Tuesday, March 28, 2006

1996-2006: a cricketing odyssey, and closure?

[Note: very long and ponderous post, best read over two days. Consume Dispirin before commencing. I did, before and after writing it.]

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.]

11 comments:

  1. Hmm...Smells nostalgic!!
    I remember the book too...dunno if its from TOI or otherwise...but that was one good thing to keep track of the cricket happenings..
    i had a seperate book to jot down all the good things (or whtevr) from each and every match..
    I used to flaunt it at school only to find the book stolen by the time india reachd semifinals

    Altho' my attachement to crciket started with 92 WC...remmbr hw NZL were the favourites back then!!??

    Its all lost ..over & over!!

    ;)

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  2. loved the post...though still don't quite get your obsession with Aus ;-) My attachment also began in '92, thanks mainly to watching the Indians and Pakistanis..

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  3. Didnt quite get the post - the latest rush of ST bashing in the media the cause for this? Momentary lapse of reason, one hopes ..

    Either way , cant see how any Indian view (least of all a Humanitarian one(!)) can exist without a relationship with cricket, bollywood and such ..

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  4. I remember that book. It came with the ToI, alright - my family's never taken another paper in twenty-five years. It started me off, too, although the obsession wouldn't last in my case. I stopped investing emotionally in cricket after the match-fixing scandals. But your blog resonates because I share your sentiments about SRT.

    Aargh. Dimly-remembered past alert.

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  5. Uhh, no Mark Waugh? Why?

    Anyway, interesting to note the deal about license plate. Funnily, we've never discussed this.

    Do you do the thing of keeping your own plate number in mind and then trying to see if all the numbers can be arrived at by adding, subtracting the numbers on another license plate?

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  6. No Shamya, I'm pleased to report I haven't risen to those depths of psychopathy yet.
    But if that's what you do while you're driving, it helps explain why you keep knocking down hand-holding cyclists.

    And I was never a big fan of Mark Waugh - not in that very personal way anyhow

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  7. Delicious post. My own interest started with a similar booklet but about the 92 World Cup.

    Following Indian cricket in the 90s was a painful process. The defeats were so predictable, that only Sachin became the redeeming factor. It is because India's performance was so horrible that we fans developed a Sachin-centric attitude, almost as a defense mechanism. Knowing that focussing our energies on Sachin alone meant that we would never be hurt.

    I have become a fan of the Indian team after 2001 because there are half a dozen players who play crucial roles on a regular basis. So the team actually is worth following, is a lot more consistent and professional than the hideous outfit of the 90s.

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  8. I can relate. As an Indian child growing up in Mumbai until around 1996, when I moved out, I had idolised a few of the cricketers - namely Tendulkar and Azhar.

    Azhar enchanted me even more than Sachin though. When he left the game in controversy, I was shattered. I stopped following the sport for a while (part of it was to do with moving to South East Asia, where I couldn't really watch cricket too easily), and since then, when I've watched the game, I've done so from a much more neutral/analytical perspective (unless a few certain players are concerned), not concerning myself about overall results too much.

    When India collapses, it doesn't upset me particularly - ditto for when Australia lose, unless it's to England (the last Ashes loss was the only time in about 5 years that I've really felt great emotion at the outcome of a match or series). When someone like Tendulkar, whom I've grown up watching flay the best bowlers in the world, fades as rapidly as he has, it's a lot more painful.

    For the last three years, I've been thinking to myself "It's just a bad patch, he'll hit form soon", pointing to knocks like his Sydney 241 or the Multan 194. They're less and less frequent, and for us who grew up on a diet of Tendulkar's MRF and the runs that flowed off it, there's a lot less to cling on to.

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  9. This post made me absolutely nostalgic... I was never a cricket enthusiast, and would not have turned into one but for one man - one who lived, breathed cricket, and who eventually became my husband :).

    My earliest memories of cricket go back to the last test that Gavaskar played. Then there is a huge gap in memories until the 1996 World Cup. I was a journalist then, and was fortunate enough to do some stories from the sidelines of the World Cup. The interest, of course, sustained.

    This post brought back memories of an article I had written around that time about the beginning of my interest in cricket. Maybe I should post it some time.

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  10. I think it should be - "peeved by Azharuddin’s decision to bat second."

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