The cricket helmet will never be a purveyor of epic imagery that its siblings the floppy hat and the traditional cap specialize in. Not for it the heart-stopping freeze frame of Richards cork-screwed, nostrils flared as he hooked at Thommo; his maroon cap blown off and suspended in mid-air. Nor the laconic cool of the bent brim of a floppy white, golden locks of Gower peeking out, back arched in a silken backfoot cover-drive. Anodyne by nature, functional at best it remains. The grill, conspiring with the shadow cast by the peak completes the obfuscation job. Except for the eyes. The eyes it has always accentuated.
Especially your eyes, Rahul.
Jumbo had the jaw. You, the eyes. For sixteen years, I have gazed into them; peered at them, focused on them and locked sight with them. And through those years, your eyes, in that half-squint of purposefulness have shone back at me from the shadow of your helmet, with its strap hanging. Shimmered back at me from above your sweat tinged cheekbones. That gaze – nary a moment when it lost its forthrightness – conveyed multitudes. And accompanied narratives that are entwined and will last for life.
His jaw and your eyes, lingering visuals of an era that now comes to past.
Dada had the blink; that confused blink of surprise, like he had stepped on a thumb-tack. Tendu, his look of impervious bubble-of-silence calm. Viru, a poker-faced bodhisattva, eyes half-closed in meditative nirvana. I have tried to pigeon-hole your gaze into a convenient bucket, but you have always eluded me. Impassive, people have said. Expressionless commentators painted it as. Very convenient. They probably loved that nickname too.
Ball after ball, from atop the classical profile of your stance, your eyes focused on the approaching bowler and past him through the television screen locking with mine. And I could never look away from them. Till they triggered your limbs into a kaleidoscope of delicate angles as the ball arrived.
You would be courteous, lifting your bat and letting it pass, watching it thoughtfully. Levitate momentarily, feet together, toes pointed downwards, shoulders rising and falling in gorgeous symmetry, dropping the ball down at your feet. Your bat ending up horizontal, parallel to the pitch. Head bent, looking down at the still ball respectfully. Or arched back, lips pursed, as you caressed it to cover point; eyes squinting to confirm that it reached that precise spot.
And then, they would be back. Shining through the television screen.
Yes, sixteen years. It seems like yesterday, yet an eternity. And now the images flit across. This collage is expansive. So much has happened in these years. So much time spent looking into those eyes. Locking sight with them.
They scorched themselves in Adelaide. On that day, they had laid bare more than you ever imagined. In the space of minutes during the post-match interview, your eyes had run through the gamut. It was an emotional day. Cathartic. For us too, you know. As I watched you in your sweaty whites struggling for words to describe the feeling, I just couldn’t take my eyes off them. They flashed, flickered and glimmered as they cycled through pride, joy and satisfaction incessantly. They, more than anything, screamed out the gravitas of that moment. I had looked into them in awe that day, Rahul. And affection.
Three years earlier, in Kolkata, you had startled. Fleetingly. It was during that match. And it was during your moment. Lax was trotting up to you, arms outstretched in a bear hug, when you ripped off your helmet and gesticulated emphatically towards your mates in the pavilion. Almost in anger. It was so not you. Your arms complied with you in that action almost awkwardly. But your eyes, your eyes. They were shooting sparks. The lead-up had undeservedly focused on you and you were bristling. The frustration had built up. It seemed justified.
The shellacking in Mumbai had led to it. Oh wait, Mumbai. The Don had passed away on the morning of the first day, hadn’t he? As the two teams lined up to pay homage to the great man, the television camera panned slowly across them standing in silence, staring into space. I remember your eyes: they were shut. Head bowed. Later, very much open now, they would be trained in a stern glare at Slater. He was trying to get close to you, jawing at you in frustration at what he thought was a clean catch. You just stood your ground and looked him in the eye. Head still and upright. Looked him down. Many have seen that look up close. Alan Donald too.
And this moment at the Centurion in 2003. This time, in your blues. After that astonishing start to the chase, things had turned tense when Tendu was felled by a brute. On an edge, we were. But you calmed things down. Kept Yuvi calm too till he started stroking the ball delectably. As the target dwindled to a mere few – I can still see it now. Like it was yesterday. Frozen, like a painting.
The crowd in the backdrop was an impressionist’s daubing of a million brush-strokes. You stood at the non-strikers end. Motionless, with your head turned towards the sea of screaming faces. It was a wall of sound, but it seemed like the sound had been muted for you. For me too. All I hear even now in that moment is silence. Your neck at an angle. And your eyes, half closed. And that look. Melancholy? Contemplative? No, it was more. But I still can’t categorize it. You still elude.
Moments…so many of them…too many. Lord’s, Wanderers, Headingly, Rawalpindi…
I had flown to England last summer. Was somehow convinced that you would make the call there. I was braced for it to be the denouement. I owed myself one last look in the flesh, I told myself. Unfortunately, things turned sour. Went belly up in fact. All around you, as you stood amidst the ruins. Right through the tour, your eyes had almost a tired and perplexed look to them. As you wove one masterpiece after another. By its end, they had looked laden. Yes, there was Australia, but I thought I saw it in your eyes at the Oval itself.
Three days ago, it was a time to celebrate and wish the King warmly on his sixtieth. Now, he used to have a thing with his eyes too, you know. Very different, but similar in what they did to me. And not since his adieu to cricket has a retirement created such turmoil. Irrational turmoil. But this is hardly the time to be selfish.
Go well, Rahul. Happy trails, wherever you choose to ride off on to.
As I close my eyes in gratitude, I see you at the crease. Between deliveries. Your hands making their final adjustments to the grip on the handle. Your eyes trained on a spot in space – somewhere near extra cover. Sweat glistening below them on your cheekbones. Now that classical stance again. The clipped tapping of your bat commences. Your head rises as you look up to the bowler and your eyes focus on him. Then past him, through the television screen. Locking onto mine again.
This is going to be hard. Very hard.