When Graeme Smith closed the South African innings with Jacques Kallis on 182 in the first Test of the ongoing series against England, it immediately fit the fashionable pattern of putting the team above individual. However, Sunil Gavaskar had carried out exactly the same gesture years ago, but that had not managed to dislodge him from the throne of alleged selfishness now bequeathed to Sachin Tendulkar.
Arunabha Sengupta tries to look deeply into the “Individual vs Team” chant that seems to be the modern day mantra of critics.
Hashim Amla was unbeaten on 311 and Jacques Kallis on 182 when Graeme Smith was moved either to pity or by the will to win and called his two men in.
As South Africa romped to victory, tweets, opinions, even full-fledged articles were manufactured on the fly about this supposed gesture of unselfishness, riding merrily on the prevalent trend of thought. Leaving a batsman on 182 and going for victory - yet another irrefutable proof of sacrificing individual glory for the hallowed cause of the team. Unlike some selfish, money grabbing multi-millionaires…
In the squalid battle for decibels, the media has harped louder and louder on this individual versus team issue, turning it into a gospel. After all, nothing captures the eager eyeballs of the Indian cricket fan more than delicious discovered chinks and blemishes in the homemade shining armours of their own knights. Accept it or not, we still find the imported attributes of phoren lands very, very attractive.
Gavaskar declares in sight of his double hundred
If we step back some 30 years, another Little Master had gone about raising eyebrows and envy, doing what no Indian had ever dreamt of doing before. Namely, breaking innumerable records, being talked about in many quarters as the best batsman in the world and making money for his efforts.
In his heyday, Sunil Gavaskar had been the favourite bashing boy of Indian cricket fans and media. He had been variously accused of playing for money, of chasing personal milestones, and, in remarkable similarity to the present day, of taking his own sweet time to call it a day. Indians do have a well-defined, time-tested way of honouring their greatest players.
The 1983 series against the West Indies had seen him get roundly abused by the eternal sport-loving crowd of the Eden Gardens when he had snicked a drive early in the second innings after a first ball duck in the first essay. There had been accusations of putting himself above the team (what else) and being deliberately irresponsible under the captaincy of Kapil Dev.
Gavaskar’s response had been to score 236 not out in the very next Test. Later in his book Runs ‘n Ruins, Gavaskar did convey surprise, if not dissent, at not being allowed to go for his triple century because captain Kapil wanted to gun for the Man of the Series award – both the stars unknowingly encroaching the now dangerous domain of personal records.
The following year, the sport-loving crowd of the same Eden pelted both Gavaskar and his wife Marshneil with fruit because the Indian captain had delayed declaration in a rain-affected Test match.
Yet, let us step a little further back and look at another West Indian visit, and another Test match at Eden Gardens, in 1978-79. Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar had put on a similarly gargantuan 344 for the second wicket when the former had declared the innings to push for victory. Gavaskar’s score, in poetic parity, had stood at exactly 182 not out.
Eighteen more runs would have seen him score a century and a double century in the same match for the second time.
But, this gesture was soon shoved to far recesses of memory. Gavaskar had already been branded selfish, scheming, self-serving. As interest in the game increased exponentially since 1983, his attitude was questioned by more and more voices, each more insignificant than the next.
Distortions and delusions about individual and team
However, now when Kallis walks off on 182, we marvel at the supposed ‘doing it for the team’ spirit of the South Africans. We contrast it with Tendulkar’s petulance at Multan. We tend to forget that in 2008, Keith Stackpole had branded this same Kallis as one of the most selfish who batted only for his average. We would much rather draw glorifying parallels with the recent triple hundred of Michael Clarke when he declared the innings with his score on 329.
Coming to Michael Clarke, let us try to rearrange the last three digits. Would Clarke have declared while batting on 293? I have my gravest doubts. It is much more likely that he zeroed down on a Buddha like middle path between ambition and apparent selflessness. Would Smith have declared with Amla on 296 instead of 311? Javed Miandad might be able to throw some revealing light on the probable reaction of the batsman.
Somehow, in the desperate bid to generate regular fodder for criticism to fill in the daily column-space and quota of tweets, we seem to have irrevocably concluded that Indians attach great importance to personal milestones and it is a crime to do so, something Australians and South Africans – dare I say occidental cricketers – will never contemplate.
A cursory analysis of history however reveals glaring counter-examples. In the same innings that Clarke scored 329, Ricky Ponting got to his 200 with celebrations that left nobody in doubt about the importance of the milestone. Before Sachin Tendulkar surged ahead with a spate of hundreds since 2007, Ponting had been rather keen on heading the centuries column, backed up by loud mouthed pro-Aussie predictions by the likes of Ian Chappell who eagerly wanted him to take over the mantle of record holder. Make no mistake, Australians are much more steeped into the history of cricket and love records passionately.
