By Sandeep Sahu
Ah, the romance of Test cricket! As Virat Kohli and his boys wrapped up the series 3-0 against England at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai early on Monday, my mind went back to the good old days when the only kind of cricket one knew was Test cricket.
The planning by the fan to listen to cricket – there was no TV those days, only radio – was as meticulous as the planning by the cricketers themselves. If it was a Test in Australia, you had an early dinner and went to bed early after setting the alarm clock at 4.30 am to be ready for the match beginning at 5.30 am. But alas! All your planning went haywire as you found that you were unable to sleep early, thinking about what might happen. Will India win the toss? If it does, will the team opt to bat first? What if Gavaskar fails? You kept fidgeting on the bed conjuring up the worst case scenario one moment and the best case scenario the next. You offered a hundred prayers to the Almighty for your favourite batsman or bowler to do well. It would be close to 1 am by the time you finally managed to fall asleep. But horror of horrors! You woke up at 3 am, long before the alarm bell rang, and then found that you were unable to sleep again. But the astonishing part was you never felt sleepy all day – or, at least, till the day’s play was over – despite the sleeplessness.
Once the match started, you made sure you did not miss a ball. If you needed to visit the loo, you had the luxury of carrying your transistor into it (something that TV doesn’t offer). While having breakfast or lunch, you could have the radio placed by your side, lifting it up to your ears when there was some exciting moment in the game. For the rest, you remained cuddled up under the quilt, the transistor close to your ears, recreating the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) or the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in your mind’s eye with generous help from the seasoned commentators, savouring each ball and shot.
But this luxury was available only when you were home. The smart phone generation would find it hard to believe that even the humble radio was unaffordable for someone staying in a college hostel in those days. While I was in my first year in college in 1977, I found an unlikely person to help me listen to cricket commentary: a trader of goods made of iron, steel and aluminium in the Baripada market. He would have finished his morning ablutions, taken his bath, opened his shop and lighted some sweet smelling incense sticks an hour before match time, well before I and my room rate reached, trembling despite the chadar wrapped around the body (It was, after all, peak winter!) . Once we reached, the generous man would order tea for all of us from the stall in front of his shop – which, invariably, would be the first kettle of tea made by the vendor for the day and would taste better than at any other time of the day. Our host understood very little of the English commentary – in Australian accent, mind you – but his enthusiasm for the game was second to none. Just about the only things he could make out was when the commentator shouted ‘bowled’, ‘four’ and ‘six’. For the rest, he would bank on us to understand what was happening on the ground. [Not that we understood everything, but he believed we did and we were shy of telling him we didn’t!]
When it was lunch time (7.30 am IST), our generous host would order breakfast for all of us. We put up a feeble resistance in the initial days, but soon threw in the towel in the face of his insistence. If India was bowling, he would order some snacks or sweets every time a major wicket fell. He would do the same when an Indian batsman scored a fifty or a hundred. The funniest part was he would get very upset if a customer demanded his attention while the match was at an interesting point and would try to dispose him of as quickly as possible, frequently saving himself the trouble of bargaining and settling for whatever the customer offered. On one particular occasion, he shouted at a particularly bothersome customer thus; “The shop is closed. I have kept it open just to listen to cricket. Come in the evening.” The hapless customer had no choice but to leave quietly! [Year later, I met him in a bus. He embraced me warmly and made me seat by his side. There are no prizes for guessing what we talked for the rest of the journey. Alas! They don’t make such fans anymore!]
Reasoning invariably went for a six (to use cricketing terminology) in case of a cricket fan. But there was one occasion when I was amazed at the reasoning of another big cricket fan: my father.
Since the earliest time I could recollect, it had been a practice at our home for the All India Radio (AIR) station to be tuned in sharp at 7.00 am every single day for the back-to-back, 15-minute long news bulletins in English and Odia. But one morning sometime in 1976, I got up to find the radio switched off. I thought my father must have forgotten. So, I was about to switch the radio on when my father prevented me from doing so. I asked him the reason and his answer ‘stumped’ me. There was a Test match going on at Port of Spain, Trinidad between India and West Indies, which was poised delicately with India having scored nearly 300 for the loss of four wickets in its chase of 404 (the highest target in the fourth innings at the time) when the AIR commentary called it a day after tea. [Since the match ended at 2.30 am IST, the AIR authorities used to call it a day after tea and played the recorded commentary at 8 am the next morning.] Listening to the news would have meant knowing the result before listening to the commentary of the post-tea session and losing out on the suspense element, which was such an integral part of following cricket in those good old days!
Raised on a generous diet of ODIs and 20-20s, today’s generation would perhaps consider such cold reasoning crazy. Accustomed as they are to action replays, DRS and third/fourth umpires, they would perhaps balk at the very idea of spending six hours a day for five days at a stretch listening to cricket commentary. But for old timers who know their cricket, Test cricket would always remain something special – to be savoured sip by sip like old wine rather than gulped down in one go like lager beer!