It was surreal. Magical. Arresting.
It was also bizarre. Unfathomable. Scarcely believable.
It was spin bowling right out of the top drawer. It was also extraordinarily ordinary batting, acknowledged virtuosos transfixed by the little white orb of doom that seemed to have a mind of its own, propelled by the small fingers and still developing wrist of an impish young man.
No matter which side you were rooting for, no matter which part of the world you were plonked in front of the television set, it made for compelling viewing. A little fella, unassuming and unheralded, reducing arguably the strongest batting line-up going to putty. In the space of 20 mesmeric deliveries, each of which seemed to have a wicket written against its name, Akila Dananjaya reduced mighty India to blubbering amateurs, a series of wrong ’uns threatening to bring an unchallenged winning run in Sri Lanka to a juddering halt.
It had been a crazy day and a half for Dananjaya, a wisp of a lad really. Wedded on Wednesday, taking India apart on Thursday. With a four-hour drive from Moratuwa, on the outskirts of Colombo, to Kandy up north, through narrow, twisting, patience-testing roads thrown in, in the interim. Sadly, there was no fairytale wedding gift to self, despite a spell of 6 for 54. Fairytales are, of course, often limited to movies and books; seldom do they transcend into real life.
An experienced India pulled the fat out of the fire through the expected – Mahendra Singh Dhoni – and the unexpected – Bhuvneshwar Kumar. But even as the former captain and the paceman who is a reasonably accomplished willow-wielder were restoring normal service, even as the eye remained glued to the television screen, the mind went on a wander. Some 32 years back in time, to another six-wicket haul against India in another One-Day International, another effort that was to go in vain, as it turned out.
It was the March of 1985, less than a fortnight after India had vanquished Pakistan in the final of the World Championship of Cricket in Melbourne. From the distant calm of Australia, the same teams had retired to the extraordinary heat and buzz and excitement of Sharjah for another of those one-day competitions that had no great context apart from the fact that India were playing Pakistan.
Unlike the almost anonymous Dananjaya, the man who scythed through the Indian batting line-up in Sharjah was no stranger to limelight. When he stepped on to the cricket field, tall and upright and regal and proud, it was as if no one else mattered. Never mind if some of the others that occupied that same air-space answered to the names of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath and Javed Miandad.
Imran Khan was always the first among equals, towering in every sense of the word. He had the skills, of course, with bat and ball, but he also had presence. Charm. Charisma. An aura, if you like. He was cricketing royalty in a team not necessarily made up of commoners; no matter who he turned out for, Imran Khan was a naturally compelling spectacle, holding you in thrall with the overall package that made him appear far, far larger than life.
Pakistan were still smarting from having been spanked twice by Gavaskar’s India in the WCC. They welcomed the opportunity for immediate payback, and who better to lead their charge than their talismanic allrounder, all fired up and feeding off the frenzy of a packed gathering.
Kapil’s India – Gavaskar had stepped down from the captaincy minutes after receiving the cup in Melbourne – were blown away by the Khan’s ferocity. Charging in, the wind in his face no more than a minor irritant, Imran produced a master class of unmatched brilliance. Ravi Shastri was trapped in front first ball of the match and, as they say, it was a taste of things to come. As the innings unfolded, Imran accounted for Krishnamachari Srikkanth. Then Dilip Vengsarkar. And Gavaskar. And Amarnath, for wicket No. 5. Between them, these five worthies had mustered a grand total of 14 runs. Imran was to finish with 6 for 14 from his 10 overs, Madan Lal the bonus, celebratory scalp.
How often does a team win after making just 125? How often does a team lose after bowling the opposition for 125? Once too often, Imran might say.
India responded brilliantly, through pace, swing and spin alike. Kapil was sensational, Madan accurate, Shastri parsimonious, Roger Binny expensive but netting Mudassar Nazar. And Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, that little bundle of magic that only surfaced all too briefly, outstanding. Curling the ball this way and that, Siva finished with 2 for 16, delivering the coup de grace by luring Imran out of his crease to set up a flash stumping for the flamboyant Sadanand Viswanath. Oh, and the bowling chart might not have his name, but there was Gavaskar at slip, moving here and there, pouching four excellent catches – he was to win the man of the series award for his catching alone!
Six and out? Maybe not, Imran and Dananjaya will both attest.
To settle jangling nerves after the Dhoni-Bhuvneshwar rescue act that brought what ought to have been a regulation night shift to life, the TV remote grew a mind of its own and settled on the highlights of an India-Bangladesh ODI in Dhaka in 2014. And there was Stuart Binny, Roger’s son, scything through the home side, making India’s frugal 105 appear gargantuan. Jagging the ball around off the helpful Mirpur track, Stuart little lived out a dream; nipping one here, cutting one there, he worked his way through the Bangladesh line-up on his way to an incredible 6 for 4. Six wickets taken, four runs conceded, yes. The best figures by an Indian in ODIs, figures that will take some beating.
So for the second time in an hour and a bit, the mind embarked on a journey of nostalgia. This time, all the way back to November 1993, and to the night when the previous best numbers were recorded. By Anil Kumble, young Binny’s illustrious Karnataka mate. We were on our way to Kolkata to play a tournament, the tickets booked with such great planning and foresight as to be able to watch India’s Hero Cup final against West Indies at the Eden Gardens. Unfortunately, our train met with a minor accident, so we were reduced to listening to the Indian innings on a portable radio – such contraptions did exist once upon a time, I assure you.
By the time we reached Kolkata, it was supper time in the game, India’s 225 for 7 competitive. But would it be enough against Lara and Simmons, Richardson and Hooper, Arthurton and Adams? Yes sir, it would. 102 more than enough, as it turned out. Moustachioed and intense, Kumble ripped through the middle and lower order, accounting for the last six wickets to finish with 6 for 12. Four of them were castled, including Roland Holder who became the first batsman to be adjudged bowled by the third umpire. As we watched, mesmerised, the paper torches sprang up in the stands, the packed gathering ululating, the iconic venue throbbing and heaving and bustling and screaming.
Six and out? Oh, most certainly, will say Binny and Kumble.