Great cricketers shed too much sweat and blood to remain unmoved by personal achievements. Every batsman starting out in his career dreams of raising his bat on completing a century. Every bowler dreams of a five for. One of the charms of this magnificent game is the spirit of absolute individualism that can permeate through the team game.
Jack Hobbs went to score hundred after hundred in First-class cricket till his tally of centuries stood at 197. Don Bradman cared enough to memorise every statistic of his own as well as those of his rivals. Wally Hammond clenched his fists and shouted “Yes” when he broke Bradman’s world record. From Geoff Boycott to Graham Gooch, Brian Lara to Kevin Pietersen, everyone has been conscious, and extremely proud, of his individual records.
A journey through the World Records
An English innings against a hapless Kiwi attack was closed only when Hammond had scored two more than Bradman’s 334. BBC has preserved the tapes of Howard Marshall’s commentary when Len Hutton overtook Hammond on his way to 364. Twenty years later Gerry Alexander declared the innings only after Gary Sobers had reached 365. Brian Lara was fully aware of the greatness of the occasion when he broke the record to score 375. And, ten years later, was eager enough to regain his world record to bat 45 overs into the third day to score 400.
Even Matthew Hayden made the last 26 runs to 376 at just 66% of the strike rate he had managed while moving from 300 to 350, while Australia looked for quick runs against a club class Zimbabwe. And given that the Australians were coasting at over 700, after the world record was reached he was given the license to throw his bat around to get the next 24 runs required for 400 - runs that were virtually needless in the context of the game. Now, however, feeding the trend of celebrating the Aussie attitude and denigrating personal ambition, Hayden is glorified for getting out to an attacking stroke when close to 400.
History acknowledges these as great feats, and the players know it. There is no reason on earth why they should not be conscious of records when on the doorstep of glory.
That is why Fred Trueman carried on till he became the first man to take 300 wickets. Lance Gibbs retired only after overtaking the Yorkshireman. Richard Hadlee has recounted his many, many hours of plotting the dismissal of Krishnamachari Srikkanth when at par with Ian Botham’s 374, only to get Arun Lal as his record-breaking scalp. The New Zealand cricket authorities also celebrated with splendour when their greatest bowler reached 400 wickets. And who can forget the arms stretched in the style and posture of Jesus Christ when Shane Warne – yes, an Australian – got his 600thwicket.
And if we move away from the present fixated and go through some not-so ancient interviews from the late eighties, from an era before chasing individual records became taboo, we find both Dean Jones and Steve Waugh, early in their careers, voicing their ambitions to score as many runs as possible.
Even Rahul Dravid, the man whose career has overlapped Tendulkar’s long enough to make him the ideal public choice for the contrasting consummate team-man, exulted with abandon, going for an ecstatic run around the pitch on reaching the fantastic milestone of 200 catches. It was more than celebrating the fall of a wicket.
Chasing personal glory is not a crime
And it is hardly a crime. All these gentlemen mentioned above spent a great part of their childhood, all their adolescence and most of their youth perfecting their games, with relentless rigour and dedication, while their critics were busy hanging around or sipping beer with their cronies, carelessly lambasting the heroes of the earlier generation for being too circumspect on their way to hard-earned hundreds.
There is hardly a monk in world cricket who has become great by focusing on the vague idea of a team which remains fuzzy and dynamic as one moves across different grades of competitive cricket. It may be a fad to criticise desire for personal glory, but it is as old as the game, the ambitious seeds of greatness – and such censure is often ridiculous, as is glorification of imagined sacrifices of personal records by certain cricketers of certain countries.
Believe me, Shardashram Vidyamandir winning the Harris shield with excellent all-round teamwork with a highest score of 62 and best bowling figures of 2-27 would never get one many opportunities to become future Test cricketers, especially in a country of a million aspirants. A 644-run partnership, on the other hand, does attract attention. It is the same at all levels till and into Test cricket. Each one of the players playing the game at the highest level is a competitor who has surged ahead of his peers, backed by phenomenal performances. It is not really fair to suddenly ask them to put their personal ambitions in the backburner.
Finally, let me assure you, the very writers of these very critical columns or fans posting on social media – bashing the achievers for their supposed partiality towards individual landmarks – keep checking the number of views, likes, shares, tweets and retweets that grace their efforts.
It is human nature. And when stripped of the ability to perform magical feats with willow and leather, the cricketer also is essentially a human being – a very normal one.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)