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Growing up with the game

Virender Sehwag

Virender SehwagThe story begins two decades back, sometime in 1990s. Yours truly has a new sweater- a hand-knitted, yellow coloured, round-necked piece of woollen bravura stitched by his mother, who has taken time out from teaching kids and managing twins to create what is his most prized possession. It’s bit tight around the armpits, but not overly uncomfortable. There’s a fete in the chaste convent school he goes- I assume it was Children’s Day- one that feels sports is important enough to be included as a token PT period on dull Saturday afternoons. The fete is typical of what would leave a seven-year-old dazzled: sun, songs, stalls, balloons, noodles and a cacophony of colours. At a deep, rarely-visited end of the vast playground, a group of boys, unmoved by the explosion of gaiety, has assembled for something more pertinent. These are the boys your mother warns not to be friends with. They are what your friends warn not to mess with. They are not what you want to become. They are the big boys, too cool for Children’s Day celebrations. They are about to indulge in a game you have sometimes watched and rarely played. You are drawn, no, besotted with the prospect of participation. You approach them with leaden feet and feeble voice. You have no skills to talk about, no power to match theirs, no swagger to impress them. They are kind enough to let you keep wickets. Little later, you take off your beloved yellow sweater and decide to bowl. First ball reaches the batsman in two bounces. Second ball goes wide. The over passes in a blur. Strangely, somehow, somewhere you begin to feel a part. You can run. You can breathe, shout, laugh. You can be one of the big boys your mother doesn’t want you to become. You can play.

It’s time to bat. You pick the bat half your size and heavier than you to show you are no weakling. You think of how the best batsman- the only batsman you have ever watched- stands with a heavy bat. One of the big boys shouts a name from behind- Sachin Tendulkar. You take the obvious mockery to be an underhand compliment. You swing and miss. You defend and miss. You sweep and miss. You feel the first pangs of pressure, that inexplicable remorse of letting people you don’t know- and yourself- down. You don’t hear the music anymore. You don’t feel the sun, you don’t want the noodles. You want to be the only batsman you have ever watched- the one who bats with a heavy bat. Finally, you connect a push to what is known as mid-on. Then you sweep a bowler who ran in from a distance- you didn’t know he was supposed to be a fast bowler. You borrow one of the plastic sun shades from one of the cool boys. You want to be cool too. This looks fun, batting with red sun-shades, without the hand-knitted sweater, away from kids.

Years roll on. You learn to cycle. You cycle past parks teeming with kids, playing the game. They arrive from places you haven’t heard of, and they play till the dark runs out. They are hoarse, they are tough. They are the ones your mother doesn’t want you to be. You cycle past them every day, until one evening you ask them if you could join them. They are a mix of- what you would later come to know- the privileged lot and commoners like you. You park your ordinary bicycle slightly away from their fancier ones. Yours is a much staid version of Hero Cycles, their Heroes and Atlases come with gears. You still beat them on the road, but you don’t feel the part. One day, all of them have surrounded one of them. The rich kid has a pair of yellow pads and white gloves to show. We are playing with a leather ball, with proper kits. Like the man you have watched on TV. You come out to open the innings. You connect a dab behind the wicket and run. The legs suddenly seem heavy. You try to hold the bat horizontally in your hands while you run- like your man – hoping that somehow you will gain speed, knowing what he does on TV is for real. You take guard again. You twitch your right shoulder, twist your right leg, fiddle with gloves. You know who you want to be. You see the red leather thing approaching you at a friendly pace and you swing it into the outhouse of one of the rich blokes. Hitting there is out. You know that, and you don’t care. You walk off with a swagger that numerous wins on the bicycle have failed to conjure. That evening, you don’t race. You don’t need to.

