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“Ulysses”: An Endlessly Open Book Of Utopian Epiphanies

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Today Random House is one of the leading publishing houses of the world. Its origin, though, can be traced to the Modern Library that was founded in 1917 by Boni and Liveright. It was reborn when Liveright, needing the money (he had bought off Albert Boni), sold the Modern Library to one of his employees, a 27-year-old vice-president who wanted to go into business for himself. The new publisher was Bennett Cerf.

Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer set up the Modern Library, Inc., on August 1, 1925. Two years later, finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, “at random,” other books that interested them. It soon was a publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.
Ever since the “100 Best” story first broke in The New York Times on Monday, July 20, 1998, all kinds of opinions about the list—and theories about the Modern Library’s purpose in concocting such a contest of sorts—emerged.

The Modern Library says on its website that the purpose was to get people talking about great books. The readers’ poll for the best novels published in the English language since 1900 opened on July 20, 1998 and closed on October 20, 1998, with 217,520 votes cast. The difference between the choice of the Board and the readers makes for an interesting comparison that can be accessed in detail on the Modern Library website.

Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce were the top three novels decided by the Board. The readers went for Ayn Rand and four of her books found a place in the top ten. She stayed on top of the non-fiction pile as well in the readers’ choice. The Fountainhead was at number two and Atlas Shrugged claimed the number one slot according to reader votes. Ayn Rand could not find a place in the top 100 novels decided by the board. I would take The Fountainhead in the next post and the choice of the Board here.

Declan Kiberd says in his introduction to the standard Random House/Bodley text that first appeared in 1960: Ulysses is ‘an endlessly open book of utopian epiphanies. It holds a mirror up to the colonial capital that was Dublin on 16 June 1904, but it also offers redemptive glimpses of a future world which might be made over in terms of those utopian moments.’

The Sheila Variations is a storehouse of information on the works of Joyce; her being Irish adds to the intimate way in which she has discussed the book. Joyce said: “[Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners, fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book—blast it!”

“The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it,” Joyce said. The publishing history of the Ulysses is fascinating and can be accessed through this link.

Joyce never felt he was writing about ‘the extraordinary’—he didn’t believe writers/novelists should focus on that—“that is for the journalist”. He wanted to focus on “the significance of trivial things”—thoughts, stream-of-consciousness, sensory reality, dream-spaces, the way the world looks through a particular set of eyeballs … to be INSIDE the character rather than outside. This is why much of Ulysses can be quite challenging to read. There is no narrator. No one interjects himself and tells you, “Here is what is happening here.” It is a purely subjective book—and we are inside Stephen Dedalus and we are inside Leopold Bloom. We see and hear only what they see and hear.

The statement about the mundane affairs of daily life is the art of the novel. If a writer wrote just for his time then it is not literature. Literature is not dated in any essential sense and its beauty springs from exploring the timeless human condition with all its daily joys, sorrows, conflicts and miseries. Joyce wrote the book between 1914 and 1921; when he was here and there during the raging war in Europe. “Ulysses” has survived bowdlerization, legal action, bitter controversy and the test of time. It is an undisputed modern classic.

Sheila, my guide, says that the story of Ulysses could not be simpler. Stephen Dedalus, our hero from Portrait is now a college student. His father is kind of useless. So he, unconsciously, is looking for a father figure. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, married to Molly—who is having an affair—is at a loss how to keep his wife happy. He feels Irish, but he’s also Jewish … which makes things complicated. Through the long meandering course of one day—Dedalus and Bloom keep missing each other through the streets of Ireland … but you get the sense that they need to meet. Leopold Bloom will be the father figure for Stephen. Finally, near the end of the day, they meet. They go to a brothel. They go out for a meal late at night. They walk home to Bloom’s house. They talk. Dedalus staggers home. Bloom wonders if his wife upstairs is awake. The book ends (of course) with the 40 page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed. All roads lead to the female. The female ends the book.

Joyce said, “With me, the thought is always simple.” The structure is complex, but the thought behind it is simple. “Once you get that… the whole thing is not only quite easy, but a ton of fun. To treat it like a big serious tome is to completely miss the point of the book—which is rather silly, most of the time … and has to do with what people eat, and how they chew, and what it’s like in a brothel, and the people you meet on any given day: windbags, sirens, patriotic nimrods, pious righteous folks, old tired teachers … whatever.

