Prologue - I live in a country said to be obsessed with the game of cricket.Every single person knows the nuances of the game and has a strong argument to make.People stand in queues for a long time to get a ticket for the match next day.They can recollect some Sachin innings better than some exam they may have written the same day.Keeping political matters aside,nothing else affects the general mood of an entire nation (and mind you,a big one that) like the national team's performance.Even if Sania Mirza goes on to win the US Open month next month,the amount of national fervour or 'feel-good' undercurrent it will generate is nothing compared to the upbeat mood which will result if India manages to win the Twenty20 World Cup next month.Oh,they just love the game here!Or,do they?
My childhood like most others' was spent in playing cricket.I grew up playing the game on streets,on grounds and finally on proper pitches.We started with plastic balls,then moved to rubber tyre balls,soon preferred the cambis balls and finally graduated to deuce balls (of course,there was another type of ball,I don't remember what we used to call it,which was a cheap cousin of deuce balls but was far less forgiving than it.I really wonder now that how we had the nerve of taking guard to that ball on a pitched uneven road with no pads on).All kinds of vacations were keenly awaited not because they broke us free of the rigours of school but because they gave us infinite time to play cricket.We could play a tense match with lots at stake with any neighbouring locality's team early in the morning,return home to have our breakfast,have a bath and then go for a match among ourselves on our own road before it was time for lunch and then again hit the big grounds for another match in the evening.Of course,the more ambitious (or insaner) people like me sneaked in a practice session in intense sun just after lunch as well.Oh,there was nothing like cricket.We tried our hands in many other sports,but honestly nothing stirred us like cricket.Football was soon deemed as too 'uneventful',hockey was never in contention,tennis was great till one of those more wealthy boys of our locality decided to mix less with us (as we were then left with no tennis rackets),badminton pricked our nascent machismo as we thought it was a game fit for skirt wearing girls and hide-and-seek was inherently juvenile(though even that can get very thrilling at times,believe me).Table Tennis could have been an enticing option but by the time we were 4 feet,the club in our locality was scrapped because of some land dispute.The only game which came close to challenging our loyalty to cricket was carom.When baptised with a proper match-board,we had become so hooked to it that we didn't pick up a bat for many days.Thankfully,we soon outgrew it and deemed it mundane or uni-dimensional.We were back to what we liked most,playing cricket,seeing the stumps of a top batsman uprooted by a deadly yorker or hitting a six stepping out to a lethal pacer.Even in school,our favourite time-pass apart from gossiping and bullying was playing....well not cricket really,but book-cricket.All of us at school were crazy about cricket.We would speak at lengths debating about just any obscure player or long forgotten match.Oh and yes,there were also those high profile matches with the other sections of my school every winter season.I still remember all those wickets I took then.My motive here is not to glorify my accomplishments on the cemetry or maidan(my cricket grounds) but something else,hence I"ll rather put a pause on that.
Class 11 turned out to be the graveyard of my cricketing antics.The travails of Physics,Chemistry,etc. dropped upon me out of nowhere.All of a sudden I was taken aback by the load of books around me,almost every single day my evenings were now spent in travelling to the tutor's place instead of running into bowl.I waited for the storm to settle down,but that was a futile wait.The black hole of twelfth degree sucked me and it was never the same for me.I got too disillusioned into my career and rather reluctantly swapped the ball for the book.I am not trying to suggest that I never played cricket again,but that it was far and few in between.I perfectly understood that my days of bowling abandon are gone.
