Thursday, July 5, 2012

Conversion

Cross-posted with necessary edits at CricketCountry here.

***

Tuesday. 17 March, 1987.

The most significant day of my life till date. The most. As I look back, this was a day that made me take a decision that has stuck with me for a over quarter of a decade now. And I'm proud that I took the decision on that day. Had I not taken the decision, my life would probably have shaped in a different manner altogether.

Let us go back in time.

***

1986.

There was this stubby guy called Diego Maradona who ripped through his oppositions to guide Argentina to their second World Cup Football victory in three attempts. Doordarshan had shown the matches live; the Kolkata book market was flooded with books about the newly formed legend; all of a sudden everything else was forgotten. Everything else.

Even the 2-0 factor.

Kapil's Devils had actually ended a superlative campaign of England virtually at the same time. Vengsarkar had top-scored in each of the four innings in the two victorious tests, and beating England in England was an achievement that typically even the greatest captains are proud of.

But Maradona took the glory away. In a sport we never played (well, whatever we played in the 1980s was not football), the image of the guy with the square face kissing the World Cup was suddenly a more familiar household picture than Vengsarkar holding the willow aloft after reaching the greatest hundred scored by an Indian on English soil for a long time.

It was a tough ask warding off the Maradona effect. The Chennai test could not, despite Dean Jones' epic 210, Kapil's amazing hundred and a heck of a last day, culminating in only the second tied test in history; the Mumbai runfest could not (where all three Mumbai batsmen scored hundreds); neither did the Kanpur one (only the second occasion where three batsmen scored 150s in the same innings); nor did Kapil being the first Indian bowler to reach the 300-wicket milestone; and as 1986 rolled into 1987, when the Pakistan series had started, this little guy (possibly shorter than the ubiquitous Maradona himself, possibly not) announced his retirement after the series.

I did not care a lot for Gavaskar till that point of time. I had read as much as a nine-year old could, and knew he was great, but I did not actually see him doing anything special. Nevertheless, I took everything on face value and kept admiring him silently. Come on, almost ten thousand test runs don't come just like that!

Mind you, both my parents were ardent Kapil Dev fans, and in the Kolkata of 1980s there was this strange unwritten rule that you can support and oppose exactly one of the two alternatives: Congress or CPM; hilsa or prawns; East Bengal or Mohun Bagan; Gavaskar or Kapil Dev; North or South Kolkata; Ray or Ritwik; Uttam Kumar or Soumitra; Hemanta or Manna; and so on.

I tried to explain to my parents, somewhat in vain, that I admired both of them a lot, and since Vengsarkar was the new phenomenon (remember, this was when he was actually hailed as the best batsman in the world) I was a huge Vengsarkar fan as well, and I loved watching Azharuddin bat and field.

That was out of the question, they said. One cannot have so many idols in the same field. Especially when it came down to the same field. Especially when it came down to Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. The logic defied my puny brain, but then, I decided to hero-worship both legends anyway (and Vengsarkar; and Azharuddin to boot). And possibly Maradona and Platini and Rummenigge some other people who ran around in shorts.

***

The first four tests ended in drab draws (well, the second test was a somewhat excitable draw thanks to Roger Binny's excellent spell on the third afternoon - and I was there!). They went like this:

Chennai: Pakistan 487/9 decl and 182/3, India 527/9 decl
Kolkata: India 403 and 181/3 decl, Pakistan 229 and 179/5
Jaipur: India 465 and 114/2, Pakistan 341
Ahmedabad: Pakistan 395 and 135/2, India 323

So basically, in three of the four tests, the fourth innings wasn't even required. This was killing off the test matches, the experts said. Why exactly, I wondered. I mean, a draw was a result, wasn't it? This was also the time when I started copying scorecards from the newspapers into khatas, so it wasn't really that boring for me.

There was a lot of speculation regarding what the pitch at Bangalore would be like. Some said it would be as placid as those used in the first four tests. Some said it would be a rank turner. Some others suggested a green-top.

Kapil Dev, Indian captain, reigning world champion and recent victor in England, took a close look at the pitch. He picked Binny, Yadav, Maninder and the two all-rounders - Amarnath and Shastri.

Imran Khan, greatest captain and cricketer I have ever seen, thought it would assist the seamers; he picked himself, Wasim Akram and Salim Jaffer; he also picked Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed on form, and left out his personal favourite, the woefully out-of-touch Abdul Qadir.

If only he knew.

He won the toss, though.

I was down with fever. Yes, yes, a real fever. An absolutely real one. High temperature and all that. Ask ma. Ask Dr K N Sen. Ask anyone.

After Kapil removed Rizwan-uz-Zaman in the first over (as was quite customary), Rameez Raja and Saleem Malik held fort. We saw Binny bowl, then Amarnath; Kapil carried on from the other end. No one had a clue of what was about to happen next.

