October 18, 2013

Three sheep in the back of a rickshaw

This week's vignettes from the streets of Bangalore and Mumbai are oddly cattle-themed

Indian cricket is understandably dominated at the moment by the impending retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, its greatest player, its era-spanning icon, its one-man statistical Vesuvius, whose numbers will be excavated and marvelled at by archaeologists in millennia to come.

I have been doing a routine in my Cricket Versus The World stand-up comedy show about the Mumbai Master's quest for his 100th international hundred, and the audiences' reaction has shown both the often-adulatory affection for Tendulkar, and the sense that his public, like the man himself, desperately wanted a suitable culmination to his sporting story.

The 100th hundred could have provided it, but did not, as the brilliance of his World Cup batting faded into an elongated quest of faltering form and missed opportunities in a team that experienced a shuddering come-down from its rapturous pinnacle.

That this almost-certainly-unrepeatable milestone was eventually achieved with a rather prosaic innings in an ODI defeat in Bangladesh, one of the least impactful of his century of centuries, meant that Tendulkar's two-and-a-half-decade-long batting Odyssey would not end in a blaze of glory. At least Indian cricket will see Sachin depart on domestic soil, in his home city, and to an extent on his own terms; but it is not the final chapter that the defining individual narrative of Indian cricket history could have had.

The World Cup victory marked the end of a mesmeric purple patch - 12 Test centuries in 24 Tests, and an ODI average of 62 over two years. The film version of his career would have ended then. Ideally with that 100th century. And a golden chariot ride to the heavens. If the BCCI could afford it. Which they could. But sport seldom scripts the perfect finale, and for every Nasser Hussain, marching into retirement with arms raised and a victorious century just completed, there are countless Michael Athertons, shuffling away into the cricketing afterlife, physically and statistically diminished.

Objectively, it makes little or no difference. But any writer suggesting two and a half years of average-denting mortality as a culmination to Tendulkar - The Movie would have been forcefully told to take his arthouse bathos back to France, where that kind of pretentious schtick might be acceptable.

Audiences at my shows have been divided on whether or not Sachin should retire. I would estimate that it was roughly a 50-50 split overall (I admit this is not the level of scientific research that is likely to win me the Nobel Prize I so clearly deserve). I am sure all of them would now settle for one final cameo, a few final sightings of that ethereally simple back-foot force, a last flowering of the run-making genius that has brightened Indian life for so long.


One of the renowned joys of travelling in India as a westerner is being confronted with unfamiliar sights on a daily basis, such as are no longer seen in the primped and sanitised world.

Two have stood out on my current trip. In Bangalore, just outside the ESPNcricinfo office, at around 7pm, a rickshaw drove past. In the back of the rickshaw was a man. Nothing remarkable about that. Also in the back of the rickshaw, with the man, was a sheep. Alongside them in the back of the rickshaw were two more sheep. Or, perhaps, two more men in sheep costumes. But I am fairly certain they were authentic sheep in their natural, god-given sheep costumes.

The sheep did not look particularly happy to be crammed into the back of a rickshaw, with or without a man. The man did not look particularly happy to be squished under three sheep. Perhaps he was understandably disgruntled after being given the most inconvenient birthday present of his life. Perhaps he was filming the opening scene for a hilarious road movie. The rickshaw driver seemed blissfully unconcerned. Business is business. And who does not want a bit of extra wool on the back seat of their vehicle?

It is of course also possible that this was one of Bangalore's famous magic rickshaws, and that the man had got into the rickshaw with three friends, who had then turned into sheep after going over a particularly aggressive pothole in the road. Whatever the explanation, you have not truly lived until you have seen three sheep and a man on the back seat of a rickshaw driving slightly too fast over a massive pothole in the road.

The other curious sight that has grabbed my attention was in a market area of South Mumbai. I had asked a cab driver to drop me at Chor Bazaar. Chor Bazaar, it transpired, is a relatively sizeable area. The driver stopped, pointed down a street, and ushered me in the right direction.

Down that street were motorcycle spares. Round the corner: more motorcycle spares. Down the next street, more motorcycle spares. I do not know exactly what vibes I was giving off during the journey, but the driver clearly thought to himself: "This guy looks very much like the kind of guy who wants to build himself a motorcycle. From scratch."

A couple of motorcycle-themed streets later, I had graduated onto spare car parts. On the road was what looked to my studiously untrained eye like a complete car engine. Tied to the engine by a rope was a goat. Definitely a goat. Most experts would claim that this was simple practicality - as the 14th-century Chinese whizkid Wang Zhen himself once wrote in his classic platinum-selling agricultural treatise Nong Shu, "If you want to stop your goat from running away, tether it to a car engine." (Source: Navjot Singh Sidhu's Big Fun Encyclopaedia Of Yuan Dynasty Farming Techniques, Vol. IV)

However, I prefer to think that this was a classic example of modern Indian innovation and entrepreneurialism. In a 21st-century of fuel insecurity, if India can ever make the goat-powered car take off, it will truly rule the world.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer