 12, 2016, 7:38 GMT

    Nice one Chris....in that india's maiden win @ the oval, was two awesome catches at silly pt by Eknath Solkar and @ slip by venkatraghvan...Ekki solkar was one of the finest close in fielders of the time, this in a era of no helmets, knee and thigh pads....always fascinating to watch Qadir go about...he was box office-a precursor to warne...viv, lillee off course were the mega stars...nice article....anyways...a pleasure to read

  • POSTED BY Ramamurthy on | January 12, 2016, 7:18 GMT

    What a terrible, incoherent, self-indulgent piece of writing!

  • POSTED BY D on | January 12, 2016, 5:11 GMT

    When it comes to somewhat similar subject matter, Chris Ryan is WAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY better than Ed Smith. Not sure why CI continue to run so much Smith and so little Ryan?

  • POSTED BY Jonathan on | January 12, 2016, 3:11 GMT

    A fine article, except for one thing: The innings that Hutton was trying to overtake was not necessarily Bradman's 334. This was still the highest score in an Ashes Test (Bradman's 1930 at Headingley), and the highest in Tests in England, but another score had overtaken it outside of Ashes tests: Wally Hammond had run up 336 not out, in New Zealand, March 1933, and Hammond's target rather than Bradman's would surely have been more in the mind.

  • POSTED BY GV on | January 5, 2016, 5:23 GMT

    I thought Vishwanath's 114 against Lillee & co on a lousy MCG pitch in 1980-81 was better than Richards' 76 in Adelaide the previous year.