Having a Malayali sounding surname means there are plenty of times when people mistake me for one. I am usually in a hurry to deny it and offer the unnecessary information that I am of Andhra origin. But there are two exceptions when I let the lie, lie. The first is whenever a hot mallu girl approaches me to make small talk in the mistaken impression that I am a fellow mallu. The other and rarer occasion is when I face a mallu fast bowler. And that hasn’t been for a long, long time. But the reason those remembrances came back to me was when I was watching the Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson subduing batsmen with genuine pace by threatening to do serious damage to their bodies and psyches. Unbidden it brought back hallucinatory memories of facing tall, pacy, threatening bowlers in my college days. For quite sometime i was lost in nostalgic fear of my past.
Now if you haven’t heard it before let me assure you that I was no way a great batsman let alone a college-team level player. But as an accident of joining a geek college filled with nerds who have only seen a cricket bat on TV before holding it for the first time on the pitch in a inter-collegiate match and also because my college male female ratio was disproportionately skewed to the female side by a 3 is to 1 margin, all available male students were automatically drafted into the team to make a playing eleven and barely making a eleven at that.
A small proficiency in playing street cricket, in the guise of bet-matches in the neighborhood streets had made me more of an experienced hand in the team than more than half the others so I was politely invited to open for the team as all others declined to do it. Anyhow the other teams in the inter-collegiate matches used to have genuine players- guys selected on sports quota, guys who knew which end was the handle and which the toe of the bat – you didn’t have to teach them to run for every single unlike some on my team.
Most of the batsmen in my team used the windmill style of batting where you close your eyes and swish your bat all around as the ball is bowled. If you are lucky the bat does not connect with the ball which goes back to the keeper. If you are very lucky it connects to the ball and goes past the boundary line. If you are neither it connects to the bat and goes straight to a fielder. And then there are days when the gods smile on you and the ball which connects falls straight down between two fielders and you scramble to run to the safety of the other end. But those lucky days are few and far between them. The usual over was 0, 0, 0, 4, 0, Bowled. And that how the batsmen of my team scored runs – either boundaries or bowled.
Now you must understand that prior to going off to the intercollegiate tournament we, the team that is, had absolutely no idea of the kind of opposition we would be actually playing. We just had a few net practice sessions where everyone used to clown around and take it easy. For really we had no option because we didn’t even have enough of a kit to go around because the college authorities used to look down on non-academic activities and other than giving permission to go play they washed their hands of the whole thing. Bats were scarce, balls were inadequate, pads were non-existent, gloves were a dream and there was a single abdomen guard (the cup-shaped thing which was used to protect our uhmm, delicate man parts) to pass around from player to player and which by the time it reached player no 5 or 6 was not fit to be worn without being doused in a whole bottle of dettol. I guess that alone made me decide to take up the job of opening the batting rather than anything else.
In every single match we played I had to face up to bearing the brunt of the fast bowling from one end while the swashbucklers on the other end used to come and go with regular metronomity. Truth to tell, I wasn’t even a mediocre batsman but more of a fasten the bunkers, lock the doors and lets survive this kind of hunkering opener. Whenever I went in to bat my only thought was to make sure I survived without getting out for my job was to keep one end up till the cows came home. That meant that I never had to put bat on ball, I could simply watch the ball move past me straight to the keeper while I tucked up my bat behind me.
And thankfully I don’t recall many balls pitched straight at the stumps forcing me to play unless it was by accident. The reason for this was simple- because remember this was the era of Glenn McGrath and the bowling in the off-side corridor theory. Every single fast bowler tried to ape McGrath and bowled straight past the stumps inviting the batsmen to hit out and nick one and playing on his patience. On the other hand if someone was like me, under no compulsion to hit out, then he could safely stay away from the worst of the bowling. My job description was to survive till the end and let the other batsmen hit out and make all the runs and I stuck to my job manfully
I don’t know if the six inches of the off-side corridor ever bought those fast bowlers many wickets but they seriously used to scare me off. The sight of a tall (for the average Indian) broad fast bowler running straight at you does give you something to think about doesn’t it, something like what the hell am I doing here instead of sitting in the library and reading like a good student. And by the time that thought is completed the ball is past you and to the keeper and you are forced to swallow spit, look up to see the bowler walking back so you can relax a bit and then crouch back into stance again. I don’t know why it was so but back then every team had fast bowlers of Kerala origin- maybe because they had the physique necessary to bowl fast. And in the break of play whenever a tall strapping Kerala fast bowler came up and said “hi” to me I used to respond enthusiastically with an “endha” hoping he would spare me the ignominy of ducking bouncers later on if he thought I was a fellow malayali.
Watching Mitchell Johnson putting the fear of god into the pom’s and the saf’s has brought all those memories back. Stuff I have never thought about for a decade or so have suddenly been coming back in bits and pieces when I watch the stumps rattling on TV. And whatever else is wrong with cricket nowadays, the most thrilling sight in cricket is watching a fast bowler let it rip. That is if you are not the batsman facing him. So what do you think? Are you a fan of batting, six hitting or bowling, stumps flying? Do tell.