The Great Game

Amit Chaudhuri

It was inhuman to play cricket at this time of the year, in this heat, but that was precisely what they were doing these days. Moreover, the team was being sent out into that cauldron to pick up something called the Pepsi Cup. You had to feel for them, though they looked like young braves. While others might shop at the airport in Dubai, one would expect them not to glance at the watches and shapely state-of-the-art CD-players, to have nothing but a glass of orange juice at the hotel before going into the nets.

Among them was Tendulkar, whose name, everyone agreed, sounded like an ancient weapon of destruction, and who carried a one-and-a-half ton bat. He disembarked from the plane with a singleness of purpose, and a sealed, expressionless face. He and the ‘boys’ (though you wouldn’t ordinarily call Azharuddin a ‘boy’) were here to deal with the English and the vigorous Pakistanis, mainly the Pakistanis, who came from a country that had sprung troublingly from a gash in the side of their own about fifty years ago.

Among the spectators was to be Ummar Aziz, who had no place to hide in India and who, rumour had it, had been living around here in a mansion with a swimming-pool for the last three years. He had expertly orchestrated a series of explosions in Bombay in 1993, bombs that had gone off in the Air India Building and in Prabhadevi, not to speak of 11 other places. He strenuously denied it, but from this safe haven; and indeed the charge might be a fiction dreamed up by the police. It was heard that he was coming, not so much because of his love of cricket, which was considerable, or of the Indian or Pakistani teams (the Pakistani side was a depleted one, with its main bowlers discredited and removed), but his fascination with Urmila Deshpande, the star of Ishq and Jaadu, who was also going to be present. Ummar Aziz had been watching Hindi films since he’d been an orphan child of the Bombay streets.

The team practised nimbly, without exhausting themselves. Now and then a reporter or a television crew came and asked them questions. When Azharuddin answered the questions, you could see the others in the background, throwing their arms about, Tendulkar doing exercises, his glasses so dark they bore no reflection. When he spoke, you had to look at his mouth, because of the challenge his dark glasses threw you.

The English were the first to wilt. Ganguly hit the winning shot, a six that saw the ball take flight in a way unlike any bird in these surroundings. Then, the desert sun long set, he got the first Man of the Match award of the tour.

Watching him ascend the crowded podium on a small Sony television, and talk with some assurance, Khatau, who’d just returned from a hard day in the tenements in South Bombay, commented to his colleague Mohammed Yusuf that Ummar Aziz didn’t seem to have come to watch the game.

‘He certainly wasn’t in the crowd; otherwise they would have shown him.’ Khatau and Mohammed Yusuf were policemen who regretted the way Aziz had, one day, slipped like sand through their fingers. All those explosions; they hadn’t been able to do anything about it. Here they were, four years later, on their sofas, watching Ganguly under the floodlights.

‘Arrey he won’t go to these small-fry games,’ Yusuf said, shaking his head slowly and with great conviction, while looking at an English player waiting tentatively in the background. Ganguly was shaking hands with Ravi Shastri. Yusuf wasn’t looking at them but staring at the screen and thinking. ‘He’ll come to the big one,’ he concluded; or words to that effect.

The ‘big one’ was still a few days away, however, days and nights away that is, because they were all ‘day and night’ games, inducing a degree of sleeplessness in the spectator. Before then there was Pakistan versus India, or India versus Pakistan (whichever way you decided to think of it), and Pakistan versus England. After that England would take the first flight out to Heathrow, leaving the battleground open to the warring cousins.

The next day Mita Reddy, former Miss India and runner-up, Miss Universe, who had only last year surprised everyone by saying to a panel of judges that her favourite person was Mrs Gandhi – ‘Indira Gandhi?’ ‘No, Kasturbabai Gandhi’, embarrassing all by invoking the Mahatma’s small, self-effacing, long dead wife – was seen in the stands, sitting next to Marshneill Gavaskar, grinning because she could see herself on television. She smiled; and waved – at whom, no one, among the millions watching, knew.

