In an era gone by, long before satellite television came to become an integral part of our lives and long before the internet provided us unlimited access to information, images and videos, the favourite pastime for us cricket lovers was to put together a World XI. A Dream Team, if you like.
With only newspaper and magazine to access both the written word and still photographs, it was easy to let the mind wander and imagine what it was like, watching Barry Richards and Gary Sobers bat alongside each other. English county cricket, at one time considered the finishing school for international cricketers, threw up fascinating and unlikely team-mates. There was Imran Khan and Garth le Roux and Clive Rice at Sussex, Ian Botham and Martin Crowe and Viv Richards at Somerset, Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards at Hampshire…. Just to listen to their exploits on BBC's Saturday Sports Special, anchored brilliantly by the incomparable Paddy Feeny, was an absolute treat. Saturday nights haven't quite been the same since.
Today, international superstars rubbing shoulders with each other, modern greats from different countries playing for the same footballing club, have become commonplace. Commonplace, because every weekend – and on several weekdays – during the European footballing season, live pictures are beamed from England and Spain, from Italy and Germany and France. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie testing their skills against the array of superstars at Manchester City, Lionel Messi and Xavi and Iniesta going shoulder to shoulder with Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain – these no longer boggle the mind.
But Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting opening the batting for the same team? Now, that is something else.
One of the major achievements of the Indian Premier League has been the coming together of legends, operating alongside each other, putting their experience and intelligence and expertise and immense cricketing knowledge to maximum use in a bid to justify the millions of dollars spent by franchise owners in search of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That's how Shane Warne and Graeme Smith have played with each other, Muttiah Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori found themselves in the same team, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers turn out for the same franchise, Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya strode out to set a target or chase one down.
In the era of just newspapers and magazines, this would have been fascinating. Jayasuriya and Tendulkar together? One, a left-hand destroyer of bowling attacks, a veritable powerhouse who in many ways redefined the art of opening the batting without being apologetic about it, who cocked a snook at the purists and managed a Test triple hundred with his unorthodox and risk-filled approach. The other, a right-hand connoisseur's delight, as correct and orthodox – high left elbow et al – as they come, a picture of composure and control but tightly wound up like a coiled spring ready to jump to life.
Somehow, the live picture has taken the romance out of it all. But hey, no one is complaining.
How else would we have seen the little exchanges, the respectful glances, the nods and silent communication through the eyes between two of the greatest batsmen of their generation, indeed of all time? How else would we have seen Ponting thumping Tendulkar's fist in appreciation when the little man got inside the line of the ball and whip-pulled Jaidev Unadkat to fine leg? How else would we have seen Tendulkar haring down the track in appreciation when Ponting, advancing down the track, was good enough to still flat-bat Dan Christian wide of long-on.
Sitting in the dug-out, another legend of the modern era, Anil Kumble, nodded and clapped in delight. Kumble, president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, former captain and mentor of Royal Challengers Bangalore, now in the other camp, rooting for Mumbai Indians to overcome his one-time franchise, at the Chinnaswamy Stadium where he cut his teeth as a cricketer. With his great mate and spin twin Muralitharan in the opposition camp. You will travel a million miles, and not see anything like it again. Or, then again, you might see it at the same place, on the same night.
Shortly after Tendulkar had been run out, shortly after Ponting had been stumped, the camera panned to the Mumbai Indians dug-out. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, tension etched on their faces, were Ponting and Harbhajan Singh, two central figures during the unsavoury episode in Sydney five years ago. Had anyone said then that Ponting would be Harbhajan's captain, and that two other key Sydney figures – Tendulkar and Kumble – would be a part of the same set-up, he would have earned a swift and free passage to a psychiatrist. And particularly so if he had suggested that before Ponting joined the team, Harbhajan, Tendulkar and Andrew Symonds, whose alleged abuse by Harbhajan catalysed the events that threatened the very fabric of the sport, would be team-mates and, to an extent, perhaps even go on to become friends.
But I digress. Ponting and Tendulkar. Names that roll easily off the tongue, as they should considering that between them, across all formats, they have 61,756 runs and 171 hundreds in international cricket. Batting together competitively for the first time, it was obvious that there was a little tentativeness in calling – not in running between the wickets, mind you, with both men nudging 40 running with a purpose and an alacrity that would have put a 20-year-old to shame. There was the one moment when Ponting played the ball to deep cover and was always thinking three. Tendulkar started off thinking three, downsized it to two midway through the first run. As Ponting hared down for a third, Tendulkar screamed out a loud no and put his right hand up. Ponting put on the brakes, turned around and retreated to the safety of his ground, then looked up at his partner, a slightly irritated look to start with that quickly transformed into a quizzical enquiry once he made eye contact with Tendulkar. Tendulkar shrugged, walked down the pitch for a word, gloves were punched, all was well, no hard feelings, no damage done.
In their first outing together, the two legends put on a half-century stand. It wasn't enough to see Mumbai home, but it was enough to set off the inevitable question: Is Ponting-Tendulkar the best opening pair in IPL VI? On air, Ian Bishop asked for a definition of 'best'. And some of the other pairs were bandied about – Mike Hussey and Murali Vijay for Chennai Super Kings, David Warner and Virender Sehwag for Delhi Daredevils, Chris Gayle and Tillakaratne Dilshan for Royal Challengers.
Ponting and Tendulkar may not be the best anymore, not with Father Time having come a calling, but they generate the kind of awe and respect and reverence that is anything but commonplace. Warner and Sehwag, Gayle and Dilshan, they might evoke exhilaration and excitement with their brutal treatment of the cricket ball, but for style, class, grace, elegance and sheer presence, give me Ponting-Tendulkar anytime. And forget about everything else.