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Friday, November 20, 2015

Growing Tall

5' 6"...that is tall for him. Now it does not matter, perhaps, but did indeed when he was in the High school. The constant effort of looking up at every one was giving him permanent neck-pain. The undisputed first in the que for Saturday morning PT class was not exactly enthralling. Being always in the sight of the teacher, he had no chance to fake and get away like his friends could. And then gloat, they did. Oh, the world was cruel!! That was one strong motivational factor to join the band......he could play a bit of everything, a bit of drums, a euphonium, a trumpet, but big symbols did the job. The only consolation then was; may be he is a late grower and will surely catch up with his peers. Sadly, sometimes even God likes to sit back and laugh...

Being built close to the ground was not the only problem. At his age most of his peers had started showing facial weeds that were worn like badges of honour. Once what was enviable, face like a baby's backside, was a curse now. This was already year ten in the school, next year it will be time to leave the school and enter a phase of life that every teenager dreams of. But for him, the feeling was different; going to college with such a face would be disastrous. He knew he was not bad looking; just too much of a baby face and a body structure to go with that. Those days the world seem to be mocking at him; every teenage boy and indeed girl, pretty or otherwise, seemed to be sniggering behind his back. And he did not have the gumption to turn around and ask "what"? Slowly as the days progressed and his facial famine continued, his confidence-worm tracked its unabated journey southward. In fact, the physical difference between him and the majority of his peers continued to grow. But for a few friends and teachers, who could look beyond that baby face into a reasonably sharp mind, he would have been forlorn. But more than that, there was something else that propped him up...

For someone who enjoyed studies, he was hiding an unabated thirst for sporting achievement. For a boy born into an Indian middle class family, this was not easy to explain to the parents nor likely to be accepted! Though he was decent in all subjects, he never ever dreamt of getting high honours in studies. Instead, every night he slept with one dream only; that of representing his country one day in cricket. Though never athletic, and hardly well built, he was very agile and above all incredibly passionate about his game. All the good qualities of a small package! So much so, that his personality changed with a bat or a ball in his hand. On the cricket pitch, he would suddenly grow up like a transformer; his 5 feet nothing frame suddenly transformed from being shy, babbling and one-for-the-corner into a gun-toting, fire-spitting, in-the-middle-of-everything,  "Dabang". He was incredibly focused on the cricket field, whatever he did. Out of the school, the game occupied his mind totally. In order to stay on the field he would do anything....even field for the opponent as a "Jack", a system often used in street cricket when the total number of players was odd rather than even. Jack ended up getting two bats, two bowls and was ALAWAYS on the field; precisely what he wanted. Soon his batting/bowling ability convinced boys years senior to him and he was playing with and for them. A lot of lessons in life, mostly good, were to be learned that way...

It was obvious that playing with elder boys, he would be facing majority of opponents who towered over him. But it was only physically that they could do so. With a bat in his hand, he could match them through his technique and temperament. Not getting out was considered a bigger achievement in cricket those days, than even scoring runs! Every week, he religiously heard one of the most popular cricket shows on radio "Cricket with Vijay Merchant"  in which Vijay Merchant, the Don of Indian cricket then, used to extoll the virtues of technique, temperament and concentration: "If you stay on the wicket, runs will come". Playing correctly was more important than making runs! That stood him in good stead, while playing against big boys & men. 


Living in a smaller city, there was no opportunity to get decent or indeed any kind of cricket coaching. His thirst for knowing all things technical about the game and his passion for books were known to all of his friends. One of them, a very close one, one day brought him  the most valuable book he had ever laid his eyes upon; a book on Australian cricket called "Cricket, the Australian Way". It was a hard bound book with lots of action pictures of current and past Australian greats with excellent chapters on all aspects of cricket coaching. Another was a small paperback, "Improve your cricket" by English cricketer Trevor Bailey. He first received his coaching lessons through colourful pictures of Ian Chappell and Doug Walters showing in split action pictures, how to play hook shot, a straight drive or a sweep. He learned the basics of side-on pace bowling, and grips for out swinger and in-swinger from Ray Lindwall displaying all the magic again through the split action photographs. The seeds of fascination for Australian cricket and indeed Australia itself were sown there and then; something that was not just to last through an Ashes series, but indeed throughout the year. The fact that Australia visited India or vice versa very very rarely just added to that fascination. Australia became and remained always, his second team...

