Sunday, January 14, 2007

Back at the helm...and a death

It was a good time for SMG to have done and dusted with the record in the last test of the series. Especially it was good for me, since I had my 12th class board exams round the corner and I could approach it with what we called then ‘a free mind’! There was no cricket around that time either.

And immediately as my exams got over, dad broke the news that he was getting transferred again and back to Kanpur. Though I was a bit sad leaving my friends, some of them very good ones, I looked forward to getting back to the city where I had played my cricket to make a serious attempt at making up for 2 lost cricketing years, which had yielded only 5 intra-school matches and a suspension from school to schedule another. But that’s another story!

Just around the time when we got back to Kanpur, it was announced that Gavaskar was to become the Indian captain again and that instead of a long rest that I had thought he will be getting, it was cricket time again, the first Asia Cup and in a place called Sharjah in the desert. In the meanwhile, now that I was back in my old den, I had slotted back into my old friend circle smoothly and also at the top of the order in our club team.

I followed the Asia Cup on radio as there was no TV telecast of the tournament. Gavaskar led India to victory and India won the first Asia Cup very convincingly, beating a strong Pakistan side. I also noticed that Gavaskar preferred to bat in the middle order.

The blistering summers were spent playing various tournaments for my club and I lapped up all the cricket with gusto to make up for the lost 2 years.

By the time monsoon put a stop to our cricket temporarily, Australia were ready to tour India for an ODI series. One-day cricket after the world cup win was definitely the most popular form in India now. Even for cricket at our level at the league, the U-19s, etc. ‘limited overs’ ruled cricket. It was probably around this time that the BCCI started thinking of ODIs as the golden goose and the Australian tour for just 5 ODIs was the first ‘ODI only’ series played in India.

Gavaskar, after the Asia Cup success, was retained captain for the series but India failed miserably, losing it 3-0. I wasn’t too enamoured by the Indian Board’s sudden rush towards one-day matches and my only interest was to see whether Gavaskar comes back in the opening slot or not. As it turned out he stayed in the middle order in this series too.

The next series was going to be India’s tour to Pakistan and the main element of interest for me was the upcoming 100th test of Gavaskar, the first Indian to achieve it.

India set off for Pakistan immediately after the Australian ODI series was over and I, more than anything else hoped for a better showing than what Imran’s side had meted out to India two years back as Imran himself was out of the series with his prolonged injury and Sarfraz had retired. That said the batting line-up remained the same who were simply unbeatable at home. I suspected this could be another high-scoring and thereby a boring series.

India started with losing the 1st ODI again and Gavaskar again batted in the middle order. He had been batting there since the Madras Test against the Windies; hence I eagerly waited to see which position he would bat in the Test Series. Frankly, I did not like the idea of Gavaskar batting lower down, as the magic of opening an innings to me was something else. There is a different atmosphere when opening batsmen come out to bat at the start of an innings and especially on the first morning of a Test. Selfishly speaking, I didn’t want to wait for Gavaskar coming in at the fall of a wicket.

The 1st Test began at Lahore, with Gavaskar duly completing his century of Tests, but as India was fielding I had to wait for a couple of days till Gavaskar batted. I hoped that he could crown this occasion with a century like Boycott had done a few years back. Unfortunately there was no live telecast this time and so it was back to radio commentary with the ever subtly partisan commentators taking up the cudgels from Radio Pakistan. To be fair however, there were some good commentators in Iftikhar Ahmed and Chisti Mujahid with their impeccable Queen’s English and this was the first time I got interested in the beautiful language, Urdu though here the commentators were extraordinarily partisan in their commentary. Pakistan as expected piled up a huge score and then when India came out to bat, I waited expectantly. Gavaskar was opening and he began well. When he reached the threshold of another half-century I was already dreaming of his hundred, but the dream remained short-lived. He got out for 48 and then Hafeez ran through the batting order. India followed on and there was a serious threat of losing the test and I feared, Gavaskar would lose the captaincy in Pakistan again. He himself began well again, but as it was to be he got out on 37 to Jalal-ud-din and thereby ending my wish for a 100 in the 100th test. To cap it I thought it was only a matter of time before India lost the match too. Thankfully, Amarnath making yet another comeback discovered form again and scored a match-saving century with good support from Shastri, which ensured a draw.

Heaving a sigh of relief, I wondered what the back-to-back 2nd Test at Faislabad will bring for Gavaskar and his men. Here India batted first luckily and again Gavaskar was on his way, batting serenely but as was usual in this series he got into the 30’s and got out, this time to Qadir’s leg-spin. Thereafter there wasn’t much of an interest in the test except for a scintillating 100 by Patil and a patient one by Shastri. Pakistan predictably piled up a mountain and the result was another insipid draw.

At this stage, even a diehard fan like me was getting frustrated with Indo-Pak cricket with this being the sixth straight draw between the two sides and couldn’t wait for the series to get over with the 3rd likely to be another draw.

However, on the fateful morning of 31st October 1984, Indira Gandhi was pulled down by the assassins’ bullets and the curtain was swiftly brought down on the 2nd ODI which was underway and soon the tour was aborted, with shell-shocked Indian players flying back to join the mourning millions back home.

Cricket for me, (as it was for almost all) was hardly on the top of the mind watching the murder and mayhem around me, 24 hour curfews, BSF roaming the streets, rioting and looting rampant with the Sikh community bearing the brunt of all of it. North India suffered the most and in Kanpur I just couldn’t believe what was happening around me. I guess it was my first introduction to mob frenzy.

After almost 2 weeks of complete anarchy, it finally dawned on me that the England tour was imminent – and even then there was a chance of it being called off. I just hoped not. The population needed a balm and what better a balm than cricket.

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