The summer of ’83, the summer we won the World Cup, the last summer of my father’s life, the summer Mithun Chakraborty and I played for India, the summer that lingers on.
Imagine the setting – a green field in rural New Jersey, USA, a midsummer day of gentle sun and eager breeze, ghetto-blasters ring the field, and the song they are blasting out is I am a Disco Dancer. And Mithun is opening the bowling for India against a USA XI – yes, the Mithun, the Disco Dancer, yes, India against the USA. Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, Yashpal Sharma, Sandeep Patil, Syed Kirmani, Madan Lal, Roger Binny, Ravi Shastri, Balvinder Sandhu. And Mithun Chakraborty, and me.
And on the opposing side, the USA XI – consisting almost entirely of players from the West Indies, including S Shivnarine, who had toured India four years earlier with Alvin Kallicharran’s team, averaging 23 in Tests, and catching Gavaskar for a duck.
It was a dream come true. How did it happen?
After winning the World Cup, India, without Kapil Dev, were invited to play in the US. Those days, when money did not grow from all three stumps, such tours were a way for players to relax and earn a little.
Mithun and I, Amrish Puri, Marc Zuber and Anuradha Patel were shooting a film directed by Simi Garewal in Providence, Rhode Island. The film was Rukhsat, meaning departure.
My parents were living in Hamden, Connecticut, halfway between Providence and New Jersey. Whenever I had a day off from the shooting, I would catch the train to New Haven, and take a bus to Hamden to spend time with my ailing father, reading to him in Hindi from Premchand’s novel, Rangbhoomi, as my mother prepared delicious soup and salad and sandwiches for lunch. My father was doing a study of north Indian Christians, and since such a family were major characters in the novel, my father, who had almost lost his sight by this time, would sit out in the back lawn of our house, and I would read to him. These were the last days I spent with him, and we both knew it would be so. Each moment was rich with truth.
My father never took much interest in cricket; it was his secretary, JP Mandraili, who had taught me and my brother John the game. But he tolerated his sons’ many passions, and cricket was top of the list.
It was while my father was taking his afternoon nap – probably in mid-July – that I picked up a copy of a newspaper for Indians living in northern USA, one which my parents, for whom India was home, subscribed to. Here I saw an announcement of a cricket match to be played in New Jersey between a USA XI and an Indian XI. I booked a ticket for myself, and checked out train and bus routes to the venue.
And then – oh, my – Gavaskar signalled for me to bowl, and then he asked me what field I wanted. I could only mumble that I bowled in-cutters, and that he set the field for me. I bowled four good overs, got the rival captain out lbw, and was embraced by Gavaskar and Kirmani and Madan and Mohinder and Ravi and Roger – and the entire universe … We won the match. Mithun and I did not have to bat. We got the flight back to Providence that evening, sunburnt and weary. But we had played for India!
This was how the dream started; it took a delightful twist when, upon reaching Providence, I told Mithun of my plan. He and I go back a long way. We were classmates in the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune. We both passed out from the acting course in the summer of 1974. Mithun is a natural athlete, but he had more passion for dancing and beautiful women, and hence I was the cricket captain, and he the occasional player. But he was a natural, as I said; we had played badminton doubles together in the Maharashtra State Championships.
By the summer of 1983, Mithun was the latest superstar, and Disco Dancer was not only a craze, it was a movement. He was excited enough to call up and book tickets for himself and his make-up artist, Sheeraaz. The organisers agreed to fly the three of us to New Jersey.
We arrived the evening before the match, to be met by Sunil Gavaskar himself and then to be informed by the great man that, if we wished, we could play the next day for the Indian XI.
Next morning, we fielded first, and Mithun opened the bowling. His first delivery was a disco dancer down the pitch, but it brought a roar from the crowd. I was fielding at deep square leg, and was still fit enough to run and field and throw with some power. One such went straight into Kirmani’s gloves; the pigeon-toed wonder let out such a shout of delight that I nearly fainted!
Here I was, the boy from Mussoorie, the wannabe cricketer who lived out his fantasies on Hanson Field, and Survey Field, and the Upper Flat at St. George’s, throwing in the ball from the boundary to Kirmani!
And then – oh, my – Gavaskar signalled for me to bowl, and then he asked me what field I wanted. I could only mumble that I bowled in-cutters, and that he set the field for me. I bowled four good overs, got the rival captain out lbw, and was embraced by Gavaskar and Kirmani and Madan and Mohinder and Ravi and Roger – and the entire universe….
We won the match. Mithun and I did not have to bat. We got the flight back to Providence that evening, sunburnt and weary. But we had played for India!
I had fantasised about meeting Rajesh Khanna and acting with him – that had come true; I had fantasised about doing the same with Sharmila Tagore – that would come true; I had fantasised about working with Dev (Anand) and Dilip (Kumar) and Raj (Kapoor), and meeting Rafi and Kishore and Mukesh – that had come true; I had fantasised about meeting Pataudi – that would come true; I had fantasised about acting with Peter O’Toole – that would come true; two fantasies are left – to meet Bob Dylan and one of the Beatles – I know they will come true….
But to be asked to bowl by Gavaskar – that was beyond even my fantasies. My dear, departed friend Nand Kishore, in his humble home in Mussoorie, had an entire collection of photos and articles on Gavaskar, which covered four walls of his ‘Gavaskar museum’. He and I used to spend hours poring over the facts and figures, the drives and the runs and the records.
I bowled that day in faraway New Jersey for my brother John and for JP. For the endless days by the fountain in Rajpur when John and I became India v England, or India v Australia, for the hours and hours of listening to commentary on the radio, for the scrapbooks of pictures cut out from the Illustrated Weekly of India and Sport and Pastime, for the cricket writer KN Prabhu, for the morning in the library at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and reading about India’s first overseas series victory over New Zealand, for Dewan Brothers sports shop in Astley Hall in Dehradun, where we would purchase cricket balls as if they were red gold. I was fulfilled.
The summer of ’83 – my father passed away in the fall of that year – will always remain. In the fall of 2014, my mother joined him, and how they must now be sharing soup and salad and sandwiches – and chuckling as they remember their younger son, and his fantasies coming true …
This article appeared in the Wisden India Almanack 2016. You can buy your copy here.