The Indian cricket team has had a disastrous run at the 1992 World Cup. It takes two back-to-back spectacular wins en route to lifting the Hero Cup the following year to rekindle a 12-year-old's interest in renewing his apprenticeship in cricket. So, naturally, he is tickled to his cricketing fanboy core when he finds out that the Indian team is coming to his home town of Lucknow to play a Test match against Sri Lanka. An autograph book bought for a fraction of his last month's pocket money could be an invaluable investment and his ticket to eternal bragging rights.
The morning before the start of the Test match, I arrive at the hotel where both the teams are staying. The lobby is teeming with the exuberance of fellow autograph seekers. Deployed at critical vantage points and covering all possible exits, this collective is a tightly woven, tenacious net determined not to let any cricketer slip through. After some deep deliberation, I position myself next to the elevators. Eyes secured on its door and ears standing in attention to pick up any ambient clamour.
Between the small talk and the animated discussions about Sachin Tendulkar's inability to get to three figures in ODIs, it becomes quite evident that almost all of us are here for the holy trinity: Mohammad Azharuddin, Kapil Dev and, of course, the Little Master. Half an hour of patient vigil is soon rewarded with Kapil and Ajit Wadekar obliging us with their John Hancocks'. Thrilled at the prospect of more icons that could potentially walk through those doors, my dogged determination tries to harness my nervous energy.
A few minutes later, a collective gasp from around the corner has a lot of people from our group divorce themselves from us in an attempt to scurry towards the commotion. I decide not to relinquish my vantage. The ones that stay back exchange nervous glances. Second guessing ourselves, we find ourselves slowly sinking in a quagmire of pessimistic uncertainty. When some of them finally make their way back, they tell us in feverish exhilaration - and with an obvious air of cockiness - about how they managed to get Azhar's and Tendulkar's autograph as they were leaving from that exit.
The disconsolate look on my face is perhaps an accurate reflection of the bleak emptiness in my aching heart. It gets progressively worse as they recount how both of them patiently took the time to sign each and every one's books. I had doubled down on the wrong hand. I would have cursed Murphy's Law, had I known of its existence.
Once it is confirmed that Azhar and Sachin have indeed left the hotel, the crowd thins out considerably. Marinating in self-pity, I also amble towards the main doors. Blissfully unaware of the acne that would rampage my face the following summer, I angrily promise myself to get my book completely filled with autographs of cricket superstars and to leave no proverbial stones unturned in my devotion to this singular cause. In a rare moment of weakness, a 12-year-old atheist invokes the cricket gods and beseeches their magnanimity.
From the corner of my eye, I see three men standing next to a flight of stairs. Sri Lankan cricketers, from their appearance. People that I couldn't recognise. Nobody could, because nobody was flocking to them. The shortest of the three saw me looking at them and motions me to come over. I am in no mood to commit sacrilege by getting a nobody's signature in this book that I have such grand plans for. As I walk towards them I cannot help but feel I am steadfastly painting myself in a corner. As I hand him the autograph book, I effectively relinquish any wiggle room that I may have had. Tearing off those sheets is still a viable option in my head. The short guy with the thick curly hair finds an empty page and signs across it. His benevolence unaware of my less than lukewarm enthusiasm. The other two take turns and sign the book.
The memory of me thanking them escapes me. Till date, I have often wondered if I extended them that courtesy. What I do remember is that the Test got over in four days with India winning handsomely. I remember looking at the scorecard in the newspaper to see if I could figure out the identity of those cricketers through their partially legible scribbles. Attempting to decipher the pattern of letters, I went back and forth between the short guy's crooked cursive and the names of Lankan cricketers on the scorecard. When I finally found what I concluded to be a perfect match, I remember thinking his performance wasn't too shabby. The scorecard confirmed that Muttiah Muralitharan had five wickets to his name in the Test.
Twenty years and more than 750 Test wickets later, I am no longer in the business of judging people. Unless, of course, you cannot pronounce Nietzsche to my liking. The Cricket All Stars, featuring the likes of Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Brian Lara and a host of other stars of the cricketing galaxy, are coming to America. And, for a fistful of dollars, you could rub shoulders with the elite of the game. Gala dinner ticket for one is purchased. Dressed in the niftiest dinner jacket in my wardrobe and armed with a new autograph book, I am ready to fulfill a promise I had made to myself many solstices ago. This time, the cricket gods come through for me. Photo opportunities are availed of, casual conversations are struck up, and ever-lasting memories are made.
I take a printout of a picture of Murali celebrating his 800th Test wicket for him to sign. Same man. Completely different situation. Now I have to wade through a sea of jostling elbows to get his autograph. I somehow manage to and, as I hand him the photograph, a smile escapes his lips. He recognises the landmark moment. I want to tell him about that morning 20 years ago. I want to tell him that when I went back home last year, I searched desperately for that autograph book but could not find it. There is no time; I am being impolitely pushed aside from behind. As I recede into the crowd, I remember to say "thank you".