05 November 2018

Those nervous nineties

This is the sixth in a series of articles written for THE SUNDAY MORNING under the title 'The Interception'. Scroll down for previous articles.

In Hobart (1992) Sangakkara was given out 'caught' (the ball flew off shoulder and helmet to Ponting's safe hands).

You’ve heard it. You’ve seen it. When a batsman is in his 90’s, typically in a Test match but even in ODIs, he slows down a bit. If he were to get out, the commentators and the match-reports will tell you that he got out in the nervous nineties.  

Not all batsmen get out in the nineties of course. If they make a century after a cautious period of batting, it will be reported that ‘he reached his century after cautiously negotiating the nervous nineties.’  

The prospect of a first century in any form of cricket can give some jitters, that’s natural. Thereafter, if one were to get out it would still be disappointing but not as terrible.  

Consider Kumar Sangakkara. It was in his 10th Test that he first scored a century and this came after getting out twice in the nineties. He would go on to score 38 Test centuries which include 11 scores over 200, second only to Don Bradman who had a dozen. 

He was given out when on 192 against Australia when Ricky Ponting took a ‘catch’ off shoulder and helmet (Hobart, 2007), dismissed again for 192 against Pakistan at the SSC and was extremely unfortunate to be left stranded on 199 also against Pakistan (Gallen, 2012) when he ran out of partners.

Only the particular player can truly speak of the relevant emotions. Donald Bradman ended his career with an astounding 99.94 average. He may have thought that it would have been nice had he surpassed 100, but then again he had tons of records, some said to be unbeatable. 

Muttiah Muralitharan would know, most certainly. It was his final test. He had already taken 799 test wickets and India were 9-down. The commentary on cricinfo for the 4th delivery of the 116th over of the innings read (for a record 77th time), ‘‘c DPMD Jayawardene b Muralitharan’ after the name of the batsman, P Ojha.  That was his 800th Test wicket.

But he might have ended on 799.  After Lasith Malinga had bowled the 4th delivery of the 102nd over of that innings.  Ishant Sharma steered it past cover. There was confusion over a second run but in the end the batsmen reached safety. Someone threw the ball.  Muralitharan. The cameras caught Murali’s disappointment at having missed.   

It happened again. Over No. 106. Delivery No. 2.  Dilshan bows to Ojha who pushes to mid-off. Murali picks and has a shy at the stumps.  Ojha just makes his ground.  Again the cameras zoomed in on Murali. They captured disappointment. On both occasions Murali might very well have won the game for Sri Lanka and denied himself that magic number, 800.  

He was thrilled to take the 800th of course, but what the above two instances show is a selflessness and team spirit that paid very little attention to landmarks. 

Just the other day, Roger Federer claimed his 99th career title when he defeated Marius Copil to secure his ninth Swiss Indoors Championship. Is he thinking of ‘100’? He could be, but he would be the first to say that it would be a distraction. 

And yet, people are fascinated by such ‘landmarks’. In cricket it’s about milestones. Virat Kohli was visibly moved when he passed 10,000 runs in Test cricket. A couple of days ago Derrick Rose, a former NBA MVP, scored a career-high 50 points on Halloween, not only notching an amazing statistical performance, but also literally winning the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves against the Utah Jazz. He dropped two clutch shots and blocked Dante Exum’s potential game-typing three-pointer as time expired. Rose wept.

It’s natural in a world that finds round numbers (centuries, half-centuries, 10,000 runs, 100 tour wins) convenient when assessing careers and comparing performances among players. That narrative is ingrained into our heads from the time we are kids. We applaud when our cricketing heroes cross landmarks or break records. 

Records and big round numbers are newsworthy. People talk as much about Derek Rose’s 50 points as they do of the NBA record for three-pointers in a single game, established a couple of days previously by Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors). Klay broke teammate Stephen Curry’s NBA record against the Chicago Bulls. My friend Tony Courseault pointed out that Klay touched the basketball for a total of just 96 seconds! 

It’s hard to get the press, so to speak, out of our heads, for people are judged by such things and human beings, even the most humble of them, are not totally impervious to vanity.  

Nothing wrong in trying though. It’s easy to say ‘it’s not the records, it’s the team that counts, it’s the victory that matters.’  That may be true, but typically there’s a distance between felt sentiment and that which is expressed. It’s a hard lesson to learn, this business of ensuring that landmarks and records don’t clutter one’s head. It’s hard to shut the noise of a cheering crowd out. 

I believe that if Klay Thompson thought too much about the record, he would not have made it that night. Sure, the thought would have entered his mind, but there’s no room in a single brain for record-thoughts and execution when it’s all about fractions of seconds. It’s probably harder to resist in the case of a batsman in his nineties in a 5-day long Test match. 

Perhaps that’s part of what separates the good from the greats.  Jacque Kallis had 11 scores of 150 or above in the 45 Test centuries he scored. Sachin Tendulkar had 20 out of his 50 centuries. Half of Sangakkara’s centuries were 150 or above (19 out of 38). The landmarks would have entered their minds, one feels. They must have entered, been noted and kept aside politely. The work is never done until one’s out and it’s the business of the batsman to be at the wicket for as long as possible, scoring at the rate required by the particular match-situation.  

Nervousness can be understood, but it’s up to the particular player to overcome it. Too much fixation with landmarks and records can mess things up. 


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