“It’s a cornucopia of personality. And I think Joyce was onto something when he said there’s not a serious line in it. ..It’s an important book—yes. Its place in literary history and the history of the 20th century is pre-eminent. Nobody tops him. But the book itself is a rollicking jaunt through one day—June 16, 1904—Joyce wrote it as a tribute to his wife Nora.

They had gone on their first “date” (a walk thru Dublin—with probably a sexual encounter in a back alley) on June 16, 1904. He wrote to her later that on that day she “made him a man”. And so Ulysses was a tribute to her. And to that first day they shared together. Damn. Imagine someone writing a tribute to you and then having it turn out to be the greatest book of the 20th century.”

My guide has encouraged me with her simple explanation and after years I have finally mustered the courage to get past ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…’ and hopefully would reach the 40-page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed.

Mystic River: Masterful Writing By Dennis Lehane

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When I first saw the movie Mystic River I was hit by a thunderbolt; Clint Eastwood is so precise in what he wants as a director and two of his actors pulled out performances of their lifetime—Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus and Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle are electrifying in this superbly-crafted screenplay of a masterful novel by Dennis Lehane.

Sample this opening paragraph of the book: “When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”

A blogger I read defined it perfectly by calling it a deceptively-simple start. The whole book is written in this deceptively-simple manner. The fathers of Sean and Jimmy were friends and on Saturdays they would get together at Sean’s place for a beer; and as one beer turned into six, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes.

“Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift for attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going ‘What’s up, Jimmy?’ with a sad hopefulness.”

Then one day when they were on the kerb of a street and having a friendly fight a strange car pulled up near the sidewalk. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened—something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Twenty-five years later, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective. Jimmy Marcus is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave Boyle is trying to save his marriage and keep his demons at bay.

Dennis Lehane has this almost perfect way of fleshing out his characters just as he keeps the plot moving forward. Jimmy has three daughters and Katie is the eldest one. Katie and a guy called Brendan Harris are in love and have planned to elope the next day. While packing Brendan is thinking about when he met her first just a year ago when he was doing a roofing job for a guy called Bobby.

‘He’d known of her, of course; everyone in the neighbourhood knew of Katie. She was that beautiful. Few people really knew her. Beauty could do that; it scared you off, made you keep your distance. It wasn’t like in the movies where the camera made beauty seem like something that invited you in. In the real world, beauty was like a fence to keep you out, back you off.”

But Katie, man, from the first day she’d come by with Bobby O’Donnell, and then he’d left her at the site while he and his boys tore off across town to conduct some pressing business, left Katie behind like they’d forgot they ever had her—from that very first day, she was so basic and normal; she hung with Brendan as he applied flashing to the roof as if she was just another dude.”

Lehane describes the pace of the day and the mood of the principal characters before the two love birds have decided to fly and get married; leaving behind Buckingham where they grew up and where everyone knows everyone.

“At thirty-six, Jimmy Marcus had come to love the quiet of his Saturday nights. He had no use for loud, packed bars and drunken confessions. Thirteen years since he’d walked out of prison, and he owned a corner store, had a wife and three daughters at home, and believed he’d traded the wired-up boy he’d been for a man who appreciated an even pace to his life—a slowly sipped beer, a morning stroll, the sound of a baseball game on the radio.

When Jimmy was a kid—hell, until he was almost twenty-three—that energy had dictated his every action. And then … then you just learned how to stow it some-place, he guessed. You tucked it away.”

“His eldest daughter, Katie, was in the midst of that process now. Nineteen years old and so, so beautiful, all her hormones on red alert, surging. But lately he’d noticed an air of grace settling in his daughter. He wasn’t sure where it had come from—some girls grew into womanhood gracefully, others remained girls their whole lives—but it was there in Katie all of a sudden, a peacefulness, a serenity even.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

The Prodigy Of Prodigies

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“During the summer of 1997 The Times Magazine published John Woodcock’s personal selection of the 100 greatest cricketers in the history of the game. This immediately sparked a wide-ranging debate in the cricket world but it was universally agreed that no one was better qualified to undertake so daunting and essentially controversial a task,” said the back of the book that was published in 1998. Woodcock had covered over four-hundred Test matches for The Times alone.

