What’s in a game?

They say that you know you are really obsessed with a sport when you start marking life events with events on the sporting field. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that to me, life is a bunch of things that are happening around me while I watch a whole lot of cricket matches, but it would not be miles away from the truth either. So here is my unorganized attempt to examine how cricket and my life are inextricably entwined. Needless to say, this means that this post is going to be rambling, somewhat incoherent, extremely cricket-heavy, with inconsistent tense structure – basically very self-indulgent like this sentence; so consider yourself forewarned!

 

Part 1

The early years

I started regularly following cricket on television somewhere around 1989, as a 7 year old, but even before then, I had contracted the cricket bug. I would play whenever I would get a chance, either in school in Trivandrum or while on vacation in Thrissur. It was in Thrissur, on an old Bush television set, that I watched international cricket for the first time. I faintly remember my father pointing out the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Arun Lal (yes, I have watched Arun Lal play test cricket).

The first extended bit of cricket watching on television that I did was while the 1987 world cup was being held in India. I remember watching Kapil Dev running in to bowl. He seems to be in a trance, impervious to his surroundings, so self-assured, such a natural athlete. Dilip Vengsarkar and his duck-like batting stance. Mohammad Azharuddin and his impossibly wristy style. Sunil Gavaskar and his head band. Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh with their classical left-arm spinner’s actions.

India are chasing against Australia. 3 runs or so are needed with something like 2 balls to go in the last over being bowled by Steve Waugh. Maninder Singh faces as the last man, and has his stumps shattered. Game over. Senior Waugh, the iceman has arrived. Dave Houghton almost drags Zimbabwe to victory over New Zealand single-handedly. Chetan Sharma is running in to bowl against New Zealand. He takes 2 wickets in 2 balls. A hat-trick is a real possibility. I keep my eyes peeled on the screen and Sharma actually does it. A hat-trick!!! By an Indian bowler!!! Then India come out to chase in the same game and Sunil Gavaskar bats like he has a 100 plus degree fever. He actually has a 100 plus degree fever. The chase is polished off after Gavaskar completes a century in 90-odd balls. I come back from school one evening and see that India are chasing England’s 250-odd total in the semi-final. My grandfather is at home, watching. I ask him about India’s chances. ‘Negligible’ is the gist of his reply. Naïve 5 year old that I am, I insist that anything is possible in cricket. ‘Maybe, but this is not happening’, asserts my grandfather. As always, experienced realism trumps youthful optimism. The dream is over, and over the next couple of months, I watch Viv Richards and his friends thrash India all over.

1989-91

A 16-year old going by the name of Sachin Tendulkar makes his debut. Makes an immediate impression on me, but there was no way of knowing then how long-lasting and rewarding my fan-hood was going to be. I don’t remember following India’s tour to England – Tendulkar’s maiden hundred and the debut of a bespectacled leg-spinner, but I remember reading about it later. India tour Australia in the northern winter of 1991-’92. Seminal tour in several ways. Marks out Tendulkar as a truly great batsman, even at 18 years of age. Shane Warne makes his debut. Shastri scores a double hundred. Shares a heart-warming partnership with Tendulkar in Sydney in the 3rd test after India go down 2-0. Sachin himself becomes the youngest batsman to score a hundred in an India-Australia test match, bettering Neil Harvey’s record. SRT scores another hundred in Perth which a lot of people who have watched it reckon is his best hundred, ever. India fail to close out the win against Australia in Sydney. They then bowl Australia out for 145 in the first innings in Adelaide in the 4th test. The golden opportunity is soon wasted. India take only an 80-run first innings lead – that too thanks to an excellent half-century from Kapil at No. 7. Australia practically bat India out in the second innings, and despite Azhar’s hundred, India fall short in the fourth innings chase. Sidhu and Srikanth, the openers, keep getting out to hook shots in the test series, or so I read in the newspapers. I am left wondering why they would keep playing the shot if they were getting out consistently to it. The one-day tri-series follows. Tendulkar shows his wizardry with the ball as he bows India to a tie against the Windies. My family is intrigued by my increased interest in newspapers and television news, little realizing that I was waiting eagerly for match reports. Transition to a new school is made easier for change-hating me thanks to this Australian cricketing summer.

