Sunday, August 20, 2017

Chennai, You did the Game Proud

Out of the blue floated the name Chetan; presumably it was a mom calling out her son’s name.  That really stopped me in my tracks. This mom’s yelling of Chetan sent me into a state of phobic horror – a name that easily brings a swarm of butterflies fluttering in my stomach, and to most of the Indian fans who watched Chetan Sharma cringe at that defining moment.

It is all etched up in memory. The day of reckoning had arrived -The day when India and Pakistan put up an almighty contest on the cricket field. It was at Sharjah this time.  The match was taking us youngsters to the edge of the precipice; then the steep fall into the pits happened all of a sudden. We, the starry eyed youngsters, had this delusion of India being on course to the summit, all along. How wrong we were, for the final over from Chetan Sharma proved to be a slap on all our faces.

What a match it turned out to be and what a champion Miandad was to pull the last ball victory. We could hear our heart beat every time Chetan Sharma ran in to bowl the last six deliveries. The final delivery was a lollipop. The next thing we knew was the ball sailing over the mid-wicket fence. Miandad is not someone who refuses to make victory his own when it is handed to him on a platter.

An emotional storm was brewing amidst us youngsters. The Indian loss, let alone the last ball Pakistan victory, had left us shaken and disappointed. We raved and ranted. It was not easy for us youngsters to come to terms with the result. Tongues were running away with expletives, in all languages.  Anger in full clip, we dissected all that had happened on the field, finally yielding to that one solid truth. Pakistan had outclassed the Indian side.  A bundle of nerves had been outfoxed by the nerves of steel.

An India-Pakistan match is not your ordinary cricket staple. It is a humdinger of a match; it is the test of your nerve. A victory for every Pakistani and Indian is a bee in the bonnet. Believe me; bats don’t get transmogrified into swords or the balls into bombs for that matter. There is something more hostile and excruciating than that. In a Churchillian turn of phrase, victory at all costs, victory even when odds are stacked up against the team, victory even when defeat is staring at the face of a team would be closer to the point.

Never ever blame it on the Indian or the Pakistani fans.  Patriotism is in excelsis, so they flaunt it. They have got their heroes pinned to their hearts, so there is no way that their heroes can let them down. They look at this contest as an acid test for their country's supremacy, and hence a defeat becomes irreparable, inadmissible, unacceptable and unpalatable. The high-octane fans cannot take 'Defeat' for a result.

Tongues swirling praises on the heroes in the morning would pour scorn by the same evening. Understandably, the charred dreams make the fans turn hostile towards their own heroes. Then what we know as sports moves into geo-political sphere. The political timber then stokes the fire of hatred and anger further. This is a match where heroes can be doomed to zeroes, mortals can turn immortals.

So much for the India-Pakistan encounter that it came back to haunt us. Champions Trophy 2017 it was.  Join the rumble of voices at the office canteens, college campuses and the bus stops to read the pre-match sentiment. Think-alike Harsha Bhogle and Ravi Shastri are out there as vociferous supporters of the Indian cause. They feel that an Indian win is inevitable.

It turned out to be so, and a one-horse race at that. Indian openers put on a solid partnership, followed by the sizzling stroke play of Rohit and Kohli. When Yuvraj arrived at the crease, he looked like the phoenix rising from his old self.  He was doing everything right. His eyes picked the ball as they would a football, his hands and feet were orchestrating a ballet of strokes, and the swing of the bat was near-perfect to stage that sweet cameo. His cameo strengthened the Indian cause. Then when we looked up at the scoreboard, it showed 319 at the end of the Indian innings.

That needed the Pakistani brilliance to eclipse the target, a tall ask nevertheless. So it proved as they floundered right from the start and with Duckworth-Lewis called into play; they were miles away from their target. The batting spine was so brittle that it broke their cause and of course their fans’ hearts.  India had scripted a convincing win over its arch rival.

Then came the Richard moment for the Indian fans - Cliff it was and not the Viv that comes to mind immediately when you are talking cricket.

Congratulations, And jubilations, I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.

Jubilation didn’t stop there. It took an ugly turn to wound the Pakistan fans. There were these creative trolls lampooning Pakistan cricketers, not in the best spirit and interest of the game. The trolls were mere signs that the contest had drifted away from the sporting arena.

Unforgiving the whole of Pakistan was. When the venting came, it took forms never seen before. There was this video going viral – A man rises from his seat in high dudgeon, inside four walls, lifts an object and smashes the TV screen. So much for the anger bottled up in him.

When we thought it was done and dusted for the nonce, we were utterly wrong.  India rendezvoused with Pakistan again at Lords. The final episode of the Champion’s trophy was coming to an exciting end.  For Pakistan, the journey from Birmingham to Lords must have been a soul-searching one. When they landed at Lords, their batting lit up the ground, bowling struck terror into the hearts of Indian players and fans alike.

The batting star for Pakistan, Fakhar Zaman, the unorthodox southpaw batted with murderous intent, toyed with the morale of the bowlers.  Left foot planted on the ground, right foot in the air, arms swinging wildly to swat the ball like a mosquito – Fakhar’s portfolio that day had many of this kind. Everything clicked for him and that day just belonged to him. Our own conjuror, Ashwin, had been massacred, conjured up for a run feast.  There was no stopping the Pakistani juggernaut.

India stared at a total of 338. Gargantuan chase it was going to be. On paper the batting looked rock solid, but seeing Amir breathe fire with the cricket ball, Indian batsmen gave in. Amir was seeking redemption at Lords. This was the very ground where he had been charged for match-fixing some years back. His eyes told it all. He would blow-off the steam in him. That he did with surgical precision - His anger, frustration and disappointment channeled into that fiery spell. Three Indian batsmen fell like pins. Indian hopes hit a new low. This time around, the Indian batting spine looked so weak and the surrender so meek.  Pakistan had turned the tables on India, lifting the Champion’s Trophy for the first time.

The voice of the cricketing fraternity pledging support to the Indian team seemed so low and lost in the din of the angry mobs. Untamed passions ran riot. Some cried their heart out, some smashed television sets, some set Indian cricketers posters on fire. Some even hurled abuses at players. The loss was turning out to be too personal for fans. The antics had left a lot to be desired.

The old exposition– Winning and losing are part of the game – was torn apart. Is ‘bad blood’ the only thing we get out of an India Pakistan match?

Rules apart, let us raise the voice of the exception – For any Chennaite will laugh it off, for he knows that he simply adores sublime cricket, adores any artist who can give them a taste of undiluted cricket. The Chepauk lore has it that any batsman from any part of the world will be cheered to the rafters when the batsman gets to the 25-run mark.

For another, a Chennaite will talk your ears off if he gets the chance to guide you through that sanctified test match staged at his very own MAC stadium. That happened in the year 1999 and the test match went on set a positive precedent.  Chennai and that distinguished test match ring a bell, for many. The test match also had all the makings of a thrilling Pakistan India encounter.

The match just had toil and tears for India. Until the last day of the match, the crowd did not know what was in the offing. The Chennai crowd had tucked into some brilliant batting, mesmerizing bowling and some memorable cricketing moments before they came back for the one last day. But the cream of the cricketing action was reserved for the final day. There was no guess work involved, for it was the little Master who stood there as the beacon of hope for all those who thronged the stadium on the final day. India was chasing 271 to win the game.

No matter what the situation is, when the little Master makes up his mind it invariably goes that way. On the final day, Sachin came out with that resolute gait – clear indication of his wanting to bat and bat until the final runs were scored. So he stood there tall among the ruins; showing incredible sangfroid when other batsmen succumbed to the tense situation. Sachin stood between Pakistan and victory until that back spasm caught up with him.

You could get a taste of all his imperishable offerings. The artistic jab of the back foot to send the ball to the cover fence, then that sublime cover drive followed by the paddle sweep and the Chennai crowd went crazy.  The exquisite square cut, the majestic pull shot, the delicate leg glance and then that one-and-only impeccable straight drive gave the crowd their money’s worth.

An innings of caution and aggression was about to come to an end. A moment of misjudgment, or was it the nagging back pain that pushed Sachin to go after that Saqlain delivery.  That was to bring about a tragic end to an otherwise heroic innings.  When Saqlain foxed Sachin, India went a step closer to the inevitable. The other batsmen were bundled out in no time.  Somewhere the voice of the Pakistan commentator Iftikhar Ahmed boomed those popular lines. So, the writing is on the wall…and Pakistan has…

Shell-shocked is the word closer to the emotions of the spectators at the Chepauk stadium, after that Indian defeat. Not an iota of imagination had led them to this result. As the crowd was rising from stupor, the Pakistan team was getting ready to go on a victory lap. The best scene was yet to come. Then that unforgettable event happened. Every individual in the crowd stood up and applauded the Pakistan team. That was a sight to behold.

Their pronounced act asserting the supremacy of sports – supremacy over individuals, regions and countries – was what that made Chennai the lodestar of sporting gesture. They came, saw brilliant test cricket and conquered the hearts of millions with that unabashed, unbiased cheering for the team that won, even when it was not their own.

Hail thee Chennai…you have done the game proud…

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Little Bird Told Me

The sound of clickety-clack in no way overpowered the urge to take a peep into the gorgeous M.A. Chidambaram stadium. As the train whistled past the stadium, the glimpse of the sanctum-sanctorum with the lush green outfield and the 22 yard strip was just the sight the tired eyes were yearning for. My spirits soared at the mere sight, but did not peak as it should have for the moment of truth was far away.

The wait at the stadium for this moment of truth is a nerve-racking ordeal. Minutes, perhaps seconds, would mean a whole day at the stadium waiting for the action to begin. The excitement begins only when two men walk into the field, signaling the start of play. The limelight they hog, for minutes, virtually falls on the men in white as they make the entry. Their tribe counts more sticks thrown at them than the carrots that come as a pittance.

Judgmental errors, lack of control, misuse of authority, intoned bias have been the curse for some men of this tribe who have paid a heavy price. Not so for one man who escaped the eye of stormy decisions, a man who became as popular as any star batsman or bowler of his time. He simply glorified his tribe. It was a little bird who told me this.

Perhaps the white cap he wore gave him away. Perhaps that he was the early bird for a match, eagle-eyed to take decisions spot on gave him away. Perhaps tell-tale stories of passion, love of the game, compassion, empathy, dignity, and esteem had earned him this Iconic status.

Cricket had become his vehicle to do and express what he wanted - Be fair and square in life, treat everybody with respect. It isn’t mere hyperbole to say that this bird and cricket were inseparable like fish and water. This Bird is now lodged in an unconquerable perch, all his deeds coming together to put him at that coveted point of honor.

His quirks and quiddities were his byname. They wouldn’t go unnoticed as would his signature of signaling the maximum runs. A decision here, hearty chat with a player there and then his very own fatherly talk to make an enfant terrible shed that tag on the field.  And what faith did players all around the world invest on him; you will have to see it to believe it, so said a little bird.

