I still remember the smell of the newspaper when he hit that six that shattered a generation of hope. At the age of ten, I was standing in the lobby of our hotel in Sikkim, holding that hitherto unclaimed newspaper with trembling hands, as I visualised a hapless Chetan Sharma running to the wicket like a gullible lamb toward a lion's den. Sharma then bowled what can best be described as a "lolly", which was launched into orbit by Javed Miandad, doing his best impersonation of Obelix's "PFAFF!!". The legend goes that the ball was never recovered because it melted into thin air upon crossing the boundary.
It did not matter that I had heard about this unfortunate event on the train to Sikkim the previous night. I was travelling on a school excursion and came across a crestfallen passenger who told me that the world had just ended in Sharjah. However, I did not truly believe him until I read about it in the newspaper the next morning. This was true of most matches that I "watched" in my childhood. To me, they only materialised when they appeared in the newspaper the next day.
Take, for instance, Ravi Shastri's heroic 107 on a bouncy pitch in Barbados; it was an innings that should have won him an award for bravery. It came against a fearsome West Indies attack that read: Marshall, Ambrose, Bishop and Walsh. Even as the rest of the Indian batting line-up crumbled around him in a heap to 63 for 6, the statuesque Shastri struck 12 boundaries in a dogged riposte. I followed the match through a newspaper, with a one-day delay and a heavy dose of imagination. He must have hit the peerless Malcolm Marshall for at least a couple of fours. Surely one of them was a "chapati" shot.
You see, Shastri was my hero because he played these match-defining innings that became commonplace when a curly-haired 16-year-old emerged to dominate the sport. Until Sachin Tendulkar arrived, I drew succour from the many displays of batting obduracy from Shastri, who seemed to use a bat to win a staring contest on the pitch. His was the first name I checked on the scorecard in the newspaper, even if his more gifted, but infuriatingly fragile colleagues scored more runs. I knew from my newspaper snippets that Shastri had often patted down many thunderbolts as an opener before he gave way to the frail wizardry of Mohammad Azharuddin.
One year, I willed myself to learn the Telugu alphabet because the Telugu daily showed up at our doorstep a couple of hours before the English newspapers. It gave me great joy to read "A..ja.. ha.. roo..din" next to the score of 109, a withering display of artistry in an otherwise soporific series played on dead pitches in Pakistan. India somehow claimed a 0-0 moral victory in that series. No matter the result, there was unbridled joy in reading about my Hyderabadi idol's conquest of Mt Imran. Imran Khan was caned to the tune of 100 runs, which was fitting balm for the failure of a certain RJ Shastri, who scored a total of 16 runs in two innings. I would be remiss in not mentioning young Tendulkar's brilliant 59, in only his second Test, a harbinger of many superhuman feats.
"To me, matches only materialised when they appeared in the newspaper the next day"
Newspapers have given way to a digital form of media, most of which are quite effective in representing this great sport, but nothing that I tell my seven-year-old son will convince him that reading cricket news in the early morning newspaper was a multi-sensory experience. It involved touch, smell, sight and, most importantly, boundless imagination. Even as every word unravelled in front of my eyes, my mind drew batting arcs and banana swings to fashion memorable suspense-filled storylines.
There is a distinct memory in my mind of a match that I went to see in Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad in 1987. I was 11. This was the second ODI between Pakistan and India. At this time, India were finding every possible way to lose to Pakistan, and I held very little hope that the result would be any different that day. India scored a respectable 212 in 44 overs, powered by Shastri's 69 not out. One of his two sixes landed a few feet from my seat in the pavilion, which is one of my career highlights as a cricket fan.
Pakistan inevitably began chasing down the target, powered by Saleem Malik's 84, much to the chagrin of the full crowd in Hyderabad. Run by run the target was being shaved down with precision. Still, India managed to keep the game close till the very end. In fact, so close that the run equation came down to Pakistan needing two off the last ball. Abdul Qadir faced the redoubtable Kapil Dev and the entire stadium waited with bated breath. What happened next was a blur.
Kapil Dev ran in and bowled, Qadir tried an agricultural swing. The ball squirted off his edge and then there was bedlam. It appeared that Qadir had run himself out trying to get the winning run and the scores were miraculously tied! Nobody in the crowd was quite sure what had happened. After a few minutes, there was an announcement on the speaker saying that India had won the match because they had lost fewer wickets. While the crowd roared its approval, I sensed that something was off. The result was surreal. The ending was farcical theatre.
I realised that there was only one way to fix the confusion in my mind. The next morning, I jumped out of bed at 6am and ran excitedly towards our verandah. Lying on the floor was a fresh, untouched copy of the Hindu. I got goosebumps as I began to slowly peel apart the pages to reveal the match that I was going to "watch" again.
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