TELFORD VICE, Nagpur
THE eyes have it. They are diamonds in the dark, perfectly hard, shining and knowing that they are part of specialness – that they are not like others’ eyes, which follow them like heat-seeking missiles.
Dale Steyn has had these eyes for seven years. Now, Ravichandran Ashwin has them, too. They are the eyes of players who have outgrown the game itself and become bigger than the sum of their own talent and skill.
India has had a key role to play in the steroidal growth of cricket’s cult of celebrity. It is here, in the country where the game is the fat chewed in millions of conversations daily, more than anything except, perhaps, Bollywood, where it is what kids of all ages play wherever and whenever they get the chance, that cricketers shed their mortal selves.
This transformation used to be the preserve of Indian players, although exceptions were made when mayhem magnets like Jonty Rhodes came to town.
In 2008, the Indian Premier League came to those towns. Suddenly the country’s most prominent business people and actors, some of them bigger celebrities than any cricketer, owned the game’s richest, most media saturated arena.
Coincidentally, 2008 was also when Steyn was officially recognised as the cricket’s finest bowler, a status he has held for almost all of the ensuing seven years.
That has been a marriage made in marketing heaven. If you can’t sell Steyn to the cricket world, you probably also can’t sell beer to students. And the cricket world is drunk on Steyn, as evidenced by his 1.87-million Twitter followers.
Steyn has an uneasy relationship with all this. “Terrible guitar player,” is how he announces himself on Twitter, and for all the fuss made over his every move he has retained a lot of the smalltown-ness that comes standard with kids from Phalaborwa.
“Ah, I don’t know …” is often his most revealing line at press conferences. It is delivered with a deliberate fade of those eyes, which are full of what he knows he wants to say but also knows he had better not say. Sometimes, he falls victim to a frigid petulance.
But he was a breath of the freshest air in smokey Mohali, where he charmed a crowd of jaded journalists by telling them how bowling to a batsman on India’s low-bouncing pitches leaves him “smiling because I can get him out lbw all day”.
Ashwin, too, is comfortable quipping his way through life. “‘Oh my god, he is arrogant, over-confident, he thinks he is better than me’,” was his caricature of his critics in a recent interview.
“All these kind of things come in because we are Indians. We have a very small-shaped view of life.”
But a cricketer and his cricket career are not always on the same scorecard.
Morne Morkel, for instance, stands 1.96 metres tall with shoulders to match. If he felt like it, he could kill you with one fell swoop of his bowling arm. Happily, you know he doesn’t feel like it.
You wouldn’t be so sure about Steyn – it’s in those eyes. They glare at batsmen, and occasionally at reporters, like the rest of us glare at someone who cuts us off in traffic.
Ashwin can’t hurt you physically with his whirling dervish deliveries. But would you trust him not to try? With those eyes, not a chance.
Right now, Ashwin is on the cusp of Steyn’s level of celebrity. Steyn’s groin strain has prevented them from sharing the stage of this series, and more’s the pity. But diamonds are forever.