January 2002: Columns

Looking for Suleiman

In television we are in the business of creating stars. The slow-motion replays, the sound effects, the superlatives, even the entirely original style of my friend Navjot Sidhu, are all geared towards making things look more exciting for our viewers. Sadly though, we are not good enough at creating characters in the game. Or maybe they just don't exist any more. Certainly, even if they did, they would struggle to get a nose in between the commercial breaks and the increasingly sophisticated graphics. And with modern match-referees wielding canes, most players scramble between morose and dull on the exuberance-scale.

If you are searching for characters, people who love being themselves rather than the images assigned to them, then international cricket is the wrong place for you. The really funny guys sit in small pavilions in small grounds where cricket is the ultimate celebration of life. They don't feature in almanacks and you will only occasionally see their names in the scoresheets.

All of us have our favourite characters and mine comes out of the time when I wore short pants (in our innocent childhood, they were called knickers) and slippers and spent Sundays watching the senior-division games at our University ground in Hyderabad.

His name was Suleiman and he had a very Afghan look to him. Remember we are talking of the days when looking Afghan was something people aspired to. Fair appearance, rugged face, there was something striking about him. He would arrive on his motorcyle, that other object of adoloscent worship, and you could hear his voice till he left late in the afternoon.

He wasn't much of a cricketer. He bowled seam at a fairly gentle pace with a very funny hop halfway into his run-up. It was the most distinctive aspect of his cricket and he rarely took too many wickets. He batted if necessary - which I must admit places him in a group that is larger than is immediately apparent - and belonged to a generation for which chasing the ball was a completely unnecessary exercise.

But we loved him because the moment bat hit ball, he would come up with the most delightful expressions. Often we wanted to see runs made so we could hear him.

His favourite was "paanch-chhe le lo, chalne do", and he said that in such a wonderfully exuberant manner that all of us who gathered around him copied him in our cork-ball matches played over a few overs in the evenings.

Occasionally, when he grew quiet, we would gather around him animatedly: "Suleiman bhai, Suleiman bhai, zara bolo na". And he would always oblige.

But life moved on, so did we and so did Suleiman, who surprised many of us by becoming a lecturer at Osmania University.

For a while he continued playing in his more respectable role, but he wasn't as chirpy and vocal as before, playing as he was now among students. I didn't see him for a few years and in the intervening time, I had started wearing trousers and was playing a lot of cricket myself. By a strange coincidence I returned to my beloved university ground, playing first for the `B' side and then for three years in the senior division.

On one of our away games, at the crowded Parade Ground in Secunderabad, I suddenly ran into Suleiman. The skip had gone out of his action, there was a bit more around the middle, the brow was furrowed, but worst of all, the voice was gone. I didn't think he would relate the young man in pads and gloves at the non-striker's end to the gawky kid who had gaped at him. For old times' sake I walked across to him and said, "I remember the time you used to shout `paanch-chhe le lo, chalne do' and we shouted with you sometimes."

He looked up at me with tired, spent eyes that were an adornment once. I looked at him searching for the zest, for the Afghan looks. There was no meeting point. "Oh yeah", he said with a bit of a twang, and walked across to mid-on.

It was all over. I tried to avoid his gaze after that, fearing further assaults on the innocence of my memory. I wanted Suleiman to be the character he was, not the real person he had become. I must have succeeded because when I think of Suleiman now, I am 11 again, he is a dashing young man, his motorcycle is creating a lovely beat.

Harsha Bhogle is a broadcaster and sportswriter