Maninder never wore a turban (and neither does Harbhajan, despite the name Turbanator). It wasn't a pagdi - it was a patka. He also bowled into the camera (for the uninitiated, Doordarshan in the mid-1980s had only one camera, so every alternative over was seen from the batsman's back). As a result we never got to see what happened. But what we could clearly realise was the fact that the batsmen were not at comfort at all.

Maninder got so much turn that even though the camera was placed behind the batsman, you could actually see the ball pitch somewhere (out of vision of the camera), and then suddenly emerge at a sharp angle past the bat's edge. Sometimes into More's gloves. Sometimes past them.

On day one. Before lunch.

Kapil immediately took himself away and allowed Shastri to take over. Shastri flighted the ball even more, and hence (probably) extracted a greater amount of turn. The batsmen struggled, hung around for a few minutes and departed. 39/1 became 74/8 in no time, and it was some flaying of the bat from Qasim that eventually took them to 116. Maninder took 7/27, and looked utterly perplexed as he left the field.

A three-digit score was big, we thought. But then, we had Srikkanth. He carted Imran and Akram for boundaries, and Qasim had to be brought on in the sixth over. Tauseef in the eleventh. And they bowled unchanged, even on the next day.

We ended the day on a confident 68/2. Though Tauseef had removed both openers late in the evening, Kapil did not send in a nightwatchman, and Amarnath and Vengsarkar looked in control at stumps.

***

Tauseef removed Amarnath early on day two; and then the spinners bowled brilliantly in tandem. I clearly remember Tauseef bowling into the camera, varying flight, just outside the off-stump. Of course, there was no doosra, just the conventional off-spin and the straight ball.

Qasim, on the other hand, bowled away from the camera. He was impeccable in his length, and kept on changing the flight.

The Indian batsmen showed immense concentration. Vengsarkar's footwork was, I still remember, incredible. Both Azharuddin and Shastri struggled, and when Vengsarkar fell for fifty, the rest fell in a heap, and from 130/5 we were bowled out for 145 - a lead of 29 runs; or, well, 25% (you see, they had taught us percentages in Class V).

There was no Binny business this time. Kapil gave the new ball to Maninder. But then, Imran being Imran, had already gone one up: he had sent Miandad to play out the new ball and to get his eyes in before the ball had got old. The nimble-footed Miandad managed to blunt out Maninder, and even though Shastri removed him and the hapless Rizwan in quick succession, Pakistan had started a fightback.

Rameez scored a gutsy 47, possibly the innings of his life. As he fell to Yadav, Imran displayed another card - he promoted a pinch-hitter this time: Qasim, after his lusty blows in the first innings, came out at five. Both batsmen played really well, and though India chipped away, Pakistan managed to secure 155/5 at stumps - a healthy lead of 126. Another hundred runs and we were history.

***

Maninder struck early the next morning. Akram hit a massive six, but fell soon, and with Imran's resistance ending as well, we were suddenly in with a chance at 198/8.

Like the West Indies had found out to their peril just over a year later, we had not accounted for Saleem Yousuf. Yousuf's career was not founded on massive scores. However, when it came to batting under peril, no one in Pakistan (that possibly even includes Miandad and Imran) came close to him in the second half of the 1980s.

I would have called the unbeaten 41 the innings of his life, but he actually bettered this effort in West Indies next year against a superior attack. Tauseef also hung around, and eventually they took the score to 249.

The target, hence, was 221. Exactly the same number of runs The Little Master had scored at The Oval, all by himself, when we had scored 429/8 chasing 437 (the Kapil Dev fanatic parentage in the household never highlighted these - but ask them anything on World Cup 1983, and they were there to pounce with the answer).

Imran Khan, one of the greatest fast bowlers the world has ever seen, did not, I repeat, did not bowl the first over. For that matter, he did not bowl at all in the second innings. Neither did Saleem Jaffer (who had not bowled in the first innings either and batted at eleven twice in the match) - oh, didn't Imran miss Qadir on this pitch!

Akram had the new ball. He measured his run-up. Wasim Akram, destined to become the greatest fast bowler in the history of the planet, bowled a few overs to Sunil Gavaskar, already the greatest opening batsman in the history of the same planet. He knew it wasn't working. He reverted to left-arm spin. Yes, this is Wasim Akram we're discussing.

Akram bowled a strange genre of spin. There was no run-up. The release was awkward. The follow-through weird. But the ball turned. And at that moment we knew we were in serious trouble. Qasim started at the other end and turned the ball virtually at right angles. Srikkanth took a few mighty hoicks, the ball often hit the pad, and he survived. But not for long.

