That ’90s show

(Hindi)

Hum honge kaamyaab, Hum honge kaamyaab,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din;

Ho ho man me hai vishwas, pura hai vishwas,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din.

The decade of the 1990s in Bangalore was a quaint time. Before the word “Bangalored” entered the lexicon, it was a genteel town, mostly content with itself. The city had not grown to today’s extent and one could commute between any two points of the city within half an hour. Kids, armed with a half-ticket, a heavy bag and basket in tow, made their way to school on a daily basis.

The city was a lot cooler back then; hibernal reinforcements routinely appeared over school uniforms. Getting the cooties was a somewhat fuzzy concept until middle school due to the mixed-gender seating configurations. These were probably the scenes across much of urban India.

The proliferation of satellite television was not yet complete, even in the cities. Most of the class watched the same TV programming, designed with a please-all approach with a keen eye on the demographic driven timeslots.

The post-school early evening slots were the preserve of school kids; general entertainment held sway late evening onwards; and mythological serials united the family on weekends. Except, when a politician died and statewide mourning was declared with accompanying cancellation of traditional programming, uniting kids all over in inadvertent, concomitant grief, albeit for the loss of TV-watching time. And then there was cricket.

Cricket overriding routine programming was the lesser of the evils. Television had not yet percolated down the pyramid, but the state-run channel routinely telecasting cricket matches brought the sport to the large swathes of the country, usually through a communal watching experience.

It was in this backdrop that a lot of us were introduced to watching cricket. Discussing the happenings of the latest match was routine; discovering unknown players through a stealthily arranged round of the frowned-upon Big Fun® trump cards (Clash!) was a guilty pursuit; rattling off Jadeja’s and Vaas’ light-year-long names was amusement; chattering about cricket in hushed tones – while the ribbon-wearing, pigtailed, pinafore-clad girls sang patriotic songs along with swaying their heads – during the assembly was our first brush with rebellion.

1.jpg

The morning assembly: The scene of painful, morning ritual. Image source: 1.

The morning assembly.

In the sun.

Patriotic songs.

Anthems were anathema.

The routine was a recipe for resistance.

One such song that made its way to the morning assembly was “Hum honge kaamyaab”, loosely translated to “We will be successful”. Set to the tune and theme of “We shall overcome”.

(English)

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.

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We shall overcome: Folk singer Joan Baez (L) with Bob Dylan (R). Image source: 2.

The original—supposedly derived from an early 20th century hymn—was a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement, and was popularized by folk singers such as Joan Baez. The namesake phrase also found mention in speeches by Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, no less. The anti-communist protesters caught on to it by the late 1980s, after which it found large-scale adoption.

The choice of words in the opening line is indicative; overcome, signalling hope; shall, instead of will. Pedantic, standard British English speakers would have taken note of the transgression with the first person pronoun.  Regardless, shall represented a strong intention no doubt, but a weaker one than will; although, it ran the risk of dilution with its offer of a suggestion rather than an impolite assertion.

No scope for such nuance with the Hindi version though. The Kannada version was worse; it translated to “We will win”. No other song explicitly exemplified the “loser” tag like this. The brazen craving for naked success, not a hopeful wish for overcoming odds.  The desire of the destination, rather than the journey.

Yet, no other song captured the mood of the Indian cricket team’s journey in the ‘90s. Yes, the same team we supported blindly and didn’t have a freakin’ clue as to why. Patriotism perhaps?

In any case, it didn’t explain why people still hung on to the Indian team. Sure, we racked up our first test victories overseas and were no longer the whipping boys by the 1960s. Rapid strides were made in the 1970s. The barometer of success was defined in clear-cut terms: winning away from home. The 1980s saw a decline in test-match fortunes but one-day successes more than made up for it; two world event victories and a semi-final appearance in the 1987 World cup meant that cricket had weaned away a chunk of audience who had grown up hearing the heroic tales of Hockey, and were now witnessing apocalypse on AstroTurf.

Hockey, a more time-friendly sport with a glorious winning tradition, had lost its audience for far less.

