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December 15, 1999


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Connecting, buffering, playing...

Ashwin Mahesh

As with countless middle class Indians following the game, I learned to love cricket during sunny afternoon encounters in the street, and in cramped corners of our home. Long before one-day cricket had established itself as the high-speed thriller version of the sport, kids of every age were playing two-hour cricket after school, squeezing little nuggets of the sport into lives otherwise laden with books and detention. Every variant one might imagine was tried and perfected; off-side-only scoring when the neighbours on one side of the house got picky about broken windows, left-handers versus right-handers when enough southpaws gathered around, one-bounce wicket-taking, roof-top games with penalties for breaching the shallow ramparts, underarm delivery, French cricket, you name it and we tried it.

And alongside playing the game in the flesh, like every other fan, I began what has since remained an ongoing and sometimes clandestine romance among the airwaves, turning to the sights and sounds of the game. My earliest memories of this love affair are of a red dot, flickering unpredictably and agonizingly as the radio struggled to catch the passing voices in the wind. Huddled under the blankets on school nights, with the volume turned way down lest anyone taller than five feet should wake up, I would listen in rapt attention to descriptions of the game, riveting tales of our national team on distant lands.

In those early days amid the sounds of competition, getting hooked on cricket seemed more natural than growing up. School was a bit of an obstacle to this evolution, and even an institution that counted nearly every major Tamil cricketer of the last two decades amongst its alumni was wont to frown on the less talented devoting their energies to sporting times. To circumvent this, like many other co-deviants, I'd sneak radios into the classroom to complement my academic learning. And while the chalkboard conversation turned to literature and geography, I tuned into far more alluring events on the cricket field, with ears pressed to handheld sets hidden under desks, one eye cocked at the instructor, while my whole being was lost to another world.

If cricket had been on the exam schedules, I'd have an academic history I could frame with pride; instead I assailed every record for lack of concentration, inattentiveness, and such less noteworthy accomplishments.

At times, I would be startled by sudden surges in volume that accompanied the fall of a wicket or a wonderful straight drive, and hurriedly have to reset the noise level lower. The wavering dot would fade at the worst moments, as 'Cheeka' flashed at a ball three feet wide of the off stump and edged one towards the slips, and I would mumble to myself, cursing interloping birds, aircraft and whatever else took hold of my imagination while I waited with bated breath for the commentary to resume.

In later years the patience earned through this experience would stand me in good stead through countless debacles from Doordarshan! Watching TV at several places around the nation, I learned to say "Sorry for the Interruption" in more languages than I cared to.

As the years passed, things changed, perhaps inevitably, but for the better nonetheless. Bigger and better televisions, action replays, side-angle cameras, night cricket, and other additions to the visual experience heightened the spectatorial senses with more intriguing presentations of the sport. But radio was the original godsend, and would continue to serve its great purpose.

Without once seeing Bishen Singh Bedi bowl an arm-ball, I learned to imagine the straighter delivery; long before I sat in admiration at the sight of Ravi Shastri parading around an Australian ground in his newly-won automobile, I had mastered, in my mind's eye, every nuance that flowed from his chappati shot.

The sounds of the game had found a permanent home in my boyhood imagination and forged memories of the unseen that transcended reality. Many years later in a quiet little house by the river in Hobart, I would turn once more to the little device, bringing news of Australian conquests on English soil, and remember with fondness the experiences of a younger time.

As the decades have rolled by, we Indians have taken the game along with us as we have spread our habitat around the planet, first on to the baked earth of Sharjah and then to other far-flung outposts, some as far away as the wintry spring of the Canadian heartland. A million miles from the emotions of the sport and cut off from its memorable moments, the Internet, with streaming audio, have kept alive the memories of times past and the possibility of the joys of the present. Instead of cursing passing aircraft, we now rue the limited bandwidths of Cricinfo's or Radio Australia's servers, but that too shall pass.

And so it has come to pass that I find myself tuned in to the first Test against Australia at Adelaide, with two of our very best, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar, doing battle with two of their very best, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, with Harsha Bhogle on Media Player to keep me company over the wires and distant seas. As the easy familiarity that accompanies the sounds of the game takes over again, I savor the event, recalling the bliss of endless similar moments from the past. Despite the lack of visuals, the elegance of the unseen southpaw punching through the off cordon and the little master's backfoot cover drive both jump readily into the mind, as well-honed neurons recreate images from another time, recasting David Gower and Sunil Gavaskar in context. The drift of Warne's wrong-un is real enough to the imagination, as Ganguly is stranded down the wicket against the quicker and flatter ball.

The mind has an uncanny ability to conjure up visions of the things we seek in our hearts. In the descriptions of faraway commentators, familiar images of the sport come rushing forth to remind me how powerful our imaginations can be. And with each rendition, I find myself re-learning with joy that sounds of the game are music to my ears. Perhaps that's what it means to be a fan. It's also why, when this Test has passed by and the next one rolls along, I will seek the bookmark on my browser and watch in anticipation once more as words flash by. Connecting, buffering, playing, ... feeling alive to the game, and quite simply, happy.

Mail Sports Editor