Years continue to pass. It’s the turn of the millennium. You’re now a cricket nut. Achievements include watching, from a telephone booth, your man playing that innings at a place called Sharjah, gorging on sports pages of any national daily you could lay your hands on, cut-pasting cut-outs of your favourite cricketers. You can tell mid-on from mid-wicket, and you know Ranjitsinhji pioneered the leg glance. It’s winters, and it’s a Sunday. The playground across the home is buzzing. They continue to come from unheard corners of the city. You grudgingly admire them- the boys your mother doesn’t want you to become- for their unconditional love for the game. They shout, they swear, they chew gum, and they hit balls out of the park, like you did some years back. It’s a lazy day- and you are woken up with an odious comparison. “At your age, he was making waves in school cricket,” you are told, before being reminded that exams are round the corner, and how computer science over economics could change the world order. You are on terrace, basking in the sunshine. It’s a winter afternoon not different from the one when you batted with red sun-shades. Some of those big boys have become House Captains and Head Boys. Some of them are playing in front of your house. The exam schedule is crazy- 10-12 papers packed in 5-7 days. While cramming the difference between distance and displacement, you notice a batsman thread a gap between cover and mid-off. You roll up the text book and try doing that on the terrace. They say you are mad, but you are working a physics of your own. They teach angles and algebra and trigonometry, and you can’t help but remember the geometry of a cricket ground. They begin to talk about Shakespeare and Yeats and Frost, and you rehearse Tony Grieg and Riche Benaud in the bathroom. You score decent percentages, and you look at them as strike-rates.
On one of these days, you are in the playground, facing the fastest, tallest, strongest bowler around. You glance at your balcony. The parents are watching- pretending they are not. You think of them sitting in Lord’s balcony, watching you on a ground where that man on TV is yet to score a century. You know you won’t last long, but you want to last as long as they are sipping tea in the balcony. The bowler runs in. You remember what they say on TV, watch the ball, not the bowler. So you watch the ball- the worn, green, Cosco tennis ball. It costs Rs. 25, a fortune by your standards. You watch it until the tall bowler hits his stride. The ball doesn’t hit the ground. It dips on you. It’s coming for your toe, no, it’s coming for the base of middle stump. You don’t move much- LBWs are not a legit mode of dismissal in neighbourhood cricket, and your parents don’t understand much of it anyway- and just to make sure you don’t appear foolish, you flick the bat as stylishly as you can. Miraculously, you twist the handle just at the perfect time. Green Cosco meets brown willow in your version of electronic fusion, and the Rs. 25-ball sails over the infield, outfield and into the eucalyptus skirting that line the ground. You are embarrassed to look at the balcony, but you know that between their feigned insouciance and languid sips of evening tea, your parents have watched you play like that man on TV.

It’s 1999, and it’s summer vacations. It’s the time of mangoes, novels, and maybe a trip to some hill station. It’s also the time of cricket World Cup. Newspapers are awash with pictures of your favourite man in varying states of his meditative, awe-inspiring, construction of brilliance. You realise print photographs are way better than slow-motion replays they show on your new colour television. The former freeze the moment, the latter lets it pass. You notice the fine print. You study the bend of the elbow and direction of the toe. You cram the schedule and cut-paste it in your bulging scrapbook. You learn names of a few counties and throw them around to impress people. One morning, you get up early to get hold of the newspaper first thing. All night, you have hallucinated about your man dealing with seaming ball in a practice match. He has had a famous back spasm in Chennai not long back, and you are concerned if he can still unleash those heavenly pulls. The sun is not blazing yet when you place yourself in the balcony, waiting for the newspaper. Big boys from nondescript corners are milling in the ground before you. By now, you are beginning to be embarrassed by your acutely limited knowledge of the city you live in. The morning walkers are heading home. The birds are heading out. Their chortle dissipates the stillness of the post-dawn hour. Is there a better way to start the day than with the sound of bat banging the top of stumps, drilling it in the dry pitch? The game begins. Big boys park their bicycles next to the rim of eucalyptus. Few among them ride motorbikes; they are the ones your mother really doesn’t want you to become. Slowly, the sun makes way from the clouds- its first rays filter through the haze and warm you to glorious uncertainties that the back pages of newspapers carry. These are the days when people have fewer cars and the air still smells of grass and soil. The smell -colloquially called saundhi– stems from a strange concoction of sand, soil, maybe dust, mist and grass. Years later, you would miss it while wading through the blanket of carbon monoxide. This, however, is still 1999, and the newspaper vendor has a rather powerful arm. Powerful enough to rocket a throw from two floors below, straight into the open air cooler and into the water it carries. You see your wait cruelly sinking inside the tin rectangle. By the time the cooler is switched off and the newspaper is retrieved, the back page is drenched. Those are the days when newspapers don’t carry jacket ads or marketing supplements, making back pages increasingly susceptible to inadvertent damages such as these. You wait for it to dry. An hour later, you spread the wrinkled sheet with care and concentration. You feel its texture like you are feeling for termite. You smell the newsprint. It smells saundhi too. And then, you spot him. Not more than 15X20 cms, there it is- your world, your last night’s dream, your hour-long wait, your man on TV- now in print. The caption says he scored 91 before retiring hurt. Your heart sinks. Are the spasms back? You read the report and find out it is alright to retire hurt in a practice match to give others a chance. You return happily to mangoes and daily tryst with holiday homework.

