Watching DDLJ with Dravid, Sourav and Laxman

It seems like yesterday that cricketers and journalists travelled almost as part of one unit. Seeking dinner outside the team hotel and searching for an STD booth to call home were all too common.

Those were the days of single-screen movie halls and getting tickets was not easy since a film like DDLJ was already a hit after its music topped the charts.   -  AFP

Sourav Ganguly happily travelled in a cycle rickshaw with Saba Karim for company. Javagal Srinath did some thinking aloud and hoped “namma hudgaa” Rahul Dravid (our boy, in Kannada) would make it to the Indian team to face the visiting New Zealand side.

A shy and introverted V. V. S. Laxman desperately sought a copy of a South Zone group photo because it had Anil Kumble as skipper. The more seasoned duo of W. V. Raman and Robin Singh worked harder to make a comeback into the Indian team even as their young Tamil Nadu teammate S. Sharath was eyeing national colours.

These are memories from the 1995-1996 domestic season. Even after 25 years, the visuals are vivid. It seems like yesterday that cricketers and journalists travelled almost as part of one unit. Seeking dinner outside the team hotel, searching for an STD booth to call home or going out for movies – these were all too common.

I remember, in certain smaller cities, going out with cricketers in search of a video lending library and getting lucky with a good print of a VHS cassette of any latest Bollywood flick. Later, the movies were available in every room with the hotel video player!

No doubt, there were few travelling journalists in those days. Those were the pre-Internet days. Satellite television was still taking baby steps in India and private TV news channels did not exist.

Clearly, the bonhomie between the cricketers and scribes was great and the trust level high. One unwritten rule, followed religiously by the scribes, was that the dressing room remained out of bounds.

The threshold of the dressing room marked the “end of the jurisdiction of the media,” even though some friendly cricketers insisted on the journalists joining them for a beverage during the tea interval or for some light snacks after stumps.

Remember, in those days there was neither Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) officials nor Players and Match Officials Areas (PMOA) to keep the cricketers and media apart during match hours.

When I look back, the cricketers of the 1990s – some trying to get India colours and others making a comeback – made a great bunch.

Randomly, names like Anil Kumble, Narendra Hirwani, W. V. Raman, Chandrakant Pandit, Amarjeet Kaypee, Rajesh Puri, Saba Karim, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, S. Sharath, Venkatapathi Raju, Rajesh Chauhan, Avinash Vaidya, Amay Khurasiya, M. S. K. Prasad, M. V. Sridhar, Noel David, Ashish Kapoor, Vikram Rathour, Bhupinder Singh (Sr), K. N. Ananthapadmanabhan, Ajay Sharma, Ashish Nehra, Ajay Jadeja, Avinash Kumar, K. V. P. Rao, Prashant Vaidya, Subroto Banerjee, Salil Ankola, Hemang Badani, Kanwaljit Singh, Diwakar Vasu, Sairaj Bahutule, Nilesh Kulkarni, Shiv Sundar Das, Pankaj Dharmani, Sameer Dighe, Abhijit Kale, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Mohammad Kaif, Feroze Ghayas, Virender Sehwag, Murali Karthik, Rahul Sanghvi and many more come to mind.

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Memories

Many of these I covered from their under-19 days, and we continue to share a great relationship. From that era, the time spent at Lucknow, in November 1995, remains a bit more special. That year, every Deodhar Trophy one-day match was followed by, after a day's rest, a Duleep Trophy five-day encounter involving the same zones at the same venue.

I reached Lucknow for my third match involving South Zone and second featuring East Zone. Apart from a keen contest, I was looking to spending time with friends from these teams. South, in particular, had done well, with Dravid, Laxman and Raman looking in good touch. As expected, Dravid played his part as South won the Deodhar encounter despite Devang Gandhi scoring a fortuitous century.

The following day, November 18, was a rest day. Not surprisingly, the plan was to go for a matinee show to watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in the popular Hazratganj area. Those were the days of single-screen movie halls and getting tickets was not easy since a film like DDLJ was already a hit after its music topped the charts.

