Video thrills the history fan
Cricket in the age of YouTube... is cricket in another age. Cricket lovers from the radio era often evoke the wonder of geographical travel without the travel, borne on airwaves to countries and stadiums of their imaginations; but with the internet the miracle of time travel is here.
Cricket fans appreciate the poignancy of this more than others because we, followers of the game most obsessed with statistics and comparisons, spend a lifetime pretending we have seen it all. We study records, carve up the numbers on online engines, reflect on the idea of the player (rather, what it says about us), embrace or trash myths accordingly, and come to magisterial judgements on who was great, who was better, who was best. How strange, then, to be able to pull up moving images against the elaborate constructions in our minds.
Till only four or five years ago, one's blind dates with the past were as illicit as they are now: pirated video cassettes and discs rather than online clips. But it took considerably more effort. Visiting Karachi's Rainbow Centre in 2004, one of the shrines of global piracy, I could not help but return home with half a suitcase of VHS contraband. Now, in a few seconds of YouTubing one can summon up highlights of Imran Khan's legendary sea-breeze-inflected 11 wickets against India in Karachi from the 1982-83 series.
Sometimes there was providence. My first task when I joined wisden.com in 2001 was to go into the small, musty, darkened projector room of Mumbai's Films Division of India office to shortlist classic video excerpts for the website (a project eventually abandoned). The crown jewel was a feature-length documentary, Pace vs Spin, on the superb 1974-75 West Indies tour of India. Bernard Julien's swinging, curving lefty run-up, Lance Gibbs' high prance, Andy Roberts' young menace, the debutants Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge, the otherworldly rhythms of the Indian spin quartet, Vishy's cuts, the voice of the narrator taking one through the journey from 0-2 to 2-2 to 2-3, the long shots of the black-and-white ground, and the always-packed grounds - it felt like time travel because it was a shock to emerge into the light and honking horns of Peddar Road.
This, of course, was the rarest of rare cases. For the most part one had to rely on the imagination. The written word was a great help. My most cherished cricket book for a long time was a slim, obscure volume (cover price Rs 9.50) called Cricket Conversations, Peter Walker Talks With. . .. There are 13 cricketers, the good and the great from the 1960s and 1970s. Each conversation was prefaced by a vivid and loving account of the player. The very names were magic: Sobers, Fredericks, Procter, Bedi, Majid, Chappell G, Richards B. When I first encountered the book (in the days of dial-up connections on stolen accounts) I had seen no footage whatsoever of any of the 13. Yet reading and rereading, one received a sharp sense of the cricketer and the man.
From Bishan Bedi, for instance, one learnt that he had little interest in the game till, at 12, he heard on the radio that Subhash Gupte had spun out the West Indians in Kanpur, and "suddenly, just like a revelation, I knew that was what I wanted to do"; that the first Test match he played in was also the first Test match he watched; and that he liked to spend his spare time writing letters (he received, when captain, about 40-50 a day, "most of them abusive").
But, of course, Bedi was his action. We knew that. It featured in Jim Laker's vision of paradise. And to Peter Walker it was like Tennyson's eternal brook. Bedi made several technical points that help us decode this silky motion. To encourage flight over spin, he gripped the ball near the fingertips; it was why his fingers were uncalloused, unlike those of other spinners, and I suppose it imparted a visual ease to his delivery. He kept a strict watch on his left side swinging past the axis of the front hip, and he tried to keep his bowling arm as high as possible.
Because the Films Division reels used primarily long shots, I only saw Bedi's action closely on the BBC's Empire of Cricket series, which can be found on YouTube. Some of the early footage is glorious: Bedi is wearing not a patka, but a full pagdi (turban), and his shirt is unbuttoned till his solar plexus. The pristine delivery is almost precisely as imagined. The surprise comes in the follow-through. He skitters. It is as though the tape has lurched into double speed; it has the feel of a silent-movie comedy.
With somebody like Garry Sobers there are no surprises. The pure swing of the bat, like a boy with a slingshot, the pantherish athleticism, the joy and vitality sparkling through every natural movement (the only thing, he says, he made a point to practise at the nets, was wrist-spin). On YouTube one can call up the original six sixes in an over ("And he's done it! And, my goodness, that's gone way down to Swansea!"), 150 at Lord's, and an electric reconstruction of his 254 in Melbourne; but the essence of this extraordinary sportsman is most succinctly captured in a clip of Gibbs' bowling. Search for Lance Gibbs: It is the first result. Sobers is at backward short-leg, a position now rarely used. The two catches are genius; the first of anticipation, with a skip to left, the second of reflex, the ease of movement, the fun. He made life light.
The two cricketers about whom I was curious in the Walker book were both opening batsmen, Majid Khan and Barry Richards. With Majid the curiosity was piqued by a single anecdote. It was a "windswept, icy" day in Derby, Walker wrote. During a long delay for a wet outfield, there raged a discussion on footwork in batting. At last Majid, a man of few words, spoke up. "You don't need any footwork in batting, just hands and eye."
The bowlers challenged him for proof. Out they went into the nets. "For twenty minutes, on a rough, unprepared and quite-impossible-to-bat-on wicket where the ball flew, shot, seamed and turned, Majid Khan stood absolutely motionless, parrying the ball as it lifted, cutting or hooking unerringly if it were wide, driving with frightening power if overpitched and swaying out of harm's way when it lifted unexpectedly... The bowlers were at full throttle, yet by our own critical reckoning afterwards that twenty-minute session must have yielded the young Pakistani around 75 runs!" So Sehwag does have antecedents after all.
On YouTube there are highlights of a century against England, but the great clip is of a face-off with Kapil Dev, set to soft Pakistani pop. It is from the Lahore Test of the 1978 series (Kapil's first), and the Pakistanis are hunting down 126 for victory on the fifth evening. Majid is in a white floppy hat (how close batsmen's feet were in stance those days). Kapil is bowling it far outside leg to pry out a draw. Majid is increasingly frustrated. He signals a wide. He plucks a stump from the ground and, stepping to his left, makes as if to plant it at the margin of the crease. One can picture Viru doing just the same. The short clip finishes with a swivelling hook, and there can be no finer closing image than a swivelling hook.
Barry Richards was even more a mystery. He averaged 72.5 but was restricted by isolation to four Tests. Don Bradman picked him in his all-time XI team, and Richards once famously played an over in a club match holding his bat edgeways. He was thought of as casual, admits that he sometimes didn't care about losing his wicket; yet the big occasion could rouse him. I remember a Frank Keating article where Tony Greig talks of Richards' preparation before a Packer Super Test. He wanted to practise playing straight. Every time the ball went behind square on either side, he pumped out 50 press-ups. He must have done about 600, Greig estimated.
Watching Barry Richards bat, finally, was disorienting. He is far bigger at the crease than I had thought. He is hunched in stance. That was a shock. In my head he had a very clearly upright stance. His driving is terribly handsome, yet one expected a gentler player. There was no good reason for this, of course, except that this was how I had fixed him.
In the sportswriting profession, you get to interview the giants without ever having watched them. One of these was an extended conversation with Richards on the art of batting. And I remember my encounter with him. It was in Durban during the World Cup of 2003. It had been a hard week, magazine deadlines piling up alongside daily reportage. Due to circumstances too tedious to detail, I sent a flustered SMS to my editor beginning with the words, "Barry giving me the shits" (this Aussie expression had become popular in our office after Ian Chappell was heard employing it about his laptop).
Afterwards, at night, I wasn't sure if it was indeed my editor who'd been sent the SMS. My phone didn't store sent messages. I was tormented by it.
I met Barry Richards early the next morning. He looked grand in white hair. All seemed well. More than well, in fact. The interview was fab. He spoke of the four and only four truly great batsmen he'd seen (Graeme Pollock, Sobers, Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar). He spoke especially thrillingly about the Viv v Lillee contests in the Packer years, and Mikey Holding taking the buttons off his helmet in Sydney, the fastest spell he'd ever faced. He talked of good-humoured banter from those times, about the bowler who once came up and asked to be kissed in the ear because "I like a little passion when I'm getting a good f**k."
At the end of an hour, I thanked him profusely and was about to take his leave. "Just one more thing," he said, and held out his phone with the SMS on the screen.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge