Guts & Balls

Nick of Time

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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The final day of the Eden Test had the drama and rhythm of a football match breathing on added time. It was a singular sight, where time was of the essence in Test cricket

ALL EYES AT the Eden Gardens are on the clock. A white Seiko with daunting black numerals. When the spear-like minute hand moves, the body of the clock shudders. Tick tock.

At first slip, Virat Kohli is twisting a tuft of chin follicles with two fingers and his mouth is barking orders to his fielders. But his eyes? Those widened pupils, lids pressed hard against his skull (like it does when he adjusts his lenses with the help of just facial muscles), are fixed on the time.1544 hrs, Indian Standard Time; and it is essential to be precise. Why? Because for the first time in a very long time, the passage of time, even in its smallest fractions, was of utmost importance in a game of cricket.

Even the average fan will tell you that time—in its metric units of seconds, minutes and hours—hasn’t had a profound effect on the gentleman’s game. Unlike the obvious example of football, where a 90-minute countdown clock looms large over everyone in the arena, or the not-so obvious example of tennis, where the duration of a set/match is of immediate consequence to both the player and the nerd, cricket has remained largely unaffected by the movement of the second hand. Passages of play are recorded in balls and overs, not seconds and minutes, and in Test cricket, sessions adhere to the gentler, dietary needs of the human body. Lunch and tea.

But the final day of the Kolkata Test had the electricity of a Rafael Nadal forehand on loop; or the uneasy rhythm of a football match breathing on borrowed time, well after the referee’s grace period has run out. This tick-tocking, fear-of-the-whistle of a day, hence, saw Kohli bargain with coach Ravi Shastri for a few more minutes to complete his century—a fine century at that, a rearguard hundred for the ages. He got to the landmark with a six and then trotted back to the dressing room to declare both the innings and his intent. Then, just an hour later, it saw a sight rarer than a pleading Kohli. It saw two fast bowlers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami jog back to their respective bowling marks so they could buy a few precious seconds from the unforgiving clock. And it saw the Sri Lankans— Niroshan Dickwella, in particular—merrily squander India’s savings with hilarious tactics, unencumbered as the lozenge sun melted into the early Kolkata dusk. It made for great theatre—a word one doesn’t generally associate when these two sides meet in a Test match.

Time, however, wasn’t always of the essence in this series opener in Kolkata. For the first four days, it moved with the pace of, well, a Test match. Constant rain and a slippery outfield ensured that even 12 overs couldn’t be completed on the first day. But that (near) dozen was a thing of beauty, a spell to behold. In his opening jaunt, Suranga Lakmal, the ropey Sri Lankan fast bowler, was unplayable. Aided by the cloudy, humid conditions above and a sweating green-top of a pitch below, Lakmal bowled six overs, conceded no runs (six maidens) and claimed three top order Indian wickets— both Kohli and KL Rahul gone for nought.

To prepare for the upcoming tour of South Africa, the Indian team management had requested a lively track, but preparations were curtailed on the second day as well, where rain put a lid on play after just 21 overs. Half way through the third day, India had been bowled out for 172, a fair effort considering the hosts were at one point badly wounded at 79/6. Sri Lanka nearly wiped out their entire deficit before stumps, only seven runs behind India’s total at 165, with six wickets in hand.

Time, or the severe crunch of it, wasn’t even due for a cameo in this Test when the Lankans finished their first essay, mid-way through Day Four, on 294—a healthy, interest- killing lead of 122 runs. But India’s openers, Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, for reasons beyond our understanding, remained interested in a dead Test. In 37 overs before end of day’s play, they added 166 runs. And before bad light could end play yet again, India led for the first time in this Test, and somewhere in the dressing room, Kohli, having seen enough evidence of life in the game, made up his mind to give resuscitation a shot. For that to happen, with only one day to go, he would need the help of Father Time. On Day Five, the two of them shared the stage in starring roles.

Having watched cricket for a better part of the last two decades, I have devised two simple, yet effective, tests to gauge just how engrossing a day of Test cricket is. The first test requires a certain level of self- awareness. If you find yourself catching up with your daily routine between overs, during ad breaks that is, you should instantly realise that you have chosen a great day to while away seven hours of your life.

During the first session of the final day, the session which saw Kohli bat on a different pitch from the rest and lay foundation for perhaps his finest Test hundred yet, it took me four ad breaks to toast a slice of bread. Break one—locate loaf of bread, return to TV. Break two—place slice in toaster, rush back to TV, and so on. In the same session, a colleague covering the match at the Eden Gardens claims to have composed the following message over 18 balls. ‘Hope you are watching this. Virat onto something v special.’

The second and rarer test goes such: If you find yourself, like everyone else on the ground, giving your undivided attention to the ticking clock rather than the match itself, the game is likely to be in the final session of the final day of the Test—with at least two results a distinct and immediate possibility for each side. Such a Test usually has the makings of a classic. Kolkata will long be remembered as one.

We rejoin the action at 1544 hrs, with Shami itching to get his delivery stride underway. The official sunset time for today, November 20th, 2017, in Kolkata, India’s eastern most metropolis, is set at 1653 hrs. But Shami, not just on the account of being a local, is well aware that 1653 is an illusion. Thanks to the tall stands at Eden, visibility drops rapidly by 1611 hrs. So, essentially, he and India have 27 minutes to take six wickets to pull off the miracle, what with Sri Lanka already reduced to 62/4. Shami kicks his feet and begins his run, but Dickwella, happy to take on the role of villain in this epic, interrupts proceedings with an outstretched hand.

“Another 40 seconds wasted,” says commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, on air, goading the players to get on with it. Kohli, in fact, wants to get on with it, but umpire Nigel Llong won’t let him. He summons both Kohli and Dickwella for a warning, a warning that lasts about a minute. By the time play resumes, it is 1546 hrs and chuffed smiles appear in Lanka’s dressing room.

Two overs later, it is 1556 hrs and the floodlights in the stadium have taken effect—the official sign for the day having reached its dreggy end. Shami, following a back-of-a- length ball which rushes through SL captain Dinesh Chandimal, appeals for a caught behind. When the umpire turns down the claim, India grudgingly ask for a review. This, as Chandimal realises, is only going to cost the hosts close to three minutes. “Perfect,” Chandimal is heard telling Dickwella in Sinhalese over the stump mic. “They are only wasting more time.”

Next ball, Shami sends his off- stump tumbling and Chandimal returns to the pavilion staging a mini drama. He points to his eyes and then at the setting sun and mouths “Can’t see”. Over the next 15 minutes or so, with his pads still on, Chandimal shakes his head unapprovingly every time the broadcast camera points towards him. He cusses when Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the bowler of the match, dismisses Dickwella in the next over and cusses again when Dilruwan Perera is nearly dismissed the following ball and cusses some more when his time-wasting tactic of sending in the twelfth man with drinks is nipped in the bud by the umpire.

The cussing stops only when play is called off one final time: in near darkness, with Sri Lanka tottering at 75/7. The seesawing match, one that could’ve been won and lost several times over by both sides, has ended fittingly, in a draw. It is now 1621 hrs on the Seiko clock at the Eden Gardens, and the minute hand shudders the manipulated time back to normalcy.