1992

The world cup starts in Australia. India open their campaign against England. I watch Ian Botham in action for the first time without realizing I was looking at a caricature of the real thing. Tendulkar makes an entertaining 50 against Pakistan as India register their only real win in the round-robin stages (The other win was against Zimbabwe, where the stupid rain rules favouring teams batting first allow India to get away with what could well have been a loss). Funny that India’s best performance comes against the eventual champions. India chase 230-odd against Australia. Azharuddin plays an absolute beauty but is run out for 93 thanks to a direct hit from Allan Border – damn the Australians and their fielding! Sanjay Manjrekar hits a six or two (Yes, Manjrekar!) to keep India’s chances alive, but he too, is run out. Kiran More plays a couple of shots which would probably be described as Dilscoops now, to bring India close. Javagal Srinath needs to score 4 off the last ball for India to win. He heaves, the ball goes somewhere towards the midwicket boundary. The fielder (Steve Waugh, if I remember correctly) drops the catch, but fires in the throw from the deep to catch Venkatapathy “Muscles” Raju short while he attempts to complete the third run. Yes, India lose by 1 run – damn the Aussies and their fielding; even when they drop catches they find a way to turn things around. Meanwhile, Jonty Rhodes flies through the air to run a very young, svelte Inzamam-ul-haq out. We didn’t know then that both of them would become household names in the years to come. Martin Crowe churns out big innings after big innings including the big daddy in the semi-final against Pak, but he is powerless to stop a rampaging Haq and a calculating Miandad. South Africa are robbed in the other semi-final to setup a classic ‘professionalism vs. natural talent’ final. Pakistan lose their openers early. Imran & Miandad crawl to stabilize the innings. Gooch drops a skier and watches his team concede a 250 total after they looked good to restrict Pak to about 200. Wasim Akram takes over with the ball and delivers Imran the platform to launch the fund-raising campaign for his cancer hospital.

India tour South Africa during the southern summer. The Karnataka duo of Kumble and Srinath start to make their mark at the international level. Meanwhile, I establish my pattern of studying late at night and waking up rather late on exam days – a trend that was to continue throughout out my student life. The fact that the day-night matches in South Africa go on till really late in the night means that these attempts at studying are severely interrupted. Pravin Amre, another batsman from Sardashram school, makes a debut hundred in Durban. Indian batsmen continue their tradition of folding under pace & bounce. Tendulkar, alone, bucks the trend with 111 (at the Wanderers, I think). Amre continues his successful South African tour with a hundred in the ODI series – added bonus: India win the match. The lazily elegant Woorkeri Venkata Raman also scores a hundred in the only other Indian win in the 7 match series. Even as a 10 year-old, I develop strong cynical tendencies thanks to India’s overseas performances.

(To be continued.)

Memories of a cricket devotee

I remember the day I anointed Sachin Tendulkar atop my own little cricketing pantheon.  The details are a little bit hazy, but it was sometime in 1989-’90. India was playing Pakistan in a one-day international that ended up being an exhibition 20-overs-per-side match because of poor light. India was set a stiff target (stiff by late 80’s standards) requiring the team to score in excess of seven an over or so to win the match. With the opposition boasting the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Quadir in the bowing line-up, India was always going to struggle. Kris Srikkanth, in his own inimitable style, was giving it a right old go, but he was getting very little support. I think it was at the fall of the fourth wicket that the young man boy who had recently made his debut walked in. I was already fascinated by this 16-year old prodigy, who, like Javed Miandad suggested, looked more like he should be at school, concentrating on his homework, rather than playing international cricket, facing bowlers who either were already, or were on their way to becoming, some of the best in cricket history.

