The American Dream is a seductive mistress. Eight years ago, I too rolled the dice and travelled across the Atlantic, following the permanent migratory patterns of many physicians before me. Despite my new domiciliary allegiance, I remained tethered to the game of cricket. It is perhaps a mutation, inbuilt within our genes, passed on from one generation to the the next, which causes us Indians to irrevocably fall in love with the game from the very first time we wield a bat in our hands. A cricket fan(atic) for 25 years, a father for a week, I was forced to think last night how I would explain India's preoccupation with the game to my first-born.
Inevitably, every Indian's kid's first brush with cricket is the competitive chaos that is gully cricket. Multiple matches in one field, one objective in all these multiple matches: to win, because the winning team always gets to bat first in the next match - the only rule that stays constant in the gully realm. Turf wars, trial balls, "common man", "baby over", "one-tip-one-hand out", dubious decisions, unorthodox bowling actions are all part of the idiosyncrasies that we have come to embrace.
Every generation also injects cricket's rich history with its contemporary anecdotal experiences. Some of us remember huddling around radio sets listening to John Arlott's articulate commentary in awe. Some of us have stories about our autograph-hunting expeditions in the lobbies of hotels. Almost all of us have cried ourselves hoarse from our seats in a stadium, secretly hoping that the ball is hit in our direction so that we can attempt to catch it in spectacular fashion. To claim our five-second slice of television fame.
I have my own experiences. I did not grow up watching Sunil Gavaskar. I only heard about how he braved the West Indian pace battery without a helmet. I wasn't lucky enough to see Kapil turn around and run back to pluck Viv's skier out of thin air that brave summer of '83. While I was learning how to grip a bat, India were getting skittled for low scores in both formats whenever they toured. I grew up in a time when the opposition felt quite comfortable posting 220 in an ODI against us.
For the longest time, I felt Indian cricket stood on the back foot and I grappled with my reluctance to come to terms with our mediocrity. Then came Sachin Tendulkar, and we, as a nation, devoured him as if emerging from starvation. Mentioning even a fraction of what he did to the psyche of the Indian cricket fan is beyond the scope of this article. His batting ignited the cricketing cauldrons across the world.
The early 2000s shook me to my very core. Cricket's adulterous tryst with match-fixing meant that the train to innocence was permanently derailed. The seeds of malignant doubt were sown. Everything was now viewed from a lens of scepticism. The cricket fan in me felt cheated, like the disgruntled runner who gets called for a run but is then sent back only to haplessly watch as the keeper takes the bails off before he can make his ground.
The rest of it is a knapsack of memories. Of soul-crushing losses and nail-biting wins. The lows punctuated with the highs. How a certain Bengali took his shirt off in celebratory euphoria at Lord's. How two mild-mannered Indian batsmen didn't give their wicket away the entire day at Eden Gardens and turned that Test match around. The emergence of new gods. MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. The belief that they instilled. The sense of calmness that Dhoni brought to the team as he stretched the laws of thermodynamics to absorb all the pressure (super)-humanly possible in high-tension chases. The fearless brand of cricket that Kohli now demonstrates and his trailblazing exploits, which have his adversaries doff their caps in admiration. For us, he ushers a second renaissance after Tendulkar and makes commentary clichés tolerable.
My son's initiation into cricket will not be an easy one by virtue of him growing up on a continent that thinks of a stridulating arthropod rather than the game when the word cricket is mentioned. Raising him in a country that thrives on its staple of baseball and American football, how does he get a good measure of the romance that this sport begets? How do I explain the rich history of the Ashes to him? How do I explain the swagger of a certain gum-chewing Antiguan, who could smack the leather off a cricket ball, or the collective gasp in the room at the sheer elegance that followed a certain Trinidadian's exaggerated back lift?
Why triple-hundreds are revered in Test cricket and how an under-arm bowling incident steamrolled the spirit of cricket. How catches were dropped and World Cups were won. Why a ball that initially appeared to harmlessly pitch outside leg stump would be dubbed Ball of the Century. The Duckworth-Lewis is a system that even I haven't legitimately understood, and I swear by the power vested in Billy Bowden's crooked finger, I have no earthly idea how I can help him truly grasp the reverence behind "Bradmanesque" and what it stands for. This task is as exciting as it is daunting. More daunting, perhaps.
Cricket has come a long way, especially in India. From being just a pastime of its colonisers to amateur hour to a polytheistic religion. It is as unifying as it is divisive. This beautiful paradox. This extraordinary game of cricket with its extraordinary history. How do I tell him about it? Where do I begin?