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PAST & PRESENT

An apology to Uttar Pradesh

BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA

A story of divided loyalties and a sense of guilt that took forty years to go away.



Shrewd captain: Kaif after his century in the Ranji Final. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

AS my friends and family will confirm, in most practical matters I am hopelessly impractical. I am prone to making and then missing appointments, accepting and then rejecting jobs. My academic papers are in a mess, my financial papers in a shambles. There is only one exception to this general rule. This relates to my place of residence, which I have always chosen wisely, and well. When I worked in Delhi, I lived down the road from the Ferozeshah Kotla. Now, in Bangalore, I live down the road from the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

In making these choices, I have had more than myself in mind. I was thinking, for example, of the future generation of cricket-fanatics with whom I happened to live. Thus it was that in March 1998, I took my son, then all of seven years old, down the road to watch his first first-class match. And it was the finals of the Ranji Trophy, no less.

While this was my son's first visit to the Chinnaswamy Stadium, I had, of course, spent much time at the place myself. It was here that, back in 1974, I had watched Karnataka beat Delhi and then Bombay en route to winning the Ranji Trophy for the first time. Later, I had watched some exciting Test cricket here, Rodney Hogg bowling to Sunil Gavaskar and Mutthiah Muralitharan pitted against Sachin Tendulkar. But I also had cherished memories of cricket other than that played at the first-class and Test level. For, it was also at the Chinnaswamy Stadium that I had cheered my club, Friends Union, when they won the State's First Division championship for the first time.

The order of cricketing loyalties is roughly as follows: first, Friends Union Cricket Club; next, Karnataka; then, India; finally, anyone but England. Since FUCC is subsumed by Karnataka which is subsumed by India, these loyalties do not usually clash. However, on this occasion in March 1998, I entered the Chinnaswamy Stadium with mixed feelings. For, Karnataka were playing against Uttar Pradesh, the State where I was born and reared. At the age of eight, in 1966, when faced with the choice of which Ranji Trophy team to support, I had somewhat opportunistically preferred the State of my ancestors. For, UP was then the weakest team in the weakest zone, while Karnataka had as many as three players in the Indian side.

My choice paid dividends, for, Karnataka went on to win the Ranji Trophy on several occasions thereafter. But with Uttar Pradesh now in the final, feelings of guilt, previously suppressed but never entirely extinguished, came to the fore. Perhaps I still wanted Karnataka to win, but I did hope UP would put up a decent show.

The visitors won the toss, and elected to bat. The first over was bowled by Javagal Srinath, and therein lies a tale of insubordination. The Indian team were away playing masala matches in Sharjah. Srinath, however, had been asked to rest in view of the harder challenges ahead. But when he heard that the Board officials were also in Sharjah, the fast bowler decided that he would disregard their instructions and play in this Ranji Trophy final instead. You see, like me, Srinath loves his State even more than he loves his country.

In his first over, Srinath bowled one batsman and had another caught at slip. Those early wickets brought to the crease a young, fresh-faced boy who had chosen to bat bare-headed. For close to two hours he played with complete assurance. Where his helmeted colleagues ducked and weaved against India's fastest bowler, this lad of 17 got solidly into line. At lunch he was around 20 not out, and his side were about 55 for 5. At this stage I took my son home. For, we had seen enough to know that Karnataka would win the match by an innings. We had also seen enough to know that the fresh-faced lad would play for India one day soon.

Earlier this month, that boy, now a man, led Uttar Pradesh to its first Ranji Trophy championship. Mohammad Kaif — for that was and is his name — scored 80 odd in the first innings and hit a century in the second. He also fielded brilliantly — as is his wont — and marshalled his bowlers with skill. In a close-fought match, he was the leading batsman, while a leg-spinner named Piyush Chawla was the leading bowler. Like his captain, Chawla was 17 when he played his first Ranji final. And like Kaif, he will assuredly go on to play for India.

I followed the course of the Ranji final on the newspapers and on the Web. This time, since Karnataka were not playing, my loyalties were undivided. I wanted Uttar Pradesh to win, because I was born there, and because I wanted so desperately to assuage the guilt that had persisted since my original betrayal 40 years ago.

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