The air wasn’t crackling with scarcely concealed anticipation, there were no tense faces or apprehensive figurative glances over the shoulders. The Oscars night of Indian cricket wasn’t about suspense and spontaneous – or affected – euphoria because everyone knew in advance who the big winners were going to be. And that merely served to add to the joyous celebrations as the glorious past, the rip-roaring present and the exciting future came together under one sturdy roof in Bangalore the other night.
The juxtaposition of the Pataudi Memorial Lecture and the BCCI Awards might have been no more than a happy coincidence necessitated by extraneous factors, but it made for a heady evening of emotion and sentiment, of awe and reverence, of the rapturous reverberation of India’s extraordinarily rich cricketing legacy that, for now, seems in extremely safe hands.
It was perhaps the perfect balm to the review-gate scandal that had unedifyingly erupted in our faces a little over 24 hours earlier. The snarls and growls and snipes and jibes had been left behind at the Chinnaswamy Stadium; as the legends of Indian cricket congregated at an event that was more crisp than glitz, more sentiment than glamour, on-field skirmishes, Steven Smith and Chris Broad were all pushed to the far recesses of the human mind.
The flavour boys of the moment, Virat Kohli and his band of warriors, cut a dashing picture, impeccably attired and extremely respectful of the company they were in. They were the obvious cynosures to start with, but it was the golden oldies that took one’s breath away for their humility, their grace, their camaraderie and their bonhomie that amply illustrated the amateur spirit with which cricket was pursued in an era of little fanfare and even less financial rewards.
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So, it was no surprise that Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna walked hand in hand. Or, that when Gundappa Viswanath ambled in a little after the show had begun, every eye in the audience was magnetically drawn to the little magician. As the wristy genius shuffled his way towards his erstwhile teammates, it was almost as if time stood still. Mr Bedi stood up as Mr Viswanath approached him; then, in a very private moment in the most public of forums, the two former skippers embraced, the taller, more imposing left-arm spinner clutching the back of his little mate’s head and pressing the latter’s cheek to his heart. That could have been the end of the evening – the end of the world, indeed – and I would have left with my heart singing.
Nostalgia is an oft misused, occasionally abused word. But no occasion demanded, nay commanded, that word, that emotion, that misty-eyed sentiment that unites ages and sexes and genders, more. Several acknowledged giants of Indian cricket were absent for some reason or the other, but while they were obviously missed, it didn’t take the sheen off the show. There were so many runs and so many wickets, so many memories and so many stories, in that gathering that you had to pinch yourself and wonder what kind deeds your parents had done for you to be breathing the same confined air as these legends – legends not just because of the runs and wickets they made and took, but also for the example they set, the doors they broke down, the trails they blazed, the paths they opened up.
And so there they were, in flesh and blood with the ravages of time having only slowed them down physically but been repelled by the sharpness of mind, readiness of wit, kindness of eye, bigness of heart. Bishan Bedi. Gundappa Viswanath. Erapalli Prasanna. Ajit Wadekar. Rajinder Goel. Padmakar Shivalkar. VV Kumar. Shantha Rangaswamy. Diana Edulji. And Farokh Engineer, the debonair wicketkeeper-batsman of yesteryear who delivered a Pataudi Memorial Lecture that might have been out of tune with lectures gone by, but that would have most certainly brought a rakish smile from the man after whom the lecture itself has been named.
They were the true heroes – and that is said without disrespect to already established legends and greats in the making. Perhaps it has something to do with familiarity and access, perhaps it is because our impressions of these extraordinary men and women have largely been shaped by grainy videos and staccato radio commentary that allowed your imagination to run riot. Perhaps it is also due to the fact that these towering personalities played with a smile on their lips, clapping an excellent shot from the opposition batsman or applauding a great delivery that might have sent their own stumps flying. Or perhaps it stemmed from the wonderfully romantic tales of bravery and courage, of grace and sportsmanship, of passion and desire, of simply the undying love for a sport that promised no more riches than satisfaction and contentment.
They were the show-stealers, the show-stoppers, but it was equally refreshing to see the respect and the reverence in which they are held by today’s bling-loving, image-driven superstars. As Kohli slipped into the giant bear-hug in which Engineer enveloped him, you wondered if this same man was actually capable of the naked aggression that characterises his on-field persona. As R Ashwin skilfully deflected an Engineer faux pas – the Tamil Nadu offie was asked what was in the Karnataka waters that produced such champion spinners as Prasanna, Anil Kumble and himself – you could see that the occasion had the current players too transfixed. Not all of them would have grown up reading about these giants, but they knew genius when they saw it. Left-arm spinners Goel and Shivalkar played nary a Test between them despite finishing with 1339 first-class wickets combined, but there was no trace of bitterness or angst. They didn’t crib about being born in the same era as the Sardar of Spin; as they both paid glowing tribute to Bedi and waxed eloquent on his guile and command over his craft, the latter shook his head in seeming disagreement. What are these men made of, really?
The festivities over and done with, the Abhishek Sharmas and the Shreyas Iyers having shared the stage with the Kumbles and the Prasannas, the Engineers and the Wadekars, it was time to shed the metaphorical black tie and savour the remainder of the evening. Selfies taken, informal tips sought and received. Mohammad Azharuddin stood out, dapper and fit even at 54, holding forth on close-in catching. Kumble, in many ways the bridge between generations, was much sought after, while the golden boys of the past came together, occasionally rowdy but largely catching up on recent activities and exchanging notes on not infrequent visits to their respective doctors.
For once, the current Indian players – the men, as well as Harmanpreet Kaur and Jhulan Goswami among the women – were almost sideshows. It’s not often that they play second fiddle on a cricketing platform but they weren’t complaining, for sure. This wasn’t an evening about them, it was an evening of cricket, for cricket, a glorious fusion of eras and generations and skills and tales and adventures and romance. Alright, so some of the administrators, petty and self-serving, unsurprisingly chose to ‘boycott’ the show. Guess who was the poorer for it?