It was on a clouded over Coimbatore morning that a 21 year old me first felt fear on a cricket pitch. It was a routine practice game, our business school against the engineering school, and the ball was doing a bit under dark skies. I was a cocky young fast bowler who did not feel the need to wear any protection apart from my pads & gloves. We were 5 down for 60 or so runs in a 25 over game, and I walked in to try to set a good enough score. I took guard on middle stump & looked up. The umpire called right arm fast & took his position. I stood on the back foot as I’m wont to, and watched the ball from the bowler’s hand, as I was taught to. It bounced midway & before I knew it, I had somehow moved my head away & watched the ball go, just inches from my head. I took a step back, bent down, took off my gloves, breathed in deeply, & called for a helmet.
I have never played without a helmet since that day. Not in university games, not in club games, not in corporate tournaments.
And I always say a prayer before I go in.
What happened to Phillip Hughes was a freak accident, something that will make old-timers, the ones who know a thing or two about life, sigh & tell us how everything is just unfair sometimes. We, the young, don’t have their wisdom & resilience to fall back on. We don’t know why it should be this way; we don’t understand.
It is this disbelief that we cricket fans had to deal with this last week. The loss to his family & his teammates is incomprehensible. All of us who’ve played team sport know the bonds that form between the people we play with; the word Michael Clarke used often in these last few days has been ‘brothers’. To the players, past & present, who’ve ever worn the baggy green test cap of Australia, the feeling of loss must be immense. And for his small & beautiful farming family, ‘salt-of-the-earth Aussies’, as Clarke described them, anything we can say & do will never be enough. They’ve lost a son, a brother, and a friend. May they have the strength to get through this & celebrate an Australian hero’s life.
But what does the ordinary cricket fan feel? The college student in Lahore, the retired gentleman in Leeds, the club bowler in Kandy, the school teacher in Wellington, how is he supposed to feel when he settles down again to watch the game he loves? Phillip Hughes’ death is almost without precedence in cricket, in that no celebrated young player has ever died on the pitch for a long time now. There have been injuries galore, of course, but none like this.
Which is why it left the cricket fan gutted. The tributes were spontaneous, the eulogies heartfelt, & the tears beautifully, tragically real. We have talked a lot about the spirit of cricket in the last few years, mostly in relation to inane & forgettable incidents, but if even there was a time that phrase could be invoked, it was this. The cricketing community is a small, exclusive sliver of the planet, one of the happy remnants of colonialism, and it came together in beautiful tribute to a man who played the game they loved. #PutOutYourBats was stunning in its simplicity & heartwarming in its scope. This game still means something, it said, the flame of the gentleman’s game still burns in the heart of its fans; for this game, its players are nothing short of heroes.
I’ve watched Hughes playing on television several times, and there was something about him, the little guy & his extravagant cut shots. There was something of the mongrel in him, a quality Ponting had. You saw the fight in him, you saw the grit. You saw that he was going somewhere, you saw that he wanted to. That much was evident to anyone who saw him play. But it is only now, after I read about who he was away from the game, and where he came from, that I realise something more.
Young Hughes was so wonderfully Australian.
Son of Banana farmers in the country town of Macksville, a lover of cattle & the outdoors, Phillip Hughes was the country boy with a dream of playing for his country. And he did it, with a homegrown technique that so memorably rattled the Proteas in that wonderful test match. How similar is his story to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s; they are both small town boys who rose to be national heroes, and Hughes was already being talked about as a future captain. And like MS, Hughes in his beaming smile, slight golden stubble & confident swagger, personified his proud cricketing nation. He was Australian, & it showed.
Cricket is not going to be the same again. Hughes’ shadow will fall on every ground cricket is played from now on; its mortal peril is now painfully evident. And we fans will brace ourselves every time a player is hit. But I think we can give our players something more. Something that perhaps will give them a bit more strength when they put on their pads. Something I think they will value more than our concern.
We can give them respect.
The player knows he is in danger when he goes out there. He knows that he might be hurt today. But that is the game. If we say that cricket builds character & discipline, that it makes us better men, it is because of a reason. This game we love tests everything we have, technique, resolve, determination, patience, but most of all, courage. In a time when we blame our players for not playing well enough, for not trying hard enough, for making too much money, or in extreme cases, when we throw stones at their houses, it would do us well to remember that, as Simon Barnes put it, every innings is an act of courage. Maybe, just maybe, our respect would give them a little bit more of it.
Where to, now, for the cricketing community, then? Michael Clarke ended his speech at an emotional funeral with these words, & I don’t think it can be put better.
“We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on.”
Farewell Phillip, you little beauty, you.
When my father starts talking about Vivian Richards, there is this glint in his eyes I love. I can tell you what he’ll say, to the word. Vivian was big, he’ll say, imitating the famous swagger of the Caribbean master, and then he’ll tell me why he loved Vivian Richards, and why the world loved him too. He showed the white man how to hit a cricket ball, my father will say, he battered them into submission.
He showed them, did Vivian. That’s what my father will say.
For my father’s generation, Vivian Richards was the black man who gave it back to the white overlord. He was an era’s pent up emotion; he was their black salute. To a generation that rose from apartheid, stung by issues of race & strengthened by a sense of community, he was more than a cricketer.
Vivian Richards was an icon.
In the preface to the single greatest book on cricket ever written, Beyond a Boundary, the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James wrote, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The sentence was not entirely his, being a take on a line in Kipling’s poem ‘English Flag’, but to me, that is the most beautiful and meaningful sentence written about the game I love.
