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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.