One of them hit him straight in front of the stumps. Plumb. He was given out. To Akram, who had reverted to bowling seam-up now, and was bowling really fast

Amarnath walked out. They said it was an experience watching Viv Richards walk out to bat: sheer masculinity in motion with every step; the body language was enough to kill the psyche of the bowler. Amarnath was the antitheses. He walked in so slowly that the psyche of the bowler was often demented out of sheer boredom.

All seemed to be well with the world. Akram. To Amarnath. With a face as expressionless as Fardeen Khan and as ancient as AK Hangal. What could possibly go wrong?

He snicked. First ball. Yousuf shouted. Caught behind. 15/2.

But we still had Vengsarkar - not only the best batsman on form in the current world, but also the hero of the first innings. Akram, meanwhile, was taken off after his weirdly effective spell that was a combination of lethal pace and unconventional left-arm spin. Imran brought on Tauseef.

It was an amazing contest. The balding Iqbal Qasim tossing the ball up in the air and turning the ball at improbable angles; the Lionel Richie-doppelganger Tauseef Ahmed turning the ball the opposite way, using the straighter one as a variant. Vengsarkar, standing upright, chest stuck out, using his height to smother the ball in any conceivable way. Gavaskar, short, playing forward and back depending on the length, always using the bat, never the pad, and playing virtually every ball with the middle or leaving them alone. No edge. No pad. And hence, no appeal.

The runs, however, had dried out. It was a sultry March afternoon. This being (probably) a Sunday, baba had dozed off. Ma was still awake, going on with the impossible and hobe na with amazing consistency after virtually every ball. Dadu was also there, amazingly silent for a man of his nature. You could sense the tension. Even bhai, all of three, had the sense to be playing with his whatevers and not bother the grown-ups of the house.

And then, the inevitable happened. Tauseef got one past Vengsarkar's defence. 64/3. As one tall man turned towards the pavillion, we expected another to emerge (no commercials, remember?). Ma went ballistic with her bolechhilam, hobe na. Baba snored on. Dadu kept quiet. I never moved.

Only that it wasn't Azharuddin. It was, for whatever inexplicable reason, Kiran More. It was too early to send a nightwatchman, so he was possibly sent in to up the tempo. That is something he did not, or rather, could not. He hung around, missing virtually everything, and we knew that a wicket was on the cards. He got bits of advice from the equally short man at the other end, but he simply wasn't capable enough. He perished shortly afterwards to Tauseef. 80/4.

Azharuddin handled the spinners differently. A couple of quick flicks meant men had to be sent out to square legs. The commentator (Ravi Chaturvedi or Sushil Doshi) kept on mentioning that it was risky, but Azharuddin persisted. A few runs got scored in the process, the short man looked relieved, and we ended the day on 99/4, Gavaskar on 51, already the highest score in the match.

Down, but not yet out. Still in the match.

***

The next day was a Monday. It was also the rest day of the match. I was sent off to school, and suddenly the discussions had changed. Suddenly it was the Pakistani spinners who formed the topics of discussion - and, of course, Gavaskar - and Azharuddin. Suddenly we had drifted from the antipodeans in blue and white stripes.

I had to fall ill Monday evening. Ill enough to convince ma that I should take Tuesday off. Yes, I know what you are thinking. I know you're suspecting my innocence, my honesty, my integrity, my commitment towards school. As if I would bunk school to watch cricket. Hmph.

***

So things started off. It was a surprisingly silent grandfather and a, well, suddenly-all-illness-forgotten grandson in front of a Nelco Maestro colour television set. Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim set off proceedings for what would definitely be the last day of the series.

The pitch did not seem to have rested over Monday. It had virtually turned into a minefield now. The ball turned at improbable angles amidst prominent puffs of dust, and they also bounced high, often to chest-level. Azharuddin looked clueless for a while, and missed quite a few trying to play across the line.

Gavaskar, however, realised that runs were not going to be easy. Along with punishing the rank long hops (which were rare to come by), he also ensured that every ball was either comfortably left alone or played with the middle of the bat. As Yousuf came closer and closer to the stumps, Gavaskar adopted a new strategy - something I have never seen anyone undergo, before or after.

He put his entire body behind the line of the ball, went as back as was humanly possible without being hit wicket, and then, if the ball turned or bounced awkwardly, he seemed to play them - but only took his bat away at the very last moment. This meant that Yousuf, standing up to the stumps, had no chance of collecting the ball, resulting in priceless byes. This was particularly effective against the off-spinner, where Yousuf seemed all at sea.

Azharuddin fell, trying to flick one and giving Qasim a catch back. 123/5. Shastri walked out, and hung around, somehow, using his bat, pads, boots and everything. He stooped so low in his forward defence that he could even have used his helmet.

Runs were by now virtually impossible to come by; yet, Gavaskar kept on scoring singles and twos and acquiring byes at will. It was like watching batsmanship on two different pitches. Gavaskar seemed so at ease that it almost seemed fair to curse the batsman at the other end for his incompetence.

