October 16, 2009

Thank you, uncles

There's nothing quite like watching cricket with grumpy old men for company

I've watched a lot of cricket over the past few years, sometimes alone, sometimes with knowledgeable cricket-analysing friends who spend the time between overs discussing the biomechanics of the square cut or the quality of top-soil required for a track that will spin on day four. I love it.

But nothing comes close to my childhood cricket-watching experiences, when watching a game meant watching it with my dad and a group of uncles whose love for the game was matched only by the depth of their collective bias.

This was during the mid-eighties, when India, buoyed by a World Cup victory followed by a few successive tournament wins, suddenly gave their fans cause for optimism. Finally, despite the presence of Madan Lal and Ashok Malhotra in the team, we believed we could win cricket matches against the very best teams, except West Indies. My uncles were probably a part of the first generation of the "We must win every game, take a wicket every over, hit every ball for four - otherwise we suck" category of Indian cricket fan that is so commonly found today.

They were an imposing bunch - bank managers, insurance company head honchos, and NRIs of uncertain occupation ("Oh, he is with some big company in Muscat"). You couldn't disagree with them, unless you were one of them. Their wives would grumpily serve coffee, mutter under their breaths and retreat to the safety of the kitchen. The kids would never dare admit they liked Craig McDermott or Carl Hooper or Richard Hadlee if that specific player was out of favour with the grand council. Deep down, you suspected they didn't know all that much about cricket, and were sure that they had no actual say in team selection or match scheduling. But I don't think they had any such doubts - they gathered, snacked, and let fly with some of the most colourful, memorable, and sometimes downright bizarre cricket-based utterances of all time.

Most of them seemed to pull off the rather impressive feat of believing that India was simultaneously the best and the worst team in the world. "Useless fellows!" someone would thunder after a heartbreaking loss. "They should stop playing cricket altogether for a few years." As if depriving the team of international competition would somehow ensure that they would suddenly discover a winning formula. Yet, despite this evident negativity, they expected India to win every single game, in the manner of devoted parents sincerely believing that their dullish son would one day achieve exam scores that were disproportionate to his ability and prove that he was better than Sanjay Dugar, or whoever was the designated "first-rank" boy in class. This expectation of non-stop success from India is about as fair as expecting Harbhajan Singh to rack up a Test match batting average in the low fifties. Yet, thanks to the efforts of the early fans, the thought process continues unabated to this day.

If my father's opinion of every single lbw decision given against Sachin Tendulkar is to be taken seriously, his (Sachin's, not my father's) Test average would be 66.87. Include close run-out calls, dodgy caught-behinds, and catches close to the ground, and it inches closer to 75

One of the uncles, a particularly opinionated gent, (he was senior management at TVS or some other South Indian business giant, and was probably used to every single one of his opinions being enthusiastically agreed with by an army of safari suit-clad subordinates) was known for his impulsive and emotional responses to events on the pitch.

A misfield would result in, "Amarnath should be sacked immediately", causing my young mind to conjure up pictures of BCCI officials hurriedly running on to the field to convey the bad news to Jimmy, who would then sadly trot off and play no further part in the match. A good catch would result in, "He is the only fellow who is playing for the team. Sack everyone else and make him the captain", a suggestion that essentially meant that the athletic fielder would be skipper of a team that had no other players. I can only hope that my uncle's management style at work did not reflect his cricket team selection views - it would have resulted in a number of junior managers at TVS losing their jobs because they had forgotten to bring their pens or neglected to berate the peon over his shoddy footwear.

The uncles' favourite players were also expected to be granted immunity from being dismissed leg-before. If my father's opinion of every single lbw decision given against Sachin Tendulkar is to be taken seriously, his (Sachin's, not my father's) Test average would be 66.87. Include close run-out calls, dodgy caught-behinds, and catches close to the ground, and it inches closer to 75. If my dad could figure out a way to somehow introduce an element of doubt to the times Tendulkar has been out clean bowled, his average would probably be around 3269.53. Well above that pesky Bradman, who only played against mediocre attacks anyway.

But despite believing that K Srikkanth was better than Sunil Gavaskar, despite insisting that umpires from Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies and England (other than Dickie Bird) were cheats, despite claiming that Hindi commentary has dismissed more Indian batsmen than Wasim Akram has, these were men who loved their cricket, and made sure that a bunch of us youngsters inherited that love. Thank you, gentlemen - watching the games with you was a blast.

Anand Ramachandran is a writer and humourist based in Mumbai. He blogs at bosey.co.in

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