October 10, 2013

The art of air cricket

Is there a cricket fan alive who hasn't paid tribute to his heroes without bat or ball in hand?

Air cricket: even the pros do it Greg Wood / © AFP

The signs are many when you are in the company of a cricket obsessive. As a rule, the obsessive, especially one who has played the game a fair bit, finds it difficult to stand still. His hands move about, he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Just watch Wasim Akram talk on air. You can see he'd rather be on a field, zipping through that blur of a final stride, wrist behind ball, fingers and wrist coaxing every bit of swing from it. A studio mike in comparison is exceedingly staid. The cricket obsessive and Akram have the same problem, the game and its habits are almost impossible to outgrow.

The obsessive has further identifying characteristics, all clubbed under one unifying rubric: air cricket. Anything that resembles a ball excites him. Seated at the dinner table, he regards the oranges and apples in the fruit basket with a kindly cricketing eye. He might get a few minutes into a conversation without a lot of activity of the physical sort, but give him more than a quarter of an hour and he's guaranteed to pick up a fruit and twirl it from hand to hand in an abbreviated impersonation of Shane Warne in the first stride of his shuffle in. A paperweight, an eraser, anything at all that can serve as a ball will serve as a ball. A pen, a pencil, a television remote will all double as a bat.

At his determined best to not exhibit any mannerism that might mark him out as an obsessive, he might just about avoid yielding to the temptation of the toss of the orange or the apple, or balk at the wristy flourish of the pen. But sooner than later his signature air cricket will force its way through and be a dead giveaway.

I must thank this Barney Ronay piece, in which he brings up the latest addition to his air-cricket repertoire, the Sachin Tendulkar flick to leg. It got me thinking again of this much-neglected aspect of cricket. But yes, air cricket is the deal clincher when it comes to identifying this sub-species of man, the cricket obsessive. If big, open maidans and schoolgrounds are cricket's lungs, air cricket is most definitely where the heart lies. Our friend the obsessive will have the finest array of air-cricket shots and air bowling actions at his disposal. And he will yield to their undeniable allure every so often.

I had a West Indian captain in league cricket in Montreal, Methven Isaac. Talk to him about cricket and his countenance would change. From desultory conversation, clarity would emerge. And his full range of air-cricket shots. Talk to him, or any West Indian who has seen or played cricket in the '70s, and Lawrence Rowe will dominate their air cricket like no other.

The shoulders will hunch forward a bit, the left wrist will be cocked and released in rapid succession in imagined shots through the off side. Accompanied by the obligatory bang, bang, bang. Gradually Viv Richards, Lara and Hooper came to replace Rowe as the air-cricket princes of the Caribbean. But the soft, warm glow in the eye that lit up Rowe air cricket I haven't seen since.

There is no sport where shots are shadow-practised by players as much as in cricket. And thus a lot of air cricket is live. Rahul Dravid must have shadow-practised roughly twice as many balls as he really faced. And you can bet that for every one of his shadow practices, a million other forward defences will have been played in households around the world. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman probably dominate the Indian air-cricket batting scene.

Air-cricket mannerisms sometimes spill over into your game. I used to have a bending, piston-pushing start to my run-up, courtesy air Hadlee

It is by no means the only mark of respect. But it is a completely instinctive, fiercely personal homage to your cricket heroes. It is a regrouping of cricketing adrenaline and the aesthetically sublime; drama and form, drawn from your mind's eye. A Dhoni or a Sehwag might do it for some, a Dravid, a Laxman and a Tendulkar for others.

I haven't seen air cricket being quoted as an indicator of up-and-coming talent. But clearly the amount of untapped air-cricket potential in Kohli, Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Dhawan, Rahane and Co is tremendous, and it is not the worst indicator of what lies in store. Conversely, the relative lack of it in Indian bowling might be a not-so-rosy indicator of things to come.

Air-cricket mannerisms sometimes spill over into your game. This was especially so in the days before the profusion of live television. Having played an on-drive, I used to find my right foot lifting - a relic of my air cricket, inspired by an Adrian Murrell photograph of Graham Gooch. I used to have a bending, piston-pushing start to my run-up, courtesy air Hadlee. But as I later realised, too much of even air cricket could present a problem.

One league game in Montreal, I came across an Imran Khan clone. It was unbelievably like facing the great man himself. It couldn't get more surreal - Imran Khan bowling on a riverside ground in Montreal's South Shore. Everything from the open-palmed walk back to the top of his run, head held high, the turn, and the magnificent, lightly bending, head-pushing-into-the-wind run, to the grand leap into the final stride, replicated beyond belief. I can't begin to imagine how much air cricket it would have taken to achieve such an absolute likeness. But the likeness stopped at release, as I soon found out. Having prepared myself for searing pace, the first couple of balls I received were friendly, looping half-volleys.

Sometimes sound effects add to the air-cricket ambience. Everyone has their preferences I suppose. Mine and several others' is the woody clonk roughly phoneticised as !nop, with the African tongue-clicking consonant marking the first touch of willow on leather.

Of late I've discovered a new facet to this much-practised air sport. I maintain that the best pick-me-up in a sleepy office meeting is a coffee-topped Laxman air cover drive. Minus the sound effects, of course.

Finally, I will issue the following advisory. At the first sign of you becoming a cricket cynic, when the T20s become a bit humdrum, a bit of air cricket is strongly recommended. It cuts through the blasé mist, acts as a balm, and rekindles the love for the game.

Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala