October 30, 2013

The Ajit Agarkar factor

Jokes about the great Mumbaikar always go down well, as do digs at the BCCI

I was fortunate enough to be in India for one of the most emotional occasions in its cricketing history - the retirement of one of my all-time cricketing heroes, an inspiration to his city, Mumbai, to the Indian nation, and to all cricket fans. Ajit Agarkar will no more grace the cricket fields of this, or any other, planet.

The timing was fortunate, not merely for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the public reaction to the redoubtable ODI stalwart hanging up his bowling arm for good, but because, in my stand-up show, I had a routine featuring both Agarkar and his Mumbai and India team-mate, Sachin Tendulkar, whose own final shuffle into the record books had its thunder rudely stolen by the great allrounder.

That such a routine could work revealed the delight/horror of performing stand-up in India (delete according to whether or not you are a cricket fan) (which I assume you are, if you are reading this) (and if you are not, you should be) (seriously, you are missing out) (you are doing yourself a gross personal injustice).

The routine, essentially, was about how Ajit Agarkar's two-prong flash-in-the-pan Test career is a beacon of hope to us all, that one day we too could have our Ajit Agarkar Moment (trademark pending). If I attempted that in a stand-up club in Britain, it would be greeted with a mixture of confusion, pity and a verbal form of hostility. Admittedly, some of my past audiences (distant past, I hope) would argue, quite vehemently, that that would not necessarily differentiate it from the rest of my oeuvre.

If I attempted it in America, it would be greeted with deportation, as the authorities would assume that it contained some form of elicit code calling for all cricket fans in the US to gather together, buy the New York Yankees, and turn them into a T20 franchise to play in the Bangladesh Premier League. Although, if they have been snooping on Mr Srinivasan's phone calls like they have been snooping on everyone else's, they are probably aware that this franchise buy-out is all but a done deal, and that Yankees legend Derek Jeter has been seen checking out one-bedroom apartments in Chittagong.

In India, however, the Agarkar routine has worked, because a critical mass of the audiences have well-formed, often fervently held opinions on Agarkar, fermented over the years of his many ODI successes and his almost unremitting Test failures - punctuated by that match-winning spell in Adelaide and that statistics-defying century at Lord's.

The challenge for my next stand-up tour to India will be to keep finding new topics and angles to appeal both to cricket sceptics as well as the enlightened majority. Even for Indian audiences, there may be an upper limit to the comedic tolerance of Agarkar routines. Especially coming from a person who has scored one fewer Test hundred and taken one fewer Test six-for that the great man himself.

* The depressing sludge of cricket politics is another fertile comedic area in India. Regrettably fertile. Several Indian stand-ups touch upon it to good effect - it is fair to say that the ECB, for example, does not rouse quite such widely and forcefully held opinions as the BCCI.

The world over, sports administrators apparently operate in a self-constructed medieval soap opera, which makes the Borgias look like a regular suburban family with a couple of kids and a nice dog called Rover. Even the old schemester Niccolo Machiavelli must be regularly rendered speechless with admiration in his carefully plotted grave. "A football World Cup in a place the size of East Anglia, in the desert, in the summer? A playground personal squabble reducing an eagerly awaited showdown between India and South Africa to a shamefully two-match parody of a Test series? I doff my Italian caps to you, sirs. I think I'd have fitted right in."

Perhaps the reason Indian comedy crowds are so willing to laugh at and about their cricketing powers-that-be is because their actions give the impression that many of Indian cricket's leading non-playing movers and shakers fundamentally hate cricket.

Whether or not this is true is not for me to say. But if it is not true, they have a strange way of showing their affection for the game they are supposed to foster - like a husband surprising his wife on Valentine's Day by running her a nice warm bath, scattering rose petals all over it, putting on some romantic music, lighting some scented candles, and then, just as she climbs in, releasing a live crocodile into the water whilst shouting: "Dinner time, Mr Snappy."

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

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