My first memories of the internet are from August 1996. We had got ourselves an HP Compaq 386 and I froze every time I heard the modem dialling up. It was as if hordes of invading crickets were screeching messages to insects from another universe.
Two months later Shahid Afridi boom-boomed a hundred off 37 balls in the KCA Centenary tournament in Nairobi, a quadrangular that Indian television channels blissfully ignored. I was in school when Afridi went bananas, and learnt about his atrocity from the next day's newspaper.
Two days later Pakistan played South Africa in the final in Nairobi. It was a boring Sunday afternoon. Indian TV channels still didn't care. The radio stations weren't forthcoming. So for the first time I launched the modem and waited to see if someone could give me the score.
Dad fired up a browser, went to the Altavista search engine, and typed "cricket". He then clicked on the first result, oblivious to whether it would be of any use, and walked away to take a phone call. The page in front of me: cricket.org.
Had the aesthetics of a website been high among my priorities, I would have closed the window then and there. I had landed in a cluttered virtual godown, packed with headlines, hyperlinks and icons. The banners and section headings didn't load up. How was I supposed to navigate through this pile of detritus?
A few minutes later I spotted it. On the extreme right, in smallish font, was "Pakistan v South Africa". I clicked. The page only loaded halfway, but that was enough to figure that Pakistan were 100-odd for 3 in about 28 overs. The scorecard stayed open for the next hour (hanging and hiccupping occasionally but steadfastly trudging along) until I got a bollocking from Dad for wasting so much time in front of the computer.
Three years later, now addicted to cricket.org, I was a regular on their #cricket channel on MIRC. I recall waiting eagerly for their interactive interviews, and even summoned the courage to ask Rashid Latif a question during one such session. Looking at his answer on the screen gave me goosebumps.
Over the next two years my life around cricket gradually disintegrated, all thanks to Statsguru.
For close to 15 years I had carefully built up this reputation of a cricket pundit. My friends saw me as someone who knew scores by heart, who had cricketers' names and records at his fingertips. I could bluff my way through arguments and make everyone believe, by virtue of my put-on confidence, that I was in the right.
Statsguru killed off my nascent career as a cricket expert. I could no longer throw random second-innings averages about and expect to be taken seriously. I was even out-statted in Lara v Sachin dogfights.
In October 2003 I joined the staff of Cricinfo, or Wisden Cricinfo as it was then known (I still thought of it as cricket.org). The highlight of my first day was about ten defeats in one-on-one office cricket matches (out attempting to defend, out trying to swing). Two days later, I wrote my first match report. A week later I had my first experience of ball-by-ball commentary, an event made more thrilling when I learned my descriptions would also appear on the MIRC #cricket channel.
Over the next two years, during which I mostly covered domestic cricket in various parts of India, I met a number of volunteers who had scored matches for the site. I met selectors who requested printouts of the latest Ranji Trophy stats (which would no doubt help them make a case for certain players at meetings). And I met a cricketer who swore that some of his Under-15 scores, archived on the site, were all messed up. (He was wrong.)
In 2005 it was impossible to talk to Dinesh Karthik about anything but his name. Those were the days when he changed his name every few months (from KKD Karthik to KD Karthik to Dinesh Kaarthick to Dinesh Karthik) and he was forever pestering me (though in a sweet way) about updating his profile page.
As long as they ensure they give me the damn score when I want it, I'll log on
He wasn't alone. One day, after a Ranji Trophy match at the Wankhede Stadium, three young Mumbai cricketers sought me out and requested that I update their "resumés". I was mildly confused, until I was told (by a senior Mumbai player) that they were referring to their Cricinfo player pages, which they planned to use as resumés while seeking summer contracts in leagues in England.
The most attention, though, was reserved for profile pictures. It was rare to find an Indian domestic cricketer happy with his photo on the website. Some said, "I was too young when it was taken." Others wanted an image of themselves batting or bowling. One badgered me (in vain) to use a photo where he was dressed in a sherwani. On further questioning, he told me he was planning to link his Cricinfo player page to his online matrimonial profile. (Good thing he wasn't inspired by Imran Khan or Ian Botham, who remain, to the best of my knowledge, the only two pictured topless on their profile pages.)
Over the next three years, on tours to Pakistan, West Indies, England and Australia, I was made aware of the breadth and reach of the website, as well as the passions it stirred. In 2007 I received an email from a businessman in London. He said he had grown up in Barbados, idolising the former West Indies wicketkeeper David Murray, and was saddened to read of his decline. The heartening bit: he said he planned to meet Murray and help fund his rehabilitation.
A year on, I was in Adelaide. Australia were playing India in the final Test of a charged series. At the end of the second day, as I rushed to the press conference, I was stopped by a young, bespectacled Indian expat student. He asked if I wrote for Cricinfo. I nodded. He said he hadn't planned to come to the game but had decided to make the trip once he figured I was covering the series.
How generous, I thought to myself, and half-considered skipping the press conference to have a chat. That's when he clarified that he had come to the ground to tell me that there was "not a single word" I had written that he had ever agreed with. He followed that up with "Anyway, all the best."
I didn't know it then but that was to be my last overseas assignment. I left Cricinfo in mid-2008 (it was ESPNcricinfo by then) and moved to the US soon after, but cricket.org has remained my default homepage and it's almost always the first thing I check every morning (before email, Twitter, and Google News). I start my day by religiously ranting about columnists I don't agree with. And then scan the news index, where I find other bits to outrage about.
Sometimes, especially when logging on from India, I'm sick of the gazillion pop-up ads on the site (a sort of throwback to the manic clutter from the '90s). Sometimes I wonder if ESPNcricinfo, now an 800-pound gorilla, has lost its early earthiness and intimacy. Sometimes I wish they would stop flooding the homepage with all-time XIs and dream XIs and nobody-gives-two-hoots XIs. Sometimes I wish they would giddy-up on their long-awaited expansion of Statsguru to include first-class matches. And sometimes I wish they would update the Surfer more often.
But this angst is instructive. Does any other website or newspaper or magazine elicit such strong emotions in me? No. Do any of them evoke such a strong sense of ownership? No. Do any of them keep drawing me back, hour after hour? No.
Maybe my concerns are quibbles. For as long as the site covers cricket across the world, as long as they care for domestic and youth cricket, as long as they pay attention to women's cricket, as long as they hold on to the cricket.org domain, as long as their live scorecards are at top right (where I found them all those years ago), and as long as they ensure they give me the damn score when I want it, I'll log on.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA