Monday, June 02, 2008

The quintessential T20 folk

Since the T20 world cup last year I have been trying to make my mind up on the one cricket personality who is / was literally 'born for T20'.
Repeatedly the name that keeps coming back ahead of the Jayasuriyas, Gambhirs and Misbahs is Billy Bowden.

This umpire is the Bradman of flamboyance (almost as essential to the entertainment aspect of Twenty20 as run making, wicket taking and direct hits are to its cricketing aspect) in an era where no player is so distinctly ahead of competition on any one area.

Billy continued to hit other potential competitors for "double crooked finger six-phase hop" sixes till I came across a league match involving Jaipur's Rajasthan Royals last month. A little right handed batsman opened the batting for them. Swapnil Asnodkar is armed with quick reflexes and a few decent cricketing shots but no one quite knows how he would choose to use them. The only certainty was he would surely use his shots at the rate of one per ball. (Why? He wasn't allowed any more.) He could fall any moment. At the same time he could hit any bowler anywhere irrespective of the game situation. It was like watching a gunfight in an old western.

Now we have seen that earlier. To be more descriptive, we have seen another right handed opening batsman do that on a regular basis through a tournament or a season. Of course sometimes Jayasuriya bats like that when in blazing form but not always. But Jayasuriya is also entwined with this deja vu. Because it was the guy who started off alongside Sanath on the latter's journey to ODI glory in the tri-series against Australia in 1995-96, a series that built up to that frenzied Sri Lankan world cup win of 1996. Romesh Kaluwitharana. He must be as truly born for T20 as is Billy Bowden.

Kaluwitharana fell by the wayside in later years but he will never be forgotten by cricket lovers. Since the late 80's one dayers were never more watchable than in the Kalu-Jaya era (not just because these two belted leather but because their innings could also be over in the space of a few balls as in the Kolkata WC semi final). Apart from Jayasuriya to an extent, no one opening the innings consistently in any form of the game (not even in T20) has perhaps attached as little value to his wicket as the pocket-size Sri Lankan wicketkeeper did in the period 1995 - 1997.

Kalu did it for his team (Sri Lanka) just like Swapnil did for Rajasthan Royals in the inaugural edition of IPL. Only Kalu must have been more compelling as he batted like a suicide bomber match after match in one dayers, in innings played over 50 overs where each top order player can expect to get 40 balls per innings on an average to construct his innings instead of 15 (as in T20). But whenever Sri Lanka batted we saw a man who would have no second thoughts on giving up his right to build an innings in international matches so that the team total could be boosted by an extra 15 or 20 runs. Perhaps Kalu payed with his career when the Sri Lankan team stopped doing well post 1997, but he never went back on playing the self-sacrificing role allotted to him by his captain.

Sad that T20 cricket came a little too late for the guy who was born to play it. The other day I harked back on the thrilling Indo-Pak quarter final played of the 1996 world Cup. It was the 9th of March. Now I intend to recall a little memory from earlier in the same day. This bit is from the 1st quarter final between Sri Lanka and England (this one was a day affair unlike the Indo-Pak one). It was the exact opposite of a 'thrilling' affair. England set an ordinary target and were steamrolled by Jayasuriya in the run chase. I had returned home in the afternoon a little late. I already knew Sri Lanka had just begun their chase and switched on the telly. The first picture I saw was 'Little Kalu' (as Tony Greig and millions others love to call him) walking back to the pavilion. The batsman's score appeared on the screen:

Never saw that match or its highlights again but since that point of time I was sure that the 1st two balls were 2 fours. Mathematically it could have been a six and a two. [5 + 3 was possible but highly unlikely]. But somehow a 'two' did not fit well with the figure 8(3) there. It must be 2 fours followed by a dismissal, someone within me reasoned. I got the confirmation many years later from the cricinfo scorecard for that match that someone was right.
That innings of 8, in my mind, remains the quitessential T20 innings. I care a fig if it was played in another format.
Having played a number of similar innings in a short period, Kalu must rank alongside Billy Bowden as the 'Born for T20' tag.
PS: Just after writing that post I find cricinfo have already done a piece on Swapnil's Kalu resemblance. No mention of the 8 though!