A nostalgic evening discussing the retirement of an all-time great batsman

Friends in a bar (Representational photo)

By Arunabha Sengupta

Please note: This is a humorous piece – pure fiction.

Scene – The Jolly Cricketers Bar

Cast of Characters

Character Cricketer to whom the character is linked as a fan
Just-a-fan Jitesh Modern Day Genius (MDG) — recently retired
Historian Hari
Statistical Sandeep
Middle Aged Memories Genuine Unadulterated Greatness (GUG)
Vintage Recollections Pioneering Batsman
Oldest Raconteur Pre-Historic Willow

It was an evening to shed synchronised tears; to drown one’s sorrows in tumblers of beer; to spend the hours in the company of closest cricket watching cronies — friends who suffered from similar heartache after the retirement of Modern Day Genius (MDG), one of the greatest batsmen of all time.

Just-a-fan Jitesh was seated in a table at The Jolly Cricketers. With him were friends Historian Hari and Statistical Sandeep. All held glasses of foaming amber. The good old days were fondly remembered. The mid-mornings that had seen them scampering over the walls of their school premises, running off together to the nearest television store to watch a young Modern Day Genius launch himself against bowlers of Australia and South Africa.

Through the many, many interim years, the three had generally made it a point to meet for a drink each time MDG scored a hundred. The custom had carried on long past their schooldays. The getaways now involved tiptoeing away from forbidding office cubicles, past senior managers who spent entire days smoking just outside the entrance.

Yet, the three had somehow clutched on to dying grandmothers, severely sick spouses and chronic appendicitis, and had managed to watch MDG’s fantastic last innings together before crying their eyes out as he bid farewell.

This evening they gathered again in a final sentimental voyage down memory lane littered with mementoes of their youth. The more they talked, the more they remembered and the more their eyes grew misty.

Just-a-fan Jitesh was getting emotional by the minute while Statistical Sandeep kept spewing the great numbers associated with the great man. Historian Hari wistfully recalled how they worked with huge floppy disks when MDG made his debut.

At this juncture, from behind them came a loud report of a cleared throat — the well-known sound of a disagreeing opinion about to butt its way into a cricket discussion.

Genuine Unadulterated Greatness

The man was much older, his hair a serene mix of salt and pepper, a glass of Old Monk nestling in his hand. He sank into a chair without bothering too much about invitation.

“You fellas of the young generation,” the man said sadly. “You think you have seen cricket?”

Historian Hari looked over his shoulder towards the giant television screen above the bar counter which beamed a Test match from another corner of the world. “Er, actually our young generation has watched more cricket than any other. In the earlier days one generally read newspaper reports and listened to the radio commentary of select matches.”

Middle-aged Memories scoffed at the observation and rattled on, “What do you know about greatness, young man? We have watched real batting. When Genuine Unadulterated Greatness (GUG) played those fierce fast bowlers without helmet or chest guard, on uncovered wickets. And you think MDG is God? Pooh.”

Just-a-fan Jitesh did not like it. “I say. We didn’t really say he was a god … just a great player …”

“Great, eh? Everyone thinks he is God. Makes me laugh. I remember wickets where the ball would explode like a bomb and fly past the unprotected head of GUG. And he had no thigh pad, no arm guard, uncovered wickets, no front-foot no ball rule. Four fast bowlers bowled to him, four fierce giants … and he played with wafer-thin bats. A full-blooded drive would just about reach cover. Yet he scored hundreds by the dozen, through sheer guts and timing. That was cricket, not the game of sissies in all those armours nowadays.”

Historian Hari interrupted with his usual scholarly drone. “Actually the front-foot rule was already in operation for more than a decade when GUG came in. Chest protectors had been there for some 40 years. He never played on uncovered wickets. They were last used in a Test match …”

Middle Aged Memories scowled with irritation. “You are Indians, right? I can see why you don’t respect older generations. No sense of tradition in these days of Wikipedia. We Indians are supposed to have a healthy disregard for facts — and here you’re trying to bombard me with scrupulously correct details?”

