Veteran sportspeople come up with hypnotic stories from their battered bunks of memories
In the days before technology and data, sport was played with common sense and self-reliance
As January dawns, the kiss comes out of nowhere. India are playing Australia at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai, and 1960 has just begun. Things happen on a cricket field but kissing is not frequently one of them and so he’s surprised but also worried.
“We were coming back for tea and suddenly this young lady comes out and sort of gives a kiss here and there. I withdrew. My main worry was my parents were watching in the stands, what will they think. ‘We sent our boy to England, has he gone astray?’"
The storyteller is Abbas Ali Baig, 10 Tests for India, century on debut, a sprightly 80 years old now, sitting at a café in Singapore a few months ago and rummaging through his past at my request. There’s a joy in sitting with retired athletes because they have time and a diminished ego. “In our time," they will say and it’s the beginning of a ride. They will extract stories from their battered trunk of memories and sometimes mix up dates, but listening to them is hypnotic.
A swimmer told me about racing through algae during a South-East Asian Games. Hockey legend Leslie Claudius spoke about not shaving, or bathing, just lying on his bed on match days because he wanted to conserve energy. Someone recounts tales of headlights being used to illuminate the pole-vault runway on dark nights.
Now sport uses drones to give coaches a bird’s-eye view of training, but as we go forward these older athletes do us a service. They allow us to retrace the trail of sport through time. To look at Eliud Kipchoge’s Nikes, which for some offer an unfair advantage, is to remember Rick Broadbent’s description of the 1950s English runner Gordon Pirie in his book Endurance: “(He) wore out shoes fortnightly and fastened them around his ankles with cords so he would not lose them in the mud. The cords tightened and gouged out wounds."
The past is perspective, it’s a nice antidote to an entitled era, it reveals the advances in diet, medicine and equipment. Once, bicycle gears could only be changed by dismounting a cycle. In a world where Rohit Sharma hits sixes as casually as he probably reaches for a samosa, it’s astonishing when Baig says he hit only a “few sixes" in his entire career.
Baig didn’t even have a bat till he took one home from England. “If you were lucky, you managed to acquire it from a senior chap. But you couldn’t control the weight of it or anything like that." Tiger Pataudi, a pal of his, just “picked up any bat on the way out (of the dressing room)".
We say sport has come far but where did it come from? From Rome in the 1960s, when Italian tennis legend Nicola Pietrangeli had—wrote Gordon Forbes in A Handful Of Summers—“a new method of helping linesmen make favourable decisions on close calls. This consists of placing the ball on the spot where he would like the linesman to believe the ball has bounced. Here in Rome, where he was regarded as at least a god, the method invariably works to perfection."
Amateur sport has its own unkempt charm and there’s little footage of it, no tweets, no iPhone photos, just the more charming stuff—myth and legend and stories. An old hurdler once mentioned that if you hit the old high hurdles, you fell and the hurdle stayed. Painful, too, was Baig’s chosen path, for when he played Test cricket, from 1959-67, it was still some time before helmets.
Any chest guards? “No." Forearm guards? “No."
So, of course, he got hit. “Near my ear in my first Test match, when I was on 85. I twirled around and collapsed. I had to retire for the evening. Next morning back in, the first ball was another bouncer."
Modern sport is complicated, overwrought, finicky, detailed, every shot measured and piece of footwork dissected. Some is progress, some is clutter. It’s hardly that the older days were better—there’s no romance to one pound a day, which was Baig’s allowance overseas—but sport, with no data as armour then, was played with common sense and self-reliance. Cricket was worked out.
Did you have a coach? “No, no, no," he says. What about stuff like the bat coming down the wrong way? “No, no. Try correcting Tiger’s back-lift, it would be impossible. It came from gully and straightened out at the time of impact. He was a genius. He was able to pick where to hit a ball. Able to do that on both front andback foot. He initiated the lofted shot in India."
Coffee is drunk, toasts are eaten. This is like traversing through a verbal archive, history come to polite, unexaggerated life. Eventually athletes disappear, a few books are written and the past trails away like smoke dismissed by a modern wind.
Baig still has his India cap and letters from Don Bradman, whom he met when he was manager of the Indian team to Australia in 1992. Eventually, Baig’s daughter would paint a portrait of the Australian which was sent to him. What does he remember about the Don? “His immense self-confidence and that he was very down to earth."
Baig himself was the object of adulation, which translated to 10-20 letters a day, usually from young ladies. “I used to handwrite letters back." Of course he did. This is a gentleman.
And so that day of the kiss, when he got back to the pavilion, an official approached him. “He told me, ‘Abbas, you allowed that girl to kiss you on the field and now there are two-three girls out here who would like to know if they can kiss you.’"
So what did you do?
He smiled gently. The official was the chairman of the selection committee, so what could he say?
“I said, ‘Okay, why not?’"
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
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