He will forever be granted the last bit of affection, like that mussed up candy bar fished out of the nether regions of a coat pocket for a child. Once you star as a gallant hero in childhood’s sepia freeze-frame, you endure like none other. And once you overtly and unabashedly burrow your way into a kid’s heart with a blatant gesture of chivalry at the impressionable age, you reserve your spot in the collage for life.
He will always have the very first slot in my collage. It is his for life. For the image he conjured up at the Brabourne Stadium mid-pitch on that day remains etched in the mind like it was yesterday. The joy and affection that had surged gaping at that photograph in the morning papers is still palpable. He had taken the most direct path to a fledgling Bangalore cricket heart that morning – through Viswanath.
Cricket was still hazy and murky in the mind then. But to a kid in Bangalore, one fact was indisputable – cricket was something Viswa did. And did well, we were told. And we heard it everywhere. Family gatherings and dinners – volatile congregations of raised voices and endless arguments – never failed to subside into decorous peace when his name was raised. Post lunch laze-abouts continued the contented and fiercely proud Viswa-speak. Yes, Pataudi was the king. Gavaskar would save lives. But Viswanath was why anyone would even want to play cricket in the first place. It is a fact that Viswa had enveloped the mind long before cricket even had a chance.
Look at that picture. Just look at it. End of story.
Tony Greig now starred in the first image of cricket that I would possess – to this day. Devoid of television imagery, this would be the one that would start it all. With this utterly disarming cradling of the centurion, Tony entered the mind piggy-backing on Viswa. Years later, people would say it was his typical calculated showmanship. A ham-job meticulously staged to endear himself to Indian eyes, they said. Sod that. Only I know how I felt that morning smiling blissfully at that image on the front pages. If this was what showmanship could incite and instill, your snarkiness be damned. I owe Tony deeply for that.
Of course, time would pass. It always does. And it wasn’t much longer before I was rolling on the ground deliriously, reading the very newspapers, now reveling in Viv and Mikey murdering his men. I know that I was utterly oblivious of the “g” word – Tony’s “g” word – that lit the fire in Babylon. But I was tickled pink to no end at the skewering of his Poms. He would turn Meyer Wolfsheim and rip cricket apart later, relegating our cricket watching at stadiums to depressingly depleted teams. For a long time, I would harbor a severe grudge against him – for depriving me the chance to see Lillee, Chappell and Marsh in the flesh. Now I know better.
And then the voice. His 5:30 AM boisterous incantations, accompanied by the more mellifluous Benaud and Lawry, that woke us up to a lifetime of television coverage. The voice that would introduce Sharjah to us. Bring the Ashes home too. And the voice that would be the soundtrack to Sachin. Whaddaplaya, he said. And we rode the roller-coaster with him. “There’s Tendulkar, then there is daylight, then there are the rest’ he categorically announced. It had sounded like music. Brassy, but still music.
His recent diagnosis had muted that boisterous music in our hearts. Cast a pall of silence over the sounds of cricket. If there ever was a man who loved the sound of his cricket-voice more and also reveled in bringing it to us, I don’t know of him. Even as he irritated in latter years with his edgy and undisguised barbs (and relentless descriptions of prawn curries and steaks in Colombo). His voice was too much a part of the fabric. Too integral to our memories. We were now going to dearly miss the chance to dish out our snide asides too. We wanted to yell “Shut up Tony!” at the screen – but couldn’t anymore.
So we lower our eyes in silence today. To a voice prematurely cut short. To the man who stuck his key into the turf while on his haunches and looked us in the eye and spoke garrulously and endlessly.
But I will be eternally grateful to him for what he did that day in Bombay. Forever be in his debt for igniting a lifetime of cricket imagery in the mind. He started it all for me and for that, I owe him. Owe him so much.
Go on, just look at that photograph.