The crucial semi-final of the 1987 world cup was reaching a pivotal moment. The charismatic Imran and the Industrious Javed were scripting a solid partnership to revive the hopes of the Pakistanis. The border of uncertainty hadn’t yet been crossed, when Border took the ball to dislodge the partnership. As it were, it was a tossed up delivery that could tempt any in this trade. Imran was no exception as he launched into a wild ball chase.

The next thing we knew was the Australians were screaming in unison. The flow of adrenaline was too much to handle. Up went the finger of the umpire. Imran, caught behind, stood there at the wicket for a second or two, faint disbelief written over his face. Perhaps the ball did not find the edge of the bat. Then he took that weary walk back. It was the little Bird who had ruled Imran out. Like so many other cricketers who held the Bird in high esteem, who believed in his verdict, Imran dispelled the doubt in his mind to take the walk back. A little bird had to raise his finger to tell me all this.

Out there in the middle, testing times were brimful for the bird, not to mention the wild characters that took the field and taxed his tribe. But, taming wild characters on the field came naturally to this Bird. The 1970s proved to be a time when teams around the world came to rely on their pace batteries. And so it was for Pakistan at the Oval, a happy hunting ground for them.

As the battle between bat and ball grew fiercer, Sarfraz Nawaz was pitting his wits against the tall and lanky Tony Grieg. Where Sarfraz is, mischief is not even a stone throw away.  The cunning pace man, who to a generation of cricket lovers watching Test match cricket in the 1970s and 80s, could well be the first practitioner to orchestrate what is now staggeringly referred to as the Reverse swing.

At Oval, a dirty trick had brewed up in his mind. That would erupt only into a confrontation, if measures were not taken to nip it then and there. In wobbles the medium pacer to the crease and bowls a beamer. My boy and you should have seen Tony Grieg turning red with rage. Greg, smart that he is, manages to keep his head safe but not his temper from flaring. Tony's rage to threaten the perpetrator was overwhelming; his bat was about to turn into a bludgeon.

While the storm was brewing, somebody had to step in to make sure that the storm brewed only in a teacup. In stepped the Little Bird chirping ''Tea gentlemen'', creating a wall between the two to diffuse the bomb that otherwise would have exploded. Taking control of the situation, a little told me, and that spur-of-the-moment thinking saved the face of the game.

Beyond his call of duty, the observant bird watched and weighed the protagonists of play. A classic pace bowler had him stumped with his run up. There was no whoosh, buzz, whiz, or the Wham. No onomatopoeic sounds could catch or sum up his run up to the wicket. He just glided to the wicket and delivered those death knells – who better than Boycott can vouch for this. Stealth and secrecy were the trademark of this bowler from Jamaica.

You knew that he was about to begin his long run to the wicket, yet you wouldn't be sure if he was coming. The whispering run up to the wicket was only a cloak to the spell of death he delivered. A little bird had told the world that he was the one and only Whispering Death in motion.

His cricketing pilgrimage had taken flight as a batsman, he then representing Yorkshire and Leicestershire. What was to follow was the trading of white & white for the Black and white. Getting into the Black and white would one day set him apart as the epitome of umpiring the cricket world has never seen before. That also meant that he had the ringside seat to witness glorious cricketing moments.

Richards had come to be the cynosure of this bird's eye. Barry the barnstormer, showstopper it was. He was playing for Hampshire then. You could watch his cover drive all day long. The pull shot also cast a spell on you. Front or back foot play, off or leg side, spin or pace, sublime strokes flowed from his bat. The ringside seat gave the little bird the chance to lap it all up in delight. The kittenish buoyancy would ooze out when words of praise came gushing out of his mouth. Barry was the best, so tells a little bird to me.

How’zat claims Pringle when the ball hits the pad of the marauder Gordon - Pringle was on the verge of a hat-trick. Not out says the Bird.  That was one of the many LBW appeals turned down by this bird. Nor was the Bird going to budge since Pringle was his country man. Well, LBW sounded more like the Love before Wedding than the Leg before Wicket to him – That was to be fathomed from the way he fell in love with the game from the time of his backyard cricket before tying the knot to cricket.

The bird’s well-known deeds on the field did well to justify his magnetic presence – naturally that bond of admiration and love was forthcoming from a generation of boys and men. It was not mere mortals that expressed their fandom for the bird, for there was also a budding star smitten by the bird’s accomplishments.
It was at Sharjah that the boy wonder met the Bird for the first time. The adulation bottled up in him was about to erupt into words of admiration. For one thing, the boy wonder craved for the bird’s opinion about his batting. Bird had no hesitation in crowning him the future star, no inkling of doubt that the boy would put his name in the record book. And so he did by notching up 51 test hundreds.

Hick plays and misses, Hick plays again but misses. The bowler was nettled. The bowler was none other than the burly, foul-mouthed Merv Hughes. As foul words were pouring in excess with each passing delivery, it was time the Bird in the middle intervened. Like the Master guiding his pupil to travel the right path, Bird made Merv the ‘good boy’ he was supposed to be on the field with that masterly chat.

The final appearance was special for the bird. But something else gave the feeling that he was very special, treasured by the cricketing world. As he stepped into the ground to make the one last appearance, there was this Corridor of Honor awaiting his arrival - English players on one side and the Indians on the other. Atherton had taken the pains to bring the two teams together to orchestrate the Bird’s final symphony. And then in play, Bird ruling Atherton out turned to be an irony of it all.

