Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXI No. 10, September 1-15, 2021
I have been cricket-crazy for ages. My addiction began as a four-year-old when cricket commentary at a neighbour’s house thrilled me. I flirted with bat and ball as a schoolkid, but was quite dreadful with both, and fellow-urchins regarded me with scant respect. However, none could chat or gossip about cricket the way I did, thanks to books like Jack Fingleton’s Brightly Fades the Don. I was fond of quoting Neville Cardus and loved his most famous sentence “He dismissed the ball from his presence”, which every commentator has used since.
I adored BBC commentator John Arlott, who was also a poet and a wine connoisseur and spoke with wit and panache. I read that when South African spinner Tufty Mann tormented English batsman George Mann with his offspin, John Arlott remarked “This is a clear case of Mann’s inhumanity to Mann”.
My cricket mania grew with adulthood. Like all bona fide cricket-lovers, I hid my transistor in the office desk drawer for clandestine cricket commentary. When India won the World Cup in 1983, I celebrated by buying my wife Nirmala a gold necklace. (Her relatives ribbed her, asking what she had done for the victory.)
Nirmala actually disliked cricket – partly because of the time I spent on it. But she once performed a noble service for the Indian cricket team, the likes of which I could never do, despite my endless bla-bla about the game.
It happened in May 1992 in Harare, Zimbabwe, where I served a UN project for four years. The Indian community in Harare was thrilled when the Indian cricket team arrived in Zimbabwe en route to South Africa where they were to play three test matches. In Harare, it was a single test and a single one-day match.
An official in Zimbabwe, Arun Kajla, was deputed by the Indian government to liaise with the national cricket team and provide any services the team required. He gave us some startling information: the cricket team was starving because the food at their hotel was atrociously bad. He remarked that the team was deliberately being served bad food so that they would play badly. I laughed, thinking this was a joke, but Kajla looked grave. He said “This is not a joke, this is true. Let’s find out whether our ladies can help out.”
The Indian ladies in Harare were outraged when they heard about the plight of our cricketers. They said “We’ll look after them.”
Nirmala joined the rescue army of lady chefs. She had brought a special idli-making machine from Chennai to Harare. She got up at 4 a.m the next day, and packed some 100 idlis. Fluffy and flower-soft and irresistible. Kajla arranged to collect the precious parcel.
Half of the idlis came back uneaten. Kajla apologized. He said “The team loved your idlis, Nirmala. But how much can they eat? They had loads of Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, south Indian food… The Gujarati ladies in particular sent huge quantities of delicious stuff. Yesterday it was famine, today it was a feast, thanks to you lovely ladies.”
Kajla said, “I’ll tell you what, Nirmala. On Saturday, I’ll take nothing from the other ladies. You make masala dosas which you do so well.” Nirmala demurred. She wasn’t excited about the prospect of making masala dosas for 20 people, and that too sportsmen! She said, “No, let the Gujarati ladies have the pleasure.”
Nirmala had no further frantic requests for food, so I assume the food problem got sorted out.
About cricket. The India-Zimbabwe test match was historic, because it was the latter’s first-ever test! They acquitted themselves creditably, India did not. The Indian team was unused to playing at Harare’s altitude, and the bowlers in particular found it tough. Zimbabwe batted first and scored more than 450 runs. India struggled to cross 300, and did so thanks to Ravi Shastri and Kapil Dev. Both Tendulkar and skipper Azharuddin failed. Thankfully the match was drawn, because not even three innings got completed since the Zimbabweans batted so slowly. But the media in Harare behaved as if Zimbabwe had clobbered India in its debut test.
The India-Zimbabwe one-day match was held on Diwali, on a Sunday. The entire Indian community turned up. Again, India didn’t exactly sparkle but managed to win. They scored some 205 runs in their 50 overs, Zimbabwe fell short by 16 runs. I was relieved, I couldn’t have accepted an Indian defeat – nor could the other vociferous Indian spectators!
An aside. I was introduced to team manager Ajit Wadekar (former Indian test player). He looked dapper in a dark suit, rather like a bank manager. I introduced him in turn to Nirmala, saying this was her first live cricket match. “How did you like it?”, he asked for courtesy’s sake. “It’s okay whenever a batsman hits a four or a six or gets out, otherwise it’s boring”, she said with characteristic frankness. Wadekar guffawed. “It will be tough for us to keep your wife entertained,” he said.
We were guests at two pleasant dinners in honour of the cricketers held by the Indian High Commission and by Air India. Wives were present in strength. At the first dinner, the men and the women sat in separate groups. Someone remarked “The ladies have come to see the cricketers, but they are all with the men.” Kapil Dev gallantly picked up his plate and sat with the ladies. He asked them what they did and how they kept in touch with India, and thanked them for feeding the team on their first few days in Harare. “We overate shamelessly,” he said.
At the Air India dinner, Sanjay Manjrekar entered the hotel elevator at the same time as Nirmala and I did, and I struck up a conversation with him immediately. We got out on the third floor and bumped into Sachin Tendulkar! I promptly shook hands with him, and he responded warmly, thinking I was a friend of Manjrekar. I proceeded to shake hands and chat with the entire team. This cricket maniac had never had it so good! Some of the cricketers chatted up with Nirmala too, asked her about life in Harare and complimented her on her Conjeevaram saree, much to her delight.
“Cricket is a boring game,” pronounced Nirmala, “but some of our cricketers are a nice sort, particularly Kapil Dev.”
After that week in Harare, I haven’t met the Indian team anywhere, but cricket of course accounts for a meaty chunk of my TV-viewing and newspaper-reading time.