What chance did the Indian team of the 1990s have? The less said, the better.

(Hindi)

Hum honge kaamyaab, Hum honge kaamyaab,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din;

Ho ho man me hai vishwas, pura hai vishwas,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din.

By all counts, it was Indian cricket’s lowest ebb. We are not taking to account the whispers about match-fixing, by the way.

One overseas test match victory over the entire decade.

One.

That too against Sri Lanka, which had got test status a mere decade ago.

One solitary test victory in a 3 test match series, not a one-off test match.

One.

Equal to Zimbabwe’s record for the decade.

Zimbabwe, who had won against Pakistan in Peshawar. Oh, we had lost away to Zimbabwe as well.

We had the worst away record, both in terms of Win% and W/L ratio – you take your pick. Our only redeeming feature was an excellent home record.

It was not just the losses that rankled; it was the manner of abject surrender. Our batting meltdowns were the stuff of legend, with a lone fighting hand offering token resistance on a burning deck: Tendulkar’s defiance at Jo’burg (111 out of 227, next highest 25, FOW 27/2); staged robbery at Port Elizabeth by the one-armed bandit, Kapil Dev  (129 out of 215 next highest 17, FOW 27/5); Tendulkar’s spirited resistance at Birmingham (122 out of 219, next highest 18, FOW 17/2); Tendulkar’s and Azharuddin’s twin assault at Cape Town (putting on a 222 run stand in 40 overs after being reduced to 58/5); that man Tendulkar again, tall amidst the ruins in Melbourne (116 out of 238 next highest 31, FOW 11/2). These were the better times, when we had something to show.

When it was bad, it was gut-wrenching.

Collective ineptitude came to the fore when the team was subjected to tremendous pressure in Kingsmead – probably enough to form diamonds 800 miles west in Kimberley – and the team duly obliged with a 100 and 66 all-out collapse. The inability to chase 120 at Barbados (only Laxman managed double figures) was a body blow to the nation’s sporting psyche; to misquote Shakespeare, a Rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. On the Australian tour of 1999-00, until Laxman made his 167 in Sydney, Kumble was the third highest scorer for India with 103 runs in the series (behind Tendulkar with 278 and Ganguly with 177).

Similarly, at home, when Tendulkar was dismissed 17 runs adrift of the target with three wickets in hand, a sense of preordained gloom descended as the last rites of the match were conducted in front of our eyes by the Pakistani pallbearers in Chennai. The Indian batting in tests was abysmal –  especially overseas – and was dismissed for a sub-250 score 23 times in 18 test matches during the ‘90s, losing 15 (3 draws) of them in the process.

Granted, the team had to cope with the Dukes and the Kookaburra; some experts attributed our losses to the lack of balls. We agreed.

(Kannada)

Naavu gedde geltivi, naavu gedde geltivi

Naavu gedde geltivi, ondu dina;

Ho ho nannagide vishwasa, purti vishwasa,

Naavu gedde geltivi ondu dina.

The lack of match-winning bowlers proved to be the impediment to India’s success in the test arena. However, the ODI format did not have any hang ups about dismissing a side to win the match. India could now bank on outscoring the opposition. Runs were mandatory, wickets were optional. No team played as much ODI cricket as India during the decade. ODI series were dime a dozen, named after cigarettes packaged drinking water music CD  rolled-packaged-tobacco-ready-for-combustion, consumer electronics companies, the odd motor company and fizzy drinks; nothing official about it.

Still, India’s returns in the ODI scene during the fateful decade were middling, at best. In fact, the rules of the format cut both ways; no more did India have the safety net of a draw.

The change of format didn’t insulate us from the heartache of close losses, though. The procession started with the two close losses in the 1992 World Cup against England and Australia. The second one was particularly agonizing – five needed from four balls with two wickets in hand soon became three off the last ball and a run-out consigned India to a one run defeat. India never really recovered from this start and limped right through the tournament to finish seventh; defeating Pakistan was the only consolation.

