October 30, 1997
The Naked Pace
I get down from the auto-rickshaw in front of the Madras Christian College main gate, and the ghost of a long ago past walks out of the watchman's cubicle, a broad grin on his face.
"Enna, nee ippo indha pakkam vararadhe illiya?" (What, you don't come this way at all, these days?) he goes, in Tamil, adding, "So you've forgotten all of us?"
I haven't. How could I? "Bournvita" -- which is the name by which I knew him in my student days, and the only name I have for him now -- is an institution. And, like all institutions, remains unchanged, in looks and manner.
But then, I have changed. And how. So I figure, hey, maybe this is a con. Maybe he pulls this greeting on most people who look like they COULD have studied there, in the hope of landing a tip. So I go, hey, Bournvita, how do you remember me?
"Enna paa!" he goes. "After all the bidis you bummed off me and you remember that time Bharat (Reddy) and you and Ravi (Richards) made me go buy you a bottle of booze and you got caught, and that time..."
I hastily interrupt the flood of reminiscences by giving him a hearty pat on the back -- not caring to be reminded of any more pecaddiloes.
When I was studying there, Bournvita was the junior "marker" -- a young, ready-for-any-mischief type whose official job was to mark the boundary lines and such of our various playing fields; but who, at least for us students, existed there only as an aid and ally for every conceivable kind of mischief.
Today, he is chief watchman -- and still, judging by his grin, inclined to aid and abet hi-jinks. Natural justice, that -- on one memorable occasion, Bournvita had in fact distracted the gate-keeper so that two of us could smuggle our girlfriends into the premises late one evening. Now, he guards the gates -- and if past form is any indication, amorously inclined students of today may not run the risk of heart attack as we did, in our days.
So, what are you doing here, he wants to know. Came to check out the MRF Pace Foundation, I tell him. "Oh, that is F4, you know the way..." he grins, a wicked grin.
In MCC school, there are four grounds. Or rather, two. One large one, sub-divided into three, and then a smaller ground apart from the main one. And they are known as F -- for Football -- 1, 2, 3 and 4.
F4 is the one that is removed from the other three. And in our days, that was where the senior nets were located, for the school team players. And being sheltered from the casual gaze of principals and other suchlike pests, it was also where we loved to hang out, stealing illicit smokes and kisses and such.
Feels funny, walking through the cobblestoned pathways bordering the schoolbuilding, towards F4. Like it is not one guy walking, but a veritable route march of ghosts from the past.
Ghosts are funny creatures. They like cobblestoned paths and moonlit gardens and misty mountain tops and such. But vanish under the gaze of modernity -- I mean, who ever heard of a phantom in a disco?
So, when I round the bend in the drive and come upon F4, the ghosts vanish. Because first up, what I see is a modern swimming pool in the middle of the ground -- the closest thing to which, in our time, was puddles of rainwater, in season, which gave us the excuse to play riotous games of soccer.
At one end of the ground is the Academy office. At the opposite ends, four nets. And that is where I head for -- the presence of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson proving the magnet.
The session -- I land up there on the last day of the Lillee-Thomson combo's latest fortnight-long coaching stint -- is into overdrive. There are four pitches, ranging from the real fast one (the way the ball rockets off it is a throwback to Durban) to a decent-ish track that is like the one you get maybe in Melbourne, then a typical, hard-baked, belter of a batting track, and the last one is a bit cracked, underdone... the nearest thing to a fourth day wicket on the sub-continent.
There are about 20 young bowlers milling around, under the gaze of Lillee, Thommo and resident MRF head T A Shekhar. And what is immediately interesting is the way they have partitioned off the pitches among the bowlers. Lance Klusener, I notice, is being made to bowl on the shirtfront -- obviously being prepared for the tour of Pakistan. And Thommo, standing near that pitch, keeps telling Lance to "pitch it up, mate, pitch it right up, don't try to bounce the bugger out!"
Meanwhile, Ravindra Pushpakumara and two young Indian boys are bowling on the fast track. And the two boys -- one eighteen, one nineteen -- are really letting it rip. Pace up there in the Srinath class, but very little lateral movement, I notice. And Lillee, monitoring, keeps egging them on to bowl faster and faster... "Let it rip!" he keeps telling them.
In a spare moment, I ask Lillee who these boys are -- I mean, here we are, talking of the lack of pace bowlers in the country, and here are two boys making the ball blur through the air. "No, don't go writing about them and interviewing them just yet," Lillee cautions me. "Your boys have an attitude thing -- the minute they read about themselves, they stop trying. It's like, 'Oh, okay, Dennis Lillee thinks I'm good, that's it, I got it made in the shade!'. The boys are quick, but they need to develop variety, got to get it moving off the seam both ways... give them another season, they'll be prime goods!"
So then I just hang around and watch, while the net session winds to a close. Then follow Lillee and Thommo and Shekhar and the trainees to the little clubhouse, where a television and VCR have been set up. Sit with them, and watch as video clips of each bowler comes up on the small screen. Lillee with the remote control freezes a frame, and Thommo tells the concerned bowler: "Now see your back foot... it's dragging, slowing you down at delivery... you gotta work on that... move easier into the delivery... watch..."
The legend is on his feet, smoothly flowing into a delivery stride that, even now, years past his prime, looks menacing...
Another bowler, another frame, another gentle correction, this time from Lillee... some tips on what to watch out for when he practises... "I don't wanta see this next time I come here, you know?" he asks. And is rewarded with a quick nod and a "Yes sir!"
An hour of this, and the session abruptly ends. Lillee and Thompson take their leave of the boys. They are due to catch a flight back to Australia early next morning, so this is bye-bye till next time. And the two legends, who in their prime had all Australia at their backs as they raced in to terrorise yet another batsman, have a word for each of their trainees, a warning that they are to keep practising, that Shekhar -- "Shake" is what the Aussies call the former India pace bowler -- will be monitoring them...
And then Lillee and Thompson stroll over to where I am. Thompson grins when asked how come he, the ultimate natural in the world of fast bowling, finds himself actually coaching wannabes. "Well, yeah, right, in my time I ran in and slung them down any old how. But I've done some coaching for Queensland," he says. "And after a while, it became interesting... learning bio-mechanics, getting up on coaching techniques, trying to mould young kids... it's like living your life all over again... bowling by remote control, you know?"
The grin is huge. So is the hand he thrusts out in parting. He has, he says, to rush off to the hotel, change, and then go get some "stuff" done. "And anyways, you talk to Dennis -- he's the talker of us two, I am the man of action, mate!" he grins, earning a thump on the back from his hunting partner as he leaves me alone with Lillee...
Lillee looks a bit uncertain about whether, or no, to sit on the grass. There is a moment of awkwardness, with both of us fidgeting, him offering to drag two chairs over from the clubhouse... and something he says makes me realise that his discomfort is not for himself, but for me.
I plonk myself on the grass, and he flashes a quick grin as he kind of sinks to the ground. Is a vivid mental picture, that -- sort of like the rope in the Great Indian Rope Trick, after the fakir has stopped playing his flute at it. A graceful, boneless collapse, to sprawl at ease on the grass.
I don't want to take a chance on forgetting, later, so my first act is to thrust my little notepad at him and ask for an autograph -- a request granted with the flourish of long practise.
And then we talk.
'Talent alone does not cut it, these days'