During the 35th over, by which time 7 wickets had fallen for 126 runs, and an Indian medium-pacer and an all-rounder were putting up an obdurate partnership, there was a spell of inactivity that sometimes occurs in the middle of an over, when members of both teams suddenly forget the thousands in the stadium and the TV cameras, and behave like a family inside a house, unaware they’re being watched. Tony Greig and a minor English ex-bowler were sitting in the commentator’s box and discussing plans and strategies, while the little microphone in one of the stumps, placed there to detect the sound of a nick, eavesdropped on two players conversing:

‘Lagta hai woh Aziz kal ayegaa.’

Greig was too busy composing a litany about Aussie spin-bowling, even if he’d known any Hindi, to register anything; but Khatau, on his sofa, heard the comment, though at first he wasn’t quite sure he had. Yusuf confirmed with a nod that he’d heard it too. They hadn’t realised that they had an informant in the middle-stump microphone on the pitch; but then the game started again. Someone had said Aziz would come tomorrow; they couldn’t be sure if it was one of the Indians, or a Pakistani, or one of the Indians passing on the information to a Pakistani, or vice-versa. Any of these alternatives might be the right one.

‘Fantastic shot,’ said Yusuf, as Srinath belted an unexpected cover drive.

Then the camera moved to a tall and swarthy Ravi Shastri, his cricketing days long over, but finding himself in the midst of a commentary renaissance, a tie knotted round his neck, laughing and talking to Anju Mahindra, who had once almost married Rajesh Khanna, and gone out with Sir Garfield Sobers. She was past her heyday; even the long-distance lens couldn’t conceal the tiredness beneath her eyes; she looked abstracted as she listened to Ravi Shastri.

‘Is that what they get paid for, yaar?’ asked Khatau, reaching for his beer.

‘God it must be hot over there,’ said Yusuf.

But, contrary to what the microphone in the stump had told them, there was no Aziz the next day, and neither had the more raucous Pakistani supporters, with their shining green flags, come; were they not interested in watching England lose? The Bombay ‘glitterati’ were there again, dutifully, the executive vice-president of Pepsi sitting next to the chairman of the Board of Cricket Control in his dark glasses, their wives, in their flaming saris which might have received interrogatory looks from passers-by in the streets outside, smiling vacantly at the camera as they stared back at their friends in Bombay, to all appearances unmoved by the hot desert breath. Their children, in striped T-shirts and shorts or jeans, either leaned and lolled against their fathers or revolved like satellites around their parents and parents’ friends, tripping lightly down the steps.

Rashid Latif hit the winning runs, and a cry rang out in the stadium. A beautiful woman in a salwaar kameez clapped emphatically.

For the ‘big one’ the stadium was full again. Pakistanis jostled each other; and Indians jostled Pakistanis; and here and there, sheikhs, cellphones in their hands, déshabillés, in small, male harems, looked around them, listening to the roar. Boycott knelt in his pressed trousers and short-sleeved shirt and felt the pitch with an arcane hesitation again and again. It was like a dry piece of land, a bit of Arabia, that had never been rained on. He patted it one last time and said to the camera: ‘Yes, Rahvi, the pitch is flat and true, and there will be runs in it’ – as if ‘runs’ were some sort of seed that would sprout shortly, and unexpectedly, from the barren soil.

Mrs Shweta Kapoor, wife of the relatively recently appointed CEO of Britannia India, was sitting not far from Urmila Deshpande, whom she didn’t know, but whose last film, Jaadu – ‘Magic’ – she’d seen twice already. The Pakistanis won the toss, elected to bat, and every time Saeed Anwar executed the pull shot the camera panned to the celebrating Pakistanis and the studiedly sceptical faces of the Indians, and also to Shweta Kapoor, who’d once been a newsreader, a personality in her own right, and to her husband, whose youthful face was overhung by prematurely greying hair, and then to Urmila Deshpande, who was inscrutable and indecipherable behind her dark glasses. There was a rumour, uncorroborated, that she was seeing Jadeja, who was standing hunched, not far away, at mid-off.