The love of cricket still lingers and the Bird, Harold Dickie Bird, serves cricket in whatever way he can. Still he remains in his nest, as happy as a lark with many a feather embellishing his cap. As I am about to take the bails off, it is time to unwind how a bottled drink manufacturer rode their luck on this Bird’s specialty – Passing Judgment that was. Everything was official about it. A Daniel come to judgment had lived true to his role on the cricket field.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Camaraderie to Come Dearie

The thwacking of the ball echoed across the parking lot. As one soaked in the aura of Lords grounds, some energetic boys plying their trade of cricket were setting up a drama of intense action. There was this little-Dhoni at the batting crease packing all the punches into his shot making. That he had to knock off 8 runs in the last over meant the boy had to carry an old head upon his young shoulders. Cricket and pressure-cooker situations walk hand in hand these days.

The thunderbolt from a lanky kid took our little-Dhoni by surprise. The extra bounce did him in. The ball took the faint edge of the blade and the keeper did his thankless job. Little-Dhoni didn't budge, stood his ground and dismissed the idea of the faintest nick. He had made up his mind to win at all cost. That was serious sport indeed.

George Orwell's primer on sports came up as the apposite match for this situation. Serious sport and fair play can never meet, said Orwell, and went as far as to say that serious sport is more of a war without shooting.

The parking-lot cricket scenario apart, a jarring incident on the cricket field has set tongues wagging. Smith sending SOS signals to the dressing room, not to be mapped to any of the cricketing rule, was the cause of this firestorm of emotions. Virat never turned to Bletchley Park experts to decipher Smith's code. He knew what Smith was up to. Then it snowballed into a verbal assault of sorts. Unsporting behaviors on the sporting stage have poisoned the cricketing arena, left behind a trail of bad influence.

The genie had come out of the bottle long back. The bodyline series, Javed Miandad-Denis Lillee tussle and many other unsavory events have been the blot on the sine qua non of this gentlemanly game.  All said it would demean the game were it for us to believe that cricket and unsporting behaviors came together as strange bedfellows.

The talk of cricket is not just about recriminations, for only a nitwit would be championing this cause. The game lover, instead, waxes rhapsodic about great sporting moments, benevolent happenings that have glorified the sport.  Those that followed cricket in the 1980s will bring to mind how the exalted GRV recalled Taylor in the India-England test match at Mumbai.

There is a kernel of valuable lessons from memorable cricketing moments, exemplars of noble cricket. The game has ennobled ideals of sportsmanship in these emissaries, who stood out as paragons of cricketing virtues. For these emissaries, cricket was not about fame, name, awards and money. Every conceivable showering was dwarfed by the love of the game, camaraderie and friendship. These happened to be the locus of truth guiding them to glorify sports, set standards as real sportsmen. Like the two peas spilling out of the same pod, two names sprang out instantaneously from my mind - Keith Ross Miller and Denis Compton.
The Hollywood-hero looks catapulted both of them in to ladies’ men. Both men had unerring ability to sweep women off their feet. Denis swept the ball better than Keith did. They oozed charm and charisma on and off the field. The lure for football was also a common thread connecting the two. Denis pipped his counterpart at the goal post when it came to the tag of a football star.

Keith delivered his thunderbolts in a short run to the wicket. With the bat in hand, he could demoralize opponents. There were many a stroke-filled innings that were a treat to watch. He drove the ball with power and his cavalier attitude would show up in his batting. Keith was absolutely brilliant in pouching catches at the slip cordon, like the eagle swooping up its prey. The sad part was the great all-rounder staged all his theatrics before the time the author knew well to differentiate one end of a bat from another.

Keith had found his friend for life in India. That was where Denis Compton met Keith Miller for the first time. Friendship blossomed to the extent that Keith named one of his sons after his close friend, Denis Compton. Denis, the brylcreamed boy, was a revelation as a batsman. Naturally endowed with batting talent, Denis stroked the ball with grace. The lovely cover-drives and the graceful on-drives stood out, letting aside the creative sweep shots that became his trademark. The bat in hand also meant that his fertile and infinite imagination would flash through his blade like the pen stirring the imaginations of a poet.

The Miller-Compton bond was also known for the about-face they did off the field. The cricket ground set alight intense competition when Miller would loosen his bag of tricks to get the prize scalp of Compton. He would never hesitate to bounce Compton out. That did not mean he was baying for Compton’s blood. That was just another trick to undo the batsman at the crease. Nevertheless, Keith appreciated Denis’ batting prowess as did Compton on Miller’s stagecraft.

Crompton was never nervy nor was he ready to give in to the Miller tactics. Compton would be Compton, cutting, pulling, driving and playing another innings of character.  At the crease, he would do all he could to make sure Miller didn’t get the better of him, rather he rose up to the occasion every time Miller came thundering to bowl. Miller, on his part, would be eyeing for Compton’s weak spot.

Then the about-face happened when they were out of the stadium. The contest on the field was turned off when they got out of it.  Off the cricket field, they would be exchanging race tips or finding their way to tots of whisky. For them, the game was to be played, enjoyed.  The two remained close even after their playing days until death of one of these comrades dealt a severe blow.

Keith and Denis perhaps have left us a cricketing lesson. For the bond has been a veritable truth set in stone - that cricket is more of a duel between bat and ball and not a petty war of words nor a battle of characters.

Just as one English cricketer found a friend for life in an Australian, another English all-rounder later developed a special bond with a West Indian. The pair stood synonymous with the ideals of giving opponents their due. Ian Botham and Viv Richards had hit it off right from the word go, sharing rooms during their Somerset playing days. The eccentric of the two belted bowlers at will as he would outfox batsmen with his wily swinging deliveries, not to mention the blinders he held on to, which for many others had seemingly been unreasonable to even call it a hard chance.