When Sachin Tendulkar made his test debut against the arch enemy in Karachi, he was 16. The bowling attack he faced still gives me goosebumps – Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir. Warriors and magicians they were; arguably the best bowling lineup ever assembled after the great West Indian pace battery of Clive Lloyd.
The year was 1989.
India wasn’t going anywhere.
Having modeled itself on the USSR’s economic policies of state control and central planning, India remained a financial crackpot of a country. The power of its young population was squandered in those years, entrepreneurship was buried behind so many layers of red tape, corruption and elite control that creative energies fizzled out. The only way you could get into the middle class in those dark days was if you could snag a government job through bribes or well placed contacts, or work in one of the public sector enterprises. Goods were scarce; imports for the state controlled markets were sold exclusively on the black market.
My country struggled to eat the food it wanted to, work in sectors in wanted to, do things it wanted to; the world looked down upon it.
The world had reason to. Millions of dollars in foreign aid reached our shores. Well heeled westerners travelling to the ‘exotic east’ found that everything was beautiful, but that India was stagnating, rotting away in an ugly sludge of its own making.
And India’s young people were sad, a proud culture found its uniqueness and identity questioned. National pride is seldom threatened in India; our country has fought wars armed only with unnatural courage and blind patriotism. But still, young India found itself in a strange place then. Their country was giving them nothing to be proud of.
It was then, on finding itself in an economic situation with probably no other solution, India opened up its markets to the world. India’s infamous red tape found its length shortened by several kilometers. Foreign corporations were allowed entry into the humungous Indian domestic market; for the first time in decades, monopolies were challenged, competitiveness was questioned. India was back.
The year was 1991.
Sachin was turning heads in the cricketing fraternity that year. And the heads that turned to see him stayed glued. He was complete, they said, he was the best since Bradman, they said. They argued about him, wrote about him, and basically went crazy over a teenager who could hit balls thrown at him with a heavy wooden bat.
It was in the 1991-92 tour to Australia, when Sachin made 148 on a Sydney pitch alien to a boy from the Bombay maidans, that Merv Hughes made his famous remark to Allan Border. He said, “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB”.
Sachin was becoming the player India hoped and prayed he would be. But even one person among the entire booming population of my country could not have imagined what we came to associate with Sachin, and what he came to mean to us.
India was growing. Money was coming into the country. PV Narasimha Rao’s government had demolished the bulk of the License Raj, invited multinationals in, and cut import duties and taxes. People had more to spend. Things were looking up after a long time. The English news channels on newly arrived cable television had nice things to say about India. Smartly dressed anchors and journalists debated India’s growing might at prime time. India was to be the next superpower, they said, India would grow like there was no tomorrow and that there was no stopping it.
And Sachin, being the star that he was, became the best vehicle for newly arrived brands to reach an adoring local population.
When Sachin said ‘Boost is the secret of my energy’, we flocked to buy Boost. When Sachin declared that there was ‘Nothing official’ about Pepsi during the 1996 World Cup, we refused to drink anything else.
Bollywood boomed too, in those days. The age was one of action movies, where a good guy, someone we called the ‘hero’, would beat up several bad guys, kill the villain, and get the girl. A young India modeled itself on those movies. We wanted to be that hero. On the global stage, we wanted India to be that hero, the proverbial ‘good guy’.
In one of those years my father bought a Bajaj Sunny for my mother to go to school on – a weak looking, little plastic thing. But in those days, for a defense family to have two vehicles –my father’s Bajaj Chetak was the other one, was unheard of. The day the red scooter came home, an occasion for Pujas, coconut-breaking, and friends to come over, there was a cricket match. I remember the scene clearly. All of us Air Force families sat together eating a south Indian sweet called ‘Kesari’ my mother had made, and watched Sachin bat.
Those were good times, the 90s, full of hope, music and a belief in the country’s future and its place in the power plays of the world. It was a time of national pride.
Sachin was an embodiment of that pride. When the world hailed him, we were overjoyed, we were vindicated. Here was an Indian being the best at something in the world; we believed it was only a matter of time before we were the best at everything.
It was Sachin who first made us believe.
I was 2 when he made his India debut. I was in primary school when he smashed the Australians to oblivion at Sharjah; ‘desert storm’, we called it. I was writing my 10th board exams when he let loose against Pakistan in the World Cup. I was studying engineering, my graduate degree when I watched him in a TV shop window, winning the CB series in Australia. I was in the auditorium of my business school when MS Dhoni’s India won the World Cup after 28 years and dedicated it to Sachin. I had been working for 3 years when I cried as I watched his engraved-in-memory visage take the field for the last time.
When I say I grew up with him, I’m not kidding. I’m 26 years old, and I have not known the game I love without him.
I’m just one boy among millions; I’m talking entire lives here.
The void is not just physical, it’s emotional. Sachin was the last remnant of a time India holds very dear to its heart. He was our leading light in those days of hope and approaching glory. Because we Indians have never believed in anything as much as we believe in our country. And we never believed in a person as much as we did in Sachin.
This is the void that he has left behind, and that is why India cried that day, as its greatest sporting hero walked into the dusk, leaving behind memories a proud nation will cherish, and tell stories about.
To my father, the memory of Vivian Richards is one of rebellion, of defiance, of heroism.
To me, the memory of Sachin is of my nation’s rise.
Sachin took an emerging India to the world, as much as he brought the world to us.
He was our last action hero.