The previous day, both Mrs Kapoor and Urmila Deshpande had had their hair done at the Hilton; Urmila had acquired the permanent curls she’d need for a film once she got back. Mrs Kapoor had bought a portable CD-player, with a three-CD-changer, for her son. The camera now discovered a group of men in the cheaper stalls who were holding up a placard: HI URMILA YOU HAVE DONE JAADU TO OUR HEARTS. The moment they realised they were on television the sign began to vibrate as if it were alive in their hands. The next minute Ijaz Ahmed was out to a catch at gully held by Azharuddin. The camera showed Mrs Kapoor smiling and saying something to a beautiful woman next to her, as if exchanging a particularly unworthy piece of gossip; and then it showed a young man clapping, fair, with blond hair, colourless eyes, who could have passed for a European but for the fullness of his lips.

‘They’re all there,’ said Inspector Khatau, sucking in his stomach.

‘Who’s he – never heard of him?’ Yusuf asked with justifiable irritation.

Raghav Chopra had displayed his latest collection only two weeks ago at the Taj; cholis, 21st-century ghagras; ‘Clothes are a language that changes before other languages do,’ he’d said in an interview. Mita Reddy had been one of the models. In her column, Mita Reddy had been christened ‘a dark Kate Moss’ by Shobha De, a ‘will o’ the wisp’.

‘Where is Sharjah?’ asked Khatau finally.

‘I don’t know,’ said Yusuf, looking blank. ‘Near Du-Dubai.’ He added, ‘That guy doesn’t look Indian, yaar!’ he protested.

As far as everyone knew, though, Raghav Chopra was a real blond. How he’d come to be one was a mystery no one enquired into. The colour of the hair had changed probably as the universe had changed temperature; just as orange frogs were found recently in English gardens.

‘Three hundred and five,’ said Khatau, rising suddenly. ‘Phew!’

All out, 305 runs. Boycott proclaimed that defeat was at hand.

‘It’s a known fact,’ he said, ‘that Eendiuns are no good at chasing!’ He shook his head and seemed to smile in bewilderment at his words. Floodlights had been switched on about an hour ago, night had come and brought with it a school of dragonflies cruising through the field. The saris were lit up, and the women moved uncomfortably. The desert sky was like a great, empty theatre around them.

Twenty minutes later, Tendulkar came out with his heavy bat in one hand, followed by the taller, shuffling Ganguly. The camera noted two people in deep conversation, but it was impossible to hear what they were saying.

‘Sachin’s our secret weapon,’ observed one of them, a gentlewoman who lived on Malabar Hill in a flat overlooking Kamala Nehru Park.

‘And not Trishul or any of the other warheads?’ said her husband’s colleague. She smiled politely and refused to indicate that she’d understood; then fanned herself gently with a magazine.

As Aquib Javed bowled the first ball, the crowd’s voice swelled in a hum and then subsided again. On the television screen, Tendulkar’s bat, its face as remorseless as its staunch owner’s, descended straight on the ball and hit it onto the ground. A deep thud, magnified by the microphone in the stump, accompanied this event.

‘Hey! Hey!’ said Khatau. ‘Look, bhai.’

The camera had come to rest, in innocence, on the face of a man scratching his cheek.

‘It’s our man, bhai! It’s our bridegroom, who left at the wedding!’

The camera now withdrew prudently to a safer place, a minor and timid crook in a nasty area. Then, panning from a group of agitated men holding up a sign saying ‘TON-dulkar’, it framed the man who’d been scratching his cheek thoughtfully moments earlier, sitting next to the Chairman of the Board of Cricket Control and his wife, and, a few seats to the right, Urmila Deshpande, who seemed absorbed in the course of the match.

‘Saala!’[*] said Yusuf; and his mouth remained open.

‘Don’t abuse your brother-in-law,’ said Khatau, but didn’t feel like laughing.

The man who’d almost blown up Bombay, who’d had bombs placed in Nariman Point and Dadar and 11 other places, had taken care to wear a pale, pressed green shirt, and had probably had a haircut; he now took out a cellphone. With excessive politeness, he spoke a few words into the receiver. His face, when in close-up, revealed a ravaged and uneven skin.

*

There were 60 runs on the board, 46 of them made by Tendulkar off 50 balls, when the sky darkened. The weather reports had made no predictions; the batsmen looked up at what little they could see of the sky. The floodlights dimmed:

‘Oh dear, oh dear, it seems like a doost-storm,’ said Boycott.