Tendulkar went on to launch a fascinating counter attack on Quadir. Imagine the excitement of a 7-year old watching somebody who looked barely older than him, tonk Abdul Quadir for sixes. I don’t remember the exact number of sixes that he hit.  I am sure I can find out if I look it up, but I don’t want to. The memories that I carry are too valuable to be sullied by dry facts and figures. These were not fluky hits, either. They were full-blooded shots that found the middle of the bat and carried long and far. The most incredible thing about the performance was that this young man believed that India could still win the match and that he could do it for his team. The confidence was more precocious than the talent. India went on to lose the match but Sachin Tendulkar had replaced Azharuddin as my favourite cricketer on that precise day.

Of course, if I remember correctly, he got out for a duck in the very next match, going for a big shot too early in the innings. He was a much more instinctive batsman than he is now, and he would often be criticized in his early years for being too aggressive in his approach. He had an 80 plus strike rate in one-day cricket in the early 90’s – a time during which a batsman with a strike rate of 70 was considered fairly aggressive. He was Virender Sehwag before there was Virendrer Sehwag.

Not that he did not have the patience and the mental discipline to buckle down and play longer innings when the occasion demanded it. The 600 plus partnership with Kambli and his own 327 is the stuff of legend. He was famously the first cricketer to score centuries on Ranji, Duleep & Irani trophy debut. He came close to becoming the youngest centurion in test cricket ever but fell short by 12 runs in New Zealand. He made test hundreds in Australia as an 18-year old, including one in Perth that had the Australian commentators, infamously stingy in their praise for non-Aussies, waxing lyrical about the young man’s talent. He was Brian Lara before Brian Lara became Brian Lara.

Mental toughness was never a problem for him. He made his first test hundred at Old Trafford with the pressure of a test match to save and the company of a lower order batsman.  He was felled by a bouncer bowled by fellow debutant Waqar Younis in his first test match; yet carried on, merely pausing to wipe his bloody nose. He withstood a barrage of ‘mental disintegration’ (read abuse) from the Waugh twins while scoring a hundred at Sydney in his first test match there, only remarking to his batting partner and Mumbai senior Ravi Shastri that he would give it back to them after reaching his hundred. He was Steve Waugh before Steve Waugh became Steve Waugh (And co-incidentally enough, he played his most Steve-Waugh like innings in Waugh’s last test match – 241 while cussedly refusing to cover drive throughout the course of the innings).

There was a period during the early 90’s when Tendulkar just couldn’t make a one-day hundred.  He would give free rein to his attacking instincts in one-day cricket and would often be dismissed between 50 & 100, trying to accelerate. Or he would end up not out on a half-century. It seems strange to say this about someone who is miles ahead of everyone else in terms of one day runs scored and one day hundreds made, but there was a time when  people thought he would become only a ‘very good’ one day batsman, as opposed to the ‘great’ test batsman that he already was. He used to play fascinating cameos that would captivate audiences and would tantalizingly leave us wanting more. He was Aravinda De Silva before Aravinda De Silva became Aravinda De Silva.

It was clear from very early on in his career that we were watching an extremely competitive man.  Even when he failed with the bat, he would try and contribute with the ball (seam up in his early years and spin later on) and in the field. I remember an ODI against the West Indies during the tri-series in Australia in 1991-’92, when India were bowled out for a paltry score (120-odd). In response, West Indies was consistently pegged back by India with wickets, but finally, Azhar had bowled out all his main bowlers, and the Windies still had a wicket in hand with only a handful of runs to go. He turned to his young wizard, who, with the scores level, took the last wicket, producing a tie (caught brilliantly by Azhar in the slips).  During the Hero cup in India in 1993, Tendulkar was going through a wretched run with the bat and had even been demoted in the batting order. Yet, in the semi-final, with 6 runs for South Africa to win, he was entrusted with the last over. It seemed almost pre-ordained that he would do the trick and that is precisely what he did.  He was Yuvraj Singh before there was Yuvraj Singh.

