The last minute
There is only one kind of minute in our cricket; the last one. There are many others but those are humbler minutes, their job, to prepare the ground, to fill time before the last minute arrives. The gong sounds, the bell chimes when it comes and like an air-raid siren going off, everyone is galvanised into action. Minds work faster, bodies discover they have four pairs of hands and legs, intent appears, the line between night and day disappears.
It reminds me of the expectation with which people wait for the moon to be sighted before breaking out into Id celebrations. You know it is going to be sighted soon, but until it is there is little you can do. So too with our cricket. Nowhere in the world does as much happen in the last minute, nowhere does as little happen in the minutes before.
And so, "last minute" joins the classic list of Indian metaphors. You do things as late as you possibly can and not a minute earlier, then navigate through seemingly impregnable chaos and get the show on the road. Chaos is the over-riding necessity in our cricket, the trigger for action, the vital ingredient. Activity needs chaos as an antibiotic needs an infection - one is lost, irrelevant without the other. So we must lapse into chaos, it is as if the circuit would not be complete without it. Hence the wait for the last minute, the vehicle of chaos and yet, the messenger of hope. Now things will happen.
You have to be in the secretary's office the evening before a one-day international. You would think many trains are about to depart, and in a manner of speaking they are. You have to see the groundstaff functioning 48 hours before and see the difference 12 hours before to know what I mean. Chairs are cleaned, grass is cut ... on one famous occasion, even flowerpots arrived!
We were at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi in 1996 for India's World Cup match against Sri Lanka. Something seemed amiss. The Kotla is normally very diligently shabby, very conscientious of its need to look run-down. Now there was a red carpet on the steps, there were attractive flowerpots lining the wall in the new media centre. I was getting ready to eat my words when instinct caused me to lift the carpet and look underneath. The staircase hadn't been completed, the plastering wasn't done, and the carpet was the exterior for the poverty beneath. It reminded of a line we used in Hyderabad; oopar sherwani, andar pareshani!
Emboldened, I now moved towards the flowerpots. They were genuine, the flowers were fresh and fragrant, but as I walked past towards the wall, somebody came scampering by asking me to go no further. It wasn't a wall (Lord Relator might have said "It wasn't Gavaskar at all"!), it was a sheet of wood painted and made to look like one! The last minute had provided an ingenious, if slightly unsafe solution.
Kanpur used the last minute effectively too. It was 1994 and my first visit there, and we were told very late in the evening that there would be no media passes for us the next day because the police had just stumbled on an official selling them and had promptly confiscated all of them! "I'm afraid you will have to find your way to the commentary box," I was told.
Survival breeds strange instincts (I always carry an apple to a cricket match!) and I worked out at night that the best way for a still unrecognised commentator to enter the ground without a pass was to find out when Sunil Gavaskar was leaving and stick to him like a leech. Gavaskar at an Indian cricket ground is the modern-day Moses: the sea parts for him, paths emerge. I was never more than six inches away from him, kept looking at threatening policemen with the words "unke saath, unke saath", and with a combination of a shuffle and an eventual sprint got into our commentary box!
The last minute takes various incarnations. Television rights will be awarded a month before the first Test, itineraries will sometimes be finalised a couple of weeks before, hotels will be booked a week before, they will sometimes be cancelled two days before, tickets will be printed as late as possible (there is advantage in that, though - the guys printing fakes won't know till very late what the originals look like!).
But in the end things will work and people will try to help. You only have to go to Bangalore or Chennai or Mumbai to find that out. And truth be told you get used to it. Sadly when we go to Australia or England, we find it frustrating - nothing moves at our feverish pace. It is the system that is meant to do things, not the person. The last minute loses its aura, it is stripped of its importance ... alas, it is like any other minute that goes predictably by.
Harsha Bhogle is a leading Indian broadcaster and cricket writer.
This article was first published in the March issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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