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October 17, 1998


Five Oaks - Residential property in Bangalore

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Mark of the man

Prem Panicker

Achievement transcends all boundaries -- of nationality, caste, creed...

A point that was brought home in dramatic fashion late on Friday evening, at the end of the second day's play in the second cricket Test between Australia and Pakistan at the Arbab Niaz Stadium, Peshawar.

Mark Taylor, captain of Australia, had just batted through the second straight day of this Test. And ended unconquered on 334 -- equalling the great Sir Don Bradman as Australia's highest scorer in a single innings in a Test, a record that the Don has held for 68 years.

The Australian players, who had been lining the balcony in anticipation of Taylor's crossing that mark, came running down to line both sides of the entrance to the pavilion, forming a honour guard for their captain to pass through.

Taylor, the trademark smile creasing his lips, strode through that human corridor and up the stairs -- to be met, at the top, by Pakistan coach Javed Miandad who proffered, in that order, a congratulatory handshake, a pat on the back, and a bottle of some unidentified soft drink.

It was a great gesture from Miandad, to meet Taylor as the latter returned to the pavilion after playing the kind of innings it is given to very few to play -- a relentless innings spanning 12 hours of play, a typical Test innings of attrition mixed with aggression (incredibly, the 500-odd deliveries that Taylor took to get to his 300 included 300-something dot balls), an innings that placed him on the threshold of history.

It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy -- with Courtney Walsh almost completely out of the game though yet to officially announce his retirement, Taylor is perhaps the only -- maybe, even the last -- true gentleman left in what once prided itself on being the 'gentleman's game'.

My sympathies first went out to him during that awful period of personal epiphany -- 13 Tests, between November 1995 and June 1997, when Taylor failed to come up with a single three figure innings.

The stuff that was written in the Australian media during that period was, for me, unbelievable. That the Chappells, Greg and Ian, teamed up with that other heavyweight, Dennis Lillee, to demand his head on a plate was just about the outside of enough. The Chappells, more than any others, should have known all about the pressures of being captain, should have been more aware than most others of the truism inherent in the cliche that 'form is temporary, class is permanent'.

And yet, it was suggested, in the crudest of language, that Taylor was past it, that he was ancient, that he was approaching senility!

It didn't seem to matter that Taylor had led Australia to victory in 8 out of those 13 Tests, and series wins against Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies and South Africa. Hansie Cronje, who went through a longer drought of Test tons, without having as impressive a win-loss record, was celebrated meanwhile as super-skipper.

Taylor absorbed it all. In England, during televised media briefings, when faced with aggressive questions about his own form, he never lost his tranquility, never let that smile slip. And, still smiling, answered his critics with a superb century, albeit in a lost cause, in Birmingham, in June 1997, to break the drought.

Remember, too, his magnificient unbeaten 169 at the Adelaide Oval, when he carried his bat and, as here in Peshawar, did the bulk of the scoring for his team. Or his match-winning 102 against India at Bangalore in March this year.

My first thought, on waking up this morning, was to get to office before start of play, to watch Taylor cross Bradman's mark. And, possibly, to get the 42 more runs he needed to cross Brian Lara's 375, recorded against England at St John's, Antigua, in 1994, to install himself on the very tippytop of Test batting's Everest.

The telecast began. And I learnt that incredibly, Taylor had declared at the overnight score. He had turned down the opportunity to write his name ahead of the great Don Bradman's in the record books. He had passed up the chance to become the highest scorer in Test history.

Given that it was a lovely batting track, given that it seemed unlikely that Australia, despite its mountain of runs, would actually manage to force a result here, the decision was stunning.

The commentators spoke of how Taylor had apparently passed a fitful, sleepless night.

Why he failed to get sleep was not explained in so many words -- one can only assume that he was pondering the options. Trying to decide whether to go for personal glory, or make a bid, even against the odds, for a win for his side.

That he choose the latter option is so typical of the man -- he puts the team first, himself last. The quintessential team man, Taylor has done his thing quietly, in the shadows, letting his team-mates hog the limelight, and corner all the glory -- while he, thanks largely to his own self-effacing ways, has had to prove himself over, and over, again.

Amazing, isn't it, that when you ask any Australian -- or indeed, any cricket follower -- to name the best batsman in the Australian side, the answer is almost inevitably 'Mark Waugh' (though in recent years, Steve Waugh has been getting an honourable mention -- most of all by his own skipper, Taylor having recently gone on record to rate the elder Waugh as the best batsman in the world).

Ask that same cricket follower to list the contemporary Australian batsmen he admires, and he will add the names of Steve Waugh, of Ricky Ponting and Greg Blewett, to the list headed by Mark Waugh. No one, however, mentions the name of the Aussie skipper.

Huh? Mark Taylor, after ten years at the top level of Test cricket, has an average of 42.42. Mark Waugh averages 42.78. Taylor has 19 100s (including this monumental, unbeaten, record-breaking effort), Waugh has 14 (in admittedly 19 fewer Tests than his captain).

By any yardstick, the gap in performance between the two Marks is marginal. Yet, the cricketing profile of Mark Waugh is immense; that of Taylor, miniscule.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, about the nature of fame? About how some players automatically attract favourable attention, while others, despite equally noteworthy accomplishments, fail to get even a passing mention?

I wish it was possible to ask Taylor -- easily among the most articulate of modern skippers -- about this phenomenon.

Then again, I suspect it would be a waste of time -- being what he is, Taylor will probably smile, shrug, and point out that it is team results, not individual accomplishments, that ultimately matter in cricket.

Before abandoning the subject, two quotes from Mark Taylor, courtesy the news agencies: "For me, victory in the series is more important on the sub-continent." And again, "Lara's world record is not important for me. It's nice to be bracketed with Sir Don Bradman."

MEANWHILE, it's turning out into the heck of a cricket match, though even as early as the second session of day three, it is pretty clear that unless Pakistan suddenly relapse and play with incredible ineptitude, the only possible result is a draw.

Incredible, because Pakistan, facing a mammoth total of 599, and treating the game like a walk in the park. At the time of writing this, the home side is going along at 254/1 off just 68 overs -- which by Test match standards, is a breathtaking rate of scoring.

Admittedly, there is little in the track for the bowlers, either pace or spin. Admittedly, Saeed Anwar -- now 125 and counting -- had the odd slice of luck with edges that didn't go to hand. And yet, this is a spectacular reply, by any standard. Incredibly positive.

Batting with an attitude.

It is also yet another indication of the mercurial nature of Pakistan (and, in fact, of its sub-continental neighbour, India). I mean, what is it about this side that makes them so incredibly inept one day, so electric the next? If you were to judge solely by the way Pakistan batted in the first Test, you would bet big money that facing 599, the home side would have crumbled under the pressure, and folded to an innings defeat.

Yet, for the last three hours, I've been watching Anwar and the reinstated Ijaz Ahmed belt the ball around with unconcern. And while watching, I can't help wondering -- as I so often am forced to do when watching India -- why the team can't play this way all the time.

Their game plan seems obvious -- try and surpass the Australian score, if possible before tea on day four, then let the visitors have another bat and see if some kind of collapse can't be engineered.

The odds are against such a scenario -- yet the best teams are the ones that buck the odds.

Makes you recall a similar situation, dating back a year ago, in Sri Lanka. When, on a track that was if anything flatter than before, the home side choose to bat on and on and on, way past the Plimsoll Line of sense and sensibility. Arjuna Ranatunga, on that occasion, had argued: "It was a flat track, nothing for the bowlers, so we thought we might as well bat on and go for the records."

And here, Australia's captain, so heartbreakingly close to rewriting history, prefers to declare. To say, in effect, 'the heck with records, who knows, we just might get a chance, even on this flat track, to fashion a win'.

And Pakistan, for its part, is meeting the challenge head on.

Perhaps it's time someone -- you, me and everyone else watching -- put their hands together for a great captain, a wonderful team man, and two great sides doing their damndest to beat each other to cricketing pulp.

In passing, and with no wish to detract from Pakistan's superb batting thus far, I do wish the home umpires there wouldn't detract from the team's achievements by pretending that the LBW rule has been written out of rule books -- if first Ijaz Ahmed, and then Inzamam ul Haq (the latter off successive deliveries from Glenn McGrath) were not out, then someone's gone and changed the relevant rule and forgotten to tell the rest of us.

TALKING of cricket matches, a click of a button on the remote takes me from Star Sports, now telecasting the India-Pakistan encounter, to ESPN -- which, at this time of writing, is showing a re-run of the Coca Cola Cup fixture between India and, hold your breath, Bangladesh, from earlier this year.

Because, for the second straight day, rain has washed out action in the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy series. What's more, given the weather forecast, chances are that we will get to watch similar re-runs tomorrow, while the cricketers enjoy a well-deserved holiday.

A year ago, in Cricket Diary, I had written my views on the futility of this particular exercise. Frankly, I've neither heard nor seen anything, since then, to make me change my mind.

True, some of the names mentioned in that earlier piece have, in time, been devalued. A couple of other names have surfaced in course of the 12 months between then and now. Yet overall, the picture remains the same.

The arguments against this series have all been made -- that it puts enormous strain on the national players, just coming off the twin tours of Toronto and Zimbabwe and facing, next week, the Wills Trophy knockout series in Bangladesh followed by a tour of Sharjah and then New Zealand; that the selectors have, in Toronto and Kuala Lumpur, been exposed to 28 players and surely don't need a selection tournament of this kind to pick the side for Dhaka.

The likes of Dalmiya and Lele could be tempted, perhaps, to say that this too is a 'media creation'. However, the senior players by their attitude have confirmed, have they not, just what they think of the Challenger Series?

Mohammad Azharuddin discovered a cyst in his ear. Sachin Tendulkar kept silent till he landed in India, then simply told the board that he wanted a rest. Saurav Ganguly expressed a similar desire, but was turned down -- so he metaphorically flipped the finger at the BCCI, and went off on a holiday anyway.

Azhar had got his leave of absence even while the team was in Zimbabwe. As for Tendulkar and Ganguly, they didn't bother -- after all, both players could be reasonably certain that the board dared not drop either of them, for fear of widespread rioting.

Meanwhile, the rest go through the motions. As was the case last year, we for our part will do away with the match reports (in any case, weather reports would be more appropriate). And content ourselves, at the end of the tournament, with an overview of the youngsters actually seen in action, their plus points and minuses.

Until which time, adios -- and from all of us at Rediff, a very happy Diwali, wherever you are.

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