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.

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[*] 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.’