For an hour and a half, he alternately middled and missed. Very occasionally, he drove crisply but straight to the fielder. From time to time, he ducked and swayed. He took the odd blow, offering a steely stare, politely, back at the bowler. He must have inwardly winced, but never did he flinch outwardly, a picture of such composure that it was impossible to imagine he was in the middle of the most probing examination of his international career.
Cheteshwar Pujara was coming into the Wanderers Test on the back of twin run-outs in Centurion. He wasn’t about to make it an unprecedented hat-trick, not even if it meant he would remain scoreless for 53 deliveries. Even if there was a run and a quarter on offer, he wasn’t going to consider it. No more misplaced ‘intent’, no more gung-ho running, no more putting the protesting knees to the test.
One is not sure exactly what was going through the India No. 3’s mind on day one of the third Test, as he kept Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi at bay without ticking the scoreboard over. The little red cherry, propelled as it was by expert fingers and beautifully positioned wrists, was darting this way and that, moving in the air, jagging off the surface, taking off from a length. Dollops of luck apart, one needed courage, skill, character and instant, temporary amnesia to battle on. Pujara called on every ounce of mental resolve and sturdy technique to hold his own, disregarding the zero against his name to the extent that he was allowed to by the South African fielders and a smattering of spectators.
With each ball safely but runlessly negotiated, the tension grew – maybe inside of Pujara too, but more among those who were watching, egging him to ‘get one, lad’. Coming into his 57th Test, he had stacked up 4445 runs, averaging 51.09 per innings. All of that counted for little. ‘Get that first’, we screamed. ‘Nooooooooo’, we called when we thought, foolishly, that Pujara might succumb to temptation and look for that comfortable run and a quarter. We clapped when he played out his 50th scoreless delivery. We pored over the internet to see how much more he needed to establish an interesting, delightful record.
Then, he did the unthinkable. Full ball on his pads from Ngidi, tucked behind square for a single. Applause in the stands, applause in the changing-room as wicked grins broke out. Pujara himself, never the snarly, growling, expressive types, broke into a beaming smile. He flitted down the track, perhaps to punch gloves with his captain, but Virat Kohli wasn’t too interested. So Pujara did some gardening and turned back, still smiling. He had just experienced the power of zero, not intoxicating and infectious but intimidating and all-consuming. He had looked nought in the eye, and forced it to blink. ‘You are not my master,’ he might have said, somewhat apologetic. ‘You can encage me, but only temporarily. You will not define me.’
It is possible that someone who was defined by zero nearly two decades ago would have watched the proceedings at the Wanderers with no little interest. On India’s ill-fated tour of Australia in 1999-2000, Ajit Agarkar invited upon himself the sobriquet ‘Olympics’ with a horror batting run in the Test series. There was little indication of the carnage to follow when he opened with 19 at the Adelaide Oval, but subsequent scores read 0, 0 and 0 (Melbourne), and 0 and 0 (Sydney). With the Olympic Games in Sydney some eight months away, it was impossible not to equate these five ducks with the five interlocking rings of the Olympic flag. The first four ducks were all first-ballers, and when Agarkar finally survived a second successive king pair in Sydney by keeping out his first ball from Glenn McGrath, the SCG erupted in mock delight. Which turned to mocking delight, of course, when he was dismissed next ball.
Such was the grip zero had on Agarkar that when he finally got off the mark for the first time in six innings a week later during the triangular One-Day International series that followed, he actually raised his bat to the Gabba populace that wildly cheered the event of that Australian summer. Zero, in many scenarios, means nothing; nothing means more than zero, however, in various other situations, as Agarkar will readily testify.
Which readily explains why even the most accomplished of batsmen are desperate for that first run, in any grade of cricket. There is an anxiety to get off the mark that can metaphorically grab hold of your heart and squeeze so hard that it actually physically hurts. A single is just one run more than nothing, yet you welcome that single like it is your best buddy. You might be dismissed next ball, your team might be battered into submission and yet, you will console yourself with, ‘At least I didn’t get out for a duck.’
This duck, sweet and unassuming and unaware of its significance in the cricketing scheme of things, is a particularly humiliating companion if you are playing in Australia. It pops up on the television screen as you abashedly make your way back to the pavilion, red-faced and genuflecting. It breaks out on the giant screen at the ground, generating much mirth among the fans — especially if it is a visiting batsman at the receiving end — as it cackles and waddles along. I suspect when batsmen put their head down and trudge off the ground after scoring — scoring? — nought, it is primarily to avoid seeing the graphic duck walking alongside.
The duck I remember with great fondness is the one that was nearly gunned down at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, nearly 23 years ago. It was the final of the World Championship of Cricket, and India were doing the early running against Pakistan, having dismissed Mohsin Khan and Mudassar Nazar, the openers. Qasim Umar, the little right-hand batsman born in Nairobi, strode in at No. 4, making the long walk to the middle, seeking guard, surveying the field and then settling into his stance. His first delivery, from the great Kapil Dev, was a screaming yorker that went under his willow and crashed into his stumps before you could say ‘Wow’.
Umar, at once bemused and admiring, spent one long second in the middle, ruing his misfortune, then started to wend his way back to the hutch. Predictably, the unsuspecting duck appeared in front of him. Umar trained the bat on the duck, using it as an imaginary rifle to unleash an equally imaginary fusillade. He wasn’t on target like Kapil had been; that duck survived the Umar attack, and is still around, all these summers later, to offer succour to the unfortunates that continue to unwillingly covet it.