The other was a Master Blaster. With the Slazenger in hand, swagger to the wicket and the mesmerizing power to dominate bowlers, Viv created his own brand of cricket that was a hard act to follow. The gum-chewing calypso king would leave the bowlers quaking in their boots, at his mere sight, for the bowlers were at his mercy most of the times. Even with a discerning eye, one wouldn’t be making any progress to pick the best shot he played, if it had come to that – was it the off drive or the hook shot? Not sure one would go on and ask, was it the short-arm pull or the lofted drives and on and on?

His batting was the symphony of shot making, for even the aggression bore the harmonious combination of charm, grace and style. Here was a Hitler at the crease, Hitler in the way he was single-minded in destroying and demoralizing the opponent bowling. His entry into millions of hearts, including the author, was just not something out of the ordinary.

The overwhelming love for the nation ran in their blood, leading to some unforgettable, fiercely fought battles on the field.  The rivalry on the field would vanish as they stepped out of the field.  Out of it, they would look like comrades in arms. The switch would be near-perfect.

‘Smokes’ as Botham called Viv, would smash a Botham delivery right over his head. Then there was this nonchalant flick of the wrists to send the ball over the mid-wicket fence, mind you a stroke played to a ball pitched on the off stump. It would seem cruel watching a man torment his friend on the field.

Botham was undaunted as ever. That Viv would treat ordinary bowling with disdain was never a deterrent to Ian, for he would try and try until he came up with a beauty to surprise the Master Blaster. There were times when Viv fumbled in his crease to a Botham delivery or fell prey to the extra swing that Botham extracted. It was just the healthy competition between the two that entertained many a cricket lover.

Incensed Ian also refused to play for Somerset when news broke out that his pals, Viv and Joel were not given a Somerset berth.  While the act has a negative connotation, the act was rooted in the noble cause of standing up as a friend in need, and Ian was a friend indeed to Viv. The bond was intact even after the two stopped playing active cricket. Ian dashing off to Antigua to celebrate Viv’s 60th birthday and Viv joining the revelry resulting from Ian’s knighthood were instances of the bond growing tighter.

Cricket has worn the label of ‘gentleman’s game with pride, not without reasons. The game has groomed ambassadors promulgating the true spirit of the game; be it their brand of play, conduct on and off the field or their approach and behavior. The likes of Keith Ross Miller and Compton have passed the baton on to men like Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis, to name a few.

There have been chummy pals like Sachin and Warne who take cricket beyond the boundary. Let not the gentlemanly tag fall off from the game, let camaraderie and friendship flourish to prove that cricket is a boundary-less game.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Paradise Lost

The soliloquy from the lips of one my dear and near one was a clear signal of a disturbed mind. So disturbed was he that the words 'That I am meek and gentle with these butchers' uttered in a Shakespearean drama seemed to resonate with his dilemma. There was palpable tension in the air; his calm demeanor had been ruffled and it looked as if he was going to let slip the dogs of war to avenge some atrocity committed in the name of a game – That he was sitting in front of the television gave me the cue. He personified the anger of Antony of the Julius Caesar fame.

If Antony's anger had found shape in one of my dear and near ones, his words had found shape through a novel - The Dogs of War. Forsyth's mercenaries had stolen the thunder in the eponymous film giving a peep into their occupational tradecraft. It was out and out a mercenary affair.

If we presume that all mercenaries are hired, recruited by contractors, we would only be clutching at the wrong end of the stick. In reality, not all those soldiers of fortune hurl bombs for a cause, fire away with their machine guns. There are some who are sold and bought in auctions. These are mercenaries who hurl balls at you at 140 kph. There are mercenaries who fire sixes with their bats. That's the new breed of mercenaries hitting the headlines now and again. This jolt to their iconic status is the result of the tectonic shift in the war-waging zone – Cricket field.

These mercenaries score big grosses in the twenty-twenty stomping ground called IPL. That’s the only bright spot in an otherwise painful and excessively extravagant drama. The grotty promoters of this cricket-is-only-entertainment episode let their incendiary idea loose for a start – Bring Knights of the Hammer to connect the Knights of Cricket and the franchisees.  Preposterous is the word that I am searching for as would the satire-king Wodehouse for the right word on many occasions.

The newscaster who was chirping about the auction episode had done his part to send the dear one on a rage-trip. The hammer had been brought down for 2017. The scribes and the reporters screamed in unison - Hammer prices soaring as high as the sky in the IPL auction 2017. What stuck in the craw was how the big-money deals were turning out to be the music to ears, as if the deals were doing the game a great favor. What filled the ear drums were terms like ‘bought for £1.7 million’, ‘bought for 3 crores’ and ‘Expensive buy’. For a moment, the dear one was left aghast thinking he had tuned into a Sotheby’s auction.

This certainly was not a momentous occasion for me to join the IPL choir and sing from their hymn street -- A dastardly deed from the house of IPL demeaning and degrading the stars of the cricketing world had left me cringing in despair. The livewire to mere livestock-like treatment was disheartening. Livestock auction markets would have exhibited better empathy, but our toffee-nosed administrators and BCCI rulers remained glued to bovine stupidity.

The captivating account, if at all it was one, was about men being treated like caged cattle. It was a case of how pandering could besmirch the game; how monstrous miscarriage of justice could be delivered without batting an eyelid - The stars who were lionized were ionized to mere inanimate things - diabolical treachery in my opinion. No amount of apologies can appease the ruffled souls.

