March, and the meaning of life

 

march

Many moons ago, I was born in the month of March.

Many moons later, I met my wife, who too was born in the month of March.

In a March somewhere in between, I was held hostage in an exam hall, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted through oppressive Kolkata heat, a stellar bowling line-up that featured the likes of Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, to script a Houdini act and give India its best test victory ever.

Somewhere along the way, I grew up, fell out of faith with God and religion and put a ridiculous amount of hope in cricket and sport, looking to find meaning that had somehow eluded me.

I would like to think that Kolkata 2001 was when I realised that cricket could fill some of that void. Cricket had the answers that academics, god and religion didn’t.

But there is one god that I pray to – the rain god. For one, I can see, touch and feel the rain. If there is a more wondrous natural coolant ever invented, I would like to know what it is. It threatened to rain on Sunday. Then it finally rained on Monday. It threatened to rain on Tuesday. But it didn’t just stop at a drizzle. It poured. The decibel levels of the thunder were higher than those of a Metallica concert.

Maybe even the clouds were relieved and cried tears of joy, so much so that I had to stop and take shelter on the way home.

On Sunday, the real threat was Australia threatening to rain down on India’s parade. It was the home side that was looking for shelter from the Australian assault. The day loomed over us like some sort of an apocalypse. It could have been the day when the unfathomable became a thing of reality. Australia are supposed to be the visiting side. They are supposed to get crushed 4-0, the Indian spinners running through their line-up, making them look like school boys. Our batting line-up is supposed to crush their very souls. Virat Kohli is supposed to continue his magnificent form and score another double century with his eyes closed.

In Pune, India were out-spun and out-batted in their own backyard on a made-to-measure turning track. In a reversal of roles, India got a taste of their own medicine and it left a very bitter taste in the mouth. It was like America helping form the Al-Qaeda only to have it come back to bite them. Remember 2001, when the first match ended in three days in Mumbai? The only difference between then and now is that Australia were expected to rail-road India. Back then, they marched to India on a record 16 match winning streak in a bid to conquer the final frontier. In 2017, India was expected to trample upon Australia mercilessly the way they trampled over England and New Zealand.

189 all out on day 1 of the Bangalore test. 84 more runs than they could manage in the first test at Pune. Australia were smelling blood and pinching themselves. A series win in India against a rampaging Indian side?

There are few sounds on a cricket ground that are near mellifluous.

The sound a straight drive makes. It is just ‘thock’, nothing more. It’s the sound of near perfection.

The sound of the ball hitting the stumps when a player from the opposition is bowled.

The sound of the crowd exploding in unison when victory has been sprung upon them.

David Warner found his off-stump in a disheveled condition when Ashwin bowled one that turned in and Warner tried to chase it and missed it. Such a beautiful sound. The first session of the match was test cricket at its best with India finally showing ‘intent’. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav bowled with precision and aggression, not giving the Aussies any easy runs.

Yet, 189 isn’t a score to play with. All these years, the scourge of India is finding pace bowlers who could come and complement the heroics of the batsmen. Javagal Srinath tried and nearly lost his shoulders. Zaheer Khan’s fitness was always suspect and it was spin that was deemed to be the answer to all our questions.

Anil Kumble, then Harbhajan Singh and now, R Ashwin.

But if spin is the answer, Pune was the unanswered question.

While the rest of the world was sitting back in their chairs on Sunday and God himself was supposedly resting, 13 players were battling it out at the M Chinnaswamy stadium. Cubbon Park, one of Bangalore’s largest parks is just a stone’s throw away from the stadium and home to many rare species of birds, but the loudest chirps were heard from players on the cricket field.

Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp. Wicket! Ravindra Jadeja, the man with probably the most memes to his name, came to the party. Ashwin, in a very ungainly manner, held onto a catch offered by Hanscomb. Jadeja then found himself in the middle of a hat-trick, accounting for Wade and Lyon in the same over.

As Sunday wore down and everyone was already in a funk about getting back to their wage slave selves, Australia had a 48 run lead. In life, as in sport, it is always tough to arrest a losing streak. In the two disastrous tours of England and Australia in 2011-12 when India were handed consecutive 0-4 series defeats, it felt as if the slide began in the mind. The moment they lost two test matches in a row, the remainder of the series just felt like a Monday to Friday going through the motions kind of work week. If India didn’t come back in Bangalore, there would be no real motivation to dig deep into their reserves and script a comeback.

Day 3. Monday. The day we all seemingly wake up with a hangover even if we have not drunk the night before. What will become of our lives without live commentary? What other reason to wake up on a Monday other than a test match in whose hands lie the destiny of a series? Only live sport can add meaning to a Monday. Or a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell Starc, expected to sting with his lethal pace had also added the sting to the tail at Pune. A lead of over a 100 would mean game and series Australia. The unraveling of all the good work that Australia had put in began on Monday morning. 4 wickets fell for a mere 36 runs and the lead came to a halt at 87. On twitter, Harsha Bhogle tweeted that India needed at least a 300 run lead to ensure victory.