Despite all his tremendous achievements in one-day cricket, to me, he is first and foremost, a great test batsman. He made runs, hundreds, all over the world, against all kinds of attacks. The hundred that he made in Bloemfontein in South Africa in 2001 on a bouncy pitch is one of his less-heralded favourites of mine. So is the hundred that he made in Edgbaston in 1996 when nobody else seemed to be able to take command over the bowling like he did (including Nasser Hussain, who received a lucky reprieve from Darrel Hair off Javagal Srinath) and the 110 that he made against Australia in Melbourne during his first away series in his second stint as captain. His 169 in Capetown in ’96-’97 included a breath-taking partnership with Azharuddin, which looking back, gave me the most aesthetic pleasure I have ever had watching a sporting event. The reason why he could make runs in such varied conditions against such challenging bowling attacks was quite simply because he was one of the most technically equipped and well-prepared test batsmen to ever play the game. He was Rahul Dravid before Rahul Dravid became Rahul Dravid.

He had an amazing run of consistency in 1998, scoring something like 9 ODI hundreds. He would have made a lot more test runs that year, having already slog swept Shane Warne on the way to a magnificent 155 not out in Chennai and bedazzled the Aussies once again with 177 in Bangalore, had the money-hungry BCCI scheduled a few more test matches that year. Since Tendulkar’s debut, I can remember only one batsman enjoying the same kind of extended consistent run in international cricket, during the mid-oughties. He was Ricky Ponting before Ricky Ponting became Ricky Ponting.

One of the most bitter-sweet Tendulkar memories for me is the fourth innings hundred that he scored against Pakistan while attempting to drag India over the line in a chase of around 250-odd in the last innings. India had lost 5 wickets in the chase before reaching 100, and against Wasim, Waqar, and Saqlain, most of us had given up hope. But Sachin hadn’t, and in the company of Nayan Mongia, he brought India close to the target. To this day, I believe one of the most impressive things about that innings is the fact that he managed to inspire Mongia to play a crucial knock when it really mattered to the team, than when it merely mattered to Mongia.  He was dismissed by Saqlain a few runs short of the target, and Sunil Joshi and the rest of the Indian lower order batsmen proceeded to put on a display of panicky batting that made headless chickens look like Buddhist monks, ultimately resulting in India losing the game. Such is the thin line that separates a great fourth innings masterpiece that could have gone down as one of the ten or so best innings of all time, and a mere ‘good innings’. He was VVS Laxman before Laxman became Laxman. Later on we learned that he had played that innings through the kind of excruciating back pain that would have had me and you refusing to get out of bed. He was Anil Kumble before Kumble became Kumble by dismissing Lara, bowling with a broken jaw.

Recent times haven’t been quite as kind to him, and he himself hasn’t helped matters by appearing to be too obsessed by personal landmarks like his 100th international hundred. The achievement of that milestone was itself an embarrassment, reached with the help of an unnecessary crawl against Bangladesh in an inconsequential ODI, in a match which India ended up losing. Even more embarrassing to me, was the fact that Tendulkar never felt the need to express regret for the way in which his personal landmark took precedence over the team’s interests.

Having said that, by and large Tendulkar remains a committed team man and a generous person, and by all accounts, is a good human being. I was prompted to write this piece after I went down to the Wankhede stadium to watch the second test match of England’s tour to India.  India was fielding for most of the two days during which I watched the match. Whenever Tendulkar would take a fielding position near the boundary, the Mumbai crowd would cheer and wave to him, and would expect him to wave back. He would always graciously acknowledge the cheers, without making a fuss about it, unlike one or two of his younger colleagues who have a lot more to be humble about than him. Whatever happens from now on, irrespective of how long your career goes on, thanks for the memories, Sachin. There will never be another Sachin Tendulkar.