However,thankfully my love for cricket never abated,if anything it only increased.I still watched matches on the television every now and then and if India happened to win a good match,I read and then re-read the match report on the Telegraph the next day and if I felt too happy about it I used to cut it and archive it in my file(I still have all the pieces of the epic India-Australia series in '01.Every single thing,who said what and who replaced whom).Even today my interest in the game continues.If I happen to pass a place where some people are playing a game(now this is actually rare in Kochi),I often pause for a few minutes and watch them play.However,this doesn't have its roots in nostalgia alone.I often watch them in awe,in appreciation.I like the way their bat shapes up to the ball or how their timing seems flawless.I try and recollect my days and find that I wasn't ever able to hit that shot so naturally.To be honest,its really the game I love and not just its custodians.Watching a good serious match in progress in a park soothes me as much as an Indian victory.This is also precisely the reason I always wanted to watch a Ranji trophy match.I didn't need to see Jadeja bat,watching Utpal Chatterjee bowl would also do for me.However,most of my friends didn't seem to think along the same lines.Whenever,I asked them if going to watch a Ranji match at Eden would be a good idea,I was immeditely scoffed upon.They reacted as if it was infra-dig or sufficiently ridiculous to even think about actually doing so.They would rather sit in their homes and get bored,but they not go to watch a Ranji match.I could never quite figure out why.I am not sure,but for some of them it was a prestige issue.They were scared that someone may find out that they had been to Eden Gardens last day to watch a freaking Bengal versus Assam match!!As if watching matches in Eden which didn't figure India was an indication of how cash-deprived you were due to which you were unable to afford the tickets of international matches,thereby satiating your 'I've also been to Eden' aspirations by going to watch a match played by Bongs.Ridiculous,ain't it.But believe me,that is the sort of mentality which is at work in the cerebral nerves of some people.And for some,a Ranji match was just not cricket,it was like "C'mon this is not cricket.How can you call this cricket.Cricket is when Sachin hits a straight-drive with the minimum of footwork or when Shoaib dislodges the stump cameras with the batsman's arc not even half-complete.Cricket happens when India plays Pakistan.How can you even think about watching some Chatterjee,Bhaduri,Bhandari?Why pay to get yourself torchered?"Needless to say,I had no company.I didn't go to watch a Ranji match ever,well almost.
Fast Forward to December 2006.I had been to my home on a 3 weeks vacation.I had a long agenda with me which included eating various dishes at various places(any north Indian staying in extreme Malabar or vice-versa would immediately understand),but it also had one more thing.I was determined to watch atleast some Ranji match now.It was time to set the record staright and fulfill my long standing desire.The Ranji season was on and surely Bengal would be playing some home match in 3 weeks.Finally the day came,I reached Eden Gardens on a fine sunny yet chilly afternoon and bought the ticket(5 rupees).I treaded ahead with small uncertain steps.The negative talks of all these years had cast its spell.I was wondering if I will find myself on the 3rd last page of the newspaper next day with a caption,"a spectator watching the 3rd day's play of the Ranji trophy elite league match netween Bengal and Gujarat". However,the moment I came out of the pit with the stadium staring at me I was in for a pleasant surprise.There were atleast 100 people scattered all over the block B (right next to the club house).and keenly following the match.There were people of all kind.Some were faithful Bengalis who had come to cheer their state's team,some were aged people who wee soaking up the sun (on talking,I found that one of them was Gujarati and a passionate club level player himself in 50s).Some were distinctively young fit lads(they turned out to be the fringe players who were yet to get a break and were here to keenly observed the gurus at work as well as keep an eye on how their more fortunate companions were doing) and then there were some like me,who were there for the sheer joy of cricket.I thoroughly enjoyed myself that day.I watched some good and some promising players (watch out for a left arm pacer called Eklak Ahmed of Bengal,he looked really sharp.And if you get to hear about him later on,do remember that who told you first).It was a keenly contested match with good batting and testing bowling on display.
It is a myth that people love cricket here.They don't.Had they loved cricket,there would have been more crowd in the stadiums for a Ranji match even if doesn't feature any of the national players.People love to see Dhoni smacking a six and Yuvraj defying laws of gravity to take a stunning one-handed catch.But,that is not because they love cricket.It is because they want to fulfill their own hidden egoistic desires through their national team.Nothing much wrong with that,but just that it is not a love for cricket but a regard for self and a regard for the nation.(It is getting a bit philosophical here,I"ll stop.But this surely isn't a love for the game).
By the way,I now stay very near to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Kochi.But,Kerela does not play its Ranji matches here.An international venue,India's second largest cricket stadium but the state team doesn't play here.As a result,on weekends I now think of going for a movie when watching a match would have been a better option.;)