Friday, April 10, 2015

The Lost Cricketer

                                   The Lost Cricketer

Cricket Ajja died of a massive cardiac arrest. When we went to his home to see him one last time, it was what we had expected. There was a Kookaburra in his right hand, his first two fingers still firmly on the seam. His old wife was saying he was describing the 1999 World Cup semi-finals between Australia and South Africa, when he suffered the cardiac arrest. A fitting end it was........

None of us knew what Cricket Ajja's real name was. May be his wife knew it, but true to her husband's wishes, she never revealed it. Everybody called him Cricket Ajja. He was grandpa to all of us cricket hungry folk in the neighbourhood.  He had always been there for us.

Cricket Ajja always talked with great pride about the day he was born. Even as the worried midwife struggled to get him out of his mother's womb, it seems Cricket Ajja's father was busy scoring a century (against whom was a detail he conveniently forgot, every time). His father returned, being awarded man-of-the-match and placed his bat in Cricket Ajja's hands. And Cricket Ajja's fingers had instantly wrapped around the bat. "My son will be a cricketer" decided a proud father and the journey had begun!

It was rigorous regimen for Cricket Ajja from then on. His first plaything was a plastic cricket bat. His father was his first coach. His mother had been strictly instructed to talk only of cricket at home. Education obviously took backseat. His schooling had ended in a funny way. Cricket Ajja went to the market to buy coconuts for chutney. The shopkeeper offered two for 5 annas. In a rare moment of inspiration, Cricket Ajja had bargained for three coconuts for 10 annas. His father realised education was not for Cricket Ajja.
"Maths was never my strong point. But my bargain that day was any day better than the calculations of those two dim witted blokes....Duckworth and Lewis! 22 runs from 1 ball! I started working on a new system of calculations that very day!" We still remembered those days when he tried to learn linear equations from us when we were school going kids. 

What enthralled us most was the story of his marriage. "I won my beautiful" he used to say emphatically. Cricket Ajja first saw his wife when we he went to play against Ramanagara Taluk. Smitten, he had asked her father. Her father, an ardent fan of the game himself, organised a cricket match between the best team in his Taluk and Cricket Ajja's eleven. If Cricket Ajja won, "I'll marry her off to you in style" her father had declared. The local team had batted first. In a massive run chase and a dream finish, Cricket Ajja finished the game with a boundary off the last ball. 
" There were multiple images running in my mind at the time. My beautiful, her father, my pride, my team's pride. Fine leg was in and long-on out. Third man was out and mid-off in the circle. I knew the bowler would try to york me, without giving me room. I shuffled a bit to confuse him. I don't know if he got confused though. In a burst of inspiration, I danced down the track and hoisted him over mid-off! What happened later is a blur! All I remember is my beautiful...smiling at me from the crowd.
 "She is my dearest trophy" he would declare at the end each time he narrated the story.

With so much passion and talent, we always wondered why he didn't make the national side. Cricket Ajja's eyes used to get dreamy every time that question was put to him. We would never forget the way he sighed in despair.
 " Fate. I was to board the train to Delhi in a couple of hours when my father suffered a stroke. I had six brothers and a couple of sisters by then.(My father always wanted his own cricket team, the rascal!). He said ' I don't have much time. Life is like cricket my son. And you need to shepherd this team against its formidable attack' (Even on his deathbed, he could speak metaphors!).
I knew nothing else to earn a living, but could not desert my siblings. There ended my longing for international cricket. I had to buckle down and weather the storm that was thrown at us once my father died. I was like a top order batsman shepherding tail-enders. Every time I ducked a bouncer, life had one more up its sleeve. It took a couple of decades for the track to ease. And by that time, it was retirement time".

Through all this hardship, Cricket Ajja's passion for the game never withered one bit. He was amongst the volunteers for the first test match at the Chinaswamy stadium in 1974. During weekends, he umpired many local matches and even gully cricket at that time for a rupee or two. Though his reflexes slowed down and his cricketing ability declined with age, his cricketing brain was sharp as ever. Along with this was his appetite for statistics and a photographic memory. 

Once TV became commonplace in the 90s, Cricket Ajja became famous. He had this special gift of watching the game on TV and remembering every bit of it - from the scores to the field placements to the commentary. For those who missed the match on TV due to office or other errands, Cricket Ajja would narrate every bit of it - along with pieces of commentary on the way.
We would sit mesmerised as he described the India-Pakistan World Cup quarterfinal in Bangalore. Cricket Ajja would tell anyone who believed him that he had predicted Aamir Sohail's dismissal the next ball, after he chided Venkatesh Prasad. Even 10 years after that famous win, we would sit around Cricket Ajja as he narrated the epic battle, as though Sanjaya was narrating the Kurukshetra to Dhritrashtra. "Waqar Younis breathed fire that day...but Sidhu was relentless. Even Gods were watching the game from the heavens..India could never lose" he would add his own touch of romance to the story.

