An important anniversary went by early last month – marking exactly 10 years since I became a serious cricket follower. I didn’t care to make much of it then, but certain events in the last week or so have made me aware that the relationship might be on its last legs now. So now I want to talk a little about the journey.
One morning in February 1996, I’m not sure of the exact date, a little booklet arrived at the doorstep, folded within the newspaper (it was either the TOI or the HT, the only papers whose existence I knew of back then). It was a primer to the soon-to-begin World Cup with a very simple format: 12 double-spreads, each devoted to one of the participating countries, with pen-portraits of the squad members – brief 50-70 word profiles and ODI statistics.
Up to that point, I had only a nebulous sense of what was happening in the cricketing world, and of the basic rules of the sport; cricket had never figured too prominently on my personal radar. Also, as it happened there hadn’t been too much of a buzz in the recent past: India played astonishingly little international cricket in the one-and-a-half years leading up to WC-96 and their most recent home series, against New Zealand, had been largely washed out. (A statistic I enjoy parroting is that Sachin Tendulkar scored fewer Test runs in the calendar year 1995 than the English tailenders Angus Fraser and Devon Malcolm did – and not because he was out of form.)
But as 1996 dawned and I heard people in college discussing the various teams, favourites to win the tournament and so on, I felt interest growing in me. The booklet, and the layman-friendly way in which it presented all the things one needed to know about the teams and the players, was the final stepping stone to a world that so many people around me already inhabited.
Another thing that helped was this strange fascination I have for thinking about numbers (dates, running times of movies, telephone numbers, even licence plate numbers of random vehicles on the road) –turning them over in my head, playing with permutations and combinations. Flipping through the booklet, my eye went straight to the run aggregates and batting averages of the cricketers (like most rookie cricket fans, I didn’t care about the bowlers) and I started making mental comparisons, reading meaning into the statistics.
With all the artlessness of the amateur who doesn’t understand finer nuances, I was deeply struck by the fact that Navjot Sidhu had the highest average of any member of the Indian team – a little over 40 (Kambli was close behind, though with far fewer runs). In fact, this early impression was to lead to a mercifully brief phase where I constructed a whole romance around Sidhu being the most valuable, and most undervalued, member of the squad. (Incidentally Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin both averaged 36 point something at that stage, for around 3,000 and 5,000 runs respectively.)
[I also remember being surprised by the entry for Australia’s Michael Bevan, which showed that he averaged 82.1 but had a highest score of only 78. Not knowing that “not outs” weren’t considered when computing averages, I didn’t see how this was possible, and decided it was a typo.]
Anyway, with the booklet constantly by my side, I settled down to World Cup 1996. By the time the tournament ended, two things had happened: one, I was a cricket fan for life (or so I thought then), and two, I realised that it didn’t matter much to me whether India won or lost. Sure, I was annoyed at the way that semi-final against Sri Lanka turned out, peeved (after the post-match deconstruction had begun) by Azharuddin’s decision to bat first. But I couldn’t begin to relate to the gloom that seemed to have descended over everyone I met after the match ended.
Coming at a time when I didn’t write much or articulate things about my worldview (even to myself), this would become a catalyst for self-analysis. Over time, it would help me come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t a patriot; that I didn’t understand why the concept should be so highly valued; that it was all right not to be obsessed with the idea of “my country”; that however much people would like to think of “positive, constructive patriotism” as something entirely distinct from nasty jingoism, the line between the two can become non-existent very quickly.
Of course, however lofty the idea of humanity taking precedence over patriotism might be in the context of general interactions between people, they can’t apply in the same way to sporting contests – where the whole idea is to produce a winner. To deal with this, I had to draw a distinction between my personal feelings about cricket on the one hand, and the public (or “official”) stance on the other. The official stance was that, well, of course the team is bigger than the individual and when there is a clear-cut case of individual goals conflicting with team goals, it has to be obvious which one to choose. But my private position was: what I’m really concerned with is the performances of my favourite players, everything else be damned.
