Heroes and mobs: my first live match
The winter of 1969 was a time of great excitement in Indian cricket, especially when viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old schoolboy in Bangalore. India were locked in a competitive and often contentious Test series against Bill Lawry's visiting Australians and were trailing 1-2 at the end of four Tests, with a chance to draw level in the final Test, in Madras.
Two Bangalore boys - Erapalli Prasanna and G Viswanath - had starred in the series. Prasanna was collecting wickets by the bucketful and was instrumental in India winning the Delhi Test. Meanwhile Viswanath's dazzling century on debut in Kanpur (25 boundaries in an innings of 137) marked the moment I became a lifelong cricket fan. Adding to the buzz was the upcoming wedding of India's captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, to the glamorous movie star Sharmila Tagore.
In those days, cricket tours were fairly lengthy affairs and Tests were sandwiched between three-day matches against various zonal teams. South Zone were to battle the Aussies just before Christmas in Bangalore, and my excitement mounted as I realised I was about to see the likes of Pataudi, ML Jaisimha (the captain), Prasanna, Viswanath, Syed Abid Ali and S Venkatraghavan, not to mention Lawry, Ian Chappell, Keith Stackpole, Ian Redpath and Doug Walters in real life.
As in many a middle-class household at the time, various family members took turns watching the match, and I ended up at the Central College grounds with my dad for the third and final day. It would prove to be quite an initiation into the world of international cricket.
Nothing but a rope and a ring of uninterested policemen separated us from the players on the field. The earliest memory I have is of the Australian fast bowler Laurie Mayne's giant frame as he fielded a few yards away from me. His off-white cricket sweater hung loosely on him and looked as big as a blanket.
I don't remember much at all about the first half of the day's play but when the Australians began the fourth innings, things began to heat up rather rapidly. It seemed that just about every other over the crowd would unleash a deafening roar as Prasanna, with huge sideburns, upturned collar and shirt buttons left rakishly open, sent yet another Aussie batsman back to the pavilion. (When I checked the scorecard to write this piece, I realised I was not imagining the figures at all. At one point, the Australians were an incredible eight wickets down for 53 runs, chasing 200. Prasanna took six wickets for 11 runs off his 14 overs, ten of which were maidens.)
I remember the excitement mounting to a frenzy as a South Zone victory neared. And then the mood began to turn ugly. From what I could see, two lanky batsmen in their green felt caps - Lawry and John Gleeson, one left-handed and the other right-handed - were sticking out their front pads and blocking most balls. Every time they did this, there would be a loud appeal from the fielders and, with far greater ferocity, from the crowd. For reasons that escaped me then and now, the umpires turned down every one of the appeals.
South Zone's bowling attack that day had two offies (Prasanna and Venkat) and two leggies (Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and VV Kumar) who between them bowled 39 overs. Even granting that lbws were a bit harder to get for spinners in that era, the fact that it was this combination of bowlers on show makes the events of that day quite inexplicable, especially as the batsmen were rarely trying to play the ball.
As the sun began to go down, and as Lawry and Gleeson dug firmly in, the crowd around me became more and more angry. Boos were mixed in with choice Kannada and English abuses directed at the batsmen and the umpires. The genial gentlemen of the morning, who had been joking around and happily sharing lunches and drinks with one another, were now apoplectic with rage and frustration. I huddled a bit closer to my dad (who himself was quite calm and unruffled) and was baffled by the swing in the mood. Knowing as little about the intricacies of the game as the average nine-year-old, it was all confusing and scary.
Lawry and Gleeson seemed to be in some sort of sensory-deprivation chamber as they shut out the crowd and dead-batted and dead-padded over after over. (The final scorecard shows that Australia ended with 90 runs for eight wickets off 52 overs. Lawry remained unbeaten on 10 after coming to bat at No. 6, which makes Sunil Gavaskar's infamous 36 not out from 60 overs in the inaugural World Cup look like an absolute gallop.)
And then the first projectiles came hurtling in from the crowd. Lawry immediately walked over to the umpire to complain, which, of course, triggered a further volley of projectiles. Soon after that, the batsmen, fielders and umpires walked off - to a hail of verbal abuse and sundry rubbish thrown onto the field. I don't know if the required number of overs had been bowled or if the match was called off prematurely. In either event, Lawry and Gleeson had held out for a draw, when, at one stage, it had looked as if defeat was inevitable for the Australians.
We dispiritedly trooped out of the ground and made our way to the car park to return home. Everyone looked tired, angry, hot and sweaty. It was hard to believe that it was still the same day that had dawned so cool and been filled with joyous anticipation. A few days later Australia would win the final Test, at Chepauk, and depart with a 3-1 scoreline in the bag.
Looking back, my initiation into international cricket featured a few themes that would become depressingly familiar over the decades. India's bowlers could often run through the top order but find it difficult to finish the task. Our crowds were mercurial in the speed with which they shifted from cheerful gang to scary mob. And you could never, ever, count the Aussies out until you had scored that final run or taken that last wicket.
Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn