When I was young, many of my dreams were about cricket. I was then obsessed with the game, which I played quite seriously at both school and university. My college XI may have been the best in India: two of my team-mates went on to play Test cricket, while several others played in the Ranji and Duleep Trophies. Batting at No. 10 and bowling non-turning offbreaks, I was the least talented member of the team. But being in the XI itself meant that cricket was my life, for we played some 60 matches a year, while on non-match days we practised for four hours at a stretch.
In those pre-IPL times, when even Test series were played every alternate year, some ten to 15,000 spectators watched Delhi University's inter-college finals (then played over two innings and five days). The scores were printed in full in the sports pages of the capital's dailies, along with a two-column match report.
I never made it to the headlines, yet nurtured a fantasy of being sent in as a nightwatchman on perhaps the first or second day of the match. The next day's paper would then have my college at, say, 50 for 2, the scorecard carrying the entry: R Guha, not out 4 - this sending hundreds of Dilliwalas to the bus stand in anticipation.
Alas, the situation never arose. I batted every year at No. 10 or 11, and my highest score was 4 (out). But for at least a decade after I left college, I had a recurrent dream about my batsmanship. This had me sitting in the tent, chewing my nails, when the captain's command to pad up drew me out of my drowsiness. I rushed to my kit, got out my abdominal guards and put them on first, before lovingly buckling my pads, one pad, one buckle, at a time. Then I sat on a chair, bat between my legs, watching the game. Not long afterwards, a wicket fell. I gathered my gloves (there were no helmets in those days) and strode firmly to the wicket. Before I got there I woke up. I had been cheated of that newspaper entry once more.
The dream is easy to deconstruct. It is also generic, a variant of the old ambition of the court jester wanting to play Hamlet. For batsmen are the privileged elite of the game, bowlers the hardworking but under-recognised subalterns. The team's captain is, nine times out of ten, a batsman. Batsmen also garner 90% of the headlines, 90% of the Man-of-the-Match awards, and 90% (or perhaps 95%) of the sponsorships.
Batsmen are the privileged elite of the game, bowlers the hard-working but under-recognised subalterns
One of my favourite cricketing stories comes from the 1956 Australian tour of England. The former England opening batsman Len Hutton was in the press box, as was the former Australian googly bowler, Arthur Mailey.
During one of the matches the news came in that Hutton had been granted a knighthood by the Queen. Mailey went up to him, shook his hand, and said in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear: "Congratulations, Sir Leonard. But I hope next time it is a bowler. The last bowler to be knighted was Sir Francis Drake".
The remark brilliantly captured the social prejudice against bowlers, a prejudice so deep that even the British monarchy shared it. The batsmen Jack Hobbs and Don Bradman had been knighted prior to Hutton. The batting allrounders Frank Worrell and Garry Sobers were to be knighted after him. It was ages later, in 1990, that Sir Richard Hadlee finally joined Sir Francis Drake.
That I myself dreamt - or fantasised - about having a bat in hand was a product of this wider tendency to massively valorise batsmen and batsmanship. That I was always woken up before I got to the crease was also indicative - I had to be denied the prize. (Which was probably just as well; my captain hadn't put me down at No. 10 or 11 without a reason.) Yet it is significant that not one of the cricketing dreams of my youth had me in the role of a bowler, fielder, or wicketkeeper.
I stopped playing cricket in my mid-twenties. By the time I was in my mid-thirties I had stopped dreaming about the game too. For the next decade most of my dreams were about libraries and archives, till one night the game came back to me once more. This was the night before a book of mine was to be released in Delhi. I was nervous, but my anxieties were set to rest by the dream I had. This featured an India-England match, with Anil Kumble bowling to Alec Stewart. The batsman played for the googly - Kumble's stock delivery - but the ball held its line, took the outside edge, and was caught low down to his right at slip by Rahul Dravid. As soon as the catch was safely held I woke up.
When it came to my writerly anxieties I did not call batsmen to mind in my sleep. Rather, I sought succour in the deeds of a bowler, who happened to be from my own home state (as, indeed, was his slip fielder). I took particular delight in the mode of dismissal, for at a lower and lesser level I had got some batsmen out that way myself, pushing for the turn that was not there, to be caught at slip by my college captain Arun Lal (a man who was to later take many catches for Delhi, North Zone, Bengal, and East Zone, and a few good ones for India). The Kumble-Dravid dream occurred in 2002. Since then, the game I love best has not figured in my sleep.
Nowadays, my dreams tend to be about the woods and fields of the Dehradun of my boyhood (woods and fields since claimed by homes and offices). But on the days when I cannot easily go to sleep - days that come with greater regularity as one reaches middle age - I will myself to rest by visualising the two greatest and most gifted bowlers of my time.
These are Shane Warne and Wasim Akram. So, if am restless at night, I think first of Warne, his short, slow run-up, the sudden whirl of the wrists with those super-strong shoulders propelling the ball, which dips and turns to the right to catch the edge or else goes straight on and has the man lbw. Or I think of Akram, running in fast, fluid and smooth, left-arm over with the new ball, an inswinger taking off stump, or left-arm round with the old ball, reverse swinging from leg to off to have the hapless batsman caught at slip.
To explain why I so admire Warne and Akram, I need to tell one more Arthur Mailey story. During the 1930 Australian tour of England, the home side picked a young wrist-spinner named Ian Peebles. In between Tests, the debutant asked Mailey for advice on how to disguise his googly. The lesson asked for was given, whereupon some Australian critics accused Mailey of being unpatriotic. Mailey answered: "Spin bowling is an art. And art is international."
As a boy, I nurtured foolish fantasies about becoming a batsman. In middle age, I would rather restore the place of bowlers in the history and imagination of cricket
Swing bowling is an art too. And its acknowledged modern master was Pakistan's Wasim Akram. Some years ago, I was watching an India-Pakistan match at the ground, sitting in the pavilion. Akram came down from the commentary box, and, as he did, Zaheer Khan (who was sitting out the match with an injury) rushed to be at his side. As Akram spoke with friends and fans, Zaheer stood silently, looking at his hero with a mixture of sheepishness and adoration. On that occasion they did not exchange words, but we do know that at other meetings Akram advised Zaheer on changes of pace, reverse swing, when to shift from over the wicket to round the wicket, and other special features of the swing bowler's art. For this he has been chastised by xenophobic Pakistanis (just as Mailey was by parochial Australians for advising Peebles). But Akram has carried on teaching Indians regardless.
As a boy, I nurtured foolish fantasies about becoming a batsman. In middle age, I would rather restore the place of bowlers in the history and imagination of cricket. Till I was in my thirties, I always wanted my country to win. Now, I only want a good match. That is why, when I seek to put myself to sleep these days, I think of the sublime beauty of Shane Warne's legbreak and of Wasim Akram's late inswing.