He would never know when he picked up an interest in wicket keeping. Perhaps his love for being a "jack of all" on the cricket field; probably hearing about the exploits of the swashbuckling Indian keepers, Buddhi Kundaran or Farokh Engineer on the radio or newspaper reports which were the only "visible" means to see cricket then considering that the opportunities of watching live cricket were few and far. Perhaps it was his diminutive physique while hiding the temperament of a pace bowler; a short fuse well hidden by lack of self-confidence, that hardly helped him to be a successful pace bowler!! And he would rather swing the bowl than spin but India in those days detested pace bowling and pace bowlers!!! Perhaps within an Indian skin, he was a quintessential Aussie and staying behind the wickets gave him an opportunity to keep talking and staying involved...

He was hardly able or inclined to fight any one bare-fisted, and indeed used Mahatma Gandhi's teachings of non-violence quite well for his rescue. But boy, could he discuss and debate furiously when it came to cricket! The exploits of Indian as well as overseas cricketers were the centre of multitudes of verbal-fights, while plying with his closest cricket playing group, a family of three brothers, the rich kids; who lived their life in their large mansion, so protected that they hardly knew any other boys within the neighbourhood. Only those who visited their home and played there..it was an amazing group of very talented players. Three brothers were naturally gifted and very good cricketers and equally passionate and knowledgeable about the game. It was no surprise when the youngest one of them ended up being a first class cricketer for Gujarat. It was no surprise that these three with him and other five boys, formed a very formidable team. They hardly went out to test their skills against other teams mainly because no one would wager a game against them if four of the boys including him, played together. The only time there was an opportunity to play against an "outside area" team, since it was caught unaware and perhaps lured by the trophy of a tennis ball for a win, the opponents didn't return after the lunch break; so dominant were the four while batting first! Remember, those were the days of "unlimited overs" cricket and the innings looked like lasting the whole Sunday! By and large they all played within the compounds of the large mansion, with different surfaces and playing arenas; from hard soil to paved to tiled floors; from side yards to large back yard to covered tiled areas if it rained. Weather never disrupted their games in school summer vacations. Every wicket was fought for; every catch was contested for and every run counted and then actually written in a diary. As if playing English County Cricket, which was their index, every inning was documented, and thousand runs or hundred wickets for the season were the badges of honour the achiever was allowed to wear and gloat for, till the next season!! The seeds for competing were sown then and there. By the time he was out of school his name was quite well known in the locality as a good cricketer and used to get lots of invites form various teams to play for them including big boys. While just being a game, it was the only activity in which he could compete with the vigour that belied his age, physique and his social timidity! He was to discover himself and life through this wonderful game...

At school, while he was not taken very seriously in most things social, and was more a lackey to the big boys, when it was time for sports and especially cricket, he was the big boy and received the due respect of peers. High school life was fantastic; a small, select and special school that grew with him became the most integral part of his life and the seeds for all good things to follow in his life were sown here. While he never got an opportunity to play competitive inter-school tournaments since the school did not participate, a few games that were played against other schools, did expose him to competitive cricket making him thirsty for more. However first year (Pre-Uni Science) in college was blown away in celebrating the new found "independence"; a new found courage to "bunk" classes and go for movies or watch inter-collegiate cricket games. A couple of very good friends in those days, who had played against him from opposite school team, were his classmates now and  a chance visit to cricket ground to watch own team play, rekindled the fire for the game; more so probably due to performance of own team and realization that they were wasting time staying away from the cricket field. Come next year and all three were in the college team. Their impression that their seniors in the college team were average cricketers confirmed when he ended up being the best batsman and his friend the best bowler for the year. Till then, on the college grounds, being still very boyish looking, he was treated like a lackey by other classmates, often quizzed in insulting tones what he was doing bunking his school! But soon it changed as he joined the gang of seniors on the College canteen chairs as a college cricketer. My, the life was never the same again!! It was fun now to walk the corridors of the college, with a hand raise here and a shout there; he started feeling every inch of his 5' 3" frame; something that was always at the centre of his existence was now slowly but steadily shifting to the back of his mind. He started catching even surreptitious glances from the "fairer-side"!! Now, that surely was a badge of honour, though alas! the new found confidence on the cricket field never translated into any kind of social confidence! But that was never a regret, since his focus on cricket and study could never be shifted. Still, playing for the first college team was not that awe-inspiring. The team was pretty much at the wooden-spoon end of the ladder. But a move to another college to specialize in Microbiology, a team at quite higher ranks in the 40+ intercollegiate teams of the city and with a reputation, was to finally break him free of all his self-imposed shackles born out of his perception of physical non-entity! While it was changing ever-so-slightly, the growing pains were still to continue for a while....

More to come in "Growing Taller"..