India lost multiple close matches (4 of them at less than 10 run margins) and some big ones against Sri Lanka to a multitude of reasons – a collapse of 7 wickets for 21 runs; a collapse, a mini-recovery, and another collapse chasing 171; crowd trouble following – wait for it – a collapse. You guessed it alright.

I know what you’re thinking. What about the time Rajesh Chouhan smashed a six? Or the Kanitkar boundary? And the time Srinath and Kumble took us to victory in Bangalore? We beat Pakistan in the World cups. Surely it wasn’t all that bad?

I’ll see you and raise you: Basit Ali, Derek Crookes, Franklyn Rose, Stuart Law, Ali Brown, Matt Horne, Ricardo Powell, Peter Martin, Paul Adams, Henry Olonga – we’ve made heroes out of all of them. A montage of Ghar aaja pardesi from DDLJ’s soundtrack greeted the performances of Chanderpaul, Dipak Patel and Ravindu Shah. We won only 17 of the 45 games we played against Pakistan, capiche? I digress.

May I interest you in a match where we lost 8 wickets for 46 runs in 8 overs, and the game? How about the game where we had the South Africans at 18 for 3 in 11 overs and allowed them to amass 235; generous Indian hospitality to the rescue. In return, when we needed to get 46 from 7 overs with 5 wickets in hand, we dutifully folded?

Should I go even lower?

Alright, what about the time when a hobbling Salim Malik shepherded Pakistan to victory via a 44 run-a-ball stand with Saqlain for the 9th wicket? Or the match where Prabhakar and Mongia inexplicably refused to chase 63 in 54 balls with 5 wickets in hand? And the match against Zimbabwe, of the 1999 World cup vintage, where we lost 3 wickets for 3 runs, with 7 runs to get in 11 balls, setting up our exit in the Super 6 stage? Any lower than this, we would have found enough oil to power us in the new millennium.

What about the dramatis personae? Incidentally, none of the trump cards bearing Indian names were the highly valued “Gold” ones. Why? Their calling cards evoke more memories rather than their names.

Wouldn’t you remember Vikram Rathour for turning to wicket-keeping in order to stage a return? Recollect Abey Kuruvilla and (Who is) Noel David after the phrase rotator-cuff became a part of your vocabulary? Nilesh Kulkarni, the one who got a wicket off his first ball in test cricket and then was flogged for 195 runs as Sri Lanka piled on 952? Or the flamboyant domestic A-listers Atul Bedade and Amay Khurasiya, who scored one 50 each to whet the appetite and then had a vanishing act for the next 10 ODIs? Or hark back to Prabhakar’s predicament on the cusp of retirement—resorting to off-spin post a 33 run mauling in 2 overs?

Unpleasant memories haunting you yet? Wait, there’s more.

Devang Gandhi, who followed the path of non-violence and turned the other cheek on being bounced in Australia? Gyanendra Pandey, who was rather more known for domestic violence off the field than on it? The now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t enacted by the great-Indian-fast-bowling-hope Prashant Vaidya? Or Lakshmi “the next Kapil Dev” Ratan Shukla, who sent down overstepped on his very first delivery after being compared to the legend by an overzealous, errant commentator? The vernacular Dodda Ganesh, of the flippantly facing Alan Donald fame? Also, can you cast your mind back to the time when you eagerly awaited – the hard(ly)-hitting batsman – Sujith Somasunder’s debut at the opening slot, only to see him score 16 from 63 balls over 2 ODIs?

That these doyens of the domestic game could not translate their performance to the global arena was frustrating, to say the least. The last instance was particularly irksome for a Karnataka lad like me; my state had contributed 8 players to the Indian team in the late ‘90s and had won the Ranji trophy thrice over four seasons. Any expectations of Pax Karnataka (perhaps you’d prefer Carnatica) were swiftly doused by the events of the match.

(Marathi)

Amhi honar yeshaswi, amhi honar yeshaswi,

Amhi honar yeshaswi ek diwas;

Ho ho manat aahe vishwas, purna aahe vishwas,

Amhi honar yeshaswi ek diwas.

It wasn’t that the regulars covered themselves in glory all the time. They were, as all sportspeople, capable of mildly annoying us with their quirks and idiosyncrasies from time to time.

