The little patch of London I encounter is watching cricket and talking Rupert Murdoch. The colour of language matches the English sky; grey, rather than black and white. Media is not devil-black, and cricket is not virgin-white.
Heaven, for a cricket-fantasist like me, is a spectator seat in the committee room at Lord’s on the opening day of the centenary Test between India and England. [A cricket-fantasist is someone who believes he should be captain of India because he scored 32 in a crucial school match.] The gentle murmur of nostalgia between a galaxy of greats is punctuated by acute observation on the prospects of the day’s play ahead. Tea and coffee are the mildest libations available: opening time is 11 a.m. and I may have added my tiny bit to the cultural history of Lord’s with a recipe called Coffee Mary.
Lunch after a forgettable first session is laid out in the third floor, within wafting distance of the players’ dining room. To my right is Steve Waugh, the finest Australian batsman-captain in memory. To my left is the great South African opener Barry Richardson, who did not bat as much as explode, and who was cheated of truly-deserved world fame by the evil of apartheid in his own country. Across the table is John Edrich, the memorable English opener who did not know how to flash his bat, and did not know how to get out. I think he was a trifle upset to learn how often I, as an ardent schoolboy, wished he was ill and unable to play. I asked if he remembered the 19 maiden overs that the priceless Nadkarni bowled in a row, and Edrich smiled. He had a story of his own.
He bowled a maiden once to Nadkarni; and shall we say that the thought of Edrich bowling was as astonishing as the sight of Dhoni running up in desperate determination? The difference is that Dhoni took himself seriously as a bowler. Edrich modestly pointed out that he got a maiden because Nadkarni had no clue where the next ball was going to land. More proof for my unshakeable theory: the British conquered the world because they knew precisely when to be serious, and when to chuckle — at themselves.
Barry nearly came to India as part of a World XI put together for a charity match in aid of victims of the Bihar famine, so this must have been in 1967. How far have we travelled in a single life-journey. Apartheid has been destroyed in South Africa and famine is a cruel memory in India. The match was never played because Indira Gandhi denied Barry a visa.
Watching India play from the third floor Lord’s balcony with Steve Waugh and the West Indian skyscraper Courtenay Walsh was straight from the fantasy books. Steve talks the way he used to bat, without wasting a flicker on sentiment. Facts matter to him, so he is matter-of-fact.
He picks up the elephant in the room and throws it up in the air, for us to decide whether it exists or not. He merely suggests that cricketers should now be put through a lie-detector test.
Match-fixing, or cricket-laundering to be more accurate, has become a proper ghost story. Everyone can sense it exists, but no one can nail the phantom. It has been photographed in the Pakistan team, but the negative is lost in the alibis. The coalition of colonials, ex-rulers and former subjects, who are the new monarchs of cricket, have convinced themselves that Pakistan’s ills can be cauterized from the body politic of the sport. The elephant now comes from India, making it a particular apt metaphor. No one is totally sure if one or two players have not come to private deals with bookies. At least one big-ticket player has been photographed in the company of champion bookie, and private conversations, outside the reach of libel, hint at much more. The illegal cricket gambling market in India is staggering in size, and totally controlled by an unsavoury underworld.
Dropcap OnBut we are not at Lord’s to worry about clouds, we are here to rejoice in the sunshine. We have come to carry away memories that will survive till death doth us part. It is Saturday morning as I write and, to be utterly selfish, I can barely wait for a couple of wickets to fall so that Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid can form one of the greatest partnerships in the long and cherished history of Lord’s. I want the sweet delirium of Sachin stroking his way to his 100th 100 where he scored his first by driving Angus Fraser for a boundary; and for the brilliant Rahul to get his first 100 at a venue where he reached 95. This is feast of instinct and intellect that makes cricket incomprehensible to those cursed by ignorance, and a passion for those blessed with some knowledge of its unique soul.
Play starts in two hours. These dreams may or may not come true. But it is enough to have dreamt, than never to have dreamt at all.