As a child I always wanted to play cricket very badly, and that’s just what I did — I played cricket very badly. But though I was never destined to set the stands alight with my strokeplay, I watched the game a lot.
I was introduced to Test cricket one sunny afternoon in Bombay, by an indulgent father, at age 7. This was in the lovely Brabourne Stadium in early 1964, when a depleted English side were touring under Mike Smith.
The Englishmen were so ravaged by an assortment of maladies that they played both tour wicket-keepers and enlisted the fielding of the Indian twelfth man, Hanumant Singh, who was to go on to score a century on debut against them two Tests later.
Whatever the strength of the visitors, though, the cricket on the third day of the Test was marvellous. I watched with enthralled seven year old eyes as Budhi Kunderan, India’s opening batsman and wicket-keeper, who looked like a West Indian and played like one, pulled John Price, England’s fastest bowler, for six over square leg, the ball landing practically at my feet. He almost instantly repeated the shot, this time just failing to clear the rope.
In less time than the difference between a four and a six could be explained to me, Kunderan was 16; but he tried it too often, sending up a skier that swirled up in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As the ball spiralled upward, Kunderan began running; when it was caught by a relieved Titmus in the deep, Kunderan continued running, hurled his bat up skywards with an exuberant war-whoop, caught it by the handle as it came down and ran on into the pavilion. It was exhilarating stuff, and I was hooked for life.
Cricket fandom is an intensely personal experience, but it has certainly evolved over the years in India. Initially, as everywhere, it was Test cricket that fans were obsessed with: specific moments of fan exhilaration stand out.
Who can forget the excitement stirred by Abbas Ali Baig’s dream debut in England in 1959, when he was conscripted out of Oxford University by an Indian team in the doldrums and promptly hit a century both in his first tour match and on his Test debut?
Or that magical moment when, as Baig walked back to the pavilion in Bombay after a brilliant fifty against Australia, an anonymous sari-clad lovely ran out and spontaneously greeted him with an admiring (and scandalously public) kiss? The episode is part of national lore; it has been immortalized in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Who in the screaming crowds that welcomed Salim Durrani’s appearance thought of his batting statistics when they cheered themselves hoarse over that green-eyed inconsistent genius with the brooding movie-star looks? I will never forget the outrage that swept the country when he was dropped from the national team during an England tour in 1972; signs declaring “No Durrani No Test” proliferated like nukes. Fan pressure worked, and Durrani was indeed recalled for what turned out to be his last Test series.
In my high school years and on visits thereafter, I watched Test cricket in Calcutta, which prided itself on its knowledgeable crowds; 93,000 filling the stands for each day of a Test match was a common sight. Today, with the arrival of Twenty20 cricket, that era is over.
The unfolding of a five-day match, like the narrative of an intricate novel; the tension of watching a master spinner tie a gifted batsman in knots, even if few runs are scored in the process; the sight of willow-wielding talent asserting its mastery over the fire and brimstone of an aggressive fast bowler, again whether or not a fusillade of runs results; even two tailenders holding out against the clock in the gathering gloom to snatch a brave draw from the snapping jaws of defeat — all these are unavailable in the shorter formats of the game, and they all offer pulsating tension and satisfaction unrelated to the hitting of sixes or the cavorting of cheerleaders.
To love cricket is to appreciate the sheer joy of the highest forms of sport — the elements that stretch human talent to the limit, that transform mechanical skill into beauty, that assert the pleasures of complexity over those of instant gratification. No form of the game showcases these qualities better than Test cricket.
In the busy life of a Lok Sabha MP and author, I no longer have the luxury of watching even a full day of Test cricket. But I catch glimpses whenever I can — and I record and watch the highlights of all the Tests I miss, usually while chugging along on a treadmill. You can get the fan away from Test cricket, but you can’t get Test cricket away from the fan.
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