This personal conundrum about teams vs individuals has stayed with me through the last 10 years. What enthralled me about cricket was not whether a particular team won or lost, but the little human dramas that were played out through the course of a match. I was fascinated with the minutiae; the bigger picture never seemed to matter that much. Where I was concerned, it were individuals that made the sport worth watching. Lara. S Waugh. Shane Warne. Wasim Akram. Aravinda De Silva. Andy Flower. A few years later, Adam Gilchrist.
And then of course there was Tendulkar, my obsession with whom began belatedly, a few months after WC96, with a gorgeous 85 he scored in a match against Sussex early in India’s tour of England. The next two years marked his finest times as a batsman (though they also included his sorry first stint as captain) – and as it happened, that period coincided with some serious troughs in my life. There were entire days, weeks, months during which Tendulkar’s innings were the only bright spots, quite irrespective of the result of the match.
Looking back, I don’t know why I ever assumed my interest in cricket would last forever. I probably thought the way it worked was that old heroes would keep getting replaced by new ones, and the show would go on indefinitely. I suppose that is how it works for most people. But after my first 3-4 seasons of following the sport (a time when I used to watch every single match that was on, get up religiously at 5.30 AM for every day of every Test played in Australia), there was a significant decline in the frequency of my cricket-watching. I started working full-time, got busy with other things; life was no longer as empty as it had been for extended periods between 1996-1998. Though I admired many of the younger cricketers (the ones who made their debuts in the past 4-5 years, or the ones, like Dravid, who became superstars in the past 4-5 years), I never had the time or inclination to turn them into personal heroes. Meanwhile, one by one, the early heroes retired: Aravinda, Akram, Steve Waugh. Lara continued to be the proverbial box of chocolates, Warne was out of the sport for a while.
And Tendulkar’s place in the scheme of things began to change too, starting with that famous 2001 series between India and Australia. In the first Test in Mumbai, he top-scored in each innings (with a 76 and a 65) as most others struggled. At that point in time, his combined Test average against Australia and South Africa (the two best teams in the world) was around 48. No one else in the Indian team came close to this; even Dravid, already acclaimed for his solidity in difficult situations, averaged less than 30 against those two countries. But that Mumbai Test marked the beginning of the end of SRT’s famous string of back-to-the-wall performances in lost causes. The next match was the famous one at Kolkata, with Laxman, Harbhajan and Dravid the heroes. Subsequently, as Sachin’s decline began, as injuries became more frequent, as Dravid and Sehwag became, respectively, India’s number one and number two Test batsmen, as India recorded famous victories under Ganguly’s captaincy without SRT playing the defining role in any of them, I became increasingly apathetic to Indian cricket. Watching India win had never been a point of attraction in itself, and watching others lead the team to victories held little charm for me.
It feels strange to know that cricket might not matter at all soon. But that doesn’t stop me from being curious: sometimes I wish I could peek 10 years into the future to see whether there will still be any residual feelings towards the game then. On one level, I hope there will.[This was a very difficult post to write, and of course there's plenty I've had to leave out, but some of the things I’ve recently read have made it easier. Like this post by Rahul Bhatia, where he says “I could never be as emotional about India as I have been about Tendulkar.” It was quite startling to hear such a sentiment expressed by someone else (that too a professional cricket writer who is expected to be pragmatic about the game). Kadambari Murali wrote an impassioned personal piece in the Hindustan Times a few days ago, as did Nirmal Shekar (a long-time Tendulkar loyalist) in The Hindu. And another strange thing has been happening. With news of SRT’s latest injury (assuming there is one at all) and the realisation that the Tendulkar Era is coming to a conclusive end (in fact, might even have ended already without us having had time to prepare for it), people seem to be softening. In the last few days some friends/acquaintances who have been fiercely critical of him in the past have said things I never expected to hear from them.]