Of a gentleman’s game

Posted on April 26, 2010

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I think it must have been in the summer or fall of 1996 when I first got interested in the game of cricket. The Indian team was getting a lesson in pace bowling from a man named Allan Donald, from South Africa. Now, this man Donald immediately became one of my favourite cricketers. It wasn’t just his ferocious pace, line and length and aggressive tactics. This Protean could look more menacing than anyone else because unlike others, he had a unique method of applying sunscreen on his face! It was strange but made him look like a warrior. It was cheek to cheek and under his lower lip. This was his signature. It was a symbol of might, and at the time very few people emulated it.

I was ten years old. I remember I went to my bathroom and took out some talcum powder into my hand, added a few drops of water, looked into the mirror with pride, and ran out to play some gully cricket with my neighbours. It began that afternoon. I was a ‘fan’.

It’s interesting to note though, that I was a fan of the game, not a fan of India. India was still a team that was predictably losing vital matches. At the time, my honest opinion was that besides one dude name Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, the others folded like cards when it came to pressure situations. I admired Donald’s methodical destruction of our team, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to be a pace bowler. And I remember thinking that regardless of boundaries (geographic, not sportive) I would love cricket.

As I grew, cricket grew. It was already a religion then. But I wouldn’t describe myself as a follower of the game as much as say, a student. I was eager to learn more. More facts, more figures, more records, more about players, about fitness levels, stadiums, legends, pitches, fielding strategies and countless other aspects of the game. Learn I did, a lot even. I grew as a player, and as a fan and student of the game.

2000 was I believe the darkest chapter in cricket and consequently in my life. Men that I had regarded heroes, worthy of that word and many more better ones, fell prey to a match-fixing scandal that shook not just our country, but indeed every cricket-playing, and loving nation. Hansie Cronje’s head rolled, as did Azharuddin, Jadeja, Mongia,  and amongst the oppositions’, Nicky Boje, Derek Crookes (whose name was not slightly ironic) and a young and exciting South African player named Herschelles Gibbs. What amazed all of us was the level to which it went. I remember almost in tears, asking myself whether I would have taken the money, if I were in the players’ shoes. The 14 year old me responded in the negative, knowing that the risks would have been too high, and more importantly the sacrifices too great. For a few dollars more (pardon the pun) would I risk my career? My name, my reputation and the expectations of a billion people? I wouldn’t. It took me a while to get to grips with the fact that others would not have answered as I did. I was young; some might even call it naiveté. I just did not think money was that important.

The rest as they say was history. A few life bans, hushed conversations in board rooms, and silencing the largest investigating agency of this country was the priority of the BCCI. And within a year, with a new Indian captain from Bengal and a resurgent young team, the episode was swiftly and methodically swept under the carpet.

In 2008, a man named Lalit Modi created the IPL. He used muscle, he used money, and he even went up against the only Indian captain to ever lift a World Cup for us. It was either his way or the proverbial highway. You were either with the IPL or you couldn’t play for India. By this time, I had shed all of the aforementioned innocence when I asked myself if this was fair. It was clear to all that it wasn’t.

The BCCI had become bullies, and we the audience, were slack-jawed luddites that pawed affectionately at the screen every time a Bollywood celebrity appeared on it. We wanted a tinsel town cricketing show dammit, and no one was going to stop  us. We’d have beer, celebrities, cheerleaders, glitz, tits and a loud Mexican horn to spur the crowd. And the crowd? Damn them all, thought the Board. Let them bake in the sun for 5 hours after booking tickets online. We’ll show them some skin and they’ll forget all about it. If that won’t work, our branding will! We don’t need them! We have corporations.

Some of you might be wondering why this rant is directed at the BCCI. It is because it’s responsible for Lalit Modi. They let him get into this position. They cajoled and fed this fiend till the point where he tore at his chains like a rancor and went wild and drunk with power. When some objected to it, they were termed ‘unpatriotic’. Now the Board is trying to rein him in again, and appear like they’re better than him? I was not fooled. And I don’t believe you should be either.

Tonight the third IPL final just ended. And for the first time ever, since 2000, I was plagued with those same questions that plagued the 14 year old me. Was it fixed? Was it all a perfect ruse to make more money? Were all these people suckers? And no matter what answer the next few days might give us, I will always remember choking back this ugly taste in my mouth. Because I never thought that I would have to ask myself those questions again. To ask myself if I would do it, given the situation. If it were possible to hate who you represented, where you were from, because you were clouded by money.

A friend recently told me something interesting about money and its perceived value. A currency note has no value. It’s the promise of its bearer, that’s stated clearly on it. A promise of an individual who holds it, that brings it value. And it sickens me that so many want to hold it. To hold onto a promise like that without understanding what it might mean in the larger picture.

Tonight I was reminded of that ten year old that went to his bathroom and put on some talcum powder. I’d like to think that he was a ‘fan of the game’. He was happier. Happier than the people today, regardless of how much progress his team made, because he understood the sport without needing to know its inner details. He understood winning and losing, and losing graciously. He understood that on any given day, talent and performance decided the winners.

Because back then the game was simpler. A gentleman’s game they called it, a ‘test’ of skill for 5 days. Yes, a gentleman’s game.

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