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Vol. XXXII No. 15, November 16-30, 2022

When old rivals met in Kangaroo Bhoomi

-- by Vijaysree Venkatraman

“Twist Dance theriyuma, Test Match puriyuma?” With these lines, Saroja Devi teasingly asks the male lead, MGR, if he is hip enough to hang out with her crowd. This hit film song from 1966 suggests that the ability to follow a cricket match was a marker of hipness back then.

If my Madras-born mother who was a college student in the 1960s, had asked my father this same question about the test match – his response would have been no. (Same answer for the twist dance too, but then neither of them can dance.) Cricket in India was largely a sport followed by speakers of English in the five cities – Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, New Delhi, and Kanpur, which had big stadiums to host international matches.

Consequently, two decades later, my mother was one of the few souls who let her children miss school to watch the occasional cricket match on television. Any cricket fan knows that it is never fun to watch a match alone – especially an India, Pakistan game which always has the potential to shape into something epic. So, she would sign the “not feeling well” leave letter the next morning without any qualms.

My brother, who played cricket for his house team in school, knew the nuances of the game. Plus, he pored over issues of Sportstar and could dole out stats and anecdotes about players from various teams. He had a sense of history. All this made him a resource, “someone to watch matches with.”

The college boy upstairs, who might have expected to know more about cricket by virtue of his seniority – that’s how we thought back then – would lure my brother away on vital match days. His family owned a colour television. This seemed unfair. But after the fall of a crucial wicket or a big hit, my brother would tear up and down the flight of stairs in excitement. It was as though he was in two places at the same time, defying the laws of physics.

And the boy upstairs did add value with his local phrases and the occasional choice cussword. Amazingly to us, he seemed undeterred by the presence of elders – his grandmother was a bit hard of hearing, but sometimes his father was in the room too, my brother told us. It was not just the good times. Together, we survived Javed Miandad’s last ball-sixer in the 1986 Austral-Asia Cup final played in Sharjah – the shot that resonates in the Indian subcontinent to this day.

In the decade that followed, my brother and I left for the United States, but we continued to follow cricket. It was easy to do this because the scores, stats, and the stories became available 24/7 on espncricinfo.com. Meanwhile, in India, cricket was no longer confined to the five cities with big stadiums. Players from small towns took on big roles including the mantle of captaincy. Vernacular commentary and cricket blogs caught on, making cricket a truly all-India obsession. In the Internet era, it was easier for many non-speakers of English to follow the game.

In 2020, Ashwin Ravichandran started a video channel on YouTube. Born and raised in Chennai, this international player who is still an ardent fan of the game, seems happy to break things down for his fellow fans. He shares his expertise with elan. And most of the time he does this in local Tamil, replete with references to popular movies. He may seem pugnacious on field but on the show, he comes across as a smart and friendly boy-next-door.

From the buildup before a big series to a post-match analysis of each match with a guest (a statistician, a coach, or another player) – it is all there on his channel, and it is free. It has taken fans like me closer to the game because of its immediate nature – he is not saving his stories for an after-retirement memoir. Despite the English subtitles, there is this oft-repeated request in the comments section: Could Ashwin speak in Hindi please? For me, the channel would lose its special charm even if Ashwin switched to English. He is my new neighborhood Anna – if it makes any sense at all.

Last month, ahead of the T20 World Cup of 2022, it was Kangaroo Bhoomi time again on Ashwin’s channel. After ages, my brother and I woke up at 4 AM to watch an India Pakistan game being played in Australia. The seagulls had gone to sleep – the Melbourne Cricket Ground was floodlit. The fans were fully awake, and the atmosphere was electric. Chasing 160 runs, India was floundering at 31 for 4. What followed was a partnership for the ages between Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya: 113 runs off 78 balls. Kohli hit two consecutive sixes in the penultimate over – packing plenty of drama into one short cricket game.

To win, India needed 16 runs from the last over. Kohli, who was back in form after a long time, was batting like a man possessed, but Pandya was gone. Dinesh Karthik, the wicket keeper, and fabled finisher came in next. Alas, it was not his day, and he was out for 1. India now needed 2 from 2 balls.

On his long walk to the pitch, Ashwin appeared calm, but he would tell us later, he was thinking of an appropriate cussword for his fellow Chennaiite Karthik. He settled on padupavi. Victory or loss would now be on the incoming batsman’s head. Ashwin left the first ball well alone. It was declared a wide. Phew!

Now we needed 1 run in 1 ball. We know that the 36-year-old had been left out of the team too many times by the man at the non-striker’s end, but the player could not get affected by such thoughts. Ashwin lofted the next ball over the fielders and picked up a single. Not quite Miandad’s sixer, but it got the job done.

Like the college boy’s grandmother in our old Madras flat, my next-door neighbor in Boston, is hard of hearing and so, no one objected to our excited shouts and cries early on a Sunday morning. This match had way too many thrills and spills, and we couldn’t have been quiet if we tried.

My mother, that old diehard cricket fan, watched the match with my father by her side. He has grown to appreciate the game better in the last sixty years. From Chennai, she texted us on WhatsApp to say – What A Win!

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