These are parlous times when pointing fingers at such cranky behavior will make you look like a member of the lunatic fringe. That in any way doesn’t stop the volcanic emotions erupting at the thought of doormat treatment being meted out to cricketers, the step motherly treatment to the sons of cricket. If utopian cricket is what you see in cricket as utopian, the very snobbish act in the name of cricket is one that is far from being utopian, in my eyes.

This disquieting trend calls for immediate remedy. Bucketful of cash for the filthy treatment heaped on players can never be the anodyne that you think it is. We just can't resort to a band-aid on bullet-hole measures. That wouldn't do any good to repair the tarnished images of the poster boys of cricket.

Let’s wind the cricket clock back to the times of Neville Cardus. Let’s fill our ears with his cricketing wisdom to resuscitate the sagging spirits. For all that, what still remains relevant even at this hour of disgrace is the love for the game epitomized by Cardus from the lines he etched out - “The laws of cricket tell of the English love of compromise between a particular freedom and a general orderliness, or legality.” Had Cardus still lived to let his pen to do the talking, had he come to know of the compromise made today, his thesarus' worth of expletives would have scorched our souls.

English love of compromise, my foot cried the IPL predators that made the English compromise look like a teeny-weeny in front of a monster parading as a father-figure. The temperature in the cricketing fraternity, as I can see it, isn’t rising, it does within people who repulse the thought of players being reduced to inanimate objects. The muted indifference of cricket stars doesn’t augur well for the game, or for the image they have been carrying for so long. Has the cricket community thrown the word ‘dignity’ out of the window?

Saner actions and not auctions can bring a semblance of dignity. This hour demands a system that treats cricketers as human beings, if not restoring them on the pedestal they deserve.  When helmets stormed the cricketing arena to protect batsmen, can’t there be a way to protect the players’ dignity?

There could be. What pops out of my mind are words like ‘Package’ ‘Offer’ and ‘Team Selection’ that can restore the human touch. What doesn’t strike me is the alternate to this satanic auction. So what?

When devious minds thought of colored clothing for the white flannels, floodlights for sunlight, circles within circles in the cricket ground, the rise of a saner thought is not far away. 

Sport in one form can inspire sport in another. This can’t be farther from the truth when this dicey situation begs a remedial measure. European soccer clubs seem to hold the answers for this IPL cul-de-sac. Soccer clubs contract individual players like how organizations hire employees. When the contract ends, the player is free to be hired by other clubs. Only when there is will, will there be a way.

The English poet Milton scripted the Fall of Man in his epic poem. IPL has glorified the Fall of the Cricketer. There was just the forbidden fruit to orchestrate the downfall of Adam and Eve. There are so many bad apples tarnishing the many Eden Gardens of cricket. It was the Satan entering the Garden of Eden to spew the evil influence; it is the satanic auction that has poisoned the very nature of the game and the men associated with the game.

Cricket’s paradise is lost.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

High and Handsome, An Immortal Sixer-shooter did that in style

Baird would have found this a most gratifying moment. The very toy that he had built was telecasting an absolute cracker of a contest between bat and ball. The one-day match between India and England was cresting to a sensational finish, keeping the audience on the edge of the seats.  Being a Scottish man himself, Baird would have liked England to be the victor than the vanquished in a match that held promises of a close finish.

It was a run riot. There was sumptuous meal for the batsmen from this batsman’s paradise. It proved right with England posting their highest ever score in India. The seesaw battle for win saw the game swinging in England’s favor, though a distant Indian win was spotted in the horizon. The last lap of the match had begun and it was a solitary run that separated India from victory.

Patrolling the crease was a sly fox in Ashwin ready to lay its trap, this time with the bat. Standing like a gladiator with the bat resting on his shoulder and eyes betraying the I-know-how-to get-those-runs looks, Ashwin did the final honors. The heave to script an Indian victory was just enough to send the ball high and handsome over the ropes, send my pulse soaring.

There was nary a chant of Six Six Six punctuating the din or so I thought. There was also the easy way to wriggle out of this situation; tap the ball into the gap and run hard for the single. Ashwin defied all logic, decided to go the aerial route. The sudden rush of adrenaline, desire to stamp his authority must have got the better of Ashwin.  Then the heave sent the ball hurtling into space. The six-for-something Ashwin had turned into a Sixer-shooter.

Sixer-shooters are a special breed, born to entertain. They get their due with red carpet reception, to begin with. Then the charming presence at the crease takes over. Just like the tiger waiting to pounce on its prey, these are men hovering around the wicket with a penchant and flair for striking the red cherry, fearless nature and the chutzpah to torment bowlers. Big hitting is second nature to them.

Then orchestration of fireworks would be near perfect. The eyes would give the cue for their hands to make a parabolic swing, feet to dance down the wicket and send the ball to another planet. The elegant power and the timing were more than one could ask for. Eyes watching the game would gorge on the fireworks they lit, ears on the music of the reverberating sound of their bats timing the ball. The thirst would go unquenched, yet. They make greedy, addicted spectators swell in numbers, so easily. There was something similar. It was like craving for another of Goran Ivanisevic’s ace, it was akin to the football fan’s desire of watching Zico’s scissor kick for one more time.

Not all sixes that come crashing from the bat are created equal or the situation provoking the big one for that matter. Beyond doubt, pyrotechnics from sixer-shooters leaves you excited, entertained and energetic. It leaves you thirsting for more – you become the child bent on having one more chocolate.

A wine connoisseur loves the wine that has aged. A cricket enthusiast loves to reminisce, regale and relive heroic cricket moments of the past. Sixer-shooter exploits don’t fall out of this regaling radar nor do they fail to evoke enthusiasm. None has been more exhilarating than the exploits of a great Indian all-rounder in the English summer of 1990.

Lords, Mecca of cricket, a packed house to start with, and the Englishmen milking the Indian bowling only intensified the charged aura. This was no smokescreen to hide the six-hitting drama that was to be staged by a passionate cricketer. An electrifying demonstration that turned the tables on England would go down as one of the best cricketing moments in the annals of cricket. That is mere understatement.

India’s nonpareil all-rounder Kapil Dev was about to be let loose in the devil’s playground – the devil of a follow-on coming so close to wreck havoc on the Indian side. Our man was the only vestige of hope in a situation that was hopeless and lifeless. For at the fall of the ninth Indian wicket, in walked the colt of a Hirwani to give England the delight and India the creeps. This happened in a test match that witnessed ‘Some More Runs’ flow off Gooch’s bat. Gooch was only to be conquered at his pit stop at the third Nelson, thanks to the generous Kiran More for dropping a lollipop. The inimitable Shepp would have had a field day at the sight of the third Nelson – third big occasion for him to stage his dance or was he there staging one?

The mind is a sieve. It leaves out what’s unwarranted and takes in what’s the most needed. At this very hour, any remaining speck of doubt that remained in Kapil’s mind had vaporized as he took the leisurely walk to square leg. The bowler, an off-spinner was himself a lure, and the fielders dotting the boundary were his accomplices. The trap, if it had been, was well set. Nothing could undermine him.

So there was Hemmings at the bowler's end, no hemming and hawing at the batsman's end. Kapil's mind was made up. The gravity of the situation was not lost on him.  He would get into his attacking zone and do it himself. That, after all, seemed sane in a situation that was precarious. Kapil then got to his work. The four-ball drama was about to begin.

The ball spills out of Hemmings’ hand and Kapil steps out, just a couple of steps down the wicket mind you. Then comes the lovely swing of the bat to send the ball sailing over the long on fence; head still all along and eyes following the ball in its flight. The flair, style and grace, nothing was amiss. That was the first one of the four towering sixes.

The second six was hit wider and well into the stands. It was the same two-step dance and the same graceful swing of the bat to hoist the ball over long on. Now Hemmings seemed to have woken up from his reverie. A flatter delivery, he thought, would keep Kapil in check. How utterly wrong he was for Kapil was not deterred, to say the least. The onslaught would continue. All Kapil had to do this time was to keep his feet in front and in line with the delivery, launch into his stroke and hoist it straight to come up with the third successive six. He did that with ease. The smile sitting on the Englishmen’s face vanished. Another big blow by this fella, and they knew it would save the face for India. There was only one ball left in that Hemmings’ over.

That last delivery was to be bowled. Hemmings bit his captain’s ear or it was the other way around. It looked as if a secret had been shared to turn the ball in Hemmings’ hand into a magic wand. That was not to be. When he came into bowl, Hemmings held the ball a bit; delivered it late in the same loop. Kapil was not to be tricked. He planted his left foot in front to meet the line of ball, waited perhaps for a second and swatted the ball over long on for the fourth and the final six.

Four sixes on the trot and the deed had been done. Kapil just pumped his fist in the air and flashed a smile. His celebrations were limited to that. No dancing, shouting and nothing that could mar the game. The 100-watts smile was the smile of a champion - A pity that the leading dental brands did not have the gumption to ride on this champion smile to make products fly off the retailer shelves.

This six-hitting chapter is not a tale of bestial, brutal, or barbaric big hitting. It so happened to come from the blade of an immortal sixer-shooter. That was charming, graceful and a spectacle that would last a lifetime. Kapil had proved that sixer-shooting is also about elegance and timing as it is about power.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A paint brush, a guitar, And a cricket bat is also an artiste’s weapon

These are not the hiss-and-crackle days of the past. Yet, radio seems to be my prized possession and this radio still excites me as it had done during the past to give us boys the ticket to BBC. How thrilled we were to listen to doyens like John Arlott then, his sing song narrative evoking untamed cricket emotions. Now, radio fits in with my scheme of things to tune into old melodies.

This song that had a fragrant start has held me captive on several occasions. The honey-drenched voice of the male singer kept me glued to the radio set with the inspirational orchestration doing its bit to make it an aural treat. The string master had unleashed another of his gem, with his signature intact with the strumming of guitar in a song that was otherwise divinely classical. To prove a point, there was also this counterpoint bringing guitar and flute into play.

It dawned on me that the magical touch to the song soaked in classical tune was infused by the strumming of the guitar. Come to think of it, this composer is an artiste who has made the most of guitar in most of his compositions, a composer who I grew up listening to and a composer who had us youngsters tune-charmed into submission. The pied piper fashion to cast his spell on us would come closer to the point. The King, he had it in his name too, had after all left the mark of his signature. That was and is the true hallmark of an artiste.

 The signature had left the indelible message. Western classical could go hand in hand with the Indian classical music to unleash an eternal beauty. All the while, unwavering as it was, the needle in my mind moved to capture another object of my interest - The cricket willow - prompting me to bat for the batsmen who had left their signature behind for us cricket lovers to cherish the art of batting.

 If guitar had so uncannily been used, the willow was not far behind to carry imperishable signatures of greats who have graced this game.