The innings was opened by W.G. Grace at number one and Donald Bradman at number two followed by Gary Sobers. For the batsman at number 25 Woodcock observed that he ‘has all the credentials to become one of the two or three greatest batsmen in the game’s history, as well as one of the most engaging’. “At Perth in Western Australia early in 1992 Sachin Tendulkar made a century for India against Australia on a lively pitch with a brilliance that no other batsman in the world could have surpassed. He was eighteen at that time—the prodigy of prodigies,” Woodcock wrote.

Then he spoke about an innings in 1997 at Cape Town describing Tendulkar as a veteran of twenty-three and his country’s captain. He played an innings of 169 against South Africa that began in a crisis and lasted for five and a half hours and was virtually flawless. But only time will tell for how long he is able to withstand the pressures of being India’s leading batsman, the relentless idolatry that goes with it, and the worry of wondering, when he is captain and India are on tour, where their next wicket is going to come from.

Time has only served to confirm that Tendulkar, even after 20 years on the road, still has the capability to produce a timeless gem. The few injury-marred Test seasons and the 2007 World Cup where he was, for reasons apparent to no one bar Greg Chappell, made to bat at number four rather than his favoured and successful position at the top of the order are among the major disappointments.

Ricky Ponting did not make the cut as he was a late bloomer but Shane Warne, Brian Lara, Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Graeme Pollock along with other legends all found a rightful mention.

On India’s 2009 tour of New Zealand, former Kiwi all-rounder Richard Hadlee called Sachin Tendulkar as the greatest batsman ever to grace the game. Hadlee, 57, who became the first official inductee to ICC’s Hall of Fame on the first day of the Wellington Test, said he was in awe of Tendulkar whose achievements down the years “clearly had been phenomenal”.

Hadlee said comparisons with Donald Bradman should also drive Tendulkar as a player. “Well, Sir Donald Bradman has been regarded as the greatest player ever,” Hadlee said. “He played just Test cricket. He hasn’t played any other forms of the game. Clearly, that is understandable. But to see Sachin and other players actually adjust to different forms of the game and different conditions all around the world, even though the average is fractionally more than half of the Don’s is in itself incredible. You got to respect it and write those performances.”

Mike Atherton, in a November 19, 2009 piece for The Times spoke about the advent of the helmet and how it helped modern players and wrote that “to suggest that Tendulkar — or, indeed, any modern, armoured or, to use Vivian Richards’s phrase, “pampered” player — is the best ever is demeaning to those former greats who stood at the crease in the knowledge that their next ball could be their last.” Fair enough; but just one factor and not the factor that decides the art of batsmanship in its totality; a heavily padded and protected Mike Atherton averaged 37.69 and I don’t buy the argument that his average would have dipped dramatically if he came out without a helmet or gone up had he dressed like an astronaut.

In all Bradman came to the crease in an international fixture a total of 80 times in one form of the game and scored 29 centuries with a phenomenal average of 99.96. “Though his batting was not classically beautiful, it was always awesome. As Neville Cardus put it, he was a devastating rarity: ‘A genius with an eye for business,’” Matthew Engel is quoted in Bradman’s Cricinfo profile page.

There is a lot more to cricket than just the helmet and those are also factors that need to be considered if any comparison has merit in the first place. The Don played his 52 Test matches against four opponents in nine grounds—five grounds in England and four in Australia. Thirty-seven of those 52 matches were played against England and 15 against the other three oppositions namely South Africa, West Indies and India all in his home conditions. Sachin Tendulkar played on 32 different Test match surfaces before he first played a Test match at a surface where he had played a Test before—the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar has played on close to 60 different Test match surfaces and the limited overs game has taken him to even more parts of the cricket-playing world. He may have come out to bat on 80 occasions in just about two or three seasons in the 1990s. From 1989 to 2000, Sachin Tendulkar played 79 Test matches and scored 6416 runs at an average of 57.28 with 24 hundreds. Ponting was a late bloomer; his 2001 tour to India was a very dismal one and his resurrection as a batsman began after it. In that tour Ponting scored 0; 6, 0; 0, 11 in five innings of three Tests. After that disastrous 2001 tour for Ponting his average in 42 Tests was a decent-but-average 42.96 with seven hundreds to his name while Tendulkar had 25.

The comparisons of Tendulkar and Ponting began only in the years after 2002 and 2003 and then in the injury-marred period of Tendulkar; where he largely-remained stationary while Ponting had more than a few out-of-the-world seasons. In November 2002 Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap was narrowed down to two hundreds.

