He reclined lazily on the diwan, a sumptuous lunch no doubt settling well. The kameez rested like a second skin, comfortable, but was spotless white and starched. Children played noisily on the lawns. It was in this soporific setting that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi looked me in the eye and said, “Son, you better learn to dream bigger dreams.”
I froze. I’d just told him, in all sincerity, that it was a ‘dream come true’ to interview him. As a cub reporter who had made the trip from warm Madras to the biting cold of the Delhi winter in shirtsleeves, it warmed me no end to be sitting in Tiger Pataudi’s living room. He either did not know how little experience I had of former Indian captains, or chose to act like he didn’t.
Those words of that day, on that wintry afternoon a few days short of Christmas, keep coming back to me in different contexts.
Today’s world of cricket is a little different. For starters, there are no nawabs. There isn’t one young person in the Indian team who plays the game solely for the joy of playing the game or because it’s an honour to represent India. Being an Indian cricketer is a complex cocktail of commerce, social climbing, relevance and all-round acceptability. Yes, there’s the small matter of runs and wickets. But anyone who gets that far is expected to deliver those details anyway.
Twenty years ago, what was it that separated an Arun Lal and a Sunil Gavaskar? They both opened the batting for India against the fiercest in the world, but the small matter of a 100-odd Tests and 10,000 runs separated the two. And their worlds off the field were different too. Gavaskar endorsed products, was conferred state awards and was made the sheriff of Bombay. In those days, longevity and success took you to the top 1 per cent, and brought the trappings of success. The rest, well, they plodded along like their counterparts in any other profession.
Move along a decade and you have the era when the World Cup became the most important thing to the Indian fan. This was a heady time when Mohammad Azharuddin and his young band of cricketers were showing the world that slow, unsteady, traditional Indian cricketers could play the ‘western’ game. From that shadow emerged a prince among batsmen, a king among one-day cricketers, Sourav Ganguly. Now measure again, Ganguly and Mohammad Kaif, who racked up 138 international appearances for the country. Unfair, isn’t it? Cricket gave Kaif a life beyond what he imagined, but it never indulged him, never gave him what he wanted.
Cut to today. Put yourselves in the shoes of a young man aspiring to be a cricketer. He’s fit, skilled, always the best in his age-group, a definite starter for his state, a regular for his zone, and there ends the certainty. Our young man might be an opening batsman in the time of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, he might be a wicketkeeper in Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s trajectory, or even an offspinner in Harbhajan Singh’s watch. India’s doors are understandably closed, but his options are endless.
For today’s cricketer — and there’s no shortage of doting relatives or opportunistic agents to remind our aspirant — the future is an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract. In two months, some of these teenagers will pick up more cash than the average middle-class professional makes in a career. What’s more, with a contract in the bag, they won’t have to worry about some cranky selector dropping them or a section of the media calling for a replacement. There will be all the good things in life without any of the pressure, perfect for the individual in the short-term, and a recipe for disaster long-term.
Before the IPL, the sole point of a cricketer’s life was breaking into the Indian team. Once that was done, life was a constant struggle to stay in the eleven. In time, the peripherals took care of themselves. This is why Ganguly fought as hard as he did to stay in the picture. It is why Dravid does not retire from one-day cricket despite being tossed around like a rookie. It is the fight to be in the top 1 per cent because that makes everything worth it.
You will not find a cricketer in this generation — the R.P. Singhs, Suresh Rainas, Virat Kohlis — who will play 100 Tests. This is simply because it isn’t a realistic ambition to start with. Forget about the increase in number of matches and unrealistic demands on fitness. For Tendulkar and Dravid and Ganguly that was the only way out, their only shot at immortality.
In cricket circles in Chennai, where league cricketers have been getting paid tidy sums by their employers well before the board raised wages in domestic cricket, there’s an affliction that’s popularly called the ‘Orgasm-Reached Syndrome’. It refers to the condition of the promising young cricketer who has secured a job, paid a down payment on an apartment and bought a car. The runs and wickets often dry up soon after.
The IPL is threatening to do this to young cricketers, only at ten times the pace and nationally. And this is why after the class of the 2000s is gone, we may never see a 100-Test Indian cricketer again.