For the last seven days, I have indulged in a strange ritual. Every night, before going to bed, I have watched the same eight minutes of A Bat & Ball War, a documentary on Pakistan’s tour to India in 1999. I wish there was a rational explanation for this behaviour but some magnetic force, a rather masochistic one, has made me watch, rewatch, scrutinise and re-scrutinise the part from 25:00 to 33:00.
This part of the documentary, which I have obsessed over in the last week, deals with the final two sessions of play in the Chennai Test of 1999 – yes that Test. I have paused the footage at various stages, tried to make sense of facial expressions, attempted hard to read players’ lips, observed fan reactions, captured screen grabs and zoomed in to Tendulkar’s, Akram’s and Miandad’s face to record some signs.
I have watched on mute. And I have experienced the documentary with my eyes closed, taking in only the narration, the music and the crowd noise.
I have drawn up umpteen alternate scenarios – what if Mongia had stayed sane? what if Tendulkar had tried to loft Saqlain inside-out? what if Joshi had struck another straight six? what if Srinath had lost his head and actually pulled off a mad hoick? – but also reflected on more weightier matters – would Tendulkar have changed his batting style into a more ruthless, error-free one had India won this match? would the innings be enshrined in legend as the greatest, his greatest? would we have ever had the million debates about his ability at the finish?
What would I have done? Where would I be now if India had won? I know this sounds ridiculous but the more I watch these eight minutes – the great-grandmother of all heartbreaks – the more I seem to treat this like a personal failure. Some absurd part of me thinks that the result of that Test match changed my life, as if it was that one clinching moment at the casino when I could have nailed the jackpot.
I’m glad this fine documentary shares with me the several others who experienced that gut-wrenching finish. I can’t get enough of all those who suffered through the final session: the faces of those men standing around a fruit cart and listening to a radio letting out Tamil commentary; the fan who clasps his hand in prayer as 17 are needed for an Indian win; Miandad, his eyebrows taut, the crows feet below his eyes exaggerated in a close-up shot; Anand Jain (Srinath’s neighbour who had made the trip from Mysore) pursing his lips in agony; a mustachioed man, his face haggard after an exhausting day, grinding his teeth after Tendulkar falls; a little boy’s face behind him turning glum.
Those harrowing minutes towards the end as wickets fell in a rush. Shoaib Akhtar (not playing that day) watching as if in state of confusion, Azhar looking positively doped, Miandad returning to his intense gaze, a little girl in the stands worried, pouting her lips, the lady in front of her shellshocked, her face sweaty, her eyes widening, as if reeling from the thought of a break-up.
And the abrupt end, Srinath playing on to the stumps, Moin’s ‘Ah yesss’ as he begins to rush towards the bowler before realising that this is the end of the game and his time to uproot a stump to add to his souvenir collection, volunteers on the boundary watching Miandad run onto the field yet regaining their senses to remember their job – forming a barricade to stop a crowd invasion – a red-shirted man, the setting sun amplifying the redness, dazed by it all.
This was the part of the documentary that I enjoyed the most, cameras trained on fans, showing me close-ups of their incredulity. I felt we shared a bond: me, close to a 200 miles away, standing numb in front of my TV screen and them, a few feet from the action, also standing numb, also unable to make sense of the most painful of defeats.
I leave you with a masterful piece of sportswriting. Sixty years ago, in another sport, in another country, when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers engaged in a historic baseball game. Writing about it 1992, the great American novelist Don DeLillo captured the bond between fans as they watched a seminal event:
There’s a man in the upper deck leafing through a copy of the current issue of Life. There’s a man on 12th Street in Brooklyn who has attached a tape machine to his radio so that he can record the voice of Russ Hodges broadcasting the game. The man doesn’t know why he’s doing this. It is just an impulse, a fancy, it is like hearing the game twice, it is like being young and being old, and this will turn out to be the only known recording of Russ’ famous account of the final moments of the game.
The game and its extensions. The woman cooking cabbage. The man who wishes he could be done with drink. They are the game’s remoter soul. Connected by the pulsing voice on the radio, joined to the word-of-mouth that passes the score along the street and to the fans who call the special phone number and the crowd at the ballpark that becomes the picture on television, people the size of a minute rice, and the game as a rumor and conjecture and inner history.
There’s a sixteen-year old in the Bronx who takes his radio up to the roof of his building so he can listen alone, a Dodger fan slouched in the gloaming, and he hears the account of the misplayed bunt and the fly ball that scores the tying run and he looks out over the rooftops, the tar beaches with their clotheslines and pigeon coops and splattered condoms, and he gets the cold creeps. The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.
Twelve years later I can say the same about the Chennai Test of 1999. It didn’t change the way I slept or washed my face or chewed my food. It changed nothing but my life.