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A Poetry Long Gone

Time was, you could feel cricket. YouTube killed the radio star.

A Poetry Long Gone
Getty Images (From Outlook 30 July 2012)
A Poetry Long Gone

This may be an audacious—and perhaps old-fashioned and elitist—opinion to express, but I shall go ahead and do it anyway. When Rahul Dravid retired, something much larger than his brilliant career ended. At least in India, Dravid was the last great flag-bearer of the Grand Tradition of cricket.

More than probably any other sport in the world, cricket has a tradition. This goes far beyond the length of the pitch and the right way to hit a cover drive. The leg-glance did not exist before Ranji, just as the switch-hit did not before Kevin Pietersen. Night cricket, coloured clothes and the white ball were unheard of before Kerry Packer’s mutiny. The cricket bat itself has seen various innovations and design changes. No, The Grand Tradition is the subtext of cricket as a game, an aesthetic and a form of meta-ethics. Those who can sense its defining features, do so instinctively. Those who can’t get it, possibly never will. Let’s just say that it’s an astonishing coincidence that the pioneering spirit of cricket’s Grand Tradition was a man called Grace.

In our times, we have seen that Grand Tradition, that began with W.G. Grace, die. The Tradition has to do both with the players and the lovers of the game (I hate the word “fans” and will use that word only when it’s appropriate), and the relationship between the two. Both sides must share some of the blame for the decay and demise of the Tradition, though it is fair to acknowledge that there were also greater forces at work, quite beyond the control of either side.

Even a glance (incidentally, a shot invented by Gilbert Jessop, the late 19th-early 20th century English batsman, who was the Sehwag of his age) at India’s current demographics would confirm that a majority of its cricket-lovers has grown up watching the game on TV. I belong to that minority that spent its childhood listening to cricket on the radio and, more importantly, reading about it. When I was a boy, there was quite a supply of cricket books in Bengali, as I am sure was the case with other Indian languages (the British books were all hardcover and unaffordable), and all of us read them voraciously. Most of these books dealt with the past—heroes, cliffhanger Test matches, extraordinary feats of batting and bowling. So one learnt about Victor Trumper, as humane as he was brilliant; Wilfred Rhodes, who played his last Test under a captain who hadn’t been born when Rhodes debuted for England (Rhodes was a “professional”, and only “amateurs” could be captain); Hedley Verity, who took six wickets for nine runs in the last county match played before the Second World War, and was killed in the war; Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell, men who epitomised Black dignity; the bodyline series (as a result of what I had read as a boy, I found the 1980s TV series Bodyline nauseatingly biased towards Australia); and, of course, The Don.

Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 30 July 2012

For his 233 at Adelaide, Dravid batted 14 hours in 39°C. YouTube has it, but only the boundaries, as fair a measure of his feat as Sistine Chapel shot on a phone camera.

My father told me stories. In 1934, in Calcutta, India faced Douglas Jardine’s England. England scored more than 400. One of India’s openers was the young wicketkeeper Dilawar Hussain, playing his first Test. He was hit on the head by the fearsome Larwood and retired hurt. But he returned, his head bandaged, blood seeping through, and top-scored with 59. India followed on, and were soon in dire straits. Then Dilawar appeared again, this time at five down, and slaughtered the English bowling, scoring a rapidfire 57, including a towering six, and saved the match. Perhaps 30 years after I first heard the story, I checked on cricinfo, and found it to be true (well, mostly; Dilawar was not hit by Larwood, but by Morris Nichols—Larwood wasn’t playing). Dilawar Hussain played only three Tests for India, preferring the academic life, excelling at Cambridge, rising to head a London college, and co-founding the Pakistan Cricket Board. My father’s face would glow with pride whenever he spoke of Dilawar’s lone battle against England, and it was only much later that I realised that, in 1934, he would have been too young to read the papers; he would have also heard the story from older members of his family.

