On Thursday night, I was terribly happy about two things. One, that the World Cup came to town. Two, that Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose invited me over to their party where a constellation of my generation’s cricketing heroes were there drinking and chatting away like schoolboys trapped in the bodies of middle-aged men.
There they were — Viv Richards, Imran Khan, Allan Border, Arjuna Ranatunga, Zaheer Abbas, Bishan Singh Bedi and Ian Chappell — backslapping, trading on-field and off-field memories along with dishing out much sought after opinion. As I tapped more beer, I drew closer into their ring as they talked not only about the World Cup matches but also about ‘their times’ — which, by a freak of nature, also happens to be mine.
It isn’t everyday that I’m able to show Pakistan’s great batsman Zaheer Abbas the way... to the bathroom. Or hear Ranatunga narrate his first encounter with Sri Lanka’s 1982 coach Gary Sobers — “‘Hey Fat Boy! Put your pads on and bat!” Sir Gary told me at the nets” — was part-sacrilege, part-free ticket into the sanctum sanctorum. Imran, a great hero of mine, was imperious. I was prepared for that. But considering this was the man whose opening spells would secretly make me wish for Sunil Gavaskar’s return to the pavilion within the first three balls of a Test match, hearing him lecture Sagarika on the innate secularism of Islam as mentioned in the Koran was like listening to Maradona go on about the differing qualities of cocaine.
But by the pavilion end of the evening, I was pretty much hanging on to every word Viv was saying: the problems plaguing West Indian cricket (the cricketing politics of the St Lucia cabal being a root cause); the bakwaas of people making a big deal about dew on the pitch; Sourav Ganguly being a decent captain but MS Dhoni possessing a fiery calm necessary to be a great skipper; the danger that Indian cricket may encounter in the future because of its talent pool drying up thanks to the seductive charms of Twenty20 IPL cricket...
I was a dog chewing on a big, fat bone.
Suitably hynotised and paradoxically loosened of my tied tongue, I told Viv that my greatest cricketing hero was a friend of his: Malcolm Marshall.
In my scheme of things, the greatest cricketers were always the great bowlers. Bowlers are the destroyers, batsmen are the builders. But as anyone who favours Nataraj over Brahma or the Joker over Batman knows, cricket has increasingly become a batsman’s game. The rules themselves, which include elements like power play and free hits, as well as in the asymmetrical hero worship of those wielding the willow (the wish to see Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 100th international century sometimes seems to outweigh the desire to see India winning the World Cup), point to the bowler receding from the mainstage spotlight.
Which is a pity, because the bowler — especially the fast bowler — is invested with so much more drama and swagger and violence than the batsman. Which is why it’s always been obvious to me that Viv Richards was always a pace bowler in a batsman’s clothing.
Marshall, Imran and Dennis Lillee were my holy trinity. Lillee made aggression, helped by a shirt unbuttoned down the chest, a potent ingredient not only in cricket but also in life. But he was less my contemporary than Imran who was simply tautness incarnate before point of release, levitating for what seemed like minutes before he swung the ball like a heat-seeking missile.
But it was ‘Maco’ who was my man. His long and winding run-up started near the boundary and being the shortest of the fearful battery of West Indian pacemen (Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner), his backlift during delivery was a force of necessity. Maco’s incredible statistic of 376 wickets at 20.94 runs a piece over 81 Test matches — the best bowling average of any bowler who has taken over 200 wickets — hardly tells you the sheer joy of watching him bowl. To witness a stump cartwheeling away after being knocked out of the ground by a Marshall delivery was to witness a giant scale version of super-accelerated subatomic particles bombarding each other to produce gigantic amounts of energy.
“Maco was good man,” Viv told me almost dreamily. “You know he passed away a few years ago.” Marshall died of cancer in 1999 at 41. But when in Rajdeep and Sagarika’s garden I heard Viv talk about him, I heaved and stuttered thinking of the man who made assassinations on the cricket pitch such a thing of raw beauty. He should have been there on Thursday trading some stories with me.