Karnataka has given India some of its best cricketers. And the way they played their cricket is reminiscent of everything that the state stands for.
In a television program after Rahul Dravid’s retirement, Harsha Bhogle made an observation on how players from Karnataka played the game and walked away from it when their time came – with a sense of dignity, assuredness and stripped of any drama and flamboyance. He attributed it to the air by remarking‘I think it is something about the air that the people in Bangalore breathe, they play hard and fair…’
Like any other city, there are many Bangalores in Bangalore. If you stroll down any area in South Bangalore like Jayanagar and Basavanagudi, your nostrils will be assaulted by the aroma of filter coffee, masala dosa and jasmine flowers. The predominantly Brahmin areas still hold close to their heart the Bangalore of old. The pace is unhurried and the language spoken is predominantly kannada.
A chance encounter with an old friend inevitably leads to a cup of filter coffee and masala dosa at Vidyarthi Bhavan or a plate of idli and vada at the inimitable Brahmin’s Cafe. In the Bangalore of old, it isn’t unusual to strike up a conversation with a stranger or for someone to overhear you and then join you for a freewheeling discussion on the state of the world over a by-two coffee.
It is in these byzantine lanes of Basavanagudi, where he began playing cricket like any other kid, that Anil Kumble found his feet. Kumble is Bangalore as much as Bangalore is Kumble. An engineer by qualification but a cricketer by profession, he was the bedrock of the spin bowling attack through the 90s. His second wind culminated in him captaining the Indian side in the last year of his career. It was having a man like him at the helm that kept the fractious tour to Australia in 2007-2008 from imploding. One of the most unforgettable moments of the tour was him addressing a press conference after the infamous Sydney test. He took a deep breath and simply said “only one team played in the spirit of the game,” which was followed, and rightly so, by raucous applause. Very few men can get away by uttering those words, Kumble being one of them.
At the junction of St. Mark’s road and MG road, you will find Anil Kumble circle, one of the busiest squares in the city. At first named to commemorate his record 10 wicket haul, it now stands as a testimony to the legendary cricketer himself. Not considered to be a spinner by some if orthodoxy was the benchmark, he bowled with not just heart, but all his soul too. As he slowly inched toward an improbable 10 wicket haul in the second test match against Pakistan at the Feroz Shah Kotla in 1999, he realised he couldn’t do it alone. To claim all 10 wickets, the bowler at the other end shouldn’t take any scalp. This task fell on the shoulders of his team and state-mate, Javagal Srinath. In a passage of play that can only be described as surreal, Srinath tried his best to bowl as far from the stumps as possible. If you see the footage, after Anil Kumble gets the 10th wicket, Srinath runs up to him and envelops him in a bear hug from behind. If euphoria was a cake, it would be safe to say that at that moment, Javagal Srinath would have gotten the bigger piece.
During the late 90s, half the players in the national side were from Karnataka. It was a time before small towns started fielding their own cricketers and the North-South divide was apparent. The merry band of Karnataka boys had their golden period, winning the Ranji trophy in 1999. It couldn’t have been tough, what with half the Indian side playing for the state.
The air is markedly different at the heart of the city. As you traverse through the Brigade Road and Richmond Road areas, an assortment of aromas from Chinese to kebabs to sheekh rolls and loud music from pubs greet you. Pecos, where classic rock is still played from old tapes and is another old warhorse that has stood the test of time. In December, you can hear carols and hymns emanating from St. Patrick’s church.
If you drive past St.Joseph’s Boys High School on Museum road, you will get a glimpse into where Rahul Dravid and Robin Uthappa had their beginnings. I was fortunate enough to see Robin Uthappa before he became a superstar who burst on to the scene and then had a few missteps that put him out of the reckoning. I remember, very vividly, him dispatching balls with alarming regularity for six toward Devatha Plaza on Residency road in the Cottonian shield where arch rivals Bishop Cotton’s and St.Joseph’s regularly squared off.
On the walls of the school, you will find a board that bears Rahul Dravid’s name. At the Chinnaswamy Stadium, you will find an entire wall built with ten thousand bricks to commemorate the runs he scored in both formats of the game. But much to the dismay of his fans, Bangalore was never a happy hunting ground for him. Even in the IPL, he came into his own with the Rajasthan Royals.
