Cricinfo says it was April 22nd, 1998. India was playing Australia in a triangular ODI series that included New Zealand. The final league game that would decide who’d play the tournament final. Of course, Australia qualified already. They didn’t really believe in fighting for survival. Predators don’t survive. They make survival hostile. And hostile it was for India to score 237 runs in 46 overs, after a sandstorm at Sharjah gnawed four overs from the game. India needed 237 just to qualify. They had to score 276 to win. Win? Chasing 276 runs off 276 balls? (this was a time when ‘run-a-ball’ meant ‘swashbuckling’) Under lights? And against AUSTRALIA? Haha.
Elsewhere, in a small street in Coimbatore, a five-year-old, accompanied by his cricket-crazy brother and dad, was knocking the doors of a not-so-familiar neighbour.
“Yes?” the neighbour asked, opening the door.
“We, er, live opposite to your house. The TV stopped working… and there’s a cricket match today… so…” asked the father, reluctantly.
Cricket was the Word in India. It still is… to an extent. That was all it took to familiarise with a stranger.
The three were immediately invited in and served tea, snacks and most importantly, a grainy-but-coloured Star Sports.
The neighbour chitchatted with the father. The brother fixed his eyes firmly on TV, waiting for the innings to commence. The five-year-old was clueless. Brother had given him the basic education on cricket but that was the first time he was watching a match on TV; that too, a ‘colour TV’.
The innings commenced. And in He walked; eyes intent, purpose evident. The chitchat muted. The TV volume increased. The kid could hear the crowd buzzing at Sharjah.
He just knew bat and ball; four and six — that was all it took to play cricket with his brother. Runs, target, revised-target, umpires, teams, players, fielders, run-rate… he didn’t get any of it. He felt alienated. Even the bats looked a bit bigger than his.
More buzz when they showed Him. They flashed some random numbers on the screen. “That’s Sachin Tendulkar,” the brother introduced Him to the kid. The kid continued to stare at the TV, indifferent.
The game went on quietly for some time. The kid was losing interest. He didn’t understand when they said “singles”. And why were the people holding the bat running? Only bowlers ran, right? It was getting a bit too complicated. TV cricket was so much different and difficult from what he played with brother. He wanted simple things like fours and sixes.
Fifth over. fifth ball. Kasprowicz to Tendulkar. Slower delivery. Tendulkar charged down and clobbered it towards long on. “OH! THAT’S SIX!” the commentator exclaimed. The crowd cheered. “Hey look! It’s a six” the brother prompted. The kid, finally, was excited.
Fifth over. Sixth ball. Kasprowicz to Tendulkar. A shorter one. A bludgeoning pull. Another six. The crowd roared. So did the brother. The kid smiled. He liked this. It wasn’t just the bat or ball or the crowd or the six. He felt a strange attraction towards the guy who hit it. “What’s his name, again?” he asked his brother.
He observed Sachin-His short frame; His heavy looking bat that read “MRF” (in large fonts on the ‘V-shaped’ side and shorter fonts on the flat side); His unique helmet that had a little national flag below a weird wheel-like logo; His silver bracelet; His little crouch before He took His stance; His calmness; His serenity; His intent look… there was something about everything He did.
The kid started cheering for Him now, without any prompt. Four after four, six after six, the kid was slowly being drawn into Him, for He provided the kid with joy, despite being over thousand miles away. The kid could guess where the ball’s going to land as soon as He hit it. There was a strange connection. The kid felt magical.
143 runs from 130 balls that included nine fours and five sixes. India had qualified for the finals. Qualify? Victory clutched India’s hands tightly (courtesy: Him. Only Him. The second best score of the Indian innings was 35). The predator was being brutally punished. The Australians looked like lions in a circus, tamed by a whiplash. The kid enjoyed the circus.
After the 131st ball, he felt like he took the last bite of his favourite chocolate bar. He wanted more of it but it lasted only 187 minutes. 187 minutes that left behind an everlasting impression.
He got out. India lost. The neighbour and the father gasped exasperation. Brother expressed it vocally. But to the kid, everything paled to insignificance. An indelible inscription was made in the city of sands… and in an innocent mind.
That day… he loved the green ground, the brown patch in the centre; the men wearing yellow coloured clothes and even better, the men wearing blue coloured ones; the men wearing round white hats; the crowd and its noise; the batsmen running; the fielders and the bowlers too; the bat; the ball; fours and sixes and… above all, Sachin Tendulkar.
That day… he loved cricket.
Fourteen years later, on an unassuming Sunday morning, he got a message from a friend that He has retired from ODIs. Heartbreak.