He would also tell me how Prabir (Khokan) Sen, India’s wicketkeeper on the 1947-48 Australia tour, stumped Bradman. And Sen had even warned the great man just a few deliveries earlier that he was going too far forward to Mankad, and Sen would stump him if he missed. Bradman didn’t listen and got his just deserts. We would imagine The Don walking back to the pavilion, turning his head periodically to gaze appreciatively at this bold Bengali.

The story is totally untrue. Sen never stumped Bradman. But it was part of cricket lore, and it was precious. It was innocuous ethnic pride.

Enough has been written about how a suppressed or troubled nation can find pride and redemption through sport, I need not add to that. But there are things even more important than nations. C.L.R. James writes in his unparalleled Beyond A Boundary: “There is a whole generation of us (West Indians; James was born in 1901), and perhaps two generations, who have been formed by (cricket) not only in social attitudes but in our most intimate personal lives, in fact there more than anywhere else. The social attitudes to some degree we could alter if we wished. For the inner self, the die was cast.” That was the power of the game’s Tradition.

In those pre-TV days, we had to use our imagination a lot. In 1979, we could only listen to the radio commentary and try to visualise India’s epic fourth-innings chase at the Oval. Set 438 to win, Gavaskar and Chauhan put up 231 before the latter was out. India was far behind on required run rate, but it looked like we would save the match. Then Vengsarkar joins Gavaskar, and suddenly the scoring accelerates. In seemingly no time, India are 380. Less than 60 to make, and nine overs left. Then the wickets start falling. Finally, with nine to win, two wickets left, and one ball to go, Mike Brearley whips the bails off the stumps and signals the end of the match (I’ve always wondered why he didn’t let Peter Willey bowl that last delivery to Bharat Reddy, what difference would it have made?). Sitting in my Bombay bedroom, listening to my Telefunken transistor radio, I could almost see all of it happening.

Lone shot The only photo of the tied Aus-Windies Test in Brisbane, 1960

Almost see. Today, we are in a position to see everything, from different angles, speeded up and slowed down, at a time of our convenience. The experts are on hand, to explain everything to us. Bizarre humour and attractive women have been added as garnishing. In effect, we watch a show, in many ways not fundamentally different from the many song-and-dance contests on our channels. The fans are rooted firmly in the present, and the past, to them, is of zero interest or relevance. The experts never refer to any game that took place more than five years ago. Like in many other things Indian, history has been excised, and the game of cricket has become just another means to amuse ourselves to death.

Sehwag hooks a delivery to the fence, and anyone would be laughed out of the room (or be met with uncomprehending and suspicious looks) if he said it reminded him of a Neville Cardus line about an imperious English batsman: “He didn’t merely hook the ball, he dismissed it from his presence.”

A tradition which loses its history and its lore becomes a mere ritual, meaningless by itself. Yet, we see this happening in a time when technology allows us to rewind almost anything.

To come back to Rahul Dravid—the man who, according to me, was the last great carrier-on of the Tradition—every single international and T20 innings of his has been captured by TV cameras (the editor of Outlook reminded me the other day of something that I had entirely forgotten: during the 1996 Lord’s Test, in which both Ganguly and Dravid debuted, we had had a two-hour phone conversation while watching them bat, he in Mumbai, I in Delhi, discussing these two young batsmen and agreeing that we were watching the beginning of something very important for Indian cricket). The highlights of every great Dravid performance should be available on YouTube. His magnificent 233 at Adelaide in 2003 will be on the internet till the end of time. But will it really be? To score those runs, Dravid batted for a monumental 14 hours in temperatures rising to 39 degrees Celsius. YouTube will only store his boundaries, which will give as fair an impression of his feat as just one shot taken with a cellphone camera would give of the Sistine Chapel.

The YouTube video is—and will remain—a lie. A 600-word essay would possibly come far closer to the truth; reading—or watching—an interview with Dravid (or Laxman who was at the other end for much of the time) would perhaps give us more insight into what goes into such an innings, but would any fan be interested? In fact, most likely, he does not even remember the innings, even if he was a cricket-crazy teenager then.

