I am a cricket lover. Cricinfo is a site I visit at least once a day. I played weekend amateur cricket all the way up to 2008. I have received chipped bones, torn nails, bruised limbs and a battered ego as compensation for my enthusiasm. I played cricket in school year round with no regard for seasons, soccer (or more accurately, football), monsoon or summer. Statistics may lie, but, ahh, what a glorious few hours can be spent in comparing the relative merits of two heroes, born generations apart but unified by the figures.
There cannot be for me a day better spent than under a weak winter sun, with a pile of sandwiches, a flask of coffee and a bag of easy-peel oranges, watching Test cricket. The weak winter sun is optional, as are the oranges, indeed all I really need is the sight of the bowler marking his runup, turning and moving in for the kill. Some do it with power and menace, some with daring and some with guile and to me there is nothing quite like a battle of nerves between an artful bowler and a talented batsman.
Heroes there were plenty. The legend of Richie Benaud as a leg-spinning all-rounder and wise captain was the first model. Since then I have admired the strokes that Azharuddin could play and the style he brought to the game. I saw all of his innings at Eden Gardens. He would come out after the sacrificial Indian openers of the time had whetted the appetite of the opposing bowlers and with glorious strokes played with supple wrists he became the main course to our dessert of oranges in those winter suns. His was a grace that is given to few, a talent that is conferred only to the chosen.
I saw Hansie Cronje lead a side that ground India into the outfield with big centuries from Andrew Hudson and Darryl Cullinan and twin centuries from later-to-be-Indian-coach Gary Kirsten before the inspired swing and pace of Lance Klusener blew the Indian batting away. Azhar topscored in both innings, a hundred (some say a selfish one) in the first and a fifty in the second. Hansie did very little of note in the match. He was to go on to do much more to change cricket.
And there were the days so absorbing as to be considered downright boring, such as New Year’s Day 1977 when I watched Tony Grieg race from 19 not out to 94 not out in but a single day, possibly due to a surfeit of new year cheer imbibed overnight. But to compensate, I could but wonder at the sight of that daringly colourful sardar, he of the dainty footsteps and the classical side-on twirl of his left arm, making the ball ask impertinent questions, the teasing flight of Prasanna and the mysterious and downright dangerous weaponry of Chandrasekhar. Privilege indeed, for an expensive, but always attacking leg spinning teenager.
TV came soon after and with it that great Calypso band, led by the explosive licks of Lloyd, featuring the flash of Greenidge and the gum-chewing power of Richards backed by the greatest rhythm section in cricket history, an awesome array of bowlers dealing out songs of pain, suffering and low batting averages. No team in the history of any sport worldwide comes close to the ascendancy displayed in those years by this team with the seemingly unending supply of ferocity.
The Australians were not a force they were to become and Indo-Pak rivalry was a monotonous affair broken only by occasional lapses into passion, such as when Imran or Kapil woke up the crowd lulled into slumber by the mind-numbing Mudassar Nazar. New Zealand was just New Zealand, Sri Lanka was not yet a force. England then, as now, had few clues about what to do on the sub-continent, especially when Vaseline was definitely not allowed and considered a very bad thing.
I never saw Salim Malik play and saw Wasim Akram, in retirement, in an exhibition game. And I have no regrets about never being at the ground to see Ajay Jadeja or Ajay Sharma play. And what I saw of Manoj Prabahakar I wish I hadn’t.
I don’t see cricket anymore, living as I do, far removed from the sub-continent, an ocean away from any Test level cricket. And so I have not seen Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif or Mohammad Amir play. I suppose no one will ever see them play at the highest level again. They took their cue from Azhar, Hansie, Malik, Sharma, Jadeja, Prabhakar and Akram. A thousand pities, for their stupidity and greed have cost the great sport immensely.
Faith has been broken, and tears are being cried, possibly and hopefully, actual ones by the three incarcerated and virtually by countless fans around the world.
But wild horses would not drag me away from a chance to spend a day in the winter sun of my youth, watching the athletic leap of Imran, the swing and cut of Hadlee, the power of the Caribbean crew, the sheer pace of Thomson, the mystery of Warne, Prasanna, Bedi and Chandrasekhar. And facing them would be the gift of Gavaskar, the luminosity of Lara, the indomitable spirit of Waugh and Border, the deliberation of Dravid, the talent of Tendulkar, the disguised dispassion of Richards and the grace of Gower.
Take me back, please, to the gentler days, the fine days of the weak winter sun of my memory, the smell of the new red ball deliciously mixed with that of linseed oil, the sting on cold bare fingers in the cordon, the ring finger sore from the seam, a bleeding nail or two, the cheap communal lunches.
Take me back, please, to the time when pride in performance ruled over pride of place on the billboard, when a series came but once or twice a year and had to be savoured, when domestic matches had meaning, indeed, when international matches had more meaning than some of them do now as in the 2-Test series now being played between two of the greatest cricket teams.
And take those horrible people away, who would taint so noble a sport with their greed and lock them up. Weed them out, lay traps for them, let it be known that we will not allow them to sully our sport with their stratagems and schemes. Let them know who we are and that we will not allow them to slide through our hands.
And when the weak winter sun returns, so too will wily twirlers, fire-dealing pace-men, graceful stroke-makers and doughty fighters and with them will come a new generation of fans, enthralled and enticed as I was, oh so many years ago.
If the Keef can keep on rocking, I can keep on believing.