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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.