“Er …”

“Listen to me, young man. You are too young to have watched GUG’s last innings. Why, the balls turned, shot through, jumped, sometimes spun in several directions at once on that minefield of a wicket… some even went under the ground and emerged behind the wicketkeeper! And the great man batted on. That is called technique. You should see the amount of respect the bowlers had for him. No point in talking to you lot …”

And he got up and left in a huff. Just-a-fan Jitesh heaved a sigh of relief, but Historian Hari felt a wave of remorse. “I think we’ve annoyed him. Let’s humour the next one that comes along…”

Statistical Sandeep frowned. “Yes, but that stuff about the four fast bowlers is a bit of an exaggeration. When they really bowled at him together to him, GUG was not really that impressive.”

“Shh …” Historian Hari stopped him. “One statistician has already been banished as a fanboy for going through those numbers. Remember, GUG hails from an era when statistics were locked up in scarcely available volumes of Wisdens.”

“But Stealthy Murder said in his autobiography …”

“Shh… sacrilege my dear Statistical … never say such things.”

“But, against Moustachioed Menace he averaged …”

“You cannot measure greatness with numbers, young man,” this sudden voice that rang through was even older, ripe with years that threatened to pour forth severely retrofitted memories.

Pioneering Batsman

The three looked up with a start to see a considerably older man, with even more salt and much less pepper on his head.

“Numbers don’t matter, they never tell the desired story. Our memories do. Or whatever we think our memories tell us. That is what we accept as truth.” Vintage Recollections sat down, having done away with the need of invitation with the same flamboyance as the previous intruder.

“Don’t let Middle Aged Memories spoil the day for you. He thinks GUG was the greatest batsman ever? What does he know? A young no-good, that Middle Aged Memories, trying to brainwash children like you. I’ve seen the greatest ever batsman of the country. Pioneering Batsman faced bodyline bowlers on sticky puddings, and the bats were like thin sticks. And he hooked them for fours and sixes …”

The glance Just-a-fan Jitesh shot at his two learned friends dripped with desperation. Statistical Sandeep felt growing concern for his perturbed friend and decided to interrupt, “Pioneering Batsman never faced Bodyline bowlers, and he hit only one six in his career … and his only knocks on rain-affected wickets …”

The old man looked at them indulgently. “As I said, my son, never use numbers. Else they will never tell us what our hearts want to believe. How then will we blow the ordinary facts into tales of legends? As I said, these great fast bowlers used to bowl on sticky puddings and our man had to use his stick-like bat to dig into the mess and hit the ball for fours and sixes. That was batting at its best. With those bats, you needed timing; else the ball would never beat short-leg. And they were paid peanuts. Everywhere you look now, you see people playing for money…  Started from GUG’s days, I tell you, whatever Middle Aged Memories may say.”

Historian Harish nodded, his face straight enough to fit into a Geometry Box. “I am sure Pioneering Batsman played for the country — and not for himself or for money. As far as I have heard, he batted for Independence as well.”

The old man’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, of course, dear boy. I remember him scoring a century against England at Lord’s. In 1942, was it?”

“Yes, provided a real boost to the Quit India Movement.”

“Our MDG and GUG have never done anything like that for the country. They always played for themselves.”

Just-a-fan Jitesh looked skywards. Statistical Sandeep could take it no more, “Test matches were not played during the Second World War …”

“Except this one,” Historian Hari interrupted firmly, with a reproachful look at his friends. “It was played in June 1942. It is not recorded in Wisden because it hasn’t been declassified yet. What with Churchill and Atlee and all that succession and rationing. Wasn’t it a match played as a tribute to the Pioneering Batsman and also to celebrate the start of the Manhattan Project? I hear Robert Oppenheimer sent his personal tribute to Pioneering Batsman as well. We don’t know about it since it was before the days of Twitter. We think only MDG gets all the tributes.”

The old man looked somewhat confused, perhaps a whiff of suspicion crossed his mind casting the shadow of a doubt. But on noting the earnest expression on Historian Hari’s face he decided to agree. “Indeed it was. You see, I am from a generation when these facts needed to be checked from libraries, and few bothered. We did not have the internet quickly branding one a liar. So, as I was saying…the umpires of the British Empire were also against Pioneering Batsman, and he batted on in spite of that. Batting with a stick. Hitting fours and sixes. That is greatness. Not commercial brands that players have become since GUG showed the way. Here’s to cricket, which was once a gentleman’s game.” He raised his glass of vintage Glen Grant single malt and got up from the chair.