South Africa seemed to be his favorite side after India. For whatever reason. May be he felt eternal sympathy for them after their exit in the 1992 World Cup. Or he was taken in completely by their fielding. Cricket Ajja was one of those rare Indian cricketers who seemed to place fielding above batting and bowling. " Save 20 runs on the field. Take your catches. They are more valuable than the centuries you score. Learn from Jonty!" he would urge us after every game we lost to Chamarajpet X1. His first heart attack, incidentally, was after South Africa exited from the 1999 World Cup, having tied with Australia in the Semis. He vowed he would never forgive Gibbs for the drop catch in the Super Sixes. A few years later, he more than forgave him after Gibbs scored 175 to help South Africa chase down Australia's 434. 

His life took a different turn when someone suggested he could make use of his abilities as an analyst. That he could render services to some local channel or write a column for some newspaper. Cricket Ajja was seen those days with Wren and Martin - looking to polish and hone his English skills. A few of us asked him why he didn't try a Kannada newspaper. " I can't describe cricket in Kannada. The intricacies of field placing, the subtlety of won't do justice" he said. A couple of his articles made the Times of India, but eventually he couldn't cope and gave up the effort. 

Instead, he turned to description and narration full time. He would describe the greatest contests in cricket to anyone who asked, but for a fee. The charge would differ for one day games and tests. It would depend on if you wanted him to describe the match in one hour or five hours. If the game was featuring India, obviously he would charge a premium. But if the game was close to his heart, you could get it for a discount. All he would ask was a coffee before the start of narration, a juice at the end of the first innings and a meal at the end of the match. To be honest, we enjoyed living games through Cricket Ajja's description than the highlights on TV. 

Cricket Ajja plodded on till 2007. That was the year serious concerns about his health surfaced. He apparently went into a depression when India exited first round from the World Cup. He was an ardent Rahul Dravid fan and the sight of Dravid weeping had a lasting impact on Cricket Ajja. After he recovered, he spent a lot of days scouting around Dravid's Bengaluru home for a glimpse of him. Cricket Ajja's ability to describe was not at its peak anymore after that.

And as though rubbing salt to the wound, IPL started off in 2008. Cricket Ajja vehemently opposed the format, saying it would hurt the technique and temperament of budding cricketers. He even forbid our team from watching IPL. But it did not work. Slowly, people started alienating him and drifted towards the entertainment provided by IPL. People who used to flock to him, asking him to describe one-day matches from the early 90s, asked him to describe IPL games - simply because of the excitement and the adrenaline in those games. But Cricket Ajja couldn't connect with IPL at all. It was a fest of boundaries,stars, cheergirls and crackers - there was no room for cricket. He even started hating Navjot Sidhu.

The last time any of us saw Cricket Ajja cheerful was when India won the World Cup in 2011. He came to each of our homes, offering us home made Mysore Pak. He mostly remained confined to his home, trying to write a book titled "In Cricket Ajja's Eyes..." Once in a while, he would call one of us to his home to check the manuscript and edit it for spelling and grammar.


" The Doctor had advised against excitement and shock, after his last attack in 2012. I tried switching off the TV in the last 10 overs. But he wouldn't listen" mourned his wife. 
Cricket Ajja had apparently suffered the heart attack after the semi-finals between New Zealand and South Africa in the recent World Cup. The excitement indeed was too much, and what with South Africa losing, the attack seemed quite imminent and inevitable.  Cricket Ajja died a couple of days later. 

Cricket Ajja was buried with the Kookaburra in his right hand and his favorite cricket bat - with which he had won the game to win over his wife. He had a strange last wish.

He wanted a particular stone in our neighbourhood wall to be used as wicket, for all budding cricketers in the area. And on that stone he wanted his epitaph. 

                                      " A Man who Lived for the Game. A Man who Lived the Game. 

                                                                    Cricket Ajja plays on."

We have resolved to make sure any kid who takes up cricket seriously, first plays on that track, with Cricket Ajja's stone as wicket. And to ensure Cricket Ajja's blessings, we make sure he gets out bowled atleast once!

                                                                                               - 10th April 2015