We are three years into the new millennium, and your team is in South Africa. In it, there are men you admire: there’s a slight, combative gentleman from Calcutta; a studious, IIT-type professional from Bangalore, a strapping young boy from Chandigarh, and a buccaneer from Najafgarh. But if there’s one man you want to do well, it’s the one who belongs to all of India. It’s your man on TV who you are praying for, for it seems that for once, he needs you. He has scored a total of one run in three ODIs in New Zealand. Crucially, in one, or some, of those matches, he was pushed down the batting order. It may be a strategic decision to guard him from the prodigiously swinging ball, but somehow it seems an affront. There are talks of him batting at number four on fast South African pitches. You are not amused. The best batsman of the world must play at the top, you feel. Thankfully, the slight man from Calcutta feels the same, and your man bats where you want him to bat. Away from the Rainbow Nation though, there are pestering problems of your own. You have seamlessly moved from pre-teens to teens, acing exams that are thrown up every year. On many-a-days, you have rolled up a newspaper in front of a mirror and just stood frozen for unending minutes, perfecting the stance of the only man you have ever really watched with a cricket bat. In your mind’s eye, you have hit a straight six at Lord’s, written tomes about your man, and read about yourself in the morning newspapers on sultry, saundhi mornings. It’s another winter morning, but it’s not the time to munch groundnuts and watch the big boys play in the ground beneath you. Before you have realised, you are the big boy. It’s class 10, it’s board exams. You are told your life depends on it; columnists in newspapers urge you to believe otherwise. You shut yourself to the noise and utter two prayers for success- one for you and your twin sister, other for your man on TV.

It’s March 1, 2003. Boards commence with an exam of English Language on March 3. You have ‘by-hearted’ Julius Caesar. So much so that in 2016, you can still recollect better part of Antony’s speech. Your vocabulary has changed a lot. You are not nervous anymore; you instead have “butterflies in your stomach.” You don’t wish to do well; you want to “play your natural game.” You are not overawed by the occasion, because you “watch the ball, not the bowler.” English Language is easy, English Literature, which is next, requires a fair degree of work. You sit at the dining table, reading a short story by Anton Chekhov. It’s the story of a man’s caprice and how, after all the hard work, he lets go of imminent millions, for he despises all the material wealth the world has to offer. It’s your favourite short story, but you can’t concentrate. Next door, India is playing Pakistan. Pakistan have scored 270+, and they don’t generally lose after scoring that many. Not when you have Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar. Not when a certain Saeed Anwar has reaffirmed his fondness for your bowlers with yet another century. From the crevices of the thick, yellow curtains, you peep in the drawing room. You are no longer the 16-year-old about to write the most important exam of your life; you are the six-year-old in yellow sweater waiting to get a toehold in the playing field lorded by big, bad boys. There’s a roar, followed by another, and another. You leave your inhibitions and strut in the room. The parents- those phlegmatic, tea-sipping creatures who once gingerly watched you taking on the biggest and the fastest- couldn’t care less. They are engrossed. They are in a trance. They are captivated. And guess who is making the unthinkable happen? It’s that man on TV. 98 runs off 75 balls, 12 fours, 1 six. Forget Chekhov, this is one piece of literature you’d die to carry it to your grave.

We are in 2016. The Man has long retired, and so has the golden generation. A firebrand, venom-spouting, steely-eyed young man from West Delhi is the toast of the nation. He bats like a dream, and he runs like a dream. He adores The Man like many of your generation do, and when he carried him on his shoulders on that magical April 2 night, you knew a generation had expressed its gratitude. You are a sports journalist with a keen interest in cricket (that’s how you introduce yourself to prospective employers). Journalism teaches you to be anaesthetic. There are no heroes, you are told. Everyone is mortal, and no one is above probity. In mind’s eye, you have interviewed him several times. You have devoured every piece written on him, even his politically correct autobiography, and have found not a trace of mortality. You know what the BBC wrote on him and what Matthew Hayden said of him. You admire his dignity, but crave to know his views on matters other than sports. You know his battery of PR professionals would hardly let you examine him. You never thought of life without that man on TV, but slowly and surely, inch by every excruciating inch, you have moved on. There’s however, a tinge of wistfulness each time you cross a park replete with wooden thwacks and carefree cackle. You long for warm, winter sunshine to melt the drudgery away. You long to wake up early on sticky summer mornings to the saundhi smell of game and pint- sized frame of your hero. You long to bat in red sun-shades. You long to be the man your mother didn’t want you to be, but secretly wished you would be: that man on TV.