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Revenge of the lambs at the Gabbatoir

In watching a Pujara rise above his pain; in watching a team of neophytes, cobbled together with duct tape, perform prodigies, we momentarily rise above our own pain. (Photo: AFP)Premium
In watching a Pujara rise above his pain; in watching a team of neophytes, cobbled together with duct tape, perform prodigies, we momentarily rise above our own pain. (Photo: AFP)

  • A day of unbelievable cricket at Brisbane can make you, albeit momentarily, forget even the most deeply-felt griefs
  • In no other field of endeavour do you take such selfless delight in the accomplishment of others, in achievements that in actuality make no particular difference to your own lives

BENGALURU : On our way back from Calicut after the last rites following the passing of my uncle, my wife and cousin sit in the back of the car, trading stories of one who had meant so much to so many. I sit in front, trawling through Twitter.

A video features a smiling Thangarasu Natarajan under a pink umbrella atop an improvised chariot. He is the focus of a celebratory procession of the denizens of Chinnappampatti, a flyspeck village tucked in a corner of Salem, Tamil Nadu, where his father, a weaver, and his mother, who runs a food stall, scrimped and sacrificed so that their son could pursue his passion.

I chance upon a picture of Mohammed Siraj at the grave of his father Mohammed Ghouse, a rickshaw-puller in Hyderabad who gave his all so his son could chase a dream, and who died days before Siraj translated that dream into glorious reality.

It brought unexpected tears. India was playing the West Indies in 1996-1997. I was doing live commentary for Rediff. I was readying to go to work for day three of the Bridgetown Test when my cousin knocked on my door to tell me my father had passed. Unlike Siraj, I got to see my father for one last time, but to this day, it hurts that he never got to see me—a college dropout and the designated “wastrel" of the family—make it in the profession of my choosing.

Via Cricinfo, I learn that the International Cricket Council (ICC) in its latest list of Test batsmen has ranked Shubhman Gill—a beardless boy in an Indian team where beards are tended to as assiduously as techniques—at #47. I try—and fail—to think of 46 batsmen better than this 21-year-old who, in just three Tests against the best in the world, averages a strike rate of over 60.

Another clip, of the climactic moments of the epic. Rishabh Pant finds—and threads—a hairline gap in that bow-taut field for the four that wins the game. On the outskirts, Kuldeep Yadav pulls on the India cap he never got to wear in match play on this tour and races out onto the field; the joy on his face lighting up a Gabba curtained in the evening shadows.

Prithvi Shaw, billed as the heir of Virender Sehwag’s mantle and since dropped for woeful form, races across the turf and hurls himself into Pant’s arms. Pant, who has improbably carried his team across the line, now carries his mate across the field.

I watch Kipling’s law of the jungle—“The strength of the wolf is the pack…"—play out on the 6.5-inch screen in my hand. I marvel at the excited pack that surrounds Pant, whose lone wolf assault achieved what history deemed impossible: a win by a touring side at the Gabba against an Australian side that has scored 350 or more in its first innings.

The stakes

The ‘Gabbatoir’ is where visiting lambs are taken for ritual slaughter. It is here, usually in the first Test of a series, that the touring team’s carotid is cut; the rest of the tour turns into an extended haemorrhage.

Homer—or a family of poets, the Homeridae—wrote the definitive version of the Iliad. But before him—or them—came the minstrels, the rhapsodes who drew on memory and invention to sing of the heroes gathered on the plains of Troy, handing the tale down many generations until it finally got to Homer some 400 years later.

As our car negotiates the hairpin bends of NH 212 along the Western Ghats, I read the rhapsodes of contemporary cricket—Siddarth Monga, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Sharda Ugra, Osman Samiuddin, Gideon Haigh, Greg Baum…

Sport, I recall reading, can make poets of those who did not know they had poetry in them. Through these rhapsodes I live again the see-sawing emotions of that epochal last day. And I long for the Homer this game, this series, cries out for, the memorialist who will immortalize this seminal moment so that future generations can read with round-eyed amazement of how a Washington Sundar, who doesn’t even play for his state team, who was in Australia as a glorified bowling machine, took on the best Test bowler in contemporary cricket. And hooked him for six. At the ’Gabbatoir’.

The stage

A few feet from where I sit on the porch of my uncle’s home, under a mango tree he had planted and which now flowers with the promise of summer fruit, there rests an urn covered in red silk. It holds a few chips of bone, a few handfuls of ash—all that remains of one who was inspiration, and mentor, and shield. My personal North Star. A day later, we will immerse those ashes in the ocean. Only memories, washed clean as a bone with our tears, will remain.

Revolted by the misplaced machismo of “New India", repelled by displays of “aggression" that involve abuse directed at mothers and sisters, I hadn’t watched cricket in a long time. But for the duration of this series, I’ve woken up at 4.30 every morning, followed every ball, posted comments, written little “reports" in my personal journal.