The gap stands at six today with Tendulkar at 45 hundreds and Ponting with 39; there is no comparison in the ODIs where Tendulkar leads with 45 hundreds and 93 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 44.71 and a strike rate of 85.90 and Ponting has 28 hundreds and 74 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 42.88 and a strike rate of 80.28.

In terms of adaptability, Sachin Tendulkar as an 18-year-old on his first tour to Australia made two hundreds; a 148 not out in Sydney and the much talked about and unrepeatable 114 at the WACA in Perth. In subsequent tours Tendulkar has made four more hundreds in Australia to go with five scores of fifty plus; he averages 58.53 in Australia. He has never come back without a hundred from a Test tour and Brisbane is the only Australian ground among the ones he has played Test cricket on where he does not have a hundred. In 2003 he got a shocker from Steve Bucknor at Brisbane; and then despite being in decent nick that tour was a disappointment for the Little Master until he reached Sydney and accumulated runs with the ascetic discipline of a monk rather than the flourish of a genius; an unbeaten 241 and then a 60 not out salvaged his tour.

Ponting, on the other hand, has had a miserable time in India and he got his first and only hundred in 2008; twelve years after his first tour in 1996. His average in India is a poor 20.85 and he has two fifties to go along with his only hundred. The home and away average of Ponting is 60.08 and 49.23 respectively but for Tendulkar it has been ‘equally-comfortable’ playing home or away with averages of 55.28 and 55.44 respectively. Clearly the Little Master is at home in all conditions.

“What do you care what other people think?”

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In the spring of 399 BC, three Athenian citizens brought legal proceedings against Socrates. He was accused by them of failing to worship the city’s gods, of introducing religious novelties and of corrupting the young men of Athens. The severity of the charges called for a death penalty.

In Symposium and the Death of Socrates, a 1997 title of Wordsworth Editions, five dialogues have been offered in one volume for the first time. In Symposium, a group of Athenian aristocrats attend a party and talk about love, until the drunken Alcibiades bursts in and decides to discuss Socrates instead. The setting of the other dialogues is more somber. The 70-year-old Socrates is put on trial for impiety, and sentenced to death. Tom Griffith’s Symposium has been described as ‘possibly the finest translation of any Platonic dialogue’. In an introduction to the book, Jane O’ Grady says that ‘as far as we know, he (Socrates) left no writings at all’.

Socrates was in the habit of approaching Athenians of every class, age and occupation, and bluntly asking them, without worrying about what they would think of him, to explain with clarity why they held certain common sense beliefs and what they took to be the meaning of life. There are numerous stories about such incidents in which one can relish and enjoy the Socratic way of thinking. He was celebrated for his wisdom, and one of his friends (according to the account in the Apology) asked the Delphic oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, getting the answer no. Socrates found in questioning others that in at least one respect he knew more—in knowing that he knew nothing.

He wore the same cloak throughout the year and almost always walked barefoot (it was said he had been born to spite shoemakers). Xanthippe, his wife, was of infamous foul temper (when asked why he had married her, he replied that horse-trainers needed to practise on the most spirited animals). He dubbed himself (referring to his mother’s livelihood) a midwife to knowledge.

In The Trial of Socrates, journalist I.F. Stone notes in the book’s preface, “This project has its roots in a belief that no society is good, whatever its intentions, whatever its utopian and liberationist claims, if the men and women who live in it are not free to speak their minds.”

The reaction of Socrates to his death sentence was that of legendary equanimity. The dialogue Phaedo gives an account of Socrates’ last day. It is an account that leaves one mesmerized and in admiration of the way in which Socrates consoles his friends and answers their queries in a lucid and serene manner. In the dying moments Socrates exhibits, more clearly than ever before, the wisdom and the courage associated with him.

A small extract from Plato’s Phaedo: “And as we went in we found Socrates just released from his fetters, and also Xanthippe—whom you know—sitting beside him holding their youngest child. When Xanthippe saw us, she urged us to be silent, and then said one of those things women will say: ‘Socrates, this is the last time your friends will talk to you, or you to them.’ Socrates glanced at Crito: ‘Make sure someone sees her home,’ he said.

…. “Most of us, up to that point, had been reasonably successful in controlling our tears, but when we saw him drinking, saw that he had drunk, we could do so no longer. …Apollodorus had been crying incessantly even before this, but now he started howling aloud. In his grief and distress he made everyone there break down—apart from Socrates himself.”