Shastri gave a catch back to Qasim, and when Kapil fell too, things looked pretty much hopeless at 161/7. The ball had now started to turn the other way, and wasn't quite dependent on what the bowler wanted it to do. All the bowler had to do was to place it on a proper line and length, and the pitch kept on doing the rest.

And then, on 180, Gavaskar played forward to one from Qasim. The ball hit the pad (yes, I can swear that it never hit the bat), and lobbed to Rizwan-uz-Zaman at slip. They yelled, and then... then... they gave him out.

Did I yell? Did I cry? Did I sit back like an imbecile? No recollection. All I remember is Gavaskar walking back for the last time in test match, the entire ground standing in an ovation, and the Pakistanis joining in amidst their celebrations.

I had possibly cried. I think I did. Funnily, I cannot remember. All I know is that I was converted to cricket permanently. For a lifetime. The Maradonas, with all their skills and achievements, did not matter anymore. The Samba remained only a tune. Tennis remained only a, well, tennis ball sport. NBA or Formula I refused to register at all when they came along at a later stage.

There was only sport that I knew I would follow. Or rather could, or even should follow. I knew I was born to follow cricket, and only cricket, as a sport.

***

Postscript: Gavaskar scored 96 in the innings (missing the 35th hundred by four runs - eerily the same number of runs that has gone down in history as the most famous margin by which a landmark was ever missed). We went on to lose the match by sixteen runs.

I have often been asked how a lost match ended in being an inspiration for me at the age of nine. I have a tough time explaining that it was never about the outcome of the match. It was about cricket - the only creation of mankind that can hold a nine-year old to a magic of this intensity over a span of half a week; it was about Gavaskar, who showed an entire generation what they had missed out on for committing the unpardonable fault of being born a decade late.

Wherever you are, Sunnybhai, in case you're reading this, thank you for making me take the decision on that day.

16 comments:

  1. This is GREAT stuff -- it just made my day!! Look forward to reading many more. Many thanks for sharing Abhishek.

    Best wishes,

    Vikas Kakkar (B.Stat, Class of 1990)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Vikasda. I think I've found someone who shares similar emotions about the match!

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  2. Oshombhob boro. Pore pore janabo, achha?

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  3. Stuff of legends

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  4. I didn't see that match, but had heard tons about it from older people. Now thanks to you, I have a really gripping and absorbing description.

    Hopefully cricinfo sits up and takes notice of this one!

    And yet, I have also seen an India-Pakistan Test played in South India, where Akram and a spinner made the ball talk, where another Mumbaikar was defending for his life as I had not seen him defend, while trying to push his team towards victory... and where India again lost - this time by an even narrower margin.

    I probably know how you felt that day. And on that other day too.

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    Replies
    1. Apoorva, the Chennai pitch of 1999 was nowhere close to the Bangalore minefield. Nowhere. You needed to have seen it to have believed it.

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  5. I was just 3 and 1/2 years old at that time and did not have any memory of that match but I have read so much about it that I somehow have a feeling that I remember some discussion about the great man's retirement from 1987.

    Special one Abhishekda. Darun laglo!!

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  6. I remember this match as clearly as you have described! I used to hate those rest days in between 4 & 5th day! school thakle heavy chap hoto!

    but you guys had a color TV!! :(

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    Replies
    1. Yes, a quirky decision of my otherwise reasonable father meant we had a colour TV as early as in 1984 (no Orwell connection there).

      PS: It isn't spelt "color". X(

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  7. Great to read about the match and remember old times. I remember an incident that created a big furore - Bishen Singh Bedi had supposedly talked to the Pakistani spinners and given them tips. The media went on saying that it was Bedi's tips that tipped the scale in their favour. To be fair Bedi had also talked to the India spinners. It was the pitch that was the decider.

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    Replies
    1. Yes. I have heard of the Bedi incident. He was heavily criticised, as far as I can remember.

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  8. Did not watch the match. read few reports etc. And while reading this, I drank water four times though it is raining heavily outside. I took two three minutes of walk just to release the tension and felt good to know that you missed the school last day, envy the cricket enthusiastic family and found tears in my eyes(boys dont cry but grown ups do and they hide everytime)after reading "I remember is Gavaskar walking back for the last time in test match, the entire ground standing in an ovation,"

    too good an article Sir Mukherjee, take a bow.

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  9. :| I can't believe I have read though this ENTIRE post... I am some fan... Seriously... Guess its the mention of Fardeen Khan that kept me going... :)

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  10. stuffs like this make me a fan of your writing :) phataphati!

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  11. I still don't know what a doosra is. Brilliant report of the match. Definitely beats the other reports I read.

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    Replies
    1. A doosra is a leg-break bowled with an off-spinner's grip. I can tell one if I get to see one, but I cannot bowl one. :(

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