On the last day of the series, though, cricket is forgotten as I help serve endless plates of idlis and cups of tea to those who have come to condole. A steady, unending stream of people whose lives my uncle has touched—farm workers, elected members of local bodies, High Court judges, even a member of Parliament who arrives without the pomp my uncle hated, in an unmarked car.

Cricket intrudes when someone tells me in passing that just before lunch, Shubhman Gill had hit a six off Mitchell Starc. Like this, he said, demonstrating what looked like an up-from-under over slips. “83/1," he said when I asked the score.

I remember telling my friend, Sharda, the previous evening, that I’d put money on Rahane returning with his unbeaten record intact. Two sessions to go.

The early post-lunch play floated by in snatches of overheard conversations between younger relatives, and excited messages on WhatsApp.

“So sorry to hear of your loss, saw your post just now," a message from a friend reads. And, incongruously: “(Cheteshwar) Pujara is our Horatius. He is getting hit in every part of the body, but he is holding the bridge."

Three days later, on my drive back to Bangalore, I understand the enormity of Pujara’s effort. On Twitter, someone posts an image of the batsman up on his toes, defending. The poster has marked every blow Pujara took that day—back of the helmet, front of the helmet, back of the neck, back of the thigh, left bicep, left glove four times, forearm... From another post, I learn that the India number three, battered by a troika of quick bowlers, has at one point held up play to prevent a stray butterfly from getting hurt.

The path from the kitchen to the front yard, where we are serving breakfast, has become congested. “Oh, shot!" someone exclaims. With a vessel piled high with idlis balanced on my forearm, I peer over heads and see, on replay, Gill upper-cutting Starc to third man. I watch—just one more ball, I tell myself—as Gill disdainfully pulls the next ball in front of square. “He hit a six two balls before," an excited voice informs me.

The excitement

I didn’t know when Gill got out. Or that Rahane had come out playing his strokes, diffusing any hope that Australia’s bowlers might have had that the Indians would retreat into defence.

By the time I sit down to my own breakfast and turn on the live feed, tea had been taken. I watch as Pant—then an uncharacteristic 16 off 41—is let off by the Aussie wicket-keeper Tim Paine behind the stumps.

Breakfast done, I pull one of the hired plastic chairs to a corner of the yard and sit down to watch, with the volume off. A young cousin joins me. My sole surviving uncle—who has never watched sport in his life, joins us, seeking distraction from his grief. Someone asks for the volume to be turned up “just a little".

“Unbelievable cricket," the commentator says. Then, because the words are inadequate and he has no others; he repeats himself in all caps. He is talking of Pant, who has skipped down the track, one ball after being beaten by a Nathan Lyon delivery that turned and bounced so sharply it landed up at first slip, and smacked the off-spinner against the turn, high over long-on. “UNBELIEVABLE cricket."

Pant enthrals and exasperates in equal measure. He is vast. He contains multitudes. Irrepressible Pant. Impervious Pant. Irresponsible Pant. And now, as he plays a series of defensive strokes and then rips a whiplash square cut off Starc, we marvel at Pragmatic Pant.

The endgame

There are more people crowding around now. More phones tuned to the live stream. The volume steadily rises. “Shhhhh," a family-elder cautions. “Never mind," says Bindu, my uncle’s only daughter. “My dad wouldn’t mind. He loved sport."

Pant marks his 50 with a bat-raise that is almost an afterthought. No theatrics, no fist pumps; just a quick acknowledgment before he gets back to work. He ramps Lyon over the keeper and ends up on hands and knees, dusts himself off, and rasps a sweep off the next ball.

Hazelwood goes round the wicket; Pant, in less time than it takes to blink, moves to avoid the ball, changes his mind, plays a guided pull while falling over, and ends up lying flat on his back. Implausible Pant.

No one is even pretending any more. A dozen phones stream the game at full volume. The womenfolk understand. When the caterer’s van rolls up with lunch, they quietly attend to the work of transferring the vessels to the kitchen. I go over to help. “No, you go watch," my widowed aunt says. “Your uncle was so proud of your writing."

The cheer that breaks out when Pant hits the winning four is inappropriate for a house of mourning. Or maybe not. In the throng around Pant, I notice Siraj, beaming all over his face, seeking hands to trade high-fives with, his personal tragedy set aside for the moment.

This is what sport in all its terrible beauty can do. It can draw you out of yourself; it can make you, albeit momentarily, forget even your most deeply-felt griefs. In no other field of endeavour do you take such selfless delight in the accomplishment of others, in achievements that in actuality make no particular difference to your own lives.

Sport heals, it soothes; if it cannot fill the void of a dearly beloved’s passing, it can palliate. In watching a Pujara rise above his pain; in watching a team of neophytes, cobbled together with duct tape, perform prodigies, we momentarily rise above our own pain.

For that brief interlude, we are no longer a family in mourning. As Simon Barnes wrote, we are “Fans, disbelieving of what they had just seen, and beatific that they were alive, and awake, and watching, as boundaries were stretched and ‘impossible’ was redefined." A grieving family folds its hands in gratitude.

Prem Panicker is a freelance writer, editor and writing coach

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