Let’s get the easy ones off the chest: Dravid, when he started off, and, Kapil Dev, at the end, got stuck in the middle for far too long; Kumble, who was rebuked by Kapil Dev for poor fielding, would let a cry of anguish every time a misfield happened off his own bowling, but was perfectly capable of falling in a heap –  like a ripe jackfruit –  at gully, and letting the ball through (God bless his timely inside edges to the boundary); the quintessential “I’ll make a comeback” Venkatesh Prasad headline; his batting exploits are all too well known, with the nightwatchman experiment being abandoned after he watched a ball go all the way (to the stumps) in his very first innings at the elevated position. Gavaskar would have been proud.

Further along the recesses of the memory: Sidhu going home mid-series, abandoning the team on tour; Ganguly often cradling the ball in his run-up; tumbling over the ball and blinking at his fingers post-misfield as if it were a difficult trigonometry problem; routinely running out a partner (you’d be hard pressed to find someone to whom he’d sacrifice his wicket to, Tendulkar included); PTSD-stricken Srinath underarming a throw from fine leg as the batsmen sauntered along for an additional run; developing a knack for safely landing an ugly, ballooning hoick towards midwicket between three converging fielders; expanding his range to include a slower delivery in his ODI game, except, that it would be a leg-side wide.

It was in moment like this that our bonds with Sachin Tendulkar were born, and cemented for posterity. Sure, he often crouched when he got bowled, and fiddled around his box too much. At times, he could retreat into his shell, as if he were batting under a hex. But most of us remember his defining image during the decade, the one in which he often walked on water.

Of course, there were other competent Indian batsmen before his time; most would bide their time and distinguish themselves from the heap; some could take on the bowling, briefly flicker before going into the night. He was different. He illuminated the entire room, dispelling the darkness and showing us the light. Here was a boy with a curly mop, goofy grin and impish tricks up his sleeve, ready to take on the world in a way hitherto unknown to us. He was the wizard who waved the willowy wand.

Often, he would perform stunts which needed a parental advisory; he was a trapeze artist, human flame thrower and a lion-tamer, all rolled into one; we were the willing audience as our ring master capered down the track to dismiss the bowling; the others – jokers in the pack – would earnestly attempt his high-wire acts, only to see their pants pulled down, much to the amusement of the crowd; we were the ones who marvelled at the sheer audacity of his geometrical constructs beyond the realms of possibility as we grappled with our humdrum geometry lessons.

Yet, it was not just his feats that defined Tendulkar; understanding his pedestal in India’s consciousness involves digesting the prevailing socio-political-economic milieu. Two prime ministers hailing from the nation’s first family had been assassinated in the space of seven years. No single political party enjoyed majority. The country’s sovereignty was challenged at its North-Western borders. The nation was bankrupt; every big infrastructure project was funded by the World Bank.

Millions were severely poor with no access to food, basic healthcare or primary education; photographs of impoverished citizens and squalor routinely made the cover of Western magazines. Anybody with some dreams would make a beeline to make a life for themselves abroad. And why not? For, endless lines existed for essentials such as cooking gas and telephone; getting your hands on a two wheeler was akin to winning the lottery; stable employment in a government establishment was the raison d’être.

Thus, cricket was labelled as a profligate pastime, at best; at worst, as the Englishman’s opiate conspiracy to enslave and dullen the masses. Cricket hadn’t yet seen the kind of money which would render the benefit circuit irrelevant later on.  Trenchant critics (like my father) would often invoke the (apocryphal?) Bernard Shaw quote regarding the number of fools watching and playing cricket. Over and top of all this, our team was terrible. A “Keen contest on the cards” headline metamorphosed to “Facile win for ________ (India’s opponent)” with worrying regularity. Supporting India in those times was not easy, especially with losses mounting.

(Bengali)

Amra korbo joi, amra korbo joi,

Amra korbo joi aek din;

Ho ho mone achhe vishwas, puro achhe vishwas,

Amra korbo joi aek din.

