I guess not many people can boast that they have kept wickets in a match while Sunny Gavaskar stood at first slip. I can. Besides having others on your side like Mohinder Amarnath, Yashpal Sharma and Maninder Singh. The occasion was a cricket match between the Indian and South African media at Centurion Park on February 8, a day after Zimbabwe’s historic win over India in the rain-affected onedayer at Centurion. A 35 over a side match in which the Indian media were led by R. Mohan, The Hindu correspondent, and the South Africans by Trevor Quirk, the television commentator. Batting first, the Indians scored 218 in 35 overs, two more runs than what the Indian cricket team managed against Zimbabwe the day before. Opening the batting were Maninder Singh and Mohinder Amarnath, scoring 46 and 68 respectively. Sharma and Sunny followed with 51 and 28 not out. Coming on the wicket for the last two balls in the Indian media innings was Joseph Hoover of the Deccan Herald. Batting with Sunny at the other end was the highlight of his sporting career even though he faced just two balls. He says he couldn’t see either of them go past under the lights. The South African innings was interrupted by rain though the overs didn’t get reduced. They got bundled out, however, for 149 runs, with Debashish Dutta from Aaj Kal taking three wickets towards the end. Of course, I had my goof-ups behind the stumps, letting the ball through my legs a couple of times on Maninder’s bowling and getting shouted at by him and Sharma—”Aai Aniruda ki kar reya si. Nak katwaiga.” (Hey Aniruda, will you make us lose face.) This is where Sunny’s stabilising influence came in. “That’s the typical Punjabi way of playing cricket,” said Sunny. “‘Instead of making you comfortable they’ve flustered you now. That’s how the Pakistanis play cricket. They are at each other’s throats all the time.” “What about sledging the batsman?” I ask. “Only Sarfaraz used to do that. The others used to just talk amongst themselves,” says Sunny. I see my opportunity to clear an 11-year-old curiosity. What was it that David Boon said to him as Sunny walked past him when he got out at 90 in the historic tied Test at Madras in 1986? From television, my memory of the scene for 11 long years was Aussie aggressiveness at its peak. It must have been something really bad, I imagined. Recalled Sunny: “I think he said, ‘well played’.” That was quite an anti-climax. Of course, to get my wicketkeeper slot I had to fudge issues with Yashpal Sharma. “Have you kept wickets before?” he asked me. “Sort of,” I said, and started strapping my pads before he could pin me on the subject. Sitting nearby, Sunny advised me to be sure I wore my groin guard. Later, I confess to Sunny, “This was the first time I kept wickets in my entire life. Actually, I did it just to be able to stand next to you.” Sunny smiles and winks.
IF there is one thing, it’s that cricketers in general aren’t media savvy. There are very few Sunny types around. The concept of a chat is rather alien and the few safe approaches are when you say that you are working on something like a player profile. Which, of course, is a hard-to-get editorial qualification. But since a lot of times that’s the only soft entry you get, you often have to start off your chat with some rather mundane queries. The who-are-your-idols and what’s-your-life-history genre of inquiry. What’s also embarrassing is if you are having a chat with one of the players in his room. It’s more embarrassing, however, for the player’s room-mate. For instance, you have to hush your questions and the player has to hush his answers. The third presence has to look unusually interested in the television or the book he’s reading. Vikram Rathore was in a similar situation when I was having a chat with Rahul Dravid. After a while, when it got too tense, Rathore figured the only way out was to go to the loo for 15 minutes and leave us alone. Dravid, on the other hand, looks the most polished of the Indian cricketers and the most commercially saleable after Sachin. He’s just signed a deal with Pepsi. One of his side interests is to watch wildlife videos. On the way home after the finals at Durban, he was busy increasing his collection of cassettes at the airport.
