Bangalore is not high on the agenda of most people travelling to India. There are plenty of unremarkable Hindu temples and vestiges of the Raj in the bustling city’s grand public buildings, but it is primarily known as one of the country’s booming hi-tech centres. I was there in October, 2004, for a cricket test match.
The image that is seared into my memory of the occasion is of G D McGrath clean-bowling Rahul Dravid for a duck. I had a perfect view of it from behind the bowler’s arm in the Terrace Stand of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. The volatile crowd’s morbid silence was deafening – you could almost hear the off-bail hit the dusty pitch. It happened on the second day’s play (I was there for all five), following an event of humungous portent in Australia’s first innings.
Nobody could see it coming as Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan opened the bowling on Day One – except maybe the pariah kites gliding in the steamy thermals above the players’ heads.
Included in the top-dollar price I’d paid for my ticket was a lunch buffet of vegetable korma, biryani, paneer, dal tarka, naan and (how fabulously recherché) chocolate and cherry cake. I was still licking my fingers when the young M J ‘Pup’ Clarke, on debut, strode to the crease with the tourists at an unsteady 3/129.
He batted with supreme confidence. An old head on young shoulders, defying the probing, viperish spin of the veteran Anil Kumble (who would capture his 400th test victim that afternoon) and Harbhajan ‘the Turbanator’ Singh.
At the close, Australia had reached 5–316, with Clarke not out 75 and A C Gilchrist 35.
On the morning of Day Two (play starts at 9am in India), the golden-haired prodigy from Sydney’s west lost all of his fluency upon entering the nervous nineties. Gilchrist surged towards a ton while Clarke was all pokes and prods.
Next to me, watching in a state of high anxiety, was a bloke called Vaasi. Originally from Sri Lanka, he now lived at Parramatta and was pleased to hear that I, like him, had registered my postal vote for Mark Latham in the previous week’s federal election.
‘John Howard is an evil man,’ he scowled.
A few rows down from us, M E ‘Junior’ Waugh, forgetting that he was once just a kid from Bankstown, churlishly refused to give a little boy his autograph, while at the front of the grandstand a couple of drop-dead gorgeous girls in vibrant silk saris waved excitedly to Irfan at fine leg, like fans at a rock concert.
Pup reached triple figures just before Vaasi and I adjourned for another standup banquet, and Zaheer finally had him caught by Parthiv Patil off a thick edge for a splendid 151.
Australia won the test by 217 runs. Back at the hotel, I rang my mum to wish her a happy birthday, then toddled off to the movies to see Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Terminal. At the cinema, before the lights dimmed, they played Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today. Tapping my foot to the beat as I licked my kulfi, I was in seventh heaven.
It was not until January 2012 that I saw Clarke bat again.
Once more it was against the Indians. The venue was the Sydney Cricket Ground, with its ornate Edwardian architecture and rich history of epic rugby league and cricket encounters. I love the place. It’s a part of who I am.
India were shot out for a meagre 191 in their first dig. The three great batsmen – Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and V V S Laxman – were mere shadows of the giants who had dominated bowling attacks all around the cricketing world.
For Australia, R S ‘Punter’ Ponting, having relinquished the captaincy to Clarke, was also in decline. He couldn’t buy a run, whereas Pup, though now in his pomp, had still not been able to win the hearts of the Baggy Green’s faithful. He was never destined to be loved or looked up to in the way that S R ‘Tugger’ Waugh or M A ‘Tubby’ Taylor were, or even the tetchy Ponting – and you sensed that he knew it. Among all of them, you also sensed that Pup needed to be loved the most.
Not since Bangalore had I booked into to a test match for the duration (five days is, admittedly, a long time to sit and watch a game – it’s strictly for tragics and trainspotters), but the likelihood of it’s going the distance was remote with Australia already 3/116 when stumps were drawn. Punter and Pup were unbeaten, 44 and 47 respectively.
Twenty-four hours later, for all their toiling in the field, the Indians had claimed only one wicket – Ponting’s, for 134, after he had nearly run himself out going from 99 to 100. Clarke was 251 and slaughtering them.
The Australian skipper batted and batted, amassing 329 before closing the innings at 4/659. Clarke might easily have carried on to break any number of records – he was only five shy of Taylor and D G Bradman’s 334 – but his disinclination to continue only underlined the enigma of a brilliant player whom we never really got close to.
The demi-god Tendulkar managed a stubborn 80 when India batted again, but the inevitable innings victory was achieved when N M Lyon trapped Ishant Sharma LBW.
Hungry after finding nothing decent to eat at the ground – Bangalore was a distant, mouth-watering memory – I legged it along Cleveland Street for a Leb at Abdul’s.
Washing my hummus and tabouli down with a long-neck VB, I marvelled at how fate had thrown M J Clarke and me together. If only Pup knew.