In October 1996, India were playing Australia in an ODI at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. It was a lost cause. At 164/8, the stands were half empty. In the middle were Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, from Bangalore and Mysore respectively. Apart from moonlighting in a few innings as nightwatchman, Javagal Srinath wasn’t someone you would place a bet on to save an innings with his bat. But they inched toward it. Anil Kumble’s mother and grandmother sat in the stands as the home boys toiled away and suddenly victory was in sight. Javagal Srinath charged down the crease and struck Steve Waugh for a 6 in the 47th over. The duo took India home in the last ball of the 48th over. The people that had paid to watch the match and left the stadium with crestfallen faces having predicted an Australian victory, never got to see the winning moments as they were in transit when it occurred.
If you find yourself in Malleshwaram, the air is laden with the aromas emanating from Central Tiffin room on Sampige road. A little further down the road, a queue is forming outside Veena Stores to partake in some of its famous idli, vada, khara bath and kesari bath. The Malleshwaram market is teeming with house wives bargaining with vendors. Opposite the Central Tiffin Room, the Malleshwaram grounds is abuzz with activity. On the walls outside, you will see paintings of some of the icons of Karnataka cricket.
Approximately two-and-a -half hours from Bangalore, Mysore, the city of my birth, is even more languid in its pace. During the Dasara season, the city explodes in a haze of festivities. Otherwise, it is a city where people still hope to retire when they tire of the hard city life. Surprising then that it gave birth to India’s fastest bowler in the form of Javagal Srinath. He was forced to endure the travails of fast bowling on a vegetarian diet, making some exceptions later in his career. Here was India’s quickest pace bowler who once apologised to Ricky Ponting for bouncing him. Who waited patiently for his turn till Kapil Dev broke Hadlee’s record and had over 20 different bowling partners in his career, the most fruitful one being with his state-mate, Venkatesh Prasad. Who bowled on flat tracks and endured a career threatening shoulder injury halfway through his career and emerged stronger.
There is something about all the players that came from Karnataka and Bangalore. They played hard and seldom offered rancor as retribution. Much like a perfectly made masala dosa that is crisp on the outside, yet soft on the inside, they stand not just for India, but everything that Bangalore and Karnataka stands for. They are stars but not celebrities, choosing grit over theatrics, humility over aloofness. It isn’t too hard to imagine them as ordinary people who simply want to be one with everyone else and didn’t chase praise or adulation.
Bangalore has changed over the years. Greenery has made way for swathes of grey and glass facades. Areas like Koramangala and Indiranagar, once vast expanses of land, are now the new business centres.
But of all the moments that will bring the fondest of memories, you would have to go back to March 9, 1996. It doesn’t seem like 18 years have passed since that moment. Bangalore was hosting the world cup qualifier between India and Pakistan. The floodlights had been newly installed and the city was breathing euphoria. You could see the floodlights from afar and it was as if all Bangalores had become one.
And then came a very un-Bangalore like moment. Ajay Jadeja produced a scintillating innings to take India to 287, a more than competitive score in those days. But Pakistan wouldn’t take it lying down. Aamir Sohail and Saaed Anwar seemed to be in a tearing hurry to finish off the match and hope seemed to be ebbing away as they launched an all out assault. Venkatesh Prasad, another mild-mannered Bangalore boy was getting carted all over the place when Aamir Sohail called out to him and brandished his bat at him, telling him where he was going to dispatch the ball. The very next ball, he charged down to come good on his promise – only to have his off-stump sent cartwheeling. Prasad, in a very un-Bangalore like approach, showed him the way to the dressing room with a few gestures and a handful of words. That moment is etched into the history of Bangalore, and one that Bangaloreans have been reliving ever since.
The soul of any city lies in its heritage, establishments, icons and its weather. Which is why the people that make Bangalore are extensions of the city itself, mostly temperate, hospitable and always ready for a cup of filter coffee. Its cricketers are no different.
After a long wait of 13 years, the Karnataka team won the Ranji trophy in 2013. This side consists of players, many of whom have already found fame and fortune under the arc lights of the IPL. Robin Uthappa will hopefully make a comeback to the Indian team sooner rather than later and we hope Abhimanyu Mithun and Vinay Kumar follow in the foot steps of Srinath and Prasad. If they wanted any examples of how to temper talent and fame with humility, they don’t have look too far from home. The cricketing history of Karnataka is embedded into the soul of the city. On edifices, school walls, roads and squares, you’ll find it everywhere.
So is the air that Bangalore breathes any different? The jury is still not out on that. But if you were to look at the list of players who passed out of Karnataka and Bangalore – Chandrashekar, Prasanna, Vishwanath, Binny, Kirmani, Srinath, Kumble, Prasad and Dravid – one thing is for certain.
They surely breathed rarefied air.