On YouTube, we can watch Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” that dismissed Mike Gatting. But there is no visual record of Prasanna or Bedi at their prime, of Mankad or Hazare, or of the sixes hit by C.K. Nayudu and Salim Durrani. It is important to understand that, in a way, the very convenience of YouTube wipes out, for the fan, the first 100 years of international cricket almost completely, and takes away his innocence—he can “see” so much, why should he try to imagine the magic of a Jack Hobbs in full flow?

Oval, 1979. India’s epic 4th innings chase: 438 to win. Gavaskar and Chauhan score 231. Exit the latter, enter Vengsarkar. Score: 380. I ‘saw’ it all, on my Telefunken transistor.

An aside, but perhaps a relevant one, because it concerns how technology has changed our relationship with the game. There is only one photograph that exists of the climax of the tied Test between Australia and West Indies at Brisbane in 1960. Plate photography was still the norm, and there was only one photographer in the stadium who had any plates left and he had only one. There were two balls left in the game, with the scores tied, and Australia nine wickets down. Plate photography meant that one had to put the plate in the camera as the bowler came in to bowl. So Ron Lovitt of The Age had to take a chance—should he shoot the second-last delivery or the last? As Wes Hall came in to bowl his seventh delivery (Tests in Australia had eight-ball overs then), he shoved the plate in. Kline makes edgy contact with the bat and runs. Joe Solomon at square leg, with only one stump in view, throws and hits, running out a scrambling Meckiff. Cricket has just seen something entirely new, and only one man has been able to capture that moment, on a blind gamble. (The last over is available on YouTube, with Wes Hall’s comments). If Lovitt had waited....

Once you lose the past, you are off the continuum, being left only with discrete events which have no value beyond their specific durations. Mushtaq Ali played his last Test more than a decade before I was born, but in the 1980s, Indian cricket-lovers wondered how the Merchant-Mushtaq opening pair would have compared with the then-current Gavaskar-Srikkanth combination. It was not a matter of statistics. It was just curiosity: suppose we could watch both these duos play, for, though separated by decades, they were essentially similar—one the cautious fortress of technique, the other the swashbuckler always open to the idea of hitting a six off the first ball he faced.

Cricket has always been a game that is an endless source of argument. Humongous amounts of statistics can be generated, and massaged to bolster any and every viewpoint; add to that the many qualitative factors: style, panache, grit, need of the hour. As a character in The Final Test (1954), the only feature film ever made wholly centred on cricket, says about a great batsman (I paraphrase): “I have seen him score a century before lunch, and I have seen him make 43 in an entire day of play. In both cases, he broke the back of the opposition. What a batsman!” But even that vast cascade of arguments seems to be a trickle now, except among the diehard. We, the currently middle-aged, misspent untold hours of our youth arguing who the better batsman was, Gavaskar or Vishwanath. The dispute involved matters as diverse as statistics, aesthetics, morality and free will. Was Pataudi the greatest Indian captain ever? That one involved stuff ranging from the strength of the teams he led to feudal mindsets.

Forget all those old questions. Even that one debate that raged for a decade in the recent past seems to have died: is Tendulkar better than Bradman? Today’s delirious war-painted fans haven’t even possibly heard of Bradman. The number 99.94 would imply an FM channel to them, rather than a career batting average. And that’s sad for the fans, simply because they are missing so much of the game, and what it’s all about.

C.L.R. James called cricket an art—as much so as theatre, ballet or opera (it may not be a coincidence that Neville Cardus, the greatest cricket journalist ever, was also his paper’s music critic). And like all great forms of art, James said, watching a marvellous game of cricket (he mentioned Miller and Lindwall bowling to Hutton and Compton) allows one to “grasp at a more complete human existence”.

Over the decades, through deficiency of memory, lack of curiosity, disinterest in history, heightened need for instant gratification, and all that with a blind submission to technology, we may have reduced an art to a comic strip, an epic to pulp fiction.

The author is a cricket lover and former managing editor, Outlook

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