Different Strokes

I WAS EIGHT THAT YEAR. The Indian cricket team won an unlikely victory against the West Indies during their Caribbean tour in 1971. I discovered this from the color photographs in the Illustrated Weekly of India—a young Sunil Gavaskar, his sleeves rolled up, holding his bat aloft after stylishly driving through the covers. The red cricket ball shone like a cherry on the lush green outfield. The whites worn by the cricketers, the wooden bats with their straight lines and subtle curves, the dark borders on Gavaskar’s sweater. I cut out those pictures and made my first scrapbook. Which is all to say that so much of sports is based in memories, particularly memories of childhood. In those tableaux of youth, we replay scenes of bodies in motion, all of eternity contained in one or two universally admired gestures of the mythical great, with death seemingly held at bay.

The man who wrote those reports of India’s victories in the Illustrated Weekly was named Raju Bharatan. Like Gavaskar, he was from that distant metropolis, Bombay, renamed Mumbai in 1995. (Bombay was also the city where Hindi films were made—films, too, represent a medium in which people stay young forever.) Bharatan later became a voice on the radio for me, delivering commentary on Test matches. Television would not come to us till another decade had passed. Radio commentary and photos in sports magazines were the only way to follow cricket in my hometown, Patna. The matches were always played elsewhere, in big cities; we had to content ourselves with street cricket, in the heat of the summer, and often all day when the winter break arrived.

In 1983, when India achieved a surprising win at the Cricket World Cup, a television set had come into our home. Television meant that matches being played in faraway England and Australia were witnessed by us. Now, our heroes on abroad tours didn’t play alone, supported only by lonely immigrants in woolen attire. But this pleasure wasn’t mine for long. This was because I had been admitted to graduate school in the United States, a cricketless nation where people asked if the game was similar to baseball. At my university, newspapers from India arrived a week, sometimes two weeks, late. In the basement of the library, in the South Asia section, I read about a new batsman from Bombay who was being hailed as one of the game’s all-time greats. His name was Sachin Tendulkar. The late ’80s and the early ’90s—until the arrival of the internet—are my lost years, because I never saw Tendulkar bat. I would only read about him a week or two later. You know what that means, to have the limb of youth severed from the still-living trunk? It is to receive an intimation of death.

When I now read my fellow Indian writers recalling a cricket match played in, say, 1989, or even in 2005, I find myself helpless. My memories have no continuity. This absence is like a terrible excision. More than any other symptom of exile, this hollowness in the structure of my memories of cricket comes close to what I image aphasia might represent. If this doesn’t sound too exaggerated to you, you might want to know how I have responded to this loss, and if you do, you’ll have touched a nerve. I am that figure hunched over a laptop late in the night, dear reader, watching one old video after another on YouTube. Tendulkar’s “Desert Storm” innings against Australia in the Sharjah Cup in 1998, for example. A fiery 143-run assault in the semifinals and then 134 against the same opponent in the finals.

John Heritage, Test Match, ca. 1989, oil on canvas, 59 x 48". © Elaine C. Heritage/Courtesy the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.
John Heritage, Test Match, ca. 1989, oil on canvas, 59 x 48". © Elaine C. Heritage/Courtesy the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.

THERE ARE GAPS NOT JUST IN MY MEMORY—there are gaps also in my understanding of the game. Is it strategically better for a left-handed bowler to be bowling to a left-handed batsman? Or is this only true of a right-handed bowler? Over the wicket or around the wicket? It depends, perhaps? I don’t know. Maybe I don’t even care. The truth is that ever since I began thinking seriously of writing, and of writers delivering uncommon truths, I have been interested in cricket more for what is written about it.

Back in grad school, in a cultural studies seminar, to come across C. L. R. James’s magisterial Beyond a Boundary: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.” Or the cunning googly delivered by Ashis Nandy in The Tao of Cricket: “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.” Or V. S. Naipaul on his fellow islanders’ choice of this game that is like a carnival: “It is leisurely, intricate, difficult to appreciate, its drama often concealed or curtailed; and the players stop for tea. Soccer, swift, short and brutal, would have been more suitable; or baseball, or bullfighting. But cricket has been chosen; and the conclusion must be that we are dealing with more than the picturesque.” More recently, correcting a long silence in fiction brought out by New York publishing houses, Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland had a Trinidadian Indian named Chuck Ramkissoon dispensing wisdom about the game: “I’m saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket. What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match.” Or this line by O’Neill in the same novel describing what transpires on the cricket field: “Where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.” When I was writing my first novel, Nobody Does the Right Thing, I felt it important to just smuggle from real life and what the stump mics had caught on the field. In the novel, one college student tells another about a match that Zimbabwe were playing against the always-winning (and always-hated) Australians: “Bhaiya, did you hear about the batsman in the Zimbabwe side who was mocked by an Australian? I think it was McGrath. He would send down a ball and then ask the batsman, ‘How come you are so fat?’ At last the man replied, ‘Because your wife gives me a biscuit every time I fuck her.’”

Yes, it is two in the morning in New York and I might be watching live the last overs being bowled before lunch at a Test match in Eden Gardens in Kolkata—but what I’m waiting for is that passage of play that will ensure that a cricket writer like Sharda Ugra will report on it in words like these, as she did about a ball bowled by an Indian bowler in Sydney:

It’s like an illusionist’s trick, except it’s no illusion: it’s real. After its whiplash departure from Pathan’s hand, for a good distance in its flight path, the ball is moving on a line away from the stumps. Gilchrist’s radar has locked in, his shoulders and feet take a purposeful move forward, the bat is in its downward arc, with the intention of finding its way to its target and punishing it.

Then comes the reverse-swinging ball’s death wobble (you can see it in slo-mo), which marks its change of direction. There is no shot to be forced off the square. There is only treacherous intent, which gathers pace as the ball heads towards Gilchrist’s feet and the base of the stumps, faster and faster. Gilly, so quick of hand and eye, is left scrambling, out of balance, splayed, turned square, trying to get his bat down in time to have it reach and push the ball out of harm’s way.

Late. Everything is late. And then comes the noisy tumult of breaking stumps, the shrieks of Pathan and his team-mates amid the long shadows of the setting sun.

In my backyard in upstate New York, I sometimes bowl to my son. He holds the bat as awkwardly as Barack Obama did, in a kind of baseball squat, when he was gifted a bat by the great Brian Lara during a visit to the Caribbean. I correct my son’s stance because I want him to be elegant. But when I change places with him, do my stiff knees allow me to be languid in my stroke play? I suspect all the grace is merely imagined, entirely in my head. I’m so aware of the years that have passed. So many cricketing heroes dead, so many of them retired. No more conquests on the field. It is only when I sit down to write that I feel limber again. On a good day, the word fizzes in the air and seems to hang a moment longer than expected before hitting the ground and spinning away. I work at it. Changing places, I become the batsman, fleet-footed, dancing down the pitch to meet the ball, because I have examined closely, felt it in my bones really, the intersecting arcs of clashing narratives.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of nonfiction and fiction. His latest novel is A Time Outside This Time(Knopf, 2021).