I've grown up following no other game than cricket. As a boy, when there was no television coverage, I would stare for a long time at the newspaper pictures depicting action from a Test match. The pictures would usually show a batsman in a stylish action and the wicketkeeper looking in the direction of the ball with his mouth open.
Then television came and they began to show highlights, and for a long time I believed that in international matches, captains took the liberty of changing bowlers even before they had bowled the six balls. I would not realise that I was watching a crunched version of the day's game.
Those days, cricket meant a five-day business, with a 'rest day' thrown in. One-day matches were unheard of, at least to me. By 1983, when India won the World Cup, watching live telecast had become as integral to middle-class Indian life as the one-day game had to cricket. The man with a transistor glued to his ear, as shown in the films, had become archival material.
Back then, watching a Test match on TV was not just a five-day picnic. Cricket was a sport, and the government felt duty-bound to take the matches to every Indian home. No one had thought money could be made out of it. So the cameras remained focussed on the ground even during the drinks break, and you could see what your favourite cricketers were up to when not playing. And when rains interrupted a match, Doordarshan would pull out live performances of Kishore Kumar or Asha Bhosle from its archives and use them as fillers. What more could you ask for?
Those days you enjoyed cricket because you looked forward to it. You looked forward to it because there was not much cricket happening. At the most two series in a year, which gave you enough time to build up your appetite and salivate. As a boy I aspired to be a fast bowler, and since I am left-handed, I would often watch TV from a hand-held mirror whenever a bowler whose action I admired would be bowling. The idea was to observe how he would bowl if he were left-handed -- bowlers such as Andy Roberts, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee.
It is a different matter that I eventually turned out to be a leg-spinner whose bowling action was very close to Ravi Shastri's. But even today, at 39, my dream is to bowl like Hadlee. I think he is still the best -- the man who was most capable of knocking off the middle-stump, the ultimate shame for a batsman. Ah, how my dream was to be a left-handed Hadlee: hell, I can still imitate his action in the little cricket I get to play these days, with a tennis ball that is. These days, in fact, I am trying my hand at tennis and am quite pleased with my forehand. And my palm, during idle moments, holds an imaginary tennis racquet instead of an imaginary leather ball.
But cricket is cricket. Every cricket-loving Indian, who was in the age-group 10-60 in 1983, is likely to have the sequence of events of the World Cup final at Lords etched in his memory. I could have said 10-70 or 10-80, but chances are very slim that someone who was 70 or 80 in 1983 is still surviving today. I was 12 years and 6 months old at the time, and India's victory, which I watched on television, proved one thing to me: that the West Indies players were as human as Indians. They were not as invincible as I had thought them to be, thanks to the cock-and-bull stories I had heard from my classmates.
In my opinion, the best cricket took place around the mid-eighties. Perhaps I am saying this because I was a teenager then and eagerly following the game, but it is also true that the mid-eighties was the time when almost all the present-day legends of cricket, no matter which country they belonged to, were at their peak.
Which is what makes the 1985 Benson and Hedges Cup, played in Australia, so memorable. Twenty-five years have passed since then, but I would still rate it as the best cricket tournament I have ever watched. Security was hardly a concern and the dashing Imran Khan, fielding on the boundary, would be spending his idle moments signing autographs for spectators.
Not to mention the India-Pakistan matches played in Sharjah, which invariably had a nail-biting finish and which attracted even spectators like Dawood Ibrahim, who would be shown by Doordarshan cameras pretty often, smoking a cigarette and sitting with a pretty woman. Back then he was merely a fugitive smuggler doing rather well for himself in the UAE. Life was by and large peaceful then -- the Babri mosque was yet to fall and blasts were yet to rock Bombay -- so the Indian cops let him be. India was obsessed with the Bofors scandal and, subsequently, the Mandal Commission report. Cricket was a pleasant distraction.
The one-day game was god-sent for the temperamentally lazy Indian man. He could no longer hover or laze around the TV for five full days, neglecting his domestic and official responsibilities. In other words, the emergence of one-day cricket spared him from four extra days of yelling by the wife or the boss. And once they realised that cricket was now only a day-long affair, the wife and the boss too joined the fun. What was so far a cricket addict's fix had now become a family picnic.
So it is pointless to explain why life in India comes to a near standstill during the World Cup. To talk of recent times, most people still haven't gotten over the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, even though seven years have passed, while most people would like to forget the subsequent edition held in the West Indies in 2007, because it was merely a marriage of farce and tragedy. But people still sat through the tournament, more out of habit than excitement.
Now, touch your heart and speak the truth: do you remember where the next World Cup is going to be held, and in case you still care to remember, are you really looking forward to it? Ideally you should, because it is only a year away, and the fever should be building up by now. But between 2007 and 2011, you have watched your favourite teams and players play so often that you wish they took a break and gave you a break.
I mean, after watching the IPL matches for one whole month, would you still have the appetite to watch the Twenty20 World Cup next month and then to watch the regular World Cup next year? If the daily burdensome life is the wife for the lay Indian, then cricket is the seductive mistress that provides him with succour during stolen moments. But if cricket becomes the wife and begins to breathe down his neck 24/7, he is soon going to find another mistress, maybe in the form of hockey or football. The managers of Indian cricket should understand this.
They have already screwed up big time by introducing IPL. To begin with, it made horses, rather asses, out of talented players. Anyone could be bought with money, that too by people who might not even entirely understand cricket but want to be proud owners of a team. Imagine Yuvraj Singh explaining his poor batting to Preity Zinta or Sourav Ganguly falling at the feet of Shah Rukh, begging to be given another chance. Sachin Tendulkar might be the greatest Indian cricketer, but when he plays for IPL, he too knows that he is answerable not to India but to India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani. What a shame: are we watching cricket or horse-racing?
In any case, the Twenty20 format, according to me, is a shame. Cricket, unlike football, is all about style. Each player, be he a batsman or a bowler, has his own signature style, which comes to the fore if only he is given sufficient time on the pitch. But in the Twenty20 format, when you are perpetually in a do-or-die situation, where is the scope to display your style? You have to hit the ball, come what may, or else your ass is on the line.
As for the audience, they are a disoriented lot now. IPL has screwed their sense of patriotism. The non-Indian cricketers they admired but despised for obvious reasons till the 2007 World Cup are now the torch-bearers of Indian cities/cultures playing in the IPL. Shane Warne is the pride of Rajasthan, Chennai can't do without Hayden, Sri Lanka's Sangkarra is the captain of Punjab, and so on.
Tomorrow, if during an international match, Hayden hits Sachin for a huge six, should Chennaiites rejoice that a Chennai Super Kings player has punished the Mumbai Indians captain, or feel sad that an Australian batsman has hit an Indian bowler for a six?