Poet and Nobel Laureate (this species has been hogging our media space these past few weeks hasn’t it?) Harold Pinter had famously said that cricket was better than sex. If anything, the first sniff of winter in Mumbai and a match being played at the Cricket Club of India makes this seduction irresistible.
To readers of this column, my fascination with the CCI is well-known. It is one of the best cricket grounds in the world still, alas with too little cricket played there. But I have a bone to pick with the authorities: where is the promised museum?
Nevertheless, watching cricket at the CCI is still an experience to be cherished and the India A versus England game two weeks ago, in the context, was the trigger for a jog down memory lane.
The last time England played a Test here was in February 1972-73. There was always a sense gaiety and anticipation when a Test match arrived in the city, heightened this time by the fact that India were leading 2-1 before the final match.
The walk from Churchgate Station to the CCI would be an experience in itself, with delirious fans blowing conches, the more serious among them discussing the day’s prospects. You could choose your group to walk with.
Almost four decades have passed but some events are still vivid in my mind: Gundappa Vishwanath hooking Chris Old into the club’s swimming pool and Salim Durrani earning the sobriquet of ‘Mr Sixer’ in this Test, hitting the ball over the ropes on demand; not once but twice.
The Test was a high-scoring draw because of the placid pitch, England replying strongly thanks to centuries from Keith Fletcher and Tony Greig. Incidentally, the bowlers used by Wadekar in that match apart from Bedi, Chandra and Venkat were Solkar, Gavaskar and Pataudi! Fast bowling then, as now, was punishment in India.
Greig was the most popular England cricketer because Indian fans had never seen a cricketer six feet and seven and a half inches tall! My big moment was shaking Greig’s hand outside the club house and feeling like a pygmy. Sadly, Greig has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. I wish him well.
That was the first Test I watched from the pavilion after a decade of being hustled and jostled in the janata stands. A friend’s brother who was a member had bought a couple of guest tickets but five of us would get in by hoodwinking the security such as there was.
We had only a couple of months earlier appeared for our Senior Cambridge exams. Cricket, inevitably, would juxtapose our discussions on further academic pursuits and career options. Becoming a player was often seriously considered.
Cricket in those days did not offer a well-defined livelihood, but there was no doubt that ‘flannelled fools’ enjoyed fame and adulation of the public, which was attractive.
The crux, of course, was whether one was good enough. Alas, I have no hard luck story to tell. Apart from playing for school, a couple of times for college and bowling a few times in the nets to India players in my early days as a journalist, my record is abysmal.
It is said that those who’ve failed at the game become cricket writers. Some like Pinter, poets too. The issue remains whether cricket is better than sex as he says. Hmm. Contentious. But he has a point.