Like was the case on Saturday, this series has seen several sell-outs. The locals have converged at stadiums to cheer their captain, applaud their fresh-faced stars and, in general, keep themselves updated as they wait for the Ashes. They do talk about the Indians, but the team of 15 Test first-timers has meant the visitors haven’t been able to connect with the English fans. The Anderson-Jadeja incident hasn’t helped their cause either.
But in the last couple of Tests, England has fallen in love with the least successful, and not quite famous, member of the touring party. That he happens to be tall, dark and handsome is just a coincidence. They like Pankaj Singh as they see him as a luckless trier. For them, he is the ultimate ‘heroic failure’, the tribe that has a soft corner reserved for themselves in all sporting hearts.
Pankaj hasn’t been alone on his long and heart-breaking wicket-less journey from Southampton to Manchester. The pundits loved his action and attitude. Very early in his debut Test, the third of the series, he had Alastair Cook almost caught in slips and Ian Bell very nearly lbw. Neither Ravindra Jadeja nor the umpire completed the formalities and he was denied two well-deserved wickets. After that, it was all downhill. But the team management was understanding. He was retained for Manchester.
As he continued to toil hard and beat the bat but still not get a wicket in the fourth Test too, the tragic story would get a comical sub-plot. Every time he came on to bowl, the commentators would mention that dubious ‘longest wicket-less streak’ record, one held by Amritsar Govindsingh Kripal Singh, who once bowled 100 overs without success. Soon, AG Kripal Singh was getting more mentions in the commentary box than R Ashwin, who hardly bowled on Saturday.
In the stands, they steadfastly cheered for England, but they did spare a few claps for Pankaj. “Come on Pankaj,” they shouted, whenever the bowler would look at the heavens. As he would return to the boundary after another over, they would offer words of encouragement. They didn’t want England to lose a wicket but in case they did, everyone wanted Pankaj to be the bowler.
The fast bowlers on microphone were feeling the pain. Ian Botham said that in case lady luck had been smiling, Pankaj would have got at least eight wickets. On Friday, the gentle giant had met Botham in the lift. Botham had patted Pankaj on the back and told him not to worry as the first wicket would come.
Finally, the moment came. It was his 416th ball in India whites, certainly not a wicket-taking delivery. The ball was drifting down leg, but it flicked Root’s gloves before reaching Dhoni. There was a sense of relief all around. The crowd stood up, the Indian players grouped around their easy-going, affable teammate, and Pankaj’s large eyes were finally smiling.