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August 11, 1998


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One from the heart

Harsha Bhogle

More than anybody else in our morally impoverished public life, it is our young cricketers who have the power to touch and to change people’s lives.

It could be a smile, a gentle touch, or even a scribbled signature on a piece of paper that has gone grubby through hours of passionate clutching. Those memories stay, for they become indelible marks on the minds of people who don’t always have too much to look forward to.

Seeing that happen has been one of the most invaluable aspects of travelling on the cricket circuit. To see a face light up, to hear a cheer go up, to see hundreds and thousands waiting for a little glimpse of their stars is the most humbling experience anyone can come across, and that is why it has been such an enriching experience for me.

I have often wondered what it is that causes cricket to be so passionately followed in India. Unlike in most countries where a defeat can cause an emotional outpouring and a period of disenchantment with the game, in India, cricket seems to be relatively immune to defeat. I am now convinced, and anybody who reads the front pages of our newspapers or watches the headlines on television will be convinced as well, that there is hardly another set of people that can project youth and endeavour, and that can send positive signals about courage and achievement, than our cricketers.

By contrast, everytime the Lok Sabha meets, the level of morality in our public life goes down. Members are unkempt; they abuse and they threaten; they physically assault each other in a manner that would have earned expulsion from school and a life ban in any sport; they destroy official documents and earn the applause of their “leaders”. Everything about them is false; they trample over the hopes of people, and I suspect that as a category, they bring more darkness into people’s lives than anyone else.

By contrast, the intense face of a Tendulkar as he urges himself and a team on; the awesome talent of Mohamamad Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly; the humility amidst the achievement of Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid; and the sight of Srinath and Sidhu trying to overcome, are like postcards of joy. And Ajay Jadeja’s smile can light up a thousand households.

I see this happen so often and I realise that these young men, often only 25, are not just cricketers, they are ambassadors of hope. And cricket is not merely a sport, it is an escape from the immediate, our modern-day opium.

And India is unique among the cricket loving countries of the world in that it showers affection on visiting teams as well. The crowds might stay quiet when Mark Waugh drives through the covers for four or even when Aravinda da Silva pulls into the stands. They might go into violent outburts of joy when the above mentioned gentlemen and their teammates are sent back to the pavilion. But once the game is over, the cheers for them will return.

The Australians discovered that when they spent a month and a half in India earlier this year. Till the last day of the tour, Shane Warne got a huge cheer everytime he picked up the ball; the Waughs found out that they were as famous in India as they were in Australia; and Mark Taylor quickly became one of the most admired visitors to this country for his enormous dignity and cheer.

And I suspect India affected them, and maybe even proved to be a humbling experience for them. That is why it came as no surprise that Steve Waugh returned here to keep a commitment that he had made on what should have been the last day of the Calcutta Test.

The well known Australian writer and friend of India, Mike Coward, has often written about the indifferent attitude of cricketers towards the history and culture of the game; of their hesitation in experiencing the life of the country whose first citizens they virtually become; of being quite happy to stay confined to the airport-hotel-ground circuit.

“But Steve Waugh is made differently,” he always said, and I think he will be quite proud of the fact that the elder Waugh was able to influence the rest of the team to some extent, and to set such a magnificent example himself.

The Australians lost a series, but made a million friends in India. And now Steve Waugh has made several more by his commitment, indeed even his passion, to raise money for the underprivileged. He is actually a difficult man to relate to at first sight, for he seems tough and uncompromising. And the image created by television led to an initial impression in my mind that he was, if anything, distinctly unfriendly.

Then I met him a few times, very fleetingly really because it was only for the mandatory television interviews, and a slightly different picture started to emerge. And I realised that Mike Coward was right.

Now he has won himself a place in the hearts of Calcuttans forever. Calcutta is the most vibrant, the most emotional of all cricket cities, and it has a great sense of belonging. It would be interesting then to see the reaction that Waugh gets if he were ever to play against India at the Eden Gardens again.

It is interesting as well to see that he was able to convince the Australian Cricket Board into allowing him to miss the Eights in Kuala Lumpur, where the ACB had sent a representative side. It’s nice to see this kind of maturity on both sides; on the one hand the commitment by a cricketer to a date that he had promised, and the acceptance of that commitment by a cricketing authority on the other hand.

Someone was asking the other day, why it needed an Australian to feel the need for a cause. “Why can’t some of our boys do it?” was the mildly belligerent tone of voice.

I don’t understand it all. I think charity is a very personal thing, and that too often we use it as a stick to beat people with. My experience is that our cricketers are wary of being associated with people they do not know (it probably has something to do with organisers placing their charities and themselves in a slightly different order of priority!), but they are game once they are convinced of the credentials.

I saw that in late March in Bangalore, on one of the loveliest evenings I have been to for a long time. The Deccan Herald group of publications were planning to hold an auction of cricketing memorabilia to raise money for a couple of causes they had identified. Their sports correspondent, Joseph Hoover, was asked to make contact with cricketers to see if they could donate some part of their gear that could then be auctioned.

Not only were the cricketers willing, a couple of them went beyond what was asked of them and turned up for the charity dinner. The cricketers knew Hoover, were confident they could trust the organisation he represented, and at the end of a wonderful evening, they returned satisfied with the knowledge that their contribution had been worth something.

Not all functions are as well managed, though, and I have been to some where the charity or the award is merely an excuse for corporate mileage. A cosy photograph, an autograph for the son, a mention in the newspapers (ideally the business pages) the next day, and a swagger at the next ten cocktail parties (“You want Sachin and Azhar? No problem, I’ll fix them up !”) is all they are really meant for.

Charities can also be terribly contagious. A Steve Waugh can make an appearance and go back. If Mohammad Azharuddin publicly commits to a charity, he will have a thousand more on the line the next day -- which is why he and Tendulkar, two that I know of for a fact, make their little contributions quietly.

Luckily, charities are not the only way one can contribute to society. A straight drive and a brilliant catch; a photograph and a pat on the back do that as well. They bring a smile to the face, and not too many people are capable of doing that just now.

Harsha Bhogle

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