For sheer idolatry, I can’t look beyond Sachin. As far as my cricketing life goes, he remains the alpha and the omega, the one shimmering constant through all these years. He started whacking the ball around the time I entered elementary school and has continued whacking it through my days in middle school, high school, college, working years, graduate school and more working years. My grandfather (born in 1915) watched him bat and I won’t be surprised if he’s still whacking the ball when my son (if and when he’s born) watches his first cricket match. This is truly a one-man institution.
For a fascinating storyline, I can’t look beyond Azzu. The script has everything: humble beginnings, a grandfather’s dream, talent from heaven, wrists of gold, a dazzling entry, a monumental ascent, the bolt-in-the-blue “mian, kaptaan banoge”, a betrayal, greed, hubris and that mighty fall. Even today, while I occasionally take the field in some inconsequential game, I turn up my collar and rush towards gully. Azzu was flawed. But how beautifully flawed he was!
For edge-of-the-seat excitement, I can’t look beyond Dada. There was never a silent moment. I either felt like hugging him or cursing him: a chaddi dost one moment, a badtameez another. Even today, that delectable cover-drive – clinically threading point and gully – gives me goose-bumps. What a captain, yet what a rogue. He inspired, he infuriated. He was truly a Bollywood superstar who happened to walk into a cricket field. And thank god for that.
For pure cricketing beauty, I can’t look beyond VVS. The batsman for an ideal day: blue skies, soothing breeze, stretching out on the lush lawns with beer on one side and biryani on the other. A lover for company. And VVS batting, calmly, serenely, without a care in the world. When I read poets write of the Elysian fields, this is all I can think about.
All this is fandom. Yet there’s no real intimacy in any of these. There’s nothing really personal. These are all emotions that a lot of boys and girls share. I’m not the first one to marvel at Sachin’s back-foot thump – what Peter Roebuck once memorably likened to pushing open a barn door – neither will I be the last one to float after the ball makes the sweetest of sounds when VVS’ bat makes contact. I’m just another brick on the wall.
That’s what brings me to the scoreboard, the manual scoreboard at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, worn down after years of service with those gaping holes that held metallic plates. I remember that scoreboard well, the first thing I used to look for when I ran from school to the stadium, trying to catch the last half an hour’s play of a Ranji Trophy game. The stadium was mostly deserted, the cheers from the dressing-room echoing around the whole ground. A couple of men used to make it a habit of enjoying a siesta in the terraces.
But that scoreboard was important. Because on so many, many days it showed R Dravid. Either he had batted all day and was battening down the hatches. Or he had walked in after an early wicket late in the day. Either way, it was so reassuring to see him. Invariably he would calm the nerves and see us through to stumps. I would go back home chirpy, read The Hindu’s description of his ‘dogged’ innings the next day, before looking forward to that run to the stadium again the next evening.
Adding to the intimacy was the fact that R Dravid had studied in the same school, his name embossed on the House Captains’ board just as one entered the main corridor. Once I spent a few hours peering through the school annuals in the library, copying down his scores in inter-school and inter-house games in a notebook. Someday, I thought, everyone else will hear of my secret.
You know what I remember first when people talk of the 1996 World Cup quarter-final in Bangalore? Not Prasad, not Sohail, not Jadeja, not Sidhu, not even Ata-ur-Rahman. But that big banner in the North Stand that screamed, ‘Where’s Dravid?’. Someone else had discovered my secret and was now publicising it to the whole world.
I remember the announcement in the morning assembly on June 20, 1996. Our school principal, in a most droll tone, reading out: “One of our own, Rahul Dravid, will be making his Test debut at Lord’s today. There is no better place for a cricketer to play his first match.”
I cursed my cable operator all evening for not showing ESPN before taking refuge in All India Radio. I spent the evening with a transistor against my ear, listening to the warm applause from the Lord’s crowd. My mind kept going back to the Chinnaswamy, when so many cover-drives were met with an eerie silence, only a handful of us witness to the magnificence of the artwork.
Batting with the tail, he moved to the eighties, then ‘nudged a single’ to enter the nineties. The commentary was irritating me but I could have cried then and there. Our dear R Dravid, standing on history’s threshold, at Lord’s, shepherding the tail. I had only heard of S Ganguly but Dravid – he was our own, my own. Just get to that hundred.
You know the rest. Lewis to Dravid. Jack Russell takes the catch. Dravid walks. Out for 95. Five runs short. Five measly runs. I switched off the transistor. Five runs!
For the last 14 years, everyone else has shared my joy. I could have cried again during Headingley 2002. And I was most privileged to watch first-hand his twin fifties in Kingston – easily the best I’ve watched in the little I’ve seen live in a ground.
I’ve written about those innings here but what I didn’t mention was the photograph that we took after the game. Two Josephites, two Bangaloreans, standing in front of the scoreboard in Sabina Park – after India’s historic series win in the Caribbean – in one frame.
That triumph will probably be R Dravid’s acme. As a fan, I can happily say the same.