For one full minute Just-a-fan Jitesh was heard giving vent to his deepest feelings about bats that were like sticks and men who drank whiskey, especially 1934 vintage. “I say we go to my place. We can have a few drinks without listening to Arabian Nights.”

Pre-Historic Willow

Even as he spoke, the trio saw a man making his way across the bar. He was leaning heavily on his stick, his head mostly bare, with a few wisps of snow white hair. His MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club] tie was proudly knotted underneath a Bombay Pentangular blazer. His eyes fell on the three friends and they winced. However, as the old man paused, Just-a-fan Jitesh looked at his friends with a sigh of silent resignation. Historian Hari smiled and welcomed Oldest Raconteur.

“Sir, we were just wondering if you can tell us why Pre-Historic Willow is the greatest batsman of all time produced by the country.”

The old man looked surprised for a second before an almost divine smile touched his lips. The ancient legs and the stick almost galloped to the chair before he lowered himself with a comfortable sigh.

“It’s funny you should ask me, because I was thinking about the same thing just this minute. We hear so many things about MDG being the greatest. It makes me chuckle. You see, my lungs are not up to hearty laughter anymore.  You should have seen Pre-Historic Willow bat. But, only my contemporaries have been fortunate enough to do so. Compared to the bats you get today, his batted with thin sticks …”

“We have covered the era of sticks,” Historian Hari shook his head. “Let’s agree on toothpicks, shall we?”

“Yes,” Oldest Raconteur looked gratified. “Toothpick about sums it up. And the bowling of that era … don’t even try to imagine.”

“I have long given up that unequal struggle,” Just-a-fan Jitesh remarked sadly.

“They could bowl one legalised beamer per over, and also underarm anytime they wanted to.”

“The last underarm was …ouch,” Statistician Sandeep had just started out on his correction when Historian Hari’s foot found his shin with a sharp kick. He glared at his friend and stopped his irritating stream of facts and figures.

“And what about the grenades?” Historian Hari asked. “I believe in West Indies they were allowed one grenade every five overs. As a part of their freedom movement.”

For a short while the eyes of the oldest man turned vacant, but then he nodded heartily, “Yes, they were. And imagine batting against that sort of bowling attack, facing grenades with toothpicks. But Pre-Historic Willow did all that. You find descriptions of the grenades used by Leary Constantine in the books of CLR Jones.”

CLR James,” Historian Hari corrected before he could stop himself. Statistical Sandeep graced this opportunity to unleash an under-table kick of his own. “Ouch … pray, continue please.”

“James, is he? Are his books available in India now? A pity, now we will need to read them before telling people what’s in them. Comes with degenerate days and the country going to the dogs, I guess. But then, what has fact to do with a good story. PreHistoric Willow handled underarm grubbers and overhand grenades with his toothpick like bat and scored his many many runs…And he had to pay out of his own pocket to play for India. Sometimes he would complete his day’s work at the government office, and get up half an hour before going to bed, just to prepare himself for the match. It’s great that you young men are interested in him. Nowadays all people hear of is Modern Day Genius.”

“How far would you say a full-blooded stroke with the toothpick like bat go today?” Historian Hari asked.
“If modern players played it?” Oldest Raconteur smiled sadly at the absurd thought. “They would not go beyond silly point.”

“We have covered short-leg and silly-point in another era,” Statistical Sandeep said morosely. “Let’s say it would not go past the blockhole, or even shoot backwards. Would his blade break into two?”

“Of course,” the old man was ecstatic. “What a delightful bunch of kids you are. Yes, one needed timing and class to play with those bats.”

The genial old man refused the offered beer, mumbling something about senile degeneration of the liver and waved a cheery farewell.

“I sure hope I get a hangover and don’t remember any of this,” Just-a-fan Jitesh said strongly.

Historian Hari shrugged. “I guess forgetting will just make the memories rosier.”

Statsitical Sandeep agreed, “At least that’s suggested by a significant part of the population.”

Historian Hari raised his glass. “Here is to us in another 30 years, coming here and remembering how Modern Day Genius battled Martian bowlers on the crater ridden pitches of the moon.”

But, the next time an older man crossed the table, the three lowered their eyes and talked about mutual funds.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)