The women in the expensive seats looked uneasy; their husbands laughed in their suits and belligerently talked business with each other. A man leaned forward and said something in Ummar Aziz’s ear. Tony Greig and Gavaskar initiated a detailed discussion of the match so far, and replays of a brighter time, when batsmen had played their shots in the light of day, began to be shown.

‘Chai lau?’ said a ten-year-old boy in shorts.

‘No, idiot,’ said Khatau. ‘What, tea at this time of the night?’ Reprimanded, the boy sat down quietly, and gratefully, on the floor before the television.

Every time the camera returned to the ground, it showed the dust swirling in minute particles across it. Tendulkar was still wearing his protective headgear, boiling in the dressing-room, staring back hard at the night; yet, in the prolific commercial breaks, there he was again, leaning against a van and drinking Pepsi Cola, or wearing a striped T-shirt and flashing a Visa card. Meanwhile, the Bombay housewives pressed saris against their faces, and looked for a moment like local Muslim women; but Urmila Deshpande’s face remained composed, as if nothing had happened. Again and again, the commentators scrutinised a slow-motion almost-run-out from the afternoon, Saeed Anwar raising his bat and setting out infinitesimally slowly on his long odyssey, while Ijaz Ahmed, too, in agonising protractedness, lunged towards the white line.

When play resumed an hour later, Tendulkar came back looking intent; at the other end, Ganguly began to prod the ball gently and sent it to somewhere near the boundary. Raghav Chopra ran his hand through his hair; it looked absolutely white in the floodlights. The women from Bombay self-consciously dusted their saris.

‘If there’s anyone who can win India the match,’ said Ravi Shastri in his oratorial voice, ‘it’s that man out there.’ For no one referred to Tendulkar by name any more.

‘He’s gone,’ said Khatau, despondent.

Ummar Aziz had disappeared; Khatau had been absorbing this fact for the last five minutes. Urmila had gone as well, probably to a different destination; but he couldn’t help noticing it. The one nondescript and ageing; the other resplendent. ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ thought Khatau in bold letters.

Almost immediately, Tendulkar, on 61, was bowled by an in-swinger. One large section of the crowd – the Indians – stared into the distance, as if a film they’d been watching had been stopped midway. The others danced festively, as if a country separated them from the Indians.

‘How did that happen,’ enquired Boycott, ‘to the little master?’

The executive vice-president of Pepsi moved impatiently in his seat; he’d been talking to his companion about a rival bid from Coke at that moment. Tendulkar, his head bowed beneath his visor, strode heavily towards the pavilion; but, almost immediately, he was drinking Pepsi, leaning against a van, and flashing a Visa card (‘Now You Go Get It’), indifferent to his debacle.

‘But how did you know, yaar?’ said Yusuf, curving the palm of his hand in a question.

‘What?’ asked Khatau, straightening his shirt.

‘You said just now, “He’s gone.” How did you know he’s going to be out?’ Yusuf smiled. ‘You’re a clairvoyant or what?’

The dismissal was shown twice from the point of view of the stump-camera; the ball rising from near the batsman’s feet, so quickly as almost to hit Khatau’s and Yusuf’s faces, and then the lens falling backwards and staring lidlessly at the sky, a dead eye gazing at space.

In spite of the floodlights, the Indians in the stadium could see only darkness about them. It was left to Ganguly and Jadeja, throwing huge and fluent shadows, to build up a partnership of 200 runs and steer the side to an unlikely victory. Anju Mahindra, who half an hour ago had been exhausted, now looked rejuvenated and fifteen years younger, and waved at someone who was presumably still awake in Bombay. Jadeja leaned forward and hit the winning four; on another channel Urmila Deshpande, her hair long and with no curls in it, sang sweet, tuneless words to Salmaan Khan upon a beach.

At one o’clock in the morning, a loud celebratory firecracker went off in Bandra. Khatau shuddered at the noise of the explosion, and thought of Ummar Aziz, small, nondescript, scratching his cheek thoughtfully.

[*] Literally ‘brother-in-law’; but this is also a term of abuse. In a casual sense, it suggests that someone has the tiresomeness of the brother-in-law. In a stronger vein, it carries the implication: ‘I have slept with your sister.’