THE way the Indians roomed made some interesting combinations. While Sunil Dev, the administrative manager, had a suite to himself, coach Madan Lal, captain Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Azharuddin, Anil Kumble, and Javagal Srinath had single rooms to themselves. The others had roommates. Robin Singh with Salil Ankola, Venkatesh Prasad with Dodda Ganesh, Sunil Joshi with Ajay Jadeja, Rahul Dravid with Vikram Rathore, Saba Karim with Saurav Ganguly and Nayan Mongia with Pankaj Dharmani. Ganesh is apparently so taken by Prasad that he wants to duplicate all of Prasad on the field. And Dharmani’s lament for the entire tour—he didn’t get to play in a single one-day international or the Tests—has been that he has become an expert on the many glass-sizes he has had to carry to the field as twelfth man. He also rarely got to keep the four passes that each player is entitled to every match. The others would browbeat him for them. The passes, incidentally, were in great demand for obliging friends and fans. Off the field, Azhar has a reputation as a compulsive shopper. Ganguly almost always sticks to his own room. And Madan Lal doesn’t attend private parties where any of the other players have been invited. An interesting aside took place at the nets in Durban before the finals. With Sachin, Ganesh and Ganguly bowling to Robin Singh, Saurav missed one of his bowling chances because Ganesh took his ball and bowled. Sachin then gave his own ball to Ganguly with his hands like a platter. “Here maharaj,” he said, “please use this ball.”
WHATEVER opinion we might have of Mohinder Amarnath’s abilities as a commentator,nobody can cast aspersions on his culinary skills. Before the finals at Durban he put his talent to use at a dinner hosted by South African journalist Katherine Kane. Amongst the invitees were STARTV commentators, quite a few of whom are vegetarians. Said Jimmy before he sweated it out in the kitchen: “Hamare vegetarian bhai bandhuon ke liye kuch banana parega.” (Have to make something for our vegetarian friends.) For the guests, Jimmy’s expertise conjured up aloo gobi, aloo fry, plain rice and pulses. And for a Bangladeshi doctor settled in Durban, that was the best aloo he had in his whole life.
FOR the local Indians in South Africa, the performance of the Indian team during the tour was disappointing, to say the least. Says Kiruban Naidoo, a former South African cricketer who played with Madan Lal in Leicestershire: “If they had played well, a lot of Indian club cricketers would have got encouragement. It’s still very difficult for an Indian to break through in a club side or, fina-lly, play for South Africa. They have to score really consistently.” While the Indian team got consistent vocal support from the older generation of Indians, the young kids sometimes root for South Africa. Says Naidoo: “They don’t have the memories we have of the apartheid years.” Incidentally, the blacks don’t take to cricket. They generally perceive both cricket and rugby as white sports.
PROPERTY in South Africa is much cheaper compared to, say, Delhi and Mumbai. For roughly Rand 100,000-140,000 (about Rs 8-11 lakh) one can get a decent three-room apartment in a safe area. Johannesburg, more than any other city in South Africa, is hyperconscious about security. All houses have fencing, some of it electrified, and most have signboards outside warning would-be intruders of a 24-hour ARMED RESPONSE. Prices of properties go down if blacks are making inroads in a particular area. Hillbrow, for instance, till eight years back was a totally white area but now they have all moved out. In Johannesburg itself, night life congregates in Illova, Rosebank, Hillbrow and Rocky Street. One very white and very Yuppie club is 206, which is five km from Yeoville where Rocky Street is. Weed smoke hits you as you enter and you are stamped on your wrists with ink. That’s for identification in case you want to get out for a while. The bouncers also check you for weapons. My companions on my two outings there were rather interesting themselves. Yaniv is an Israeli just out of the army after three years who’s landed in South Africa to make a living by selling paintings. And Rodney is the manager of Explorer’s Club, the place I put up in in Johannesburg. Rodney doubles as a plumber in his spare time and Yaniv just got mugged in Soweto two days after flying to South Africa. “What about your army background? You could have put some of that Israeli hand-to-hand combat thing to good use?” I ask him, cooing in sympathy. But the thing with Yaniv is that after the army, he has blown all his money on weed and acid and learning how to play the oboe. The muggers took that too.