“Really!” he said. “What an extraordinary way to behave! The main reason I sent the women away was so that they wouldn’t disturb us like this. I have heard it said one should die in silence. So keep quiet, and be brave.” On hearing this everyone present was ashamed and stopped crying.

The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety is a book by Alain de Bottom; where he has set six of the finest minds in the history of philosophy to work on the problems of everyday life. Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on some of the things that bother us all: lack of money, the pain of love, inadequacy, anxiety, the fear of failure and the pressure to conform. The Independent described de Bottom’s book saying: “Single-handedly, de Bottom has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose, helping us to live our lives.”

Though given an opportunity to renounce his philosophy in court, Socrates had sided with what he believed to be true rather than what he knew would be popular. In Plato’s account he had defiantly told the jury: “So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.”

The death of Socrates has been a subject of intense interest to painters. Among the many paintings done on the subject, de Bottom describes the one painted in Paris in the autumn of 1786 by the then thirty-eight-year-old Jacques-Louis David. Socrates, condemned to death by the people of Athens, prepares to drink a cup of hemlock, surrounded by woebegone friends. David got his commission in the spring of 1786 from Charles-Michel Trudaine, a wealthy member of the parliament and a gifted Greek scholar. When the picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1787, it was at once judged the finest of the Socratic ends.

“Plato sits at the foot of the bed, a pen and a scroll beside him, silent witness to the injustice of the state. He had been 29 when Socrates met his death, but David turned him into an old man, grey-haired and grave. Through the passageway, Xanthippe is escorted from the prison cell by warders. Socrates’ closest companion Crito, seated beside him, gazes at the master with devotion and concern. But the philosopher, bolt upright, with an athlete’s torso and biceps, shows neither apprehension nor regret. That a large number of Athenians have denounced him as foolish has not shaken him in his convictions. David had planned to paint Socrates in the act of swallowing poison, but the poet Andre Chenier suggested that there would be greater dramatic tension if he was shown finishing a philosophical point while at the same time reaching serenely for the hemlock that would end his life, symbolising both obedience to the laws of Athens and allegiance to his calling.”

Socrates offered humanity a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion. To follow his example, we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason.

Richard Feynman—Nobel laureate, teacher, icon and genius—with a gift of story telling carved a beautiful small story about himself and Arlene, the girl he marries within the span of the story, where she teases him with his own line throughout the small and poignant story. Arlene would always corner him by saying: “What do you care what other people think?”; which is the name of the story as well as the book. (The essay also looks at how Feynman was educated by his father: have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look at what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?”)

The scientific spirit is the spirit of Socrates and the reason why it has been such a popular subject for artists is because he achieved the almost-impossible in trying circumstances: asked to choose between truth and reconciliation, Socrates chose the former and calmly drank the hemlock.

Notes:
Symposium and the Death of Socrates – Plato, Wordsworth Classics, 1997; translated by Tom Griffith

The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety—Alain de Bottom; Penguin Books, 2000, 2004

What do you care what other people think? –Richard Feynman, Penguin Books, as told to Ralph Leighton; First published 1988, Penguin Books 2007

Janet E. Lorenz essay on ‘The Trial of Socrates’; Magill’s Literary Annual, 1989. Salem Press, 1989. eNotes.com. 2006.

Bradman at Lord’s

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Ricky Ponting, a veteran of 135 Tests, saying that his 136th game at the Oval today is going to be the most important of his career is quite a statement. In a column in the Daily Telegraph Ponting for the first time said something so clearly about the pain of defeat in 2005, “The only motivation I need this week is the memory of having to search out Michael Vaughan, congratulate him and shake hands at the end of the Ashes series of four years ago,” he wrote. “We were off the field when we lost the match due to bad light and the fact that we never had a chance to have a crack at chasing down our target left a bitter taste in the mouth.”

The lingering thoughts, the great highs and the dreadful lows are part of the beauty of Test cricket. “Glorious uncertainty sometimes entails profound disappointment; but without disappointment, excellence becomes prosaic, banal. Why is it that we are so anxious to guarantee Test cricket as an entertainment package? After all, this is a game, not a pop concert. It can only be because we live an age where a game crossed with a pop concert—Twenty20 cricket—is imposing its standards on everything else,” Gideon Haigh said after the end of Australia’s last Test tour to India. I’ve quoted him before in a piece I wrote for the need to preserve Test cricket that can be accessed in the PDF files folder.