The members of the two teams, our Sportstar photographer and I sat at the reception of Hotel Gomti and waited to hear, on the landline, from Prashant Vaidya and Subroto Banerjee, who had been sent to book tickets.

Vaidya, formerly from Vidarbha, had joined Bengal, while Banerjee was well known since he had played the 1992 World Cup.

With more than 30 tickets needed and considering the popular demand, it was understandable that the cinema hall manager could not meet our last-minute request. Luckily, Lucknow’s reputation for being a gracious and warm host came to our rescue.

With the show going houseful, the manager, rather apologetically, offered to organise “extra chairs” to accommodate all the mehman (guests) on the staircase leading from the balcony to the box seats.

A wave of excitement filled the Gomti Hotel reception after it became certain that we all were indeed going for the movie. Sourav and Saba jumped on to the first available cycle rickshaw, parked along the wall of the hotel, and took off. Dravid and Robin were far more patient in their approach, as were many others. Laxman and his roommate Sunil Joshi were among the last to start after the left-arm spinner completed a quick photoshoot for Sportstar.

Further, the thoughtful manager delayed the start of the movie and made sure we filled up the space available on the balcony. Some sat on the handles of the corner seats while most of us were comfortable sitting on the steps, and some others managed to occupy the “extra chairs” placed precariously on the stairs.

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International comeback

Former India batsman V. V. S. Laxman with the author.   -  Special Arrangement

 

On our way back, some hummed the songs from the Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer. Some found the movie boring; others had already made plans to watch it again. Overall, as a bunch, we were happy to spend time away from cricket and the stadium. There was no mention of the obvious discomfort of watching the movie after being seated rather unusually.

Before the end of this Lucknow trip, the India ‘A’ team for the four-nation Interface Cup at Sharjah was announced. Saba received a call from his source and broke the news to some of us sitting in the hotel reception.

I was sitting with Dravid and Robin before Sourav came and joined us. Saba, standing near the stairs, happily announced that Dravid, Sourav, Laxman and Vaidya were part of the team under Vikram Rathour. Robin was understandably disappointed not to catch the attention of the national selection committee headed by G. R. Viswanath.

One by one, Dravid, Sourav and Robin took the stairs after walking past Saba. For some strange reason, I paused and asked Saba, “Anything wrong?”

Saba softly responded, “Not really. I was waiting if someone would ask me the name of the keeper selected with the team.” I asked, “Who is the keeper?” Saba smiled and said, “Me.”

We laughed out aloud and soon, after congratulating him, I gave a shout to his teammates announcing Saba’s international comeback.

To this day, we recall those memories very fondly. In 25 years, many of these cricketers have held or continue to hold significant positions in Indian cricket. Importantly, the selfless relationships forged during those days have withstood the test of time.

Dravid remembers how I once teased him by saying he would change after becoming a star. He has not. He still meets me with the same warmth as before. Sourav still finds a reason to compliment me. I remember how Laxman insisted on my presence for his book launch in New Delhi. Defying the jet lag following flights from the Bahamas, when I reached the function I was touched by Laxman’s spontaneity and treatment. Later, we spent meaningful time together and took lots of photos with other friends. I share a fantastic understanding with these players where a call is returned at the first available opportunity.

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Not just these cricketers, the ever-so-genial M. S. K. Prasad was also delighted to meet me when I was in Vijayawada for the Delhi-Madhya Pradesh Ranji Trophy quarterfinals, where the friendly Tamil Nadu left-hander Sharath was the match referee.

Despite being the national selection committee chairman, Prasad took a detour to my hotel each morning and we travelled to the venue 22km away. Needless to add, we travelled back together, recalling memories of the bygone era and former cricketers, and sharing our love for music.

Indeed, over the years, domestic events have kept me rooted to the ground realities of Indian cricket besides bringing me in contact with some amazing people. Some awesome experiences have helped me become a better human being.

I am so glad some bonds last a lifetime.

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