Saturday, February 5, was semifinals day at the DY Patil T20 Cup 2023 in Mumbai. The weather was perhaps Gemini. It was hot, yet a cool breeze blew through the DY Patil Stadium intermittently, causing the yellow ribbons around the white covered chairs in a section of the stands to flutter.
The gunshot like sound of bat meeting ball pierced the afternoon air. Players screamed in anguish or triumph. “Yes!” “Catch it!” “No, no!”
In the end, one man stood smiling more than the others. Hrithik Shokeen, with a 31-ball 46, had helped Reliance ‘A’ enter the final. They went on to win the title.
Shokeen plays for the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League (IPL). A 22-year-old with a dimpled smile, he also bowls off-spin. But on Saturday, he expressed happiness at the improvement he has made as a batsman.
Shokeen also spoke about how travelling with teammates helps him grow as a cricketer.
“Obviously, when you travel together, you talk to people, get to know their thought process. I try to talk to people around me so I can learn from the cricketing experiences they have had,” he told Outlook, amidst the detritus of game day – kit bags, television camera cables, water bottles.
One certainty in an uncertain life is some cricket will always be on, barring a once in a lifetime occurrence like Covid. Frequent series, and their telecast and advertising revenues, enrich the players and the Boards. They keep fans happy. It is a win-win.
Every year is a bumper year. India, for instance, are currently playing Australia at home. Up next are the Women’s Premier League (WPL) and the IPL. There will be the World Test Championship final in June. The season will culminate with the 50-over World Cup in India.
What this means is a suitcase is an integral part of cricketers’ lives. They are Willy Loman with bat or ball, though rarely as tragic. That leads to varied experiences and stories. The romance of cricket travel has added to the game’s image and literature.
Before plane journeys became the norm, teams travelled by ship. If it was a long tour, it would mean half a year or more away from home. England were out 227 days when they sailed to and from Australia for the 1936-37 Ashes. They set off from Southampton on September 11, 1936, and passed through Gibraltar, Toulon, Port Said and Suez. They stopped in Colombo to play a match and then continued to Australia.
On the way back, the team got off in the US, paid Hollywood a visit, took a train to New York, from where they sailed to the UK.
Playing in places along the route was a common feature those days. That is how Sri Lankan people got to see the mythical figure of Don Bradman in the flesh. Bradman played all his official cricket in Australia and the UK. But he stopped over four times in Sri Lanka (1930, 34, 38 and 48), and played on two occasions.
The journeys did not have to be long for players to educate themselves. Sunil Gavaskar recently recalled his early days in the Mumbai cricket team, and trips made by train to play matches.
“We would go by train those days. The seniors would play rummy and pull each other’s leg. But there was a great deal of cricketing insight to be gained even from their banter. We juniors would be banished to the upper berths, but we would learn a lot just hearing their stories and observing them,” the legendary opener said.
Gavaskar’s rapid rise from promising colt to world great meant that he became the observed one. And again, it was travel that enabled minds to meet, for knowledge to pass. In 1982, Martin Crowe was 18, and hungry to graduate to the game’s higher levels. During a match in Yorkshire, he managed to get a few minutes with Gavaskar.
“I picked my moment and swooped like a vulture,” Crowe wrote about the experience.
He asked Gavaskar, "Sir, when playing the West Indies, what is the single most important thing you must do to combat their pace and bounce?"
Stillness of head, eyes and posture are crucial for batsmen (unless you are Kris Srikkanth). Gavaskar revealed to Crowe that before going out to bat, he would stand in batting position against a wall. The additional support from the wall further steadied his already balanced stance.
Once on the pitch, Gavaskar would imagine the wall was still there.
“It was a lustrous piece of advice I never ever forgot,” Crowe wrote. He became New Zealand’s greatest batsman, elegant and thoughtful.
Travel also brought out other dimensions in cricketers. Anil Kumble became an avid photographer. England’s Jack Russell, a top notch painter, would sketch stadiums. Imran Khan ran up a long list of conquests off the field wherever he went, and brought the kind of sex appeal to cricket that had not been seen before, or has been since. Unlike many others who stayed cloistered in their hotel rooms, Steve Waugh would wade into the chaos and colours of places, including India, and write tour diaries. Inspired by a meeting with Mother Teresa in the mid-90s, he also took on humanitarian work, teaming up with the Udayan foundation in Kolkata.
“Watching shows you don’t want to watch, eating things you don’t want to eat, that did not excite me,” Waugh once told me. “I wanted to meet real people. I wanted to get out of the hotel room. India is an interesting place. You are never sure what you are going to get. It stimulates me to take photos, write, set up my charity.”
On a lighter note, travelling for some Indian players in the old days meant a desperate hunt for satisfying vegetarian food. This would often result in hilarious situations. As shown in the film ‘83’, K Srikkanth was happily fed by a South Indian family in the UK with an eligible daughter. But their hopes were quashed when they discovered Srikkanth was married. Burp.