Good Test series’ give spectators and cricket lovers enough to remember for a year, sometimes even a lifetime. Haigh wrote about the series in India, “This has been a good series. Tight, tough, intriguing, rich in variety of skill, full of stuff to write about—for which every journalist can be grateful. In fact, the wrangling of the moment is a kind of tribute to the game’s long form. What Twenty20 game could rattle so many bones of contention?”

The concern about the future of Test cricket in the age of T20 has now been sparking debates all over the world. And the Indian Express’ front page story yesterday was a treat for all those who are concerned about the health of Test cricket.

Tendulkar gave a simple and effective answer sitting in the audience that one stand at every venue should be kept free for the weekends to bring school children into the ground. He gave his own example of seeing a Test match between India and West Indies as a 10-year-old and having that experience etched in his mind.

The best account of the kind Tendulkar spoke about that I have read is about an innings of Sir Don Bradman in a tour game at Lord’s in 1934. John Liverman wrote the account 60 years later as if he had seen it yesterday. This is a mildly-edited account of Liverman’s essay.

“In 1934, Bradman scored a century at Lord’s. There was nothing unusual about that. It was not even in a Test Match, but against Middlesex who were to finish tenth in the County Championship. But that century, on 26th May 1934, still lives in the memory of all who were privileged to witness it. Whether he was the greatest batsman the world has ever seen will continue to be debated. But those gathered at Lord’s on that memorable day in May 1934 will find it difficult to believe that there was ever a greater batsman.

Saturday, May 26th was a fine spring day and Lord’s was nearly full when Middlesex won the toss and began their innings. After the loss of two early wickets, applause greeted the crowd’s favourite, Patsy Hendren, now over 45 but sprightly as ever. Eager to reach the crease, quick to take guard, scampering an immediate short single to leg to get him off the mark, he did not let us down. There was never a dull moment in his stand of 142 with RWV Robins. The Middlesex innings closed with a respectable total of 258, and the Australians were left just over an hour and a quarter to bat before Saturday’s close of play.

We had already enjoyed a good day’s cricket entertainment. What was to follow was high drama. Jim Smith, playing his first season for Middlesex wrought destruction as a bowler. With no score on the board, Woodfull played back to a fast good-length ball that came back sharply from the off, and was lbw.

At quarter past five, with Australia 0 for 1, the pavilion already in shadow, Bradman walked slowly to the crease. The small, neat figure, the measured approach (calculated to allow the eyes to become adjusted to the light), the air of total absorption, drew the crowd’s attention like a magnet. Almost at once there was a gasp as Bradman appeared to play at a ball from Smith outside the off stump and to miss. In fact, he drew back his bat at the last moment. If it was a near thing, it was the only semblance of fallibility that we were to see that evening.

Jim Smith struck again when Australia had nine runs on the board, all scored by Bradman. Ponsford played back as Woodfull had done and was out in precisely the same way. The left-handed Darling replaced him with Australia 9 for 2. It was now that Bradman took charge with complete mastery, and unleashed the most devastating attack on the Middlesex bowling. In the next hour we were treated to a dazzling array of brilliant stroke-play. The speed of Smith and Judge, the medium-paced accuracy of Enthoven, the spin of Robins and Peebles, all served only to illustrate a display of consummate artistry and technique.

The cut, the hook, the forcing stroke off the back foot, each was demonstrated to perfection. His footwork when he came down the pitch to the slow bowlers was too swift for the eyes to follow. The power of his hitting was immense, and his timing perfect. Unless a fielder was in the direct line of fire, he could barely move a yard before the ball sped over the boundary behind him.

As the shadows lengthened and the hands of the clock moved towards half past six, we realised that Bradman might reach his century before stumps were drawn. For a time the prospect receded as he lost the strike. Unselfishly Darling refused to run a single at the end of an over. Bradman faced the bowling. With watchful defence he played out the over until the last ball when he completed his hundred and turned to the pavilion as the crowd rose. Close of play, Australia 135 for 2, Bradman not out 100, including nineteen boundaries.

On Monday, Bradman raised his score to 160 and was then caught by Joe Hulme in front of the pavilion rails. By then I was back at my school desk, but the innings I had seen on the Saturday was with me still and the memory has remained with me vividly for over sixty years.”

Written by Deepan Joshi

August 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm

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