Plain tales from Indian cricket

People sometimes ask me why I am so dismissive of all games other than cricket. For example, if a golf addict asks me, I tell him: “It’s not such a big deal to hit a stationary ball, try hitting a ball coming at you at 140 kmph”.

As to football or hockey, I say, “There isn’t enough of the gladiatorial aspect in them. It’s more like a medieval battle but without weapons”. Ditto for basketball, volleyball and so on.

Tennis has the requisite David-Goliath features. But it is not only very safe — a soft ball can’t kill anyone — compared to cricket, it is also very predictable. You know, like at Roland Garros, which is crushingly dull because the surface is slow.

Cricket, however, is basically a nonlinear system where you can’t predict the outcome from initial conditions. Against all expectations, India won the World Cup in 1983 and were defeated by Bangladesh in 2007 — in only their second match. Hilarious, both outcomes.

Cricket enthrals because it involves hitting a very hard ball that weighs five and a half ounces and has been bowled at a speed that can kill you or is spinning hard so that it is actually hissing, with a six-inch wide bat — and you have less than a quarter of a second to do it. Try that for size.

But now that I am no longer able to play, I watch it continually and read books about it very often. It’s vicarious pleasure, pure and simple.

So it has been absolutely wonderful to read a new book called 1971: The Beginnings of India’s Cricketing Greatness. It is by two well-known cricket journalists, Boria Majumdar and Gautam Bhattacharya.

Aah, cricket! The book refrains from narrating match descriptions and, instead, has scores of little off-field stories. That’s good because match descriptions can be like Ken Barrington and Brian Bolus batting against Bapu Nadkarni.

This book has another plus point. It confirms my own three anchoring beliefs or confirmation biases about the game. 

One, that cricket is played in the instant, which means all that guff you hear from the commentary box is just that, guff. Things happen in a split second. 

Two, that it’s a game in which brains are as much needed as instinct. A bowler without brains is as bad as a batsman without instinct.

Third, although the bowlers are under-appreciated, it is they who make all the difference because they have to use brains, while batsmen must depend on instinct. A dumb bowler is as bad as batsman with two left feet.

Some stories: 100 of 314 pages of the book are devoted to excerpts from interviews with the late M A K Pataudi and Ajit Wadekar; Bishen Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar; and, above all, two cricketers whom I admired greatly, Syed Abid Ali and Salim Durani. There are several others from India and a few from England and Pakistan.

The book tells you so many things that are not known at all or known only to a few. For example, there was the terrible mix-up involving Bapu Nadkarni.

A benefit match was arranged for him in England and tickets were sold on the promise of some Indian players turning out. The match was to be played on the rest day during a Test match and only the players who were not playing in it were to appear.

In the event they didn’t because the manager, former India captain, Hemu Adhikari, had not thought of taking the BCCI’s permission. Poor Nadkarni, a gentle soul, was booed and abused by the crowd and had to be escorted off the ground by the security staff.

Another story, narrated by Abid Ali, is how the Indian captain Ajit Wadekar, in 1971 decided to arrive in England a day later than scheduled because an astrologer told him to.

Then there is the story about Salim Durani who, during the 1971 tour of the West Indies, told Wadekar the previous evening that the next day he would get both Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd — and he did.

Another story — and the book is brimming with them — is about Dilip Sardesai, one of the best batsmen India has ever had, dropping two catches and being asked by the captain to limp off the field so that a better fielder could replace him.

Last but not least there is the story of the Indian player who was kissing a girl on the pavement. Ordinarily he would have been sent back home and perhaps never played for India again.

But he was from the West Zone, which, in those days, was above the law.

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