 The thought of willow and the signature had so many artistes jostling for space in my mind. But none so close to establishing the unassailable lead like our Kulla. Short he might have been in stature, but quite tall in his deeds. His very own brethren had christened him Kulla with affection, the artiste from our neighboring state. In his heydays, the talismanic batsman held sway over cricket lovers around the globe.

It would be pointless to resist watching him bat, watching him play that magical square cut. Anything pitched short away from the off stump; he would be on to the ball in a flash, cut the ball square off the wicket, his feline movement backwards not eluding notice. The pose and poise were immaculate. I, among the many, consider that brilliant square cut as the signature of this artiste.

I have known many who have found their way through the milling queue to enter the MAC stadium just to watch him play that stroke. Talk of MAC stadium, D stand is not far behind. In the 70s and 80s, the stand would house spectators who knew the game like the back of their hands - spectators who just didn’t sit there counting runs or wicket, but went so far as to dissect everything on the cricket field. They would even predict the next delivery from Vasudevan, son of the soil, an arm ball perhaps, so to speak.

Kulla did not leave his followers disappointed. Most, if not all of his innings, were peppered with his signature shot. We as spectators would be praying - God let Kulla get on with his favorite stroke one more time. A quick 20 or 30 he would score, unleashing his signature nevertheless in his short stay at the crease. The square cut would be the brightest spot in Kulla cameo. That didn’t mean that Kulla’s armory was short stuffed. His repertoire of strokes could rejoice the game lover who carried high hopes of witnessing a grand spectacle of batting. The joy of watching Kulla play that square cut is inexpressible and I have been through that experience many a time.

For us boys playing cricket under sweltering sun, anyone who tried to play the cut shot became an object of derision. There was nothing against the boy, nor was it an occasion for the innate critic to leave a mark, but that our minds were so full of Kulla playing that stroke. That was drilled into our minds. To us all, it was the one and only Kulla who could play that stroke so elegantly. Our minds simply refused to see someone make an attempt at that. The positive ring to this obsession was that we worshipped Kulla and his masterly square cut. There was nothing more, nothing less.

The joy of hearing Kulla cut the ball to the ropes on radio was overwhelmed by the visual treat provided by Doordarshan. Thanks to Doordarshan that was probably our beacon of hope for watching cricket matches without being there at the venue, at that point in time. Had it not been for this channel, we would have been denied of good cricketing moments. The moments were even more special when India locked horns with its neighbor. This time Doordarshan did not feel sorry for any interruption. There was this mild-mannered, bespectacled man taking his time to walk to the wicket. Not for nothing was this batsman labeled the Asian Bradman.

What was special about this batsman was that he had all the time in the world to change tact in playing strokes. He would go forward, change his mind at the last moment, get on to his back foot and play a punching cover drive. And when I allude to his back foot stroke play, there’s no mistaking about the late cut executed in the classical mould. That would be his signature to capture a knot of youngsters watching live Test match cricket on Doordarshan.

Try summoning adjectives, elegant, stylish, deft, gifted, and a host of others, only to fall short of eulogizing this artiste displaying finesse in stroke play. Any youngster watching him bat could muster how to move his back foot to a ball pitched short, transfer the balance to the right foot, bring the bat late but early enough to execute that exquisite late cut. The bowlers who suffered the most in this case were left arm spinners, or so I presume.

Then the battle of emotions took over. On the one side, the heart would pray for the dismissal of this batsman. On the other, there would be the sudden rise of adrenaline to witness the much-awaited late cut from the artiste. Nationalistic fervor would fight head on with artistic fervor. In the end, love for the art of batting would eclipse the love for the nation.

As our eyes feasted and ears cocked to brilliant batting episodes, in came the English side to battle it out with the Indians. There was one man in this side who had left us all craving for his stroke play. BBC had given us a glimpse of what this southpaw could do. Sheer elegant, effortless stroke play was his forte. This batsman with a cavalier attitude lived true to what Oscar Wilde had to say - "I can resist anything, except temptation."

To this boy-wonder turned England captain, the feeling of leather hitting the sweet spot of the blade was but a clear sign of irresistible temptation. Having timed a lovely cover drive, the southpaw wouldn’t restrain himself from chasing the next delivery pitched wide off the stumps. This brought ill-luck to us as the artiste would begin his weary walk to the pavilion, another of his stroke-filled innings coming to an abrupt end.

That said, the cavalier left his signature, an exquisite cover drive for us to lap it up with delight. Until the last moment, you wouldn’t know if he was ready for it. Come he would, with economy of moment, to time the ball to perfection and send the ball racing to the cover boundary. He would make it look easy and graceful. Whether it is a myth or illusion, I fall into the school of thought that the southpaws are innately elegant than their counterparts. This southpaw has proved me right, time and time again. As a boy, I held on to the opinion that this artiste was graceful even while he got out!

Though lambasted by one and all, the fluffy-haired batsman would never drop that nonchalant attitude and continue to play another of those exquisite strokes, fail sometime. The cavalier and his cover drive, Kulla and his square cut, Asian Bradman and his late cut; they are inseparable - The signature from their willows leave a lasting impression on art lovers like me.

A leisurely walk along a city street occasioned me to watch a group of youngsters enjoying their game of cricket. I stood rooted to my spot praying for one thing to happen. In my heart of hearts, I wanted someone out there to play that mesmerizing stroke, the square cut. This way, I would open my treasure trove of memories to relive the momentous occasions when the evergreen artiste played those sensational square cuts. By the way, I have thrown the word ‘derision’ out of my dictionary.