Shreya Sen-Handley | Confessions of an armchair cricketer
India may have lost the World Cup, but their exuberant progress to the final won my heart again. After nearly fifteen years of cool indifference, finding my interest in cricket rekindled felt like rediscovering an old flame.
What lured me back? India’s all-round brilliance in the run-up/the cool tactician combo of Sharma and Dravid plotting their ascendance/the comedy provided by the likes of umpire (and aspiring Bollywood baddie) Marius Erasmus/the razzmatazz of the event, or all of the above?
I couldn’t tell you for sure what flipped the switch back to its old fervent setting, but in the course of this World Cup, I realised I was in full cricketing mode again when I felt affronted by the throwaway comment of a young Englishman, who joked that cricket was the most dangerous of sports as “you could die of boredom” from watching it. I could’ve told him his was a case of sour grapes, considering how his team had fared, but replied with the kindly smile of the older and wiser instead, “Then you haven’t watched Asian teams play!”
There’s no doubt that my affinity to this game is down to my Indian heritage.
Never a sporty person, with a track record of having the strangest accidents at school sporting events, after our return to India from the Philippines in my preteens, I took to cricket as a way to anchor myself in my new environment.
I pestered my parents into subscribing to sports magazines, decided I liked Gavaskar and read every book written in his name, and even started playing apartment cricket. You know, the kind you play in the corridors of your family’s flat, where landing a ball in the toilet bowl means you’ve got a six but also the icky job of fishing it out. When my apparently-sturdy bat melted in the heat of that summer, I swapped playing for the more hygienic activity of armchair cricket.
Till watching our cricketing idols on TV felt far too tame and my university friends and I stormed Kolkata’s Grand Hotel to meet them for ourselves. The nicely-turned-out young women that we were then, we slipped past security with the ease of secret agents. The cricketers, including a nineteen-year-old Tendulkar, proved friendly young people themselves, with Kambli the warmest. Even their manager Venkataraghavan, the legendary spinner, though pretending to shoo us away, couldn’t hide a smile at our winning stealth.
Guile was no longer necessary when I became a television journalist and was officially invited to matches at Eden Gardens, from my ringside seat in which I could eyeball everything from Azharuddin’s elegant centuries to the mint-green five-o-clock shadow on Imran Khan’s chin. I even got to interview the era’s cricketing creme-de-la-creme; Kapil Dev, Steve Waugh, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, amongst them. In Kapil’s interview to me, conducted as he publicised a children’s charity, he fondly called the tykes “terrible” when he meant “terrific”, proving his English as wonky as his heart was in the right place.
Anil Kumble was the one that got away. Despite having his phone number vouchsafed to me by Dravid himself, I never managed a chat with the spinner, glimpsing only the sleek soles of his shoes at Trent Bridge as he outran the mob of fans on his scent.
Foolishly, I didn’t join the Pakistani and Australian sides for the glitzy team dinners to which I was invited, because I didn’t think I had anything suitable to wear! I have no such Cinderella hang-ups nowadays, and would turn up in my bathrobe if the occasion was of interest.
Cricket also played a part in my decision to settle in Britain. In steering me to a match on an idyllic village green on an early ramble through Robin Hood country, a scene straight out of a pastoral painting and blending of some of my favourite things— art, literature, history, and cricket — it was telling me to stay.
A few years later, I knew I’d married the right man too, when my English husband ran his annual British marathon in his India cricket team t-shirt, like a knight sporting his lady’s favour, romantically declaring his allegiance. Bemused initially by the cheers he got from Indian runners along the way, and wondering at his sudden popularity with them, he discovered, to his amusement, that it was the effect of his India blue jersey on his fellow marathon men.
But then, our two children were born and we drifted away from cricket. There just wasn’t enough time or energy to do anything else after looking after our toddlers, doing justice to our jobs, and, incredibly rarely, catching forty winks. As they grew and we had a smidgeon more time on our hands, those little windows of opportunity were given over to reading, writing, theatre, travel, food and films, conscious that we were shaping the citizens of tomorrow even as we enjoyed ourselves.
The siren song of cricket, however, was still heard now and then. We began to take our kids to T-20 matches at Trent Bridge, and though they haven’t (yet) embraced the game like their parents, they enjoy the festive feel, the picnics up in the heavens, and the spectators’ eccentricities (our most recent visit was enlivened by a wizened old man producing piercing bird calls through his team’s innings; encouraging them to take wing!). What, I suspect, would really convert the children would be the electric atmosphere of a match at Eden Gardens.
Tips, anyone, on how to snag tickets?