On Thursday, Hrishikesh Kanitkar was trending in India. He had called time on his 17-years-and-a-bit-long career. Seventeen years and a bit after his single biggest moment in cricket: that four against Pakistan in the third Independence Cup final in Dhaka. On Thursday, Ajay Ratra too announced his retirement, 13 years and a bit after his debut. Thirteen years and a bit after his career-defining moment: the gutsy Test century against the West Indies in Antigua. Ratra didn’t trend, though.
It’s not about Kanitkar versus Ratra. Or the merit of one’s achievement against another’s. Or ODI versus Test. It’s certainly not a criticism of social media, or a lament about how one event gets, perhaps, disproportionately played up even as the other gets neglected.
It’s actually an acknowledgment of that.
And also an attempt to understand why, after a considerable passage of time, a solitary boundary in an unbeaten 11-run innings captivates us much more than 12 boundaries in an unbeaten 115-run knock. An effort to fathom why Kantikar (2 Tests and 34 ODIs) trends while Ratra (6 Tests and 12 ODIs) doesn’t.
Kanitkar’s penultimate ball boundary off Saqlain Mushtaq meant India had completed a world-record chase, overhauling their arch-rivals’ total of 314.
But it was more than that. It was also a catharsis for a generation of Indians tortured and tormented by Javed Miandad’s last-ball six off Chetan Sharma on April 18, 1986. More so for those Indian fans who didn’t witness it, but grew up on that story. A tale that was retold every time the two teams faced each other afterward, till it became a legend.
That 1998 match began along expected lines, and with a sense of foreboding. Pakistan, having won the second final, had the momentum. Saeed Anwar and Ijaz Ahmed, then, proceed to plaster India’s bowling and post a more than formidable total (remember, this is still the previous century). In their ODI history till that point, only twice did India even touch 300. Moreover, two overs had been reduced from each innings. The odds stacked up.
It was that time — the nervous ’90s — in Indian cricket when it was mostly Sachin Tendulkar or bust. Tendulkar scored a 26-ball 41 but perished when the team was still 243 runs adrift. The left-handers Sourav Ganguly and Robin Singh took India close. But then came the familiar collapse.
Of the two previous occasions when India had scored 300, one had come barely five months earlier, in Sri Lanka. Needing 303, India were cruising at one stage, with Ajay Jadeja and Mohammad Azharuddin — two cricketers who would be tainted with match fixing charges later — before imploding spectacularly. The team eventually would fall two runs short.
A similar story was being played out in Dhaka. From 250/1 in the 39th over, India collapsed to 306/7 when Saqlain came to bowl the final over. Kanitkar was batting only for the second time in his career, and he had Javagal Srinath at the other end.
Going down memory lane
“There was one ball which Saqlain Mushtaq bowled,” Kanitkar recalled the match in an interview with bcci.tv.
“It was a short ball and I pulled it and hit it straight to the fielder to get a single. As I took that single, I told myself that I could have hit the same ball for a boundary and got just one for it. Then when I came back to face the last two balls, Srinath told me to just connect the ball instead of missing it. I was telling myself to watch the ball and trust myself. Then when I faced the second last delivery and hit it, I knew I had hit it in the right area in between the fielders in the boundary.”
With one stroke, Kanitkar obliterated 12 years of hurt. And liberated young Indian kids. Those who were born after 1986 would never be overawed by the Miandad legend again.
It’s 2015. India’s median age is 26.9. A comfortable majority of the country’s cricket fans are born after April 18,1986. They, quite likely, constitute the biggest demographic chunk who uses Facebook and Twitter. Hence, Kanitkar’s enduring appeal.
It’s not about Ajay Ratra, you see. It’s not even about Kanitkar the domestic cricket giant who is the third highest run-getter in Ranji Trophy history. Or, a leader of men who, in the twilight of his career, transformed a bunch of mostly inexperienced Rajasthan players into back-to-back Ranji champions. A player whom his fellow cricketers gush about.
It’s about that 23-year-old youngster who overcame butterflies in his stomach to execute the shot he was not even supposed to hit. Allegedly.
Two years after that match in Dhaka, in the Tehelka match fixing tapes, actor and socialite Anju Mahendru told Manoj Prabhakar: “Poor fellow (Hrishikesh Kanitar), he must have felt like such a hero when he hit that winning four, not realising that the shot would, in the end, cost him his place in the side.”
A little before those tapes were made public, Kanitkar had been dropped. For good. But for us, he still feels like a hero.