The wit and wisdom of the willow
Even the dullest of cricket matches can be made entertaining by the humorous and witty remarks of fans who throng the stadium. And this is especially true of Chennai-ites, to whom the game provides many happy moments.
"SAY, WHEN do they begin?" Groucho Marx is reported to have said while watching a cricket match at Lord's. Cricket may be slow, on occasion, but it has always provided entertainment to spectators, viewers, listeners and readers. Well, Groucho Marx might have been at Madras watching Barrington and Bolus obdurately blocking ball after ball and boring spectators to death.
However, the resilience of the cricket fan at Madras is legendary. It needs more than dull English batsmen to keep him down. The spectators at the Corporation Stadium simulated a funeral procession with corpse, conch et al around the stands to relieve the tedium. Clearly the Indian cricket lover (and, in my view, more so the Madras one) will entertain even on the occasions that he is not being entertained.
Speaking of myself, some of the happiest moments in my life have been spent playing, watching or following cricket. And I wasn't alone. My friends who shared this interest had one more thing in common with me. Their interest in the game far exceeded their ability to play it. They, like me, were glued to the radio.
My trusted Philips transistor was my window to the world of sport. I went to sleep with it and woke up with it. I was in a world of my own. A world enriched by Alan McGilvray, Brian Johnston, Trevor Bailey and John Arlott. I would recount over and over again Brian Johnston's famous description of "The bowler's Holding and the Batsman's Willey". I would go into splits at John Arlott's comment on a streaker that old women in the stadium were seeing something that they had not seen for years. Much later, Richie Benaud while confronted with the same situation would say: "There was a slight interruption there for athletics". The radio followed our team, and us, to league matches where stirring things were happening at Melbourne or Sydney even though we might have been playing only at Pachayappa's.
Inspired we might have been by the giants of sports commentary, I must say that nothing gave us more enjoyment than our own wit. In hindsight, I must say many of my friends missed their true calling. They should have been commentators instead of being bank clerks that they started out as. (I too started my career as a bank clerk, counting other people's money and writing other people's fixed deposit receipts). They would have a comment for every over, every situation, even every ball. The comment of a friend would be immediately followed by a "come in Lala" (a cheeky reference to the redoubtable Lala Amarnath) and a loud guffaw from the rest. They were quite confident about their ability to judge, which batsman was out and who wasn't. When an overseas batsman was rapped on the pads, our budding member of the elite ICC panel of umpires would cheerfully pronounce "Adyar lendhu out!" Never mind the fact that he was sitting at midwicket and the match was being played at Chepauk.
My friends never let unnecessary details come in the way of their convictions. Nor was our experience restricted to merely listening or viewing. All of us played league and college cricket and had our own repertoire of stories to keep us regaled even as we were fighting the threat of relegation.
There was a talented wicket keeper friend of mine who was born in the same decade as Bharat Reddy (the Indian wicket keeper) and hence, missed out the big time. And yet he never missed an opportunity to raise a laugh. In a league match the batsman jumped down the wicket, played a big shot and ended up getting a thick edge. My wicket keeper friend caught it jubilantly and also whipped off the bails for good measure. He appealed confidently first to the straight umpire and then to the leg umpire. Both the eminent gentlemen in white promptly and politely ruled "Not out". My friend was livid but by the evening had recovered his equanimity and philosophically said, "Can't help it, the straight umpire was deaf and the leg umpire was blind." I must say that whatever I have recounted sounds more hilarious in Tamil. The glorious game might have come from England, but we could add to its richness in our native tongue.
Then there was this wonderful batsman, the fluency of whose cover drive was matched by the fluency of his commentary about his batting. We didn't have access to ear plugs those days, so even as he put up with his modesty (!) we looked for ways to get even. One Sunday, he went out to bat preparing our gullible group for what lay in store for us. He played a neat cover drive to saunter through for his first run. Spectators and fielders alike were taken aback by the loud cheers and shouts of "bat up" that emanated from the pavilion. My friend, who was the brain behind this, winked and said, "You must always cheer someone who has made a century even if he has scored 99 in the comfort of the pavilion and let his tongue do the talking!" Sometimes I wonder who had the sharper tongue.
Speaking of sharper tongues, woe betides the opening batsman (usually me) who got out in the opening over. He was doomed for the day. As for my opening partner he would ask, "Oh, some important engagement!" One hoped that the RKM ground would just open and you could disappear beneath it.
Today, there is a lot of talk of sledging of the opposition. But our worries were only our own team mates. Whenever I played an airy-fairy shot and missed the ball, I would studiously avoid looking at the pavilion. But I would still hear my friends saying, "Send a sweater, it must be cold in the slips." No wonder we bred a generation of orthodox cricketers.
But there was nothing orthodox about another friend of mine whose running between the wickets would have put Inzamam-ul-Haq to shame. Before the innings, he and his partner exchanged notes and instructions and agreed on calling "Yes" or "No" before every ball. The very first ball presented an opportunity. My friend started only to be accosted by a "wait and see." Unable to fathom the changed script, he kept running only to be stranded. He was hurt, quietly mourning into his rum in the evening. "I told him to say "Yes" or "No."
I guess I have been more fortunate than some others. I have experienced a wonderful life and sacrilegious though it may seem, some of my happiest moments have been around this wonderful game. I have never met His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and I am sure he should consider himself fortunate for this small mercy. And yet I believe he got it absolutely right when he said, "There is a widely held but quite erroneous belief that cricket is just another game."
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