A total of 21 players played less than 5 test matches for India in the decade. 43 players who partook in the selection carrousel played less than 20 ODIs. As an Indian fan, those were terrible times to watch cricket. Here’s Tom Hanks’ monologue, as Chuck Noland of Cast Away:

“We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and… knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had… lost her. ‘cos I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen. So… I made a rope and I went up to the summit, to hang myself. I had to test it, you know?…..”

Saying goodbye to cricket was quite difficult. We fans devised several coping mechanisms, you know?

Hey, don’t judge us. It was hard out there.

Some of us turned capricious and moped, upon being mocked by our nemeses for the latest no-show; some of us took to gallows humour to enliven the moribund moments of the match; others took to following other sports. Pete Sampras was around the horizon. So was Michael Schumacher. And a certain Manchester United seemed to keep on winning as we struggled to wrap our tongues around the enunciation of Juventus and Sevilla.

We could now hedge our support, hope for someone to win at the end of the year and nurse our morale, right? Could we give up on cricket altogether? Gulp. Lump in throat.

“….Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log, snapped the limb of the tree, so I-I – , I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again…”

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

It was Tendulkar’s chutzpah which kept us going. Never mind that the rest of the team was terrible. As long as he was there, we had a chance. He seemed so happy to compete for the country, in the midst of mediocrity, believing in our cause; we were the daft pricks contemplating not watching cricket and abandoning the team.

We sensed the electricity in the air when he took guard. He was our messiah who would bring us our deliverance from the mess.

Out of the 221 ODI innings that Tendulkar played during the tumultuous decade, he crossed fifty 68 times. India won 46 of those matches, a whopping 75%. There was daylight between him and second place (Azhar, with 27).  The gulf in ability was starker in tests; twenty five 50+ scores away from home (13 each for Azhar and Dravid).

Heck, he didn’t even have to bat sometimes; he took 2+ wickets in an ODI 16 times and triumphed 12 times. When he barged in to bowl the last over of the Hero cup semi-final against South Africa, we knew something was up.

“…So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass… And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”

And just like that, the tide would turn. After the match-fixing scandal, Ganguly led the team. No, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were several hiccups along the way. We would fall back on our old habits. We would make a hero out of Douglas Marillier. We would find Avishkar Salvi. Our last three wickets wouldn’t last the extra half an hour which would have drowned out the result in the ten days of rain that followed at Kingston. Coasting at 159/5 after 34 overs, with 77 to get in 96 balls, we would somehow contrive to lose the match. We would drop Chris Cairns in the ICC Champions Trophy 2000 final, one of the 14 ODI finals we would lose under Ganguly. We would not choose to bat first after winning the toss in a World Cup final, c’est la vie.

But, we will always have those two immortal matches – the 281 which would break both the Aussie juggernaut and the 236* four minute mile; and the Natwest tri-series final. Both were accomplished with the minimal involvement of Tendulkar. He had served his time, and so had we. No doubt, we watching our idiot boxes opened up a Pandora’s Box the previous decade; but what our parents didn’t account for, was Tendulkar being our hope fairy.

“Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies” – Stephen King

A collective chuckle emanated from the generation of ‘80s and ‘90s when M S K Prasad was recently named India’s selection committee chairman. Every member of the committee (culled from 5 to 3 members after the Supreme court intervention) belonged to the same epoch of 21 and 43 who were part of the musical chairs. They were now in charge of the jukebox.

We, somewhat snootily, smirk in a condescending manner when today’s kids claim to be Indian cricket fans. They probably didn’t switch off the TV after Tendulkar was dismissed in the 2011 World Cup final. They probably treat victory as an entitlement. They probably idolize Kohli, he who offers certainty rather than hope.  Must be fair-weather, bandwagoner fans, no? Besides, where is the fun in that?

What do they know of Indian cricket, which only the masochistic generation know?

Note: An edited version of this piece was first published in the Summer 2017 edition (NW Issue 18) of Wisden’s The Nightwatchman quarterly. Interested readers could buy the issue here.

Disclaimer: The images and videos used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

 

 

 

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