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August 25, 1998


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Two for the road

One was the capricious spider, enticing victims with his guile and ensnaring them in a web that seemed so delicate and yet, was a fortress. The other was the loyal workhorse, sticking to his job irrespective of his terrain and quite happy to allow others to ride with him. One was the pilot flying in style, the other was a soldier wearing a badge of honour pinned over his heart.

They had their moments in the sun. But ever so quickly, the spider slipped out of his own web and found he couldn’t spin another. And the loyal horse, with but a thorn in his foot, was done in by the master who mistakenly thought he had gone lame.

Laxman SivaramaKrishnan Laxman Sivaramakrishnan is still only 32, a young man in most professions, and Pravin Amre is three years younger. They still have very honourable mentions in the record books, but that will count for very little as they tidy their kit for the start of the most important cricket season of their career. To just about everybody, they represent the last glimmer of the sun as it dips over. To them, that is but the end of a cycle, for the sun must rise again.

Just a few months ago, Gentleman magazine asked me to list the top five batting and bowling performances that I had seen. As I kept scribbling and staring at the wall in front of me, one innings kept haunting me. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t studded with elegance. There was no thrilling counter-attack. And yet, I remember, when the moment came, I found myself clapping as long and as hard as I did when Azhar scored his hundred at Lords, and Tendulkar his masterpiece at Perth.

It was a deeply moving occasion, not just for me but for most people present there, and I will never forget the sight of Azhar waiting at the little gate near the boundary to embrace his young batsman. For sheer character, for the ability to overcome, Amre’s century on debut at Durban had to make my list.

Amrit Mathur, who was India’s manager on that tour tells a lovely story of the team meeting the evening before. Amre was told he would play, and the convention is that the debutant makes a little speech. Often, being better cricketers than speakers, young men are hesitant, taking refuge behind ready statements. When Amre’s turn came he thanked the team for choosing him, then paused and in a slightly raised voice announced, “And India will win”. It was typical of the attitude Amre brought to a cricket match.

Pravin Amre That was Amre’s high noon. That was also six years ago. In that rather tumultous period, Amre wandered in search of home; from Rajasthan to Bengal and back to Rajasthan. He discovered that the moment you lose your Test place, you become an unwelcome visitor. Bengal dropped him, and when he returned to Rajasthan, he found that Central Zone had decided not to consider professionals for the Duleep Trophy.

It was one of the more gruesome acts in our cricket, for the BCCI has a policy that allows professionals, and one of its arms was distancing itself from it. Four matches, and in the Central Zone they are often played in appalling conditions, was all Amre got in 1997-'98.

He moves to Mumbai this year; the city he was born in and the city that taught him his cricket and his attitude; a city that can swamp a youngster with generosity and treat another like yesterday’s newspaper. It is a tough, unforgiving city, and for all its tradition of greatness, is very low on sentiment. If you swim, you survive and hear the applause. If you flounder just a bit, nobody in that crowded stadium will throw you a lifeline. Of all India’s major cricketing cities, it is Mumbai alone that has such an uncompromising Western work ethic.

It is in such an atmosphere that Amre seeks his rebirth. He knows the maidans of the city well, for they have resounded to the skill of his strokeplay. And he appreciates its culture, for he was such an integral part of it when he was scoring almost as many runs as a young 14 year old from his school was to score a couple of years later.

But he chose to quit, to seek his fortunes elsewhere. And in spite of all the runs he scored -- and he scored a phenomenal number of them -- he now needs Mumbai more than Mumbai needs him.

Will the alma mater stretch out a hand and embrace him back into its fold? Or will it spurn him and force him to walk alone?

I think Mumbai will take the cold blooded perform-or-perish approach. And I would quite like to think Amre will be happy with that, for there is a spot in the middle order there for a quality player. Sachin Tendulkar probably won’t get a game for Mumbai this year, and nobody is quite sure of how Vinod Kambli’s ankle will react to the rigour of competitive cricket. Even if it does stand up, and what joy that will be, Amre can still challenge for the fourth middle-order place assuming that Jatin Paranjape and Amol Muzumdar will take the other two. For that reason, I will be reading the Mumbai scoreboards with great interest this year.

And I will hunt out the Tamil Nadu scoreboards with a completely different sense of anticipation. For the word on the cricket circuit is that Laxman Sivaramakrishnan is turning his arm over and making the ball buzz in the air all over again.

If Amre’s Durban memories are six years old, Siva’s twelve wickets in the Mumbai Test against England go back a staggering fourteen years. Just to put things in perspective, Gavaskar was captain of India, Navjot Sidhu had played a couple of Tests, Azharuddin was still only in the reserves and Anil Kumble was six years away from playing for India!

Siva’s performance made my list of top bowling performances very easily because apart from the wickets he took, there was just a different air to him. He alone, in that era and this, had the charisma to match that of the great quartet that preceeded him.

Various reasons have been offered for his rather stunning decline. They range from the bizarre (“He grew taller!”) to the deeply personal and, as with his meteoric rise, it only seemed to contribute to the mystique that surrounds the leg spinner.

But, and this is an idea of the impact he had in his brief alliance with success, he never ever went out of the consciousness of the core cricket fan. Our idea of a cricketing fantasy invariably had Siva make a dramatic comeback, dipping his huge legbreaks and spinning India to victory.

Then the whispers began. `Siva is bowling again". For all my years of imagining it, I suddenly realised I almost didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want to see my beautiful image struggling in first division cricket. In fact, I didn’t even know what he looked like, for the subject of my imagination was a young man of twenty.

But the whispers were coming from knowledgeable people. Sachin Tendulkar talked about how Siva had helped him in the nets. He said in his interview on the ESPN programme Inside Cricket -- and unfortunately this was one of the parts that got edited out -- “I was one of his (Siva’s) biggest fans, and for him to bowl to me meant a lot to me.”

In fact, after the interview was aired, Tendulkar said he was disappointed that that portion had to be left out. “I was very keen that people knew it,” he said. “I wanted to acknowledge it”.

Then one of his former teammates said, in a rather prophetic kind of way “He (Siva) will do well now because he wants to do well!”.

And a couple of weeks ago, Ajay Jadeja told me “He’s bowling really well.”

Now, Tamil Nadu must give him a whole season of first class cricket to play. They must back him and nurture him and give him confidence. But these are troubled times in Tamil Nadu’s cricket administration (in itself a strange thing, because they love cricket so much there) and somebody will have to break above club and corporate rivalry and see the value of what they possess.

It is only a very faint glimmer but gee, if those are the first rays of a new day...........

I know even dreamers can’t be too greedy, but isn’t this a beautiful thought to freshen your mind as the rain comes down ...... A fourth day Chepauk wicket.... still some bounce...... Anil Kumble at the Pavilion End and Siva at the Wallajah Road end............

There is going to be life this year beyond the one-day internationals. In Mumbai and in Chennai.

Harsha Bhogle

Mail Prem Panicker