Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cricket - A Failed Affair!

In few more minutes, the first ball of the tenth world cup is going to be bowled. I am sitting in front of the television after a long time to watch a Cricket match. It was the IPL-1 that I watched last. From the start to end! Even that wouldn’t have happened if my wife had not gone for delivery leaving me alone at home. May be, fifteen years back, I wouldn’t have thought of such a lengthy gap between me and this game. It has become reality today. Even yesterday I didn’t think of watching today’s match. Just like that – felt like checking out what is going on and tuned into ESPN. Am I going to renew my relationship with this game, which was larger than life at some point in time in my early life?

There was a time when I would go crazy if someone changes the channel even during the ad-break. And, I don’t like the mantra of multi-tasking either. What I have realized now is that it is the best time to write something like this when there is a Cricket match. No productivity loss nor is there a feeling of compromise or missing the most favorite sport! I also realize that it isn’t really very critical to watch all 600+ balls bowled in a one day match – like I used to think fifteen years back. You could still do something important in parallel and not miss the game. Encouraging!

I think, it was 1987, if I am not wrong. The game called Cricket entered into my village/ town (I still don’t know what to call it!) when I was a school going kid. A bunch of youngsters elder than me started playing Cricket inside a temple in a small area that is double or triple the size of a basketball court. Boys like me were all watching the new game with amazement without knowing at that time that it would fail us in exams and waste a huge amount of our valuable working time (productivity loss!) later at some point in time in our lives.

Why 87? Instead of 83… 83 was the year Indians lifted the trophy in the world cup beating the most formidable one day side of all time – the West Indies, when we least expected it. That spread the game across the country. It took four years to reach tiny towns like mine from metros like Bombay and Chennai. I think it was our seniors who went to bigger towns for studies that brought the game to my place during weekends.

When they started, it was played with rubber balls and wooden bats that our local carpenters made. We hadn’t seen even Tennis balls by then. Unlike in any other field, the evolution was very fast. They started with rubber ball, shifted to something called rubber cork (which I haven’t seen anywhere else later), then to cork balls and finally to cherry red leather balls, all in a very short span of time. I am not sure if white leather balls have reached yet. Should have!

By winning the world cup when it was least expected, India had become the favorites in the next world cup. I think, it was India and Pakistan that were the favorites to win the trophy then, more so because the venue was the subcontinent. That was the first time the mega event came out of England, the birth place of the game, where it is about to die now. We eventually lost in semis when the expectations were sky-high.

We shouldn’t have been too worried for losing in semis when we were the favorites, because we won when we were not favorites (we were actually underdogs then) the previous time. We surely were not the best team, but we won. What happened after that is the democratization of the game across the biggest nation that played it. It also killed all our other games in the process. Today, it has become such a madness and business opportunity here. Some call it a religion, too. It’s no surprise that while we are playing with our religions, we are allowing a game to be called a religion. Only our leaders do not understand that we are more serious about a game than religion, I guess!

Let’s go back to my village temple now. Most players used to be strong on the leg-side then. There would be hardly any runs from off-side. Compound wall was the boundary line, but sending out the ball outside the wall meant losing the wicket itself. Like bowled out, caught out, run out, and hit out, this was another type of ‘out’. To compensate, LBW was not there in the games played with rubber balls. They entered later when the cork balls came into picture.

There were lots of disturbances in the playing area - trees, plants, pillars, other structures, and the temple itself. The most interesting of them all was the well at mid-off. Along with bats, balls and stumps (no bails then), they always had to have a bucket (tied in a big rope) ready to take out the ball whenever it fell inside the well. It happened almost as frequent as the boundaries. Sometimes, small boys like me (only the courageous and adventurous ones, not me) were also sent in the steel bucket to take out the ball when there was no water. Less adventurous ones like me were used only to search when it went out of the compound. The temple was a peninsula with the village on one side and farm fields or dense woods on the remaining three sides.

Then, copying that, we also started playing on our own. We didn’t go beyond home-made bats and rubber balls for a long time. We used to make bats ourselves with any wood that we could get. That was the most cost-effective option we had at that time. Sometimes, we made bats with the help of our local carpenters. The quality of the bat was much better when it was brought by carpenters’ boys (we had a few of them in our team too). They knew the trick of the trade - what wood was good for Cricket bats.

When it was 92, the next world cup started, I was madly in love with the game. We knew that we were not going to win it because Australia had beaten us to death just before the world cup in a tri-series (Benson and Hedges tri-series before the Benson and Hedges world cup). But, that world cup brought more people to watch and play the game with us. By then, we had formed a team of our own and I had become captain a few times on and off.

We started managing the affairs very professionally. I put a separate notebook for the team and updated our records match after match. It contained all sorts of data that we used to see on television screens. Except for the graphs! I would have done that as well if I had a laptop and Excel like now. Higher the batting average upper the order in batting line-up and lower the bowling average upper the order in bowling line-up. But, mostly the good batsmen were all good bowlers too and those that were bad in one were bad in all. Specialization happens little later in the life cycle, I guess!

I was respected more for my knowledge on the game and for knowing the formulas to calculate the averages than for the abilities to play the game. I have stayed longer in the crease but never scored anything big. My run-up used to start almost from the boundary line, but I don’t think I ever bowled fast. Whether you bowl fast or spin is not judged by the speed of the delivery or how much it turns but by the distance you run. So, what I bowled was the fastest. If you just take few steps and bowl then you are called a spinner. We had a few spinners too though they could never spin the ball but they bowled faster than me perhaps. I used to fall down like Jonty Rhodes while fielding but never catch the ball in hand. Despite all these, I somehow managed to open the innings, open the bowling and be the best keeper (bowlers were never barred from keeping!) in the team. J

We had a few very good players in our team, too. One of our guys was exactly like Kapil. He would open the bowling with me (the style was exactly like Kapil’s) and was a hard hitter of the ball. When he bats, he doesn’t stay for long. If he stays, we win. He didn’t prefer opening. Either he was matured enough to let boys like me be happy or he loved to enter in crucial times like Kapil did those days. Anyways, it did help me to stay on top despite my mediocre batting.

There was another guy, who wanted to be Imran Khan. He was good in both batting and bowling too. Other than these two there was no good player. Despite having a Kapil and Imran Khan, we were called the Zimbabwe team in our town, because we depended only on these two guys. We won one game and lost ten. Many times, it was a great challenge arranging for eleven players as most of the other boys in our street were not as mad as we three were. We didn’t know motivation – inspiration theories then. Even if we did, I am not sure if we would have achieved what we wanted to – so easily!

I had created a kind of notice board in my street where I would put up a lot of Cricket news along with our team statistics when all my friends would do the same service by sticking Cinema posters. Almost on a weekly basis, I would come out with my dream team and a backup dream team with current players as well as an all-time list. Both for the world team and India! All-time list generally won’t change often.

Then, for almost a decade, I used to go straight to the last page to read Cricket news. I started spending entire days watching Cricket, even if it was England versus West Indies or between any other two countries. I used to keep a record of my own against ICC’s official records. Ask about any record, I would have it on my finger tips. At some point in time, the whole purpose of my life was to watch Cricket, eat Cricket and sleep Cricket. It was truly larger than life!

When the match fixing scandal erupted, the whole nation said, “I knew this. I suspected this. I knew that it would come out one day” and stopped following Cricket. As a true supporter of the game, I continued to follow the game despite all the negative publicity it got. I also got a bit of doubt looking at the way Ajay Jadeja got out in the game against Pakistan in Chennai (the same match in which Saeed Anwar hit 196). It looked very obvious for any common man to understand the intentions when he lofted the ball to square leg the second time in the same style after the fielder missed it once in the previous ball.

It remained my most favorite game despite all disappointments. Even when I came to Bangalore, I thought I had come closer to the game and I could go and watch matches in Chinnaswamy Stadium live. It all went down only when I fell in love with my work and it became the most important thing in life at some point. Falling in love with anything will erase out everything else from mind, right?!

I realized that it was taking a high toll on any working professional or student, which is certainly avoidable for the good of the individual concerned and the organization that pays him huge money (I still think what we get is huge for the work we do!) for the time he is supposed to dedicate. This is one of the many changes that I thought were never possible in my life. It actually took just a few minutes to make up my mind.

Most of my school friends that I meet these days don’t fail to ask this standard question – “Hey, are you still keeping a notebook to keep track of Cricket scores and statistics?”! It’s like talking about an old - failed affair. I just laugh and move on. Is it so difficult to burn bridges? I don’t think so! How about you?

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