Abhinav Mukund and KL Rahul began sedately but Mukund’s tepid run of form continued. Rahul, whose near century in the first innings was the only spice in an otherwise bland score card again came to the rescue.

For the longest time, the BCCI used all of its might to fight the DRS saying that it wasn’t reliable. After old guard moved on and the board itself went topsy turvy, the DRS found a tiny opening and made itself comfortable. Before this series, Virat Kohli was walking on water. In Pune, he was slipping on ice. In the first innings in Bangalore, he was adjudged LBW to a Nathan Lyon delivery for 12 and asked for a review. But the result was obvious. He was desperate to score runs and Australia were even more desperate for his wicket. In the second innings, he was again adjudged lbw to Hazelwood and was supremely confident that he had nicked the ball. The third umpire, it seemed, thought he was controlling the button to a nuclear bomb instead of a decision in a test match. Again, Kohli lost to DRS. 300 lead someone was saying?

If Warner was Ashwin’s bunny, Pujara looked like he was trying to learn a new language called learning to play spin. He edged one to Smith and was dropped. He was on 4. KL Rahul faced 16 consecutive deliveries in order to give Pujara a breather and get his confidence back. After Kohli’s dismissal, Ravindra Jadeja of all people was sent in, for no discernible reason. Remember when Javagal Srinath or Irfan Pathan would be sent in as night watchmen as a bid to protect the batsmen and delay an inevitable breach? Sending in a nightwatchman or its equivalent is like not picking the phone when the moneylender calls. They will eventually find you and make you pay. He lasted a grand total of 15 deliveries before being castled by Hazelwood.

Ajinkya Rahane and Chateshwar Pujara didn’t do a Dravid and Laxman but they came within the same vicinity.

Day 4. On a day when India were expected to solidify their position, their wheels came undone like some defective toy. If Australia’s good work had been undone on the morning of Day 4, India came undone on 4th morning. Karun Nair, triple centurion and local boy saw his leg stump beheaded and doing cartwheels. Rahane, Nair, Pujara, Ashwin, Sharma and Yadav were all out in a space of 36 runs.

188 runs separated Australia and the Border Gavaskar trophy. The pitch wasn’t a minefield and when the Aussies began batting, it didn’t look a saunter to victory nor did it seem like they had a great wall that needed to be scaled.

188. 112 runs less than the desired 300. Almost two days to get there.

At what point did victory seem possible?

When David Warner’s wicket was again pocketed by Ashwin?

When Steven Smith was adjudged LBW, allegedly had a ‘brain fade’ and looked to the dressing room for an opinion before the umpires and a few Indian players pounced on him like vultures on their prey and he left before it could get uglier?

When Virat Kohli, like he always does, played symphony conductor to the crowd and orchestrated their cheers to drill nails into the Australian chase?

When R Ashwin realised that he was the No.1 spin bowler in the world and bowled like one?

When Wriddhiman Saha flew and took a blinder to send Matthew Wade back?

In the end, Nathan Lyon, who had bowled magnificently in the first innings gave an easy return catch to Ashwin and the comeback from 0-1 was complete.

Parallels were drawn to Kolkata 2001 and while it was a riveting match, there really can’t be a comparison. Back in 2001, no one expected India to win in Kolkata, Mumbai or in Chennai. In 2017, Pune was an electric shock and until day 4 in Bangalore, the match could have gone either way. It would take something very very special to come close to what a Very Very Special Laxman and Rahul Dravid accomplished.

Somethings do happen only once in a lifetime.

And some things come close to the original. The 75 run victory by India at Bangalore came close.

I could see Kolkata 2001 only in patches. I was writing the dreaded board exams, trying to make sense of life. The school canteen had a 14 inch tv, the only source of information. While Dravid and Laxman were playing their magnum opus, I was in the confines of an exam hall, the rustle of the fan and the papers my only companion. Highlights and articles can’t make up for the real thing.

Like that match and series sowed the seeds of the golden generation that would travel the world and bring glory by playing some of the finest cricket in the most dignified manner, I began to see cricket as a metaphor for life too.

Ecstasy, agony, relief, defiance, fortitude, artistry, hope, things that make a life, bind it and give it meaning. That’s what cricket is, too.

And in more ways than one for me, it all began in March.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A deep breath of Bangalore air

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…’

brahmin's

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.

dosa

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.

kumble-kotla

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.

kumble circle

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.

sjbhs

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.

dravid

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.

CRICKET-AUS-INDIA-SRINATH-BLEWETT

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.