Some ùbúntù (Cricinfo)

Published in Cricinfo, April 2009

“We are all at our best, our societies flourish most, when we co-operate in the spirit of what in our country we call ùbúntù, the essence of being human, when my humanity is caught up in your humanity. I wouldn’t know how to walk as a human being, I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being, I wouldn’t know how to think as a human being, I wouldn’t know how to be human, unless I learnt it all from other human beings. I need other human beings in order to be human, and we say in our part of the world, in the spirit of ùbúntù, that a person is a person through other persons, that we are made for interdependence, we are made for complementarity, for I have gifts that you don’t have and you have gifts that I don’t have.

You could almost see God saying “Voilà”, rubbing his hands and saying “That is precisely why I created you different, not so that you should be separated, but different to know your need for one another”.

These are words that are guaranteed to bring to a halt whatever you may have been thinking about and force you to take notice. It is not possible to ignore the fundamental humanity of these pearls strung together and not feel about as big as a microbe in the grand scheme of things our lives are embedded in.

And before you begin to wonder, no, it is not a preamble to an attempt by me to proceed and espouse (in a futile and doomed attempt to try and sound just as eloquent) my own brand of homegrown philosophy on unsuspecting readers. The word ùbúntù (and what a beautiful word and philosophy it is) should be a dead giveaway though and should lead you towards at least a confirmation of the geographical source of these prescient thoughts.

This is an excerpt (quoted verbatim) from the 2008 edition of the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, delivered by The Most Reverend Dr. Desmond Tutu last summer. The lecture was instituted in 2001 following the adoption of the Spirit of Cricket Preamble to the Laws by the M.C.C, the custodians of the laws of the game of cricket. The Preamble to the Laws which was officially added in 2000 is meant to enshrine the founding tenets of the Spirit of Cricket: fairness, honesty and respect. It states that “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself”.

The lecture is now an anticipated event in the summer cricket calendar, giving the stage to an invited guest to elaborate on a topic of their choice related the game. Rev. Tutu joined a line of illustrious cricketing personalities who have graced Lord’s to deliver the annual lecture, starting with the thoughtful elegance of Richie Benaud in 2001. Subsequent years have been equally rewarding, with speeches by Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Lloyd, Geoffrey Boycott, Martin Crowe and Christopher Martin-Jenkins. Rev. Tutu was an interesting, inspired, albeit quirky choice, if I may say so. But the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s heartfelt and at the same time, funny and delightful speech last year was quite memorable.

Rev. Tutu concluded his lecture last year with the words:

“And so cricket reminds us that we are made for togetherness. We are made as those who are going to have to turn this world and make it something that is more compassionate, more caring, more loving, more gentle, and you here are part of God’s team plan, collaborators to help God bring about a realization of God’s dream. Could we have any higher aspiration, not only for cricket but for the whole of life as we humans experience it in community, that we live our lives in the Spirit of Cricket?”

Michael Colin Cowdrey (1932-2000) was the initiator and the brains behind the Spirit of Cricket initiative along with another England great, Ted Dexter. Sporting the apt initials of his name M.C.C, which were carefully and calculatedly given to him by his father for obvious reasons, he was responsible for relentlessly championing the formalization of the concept that the spirit in which the game was played was just as important as the rules and laws that governed the play on the field.

We will be hard pressed to find anyone who can even contemplate debating over whether there can be a better example of a cricketer who personified the spirit of cricket more than Colin Cowdrey. In a long and illustrious career as an England cricketer and captain (114 tests, 7624 runs, 22 centuries), he was the very personification of grace and skill every single moment on and off the cricket field. Unfailingly friendly, courteous and polite to a fault to anyone he came in contact with, he lived the principle that even while going for your opponents’ jugular in a cricket match, it could be done with fairness and integrity along with equanimity of thought, language and demeanor. His courteousness and politeness somehow even extended to the legendary silken coverdrives of his. Quite large is the fraternity of fielders who over his long career, have run to the boundary to retrieve the ball Colin Cowdrey had deposited there, caressing it through the covers with supreme style. All the time wondering, as they picked up the ball from the ropes, if the shot would ever be played any more elegantly.

Colin Cowdrey had a firmly held belief that there was absolutely no reason why the game of cricket could not be played while adhering to the principles of fairness, honesty and respect. In fact, to him, why would you ever want to play it any other way? Concerned about the declining standards of behavior and conduct of players that he observed at all levels of the game around the world, he proposed and championed the idea of the Spirit of Cricket being made explicit in the Laws of the game. On his own volition, and expecting nothing in return for his efforts, he crisscrossed the English countryside, speaking at schools, cricket clubs and sports associations, passionately explaining to children, young athletes and sportsmen why it was equally important to cherish and hold those values as closely as they did their success in their chosen sport. And he unfailingly gave his time and attention to anyone who came in contact with him and expressed an interest in discussing his views on the subject. He wanted everyone associated with cricket to believe in and live these principles and took great pains to keep them at the forefront of their consciousness. I find it very hard to imagine the anguish he endured during the dark days of the match-fixing scandals in the late 90’s (“It’s a new world, I don’t understand it now.”-M.C. Cowdrey) to see the game he cherished so much ravaged that way.

I share one thing in common, at least, with Michael Colin Cowdrey and that is the city of our births – Bangalore.

Growing up in Bangalore, my grade school days were the usual gleeful mix of friends, school, homework, comic books, ice candies and street cricket (of course!), memories of a mix I share fondly with millions like me all across India. Parents, millions of them like mine, while indulging and managing typical kids like my friends and I, worried about our education and sometimes, conscientiously tried to stuff some sense and respect for the culture and classicism of the land in us. In this way, my brother and I were sent off to study Sanskrit, the language of the classics, in the morning before school, along with a merry band of other similarly coerced kids.

Our walk to the center where we were to be all cultured up, took us through the quiet, tree-lined middle class neighborhood of Jayanagar, many roads of which were narrow enough that in furiously contested evening cricket matches, either the fielder at extra cover or the one at square-leg was inevitably stationed strategically in the “gutter” or storm drains that lined the streets. As we walked down a quiet street like this, a stone’s throw away from our classroom was a nondescript and typical suburban residence that used to bring a hush over the gaggle of kids as they passed by. Footsteps would slow down, conversation would cease and faces would look up with wonder and fervent anticipation. Anticipation of catching even a tiny glimpse of him in one of the windows. For this, as our reliable sources had informed us, was the home of Bhagwat Subramanya Chandrashekhar.

It is not easy to describe the wonder and affection that Chandra conjured up in the minds of children growing up in India during his heyday. Why just children, here was a cricketer adored and admired right across the country for his exploits, his gentle and genial nature and more importantly, for the thrilling spectacle and anticipation he provided with that uncharacteristic bowling action, spitting leg-breaks and disorienting power of his googlies. The memories of that coiled-spring run-up, the bounding steps to the crease with 75,000 roaring spectators keeping rhythm with their clapping, the whipping blur of his right arm, wrist cocked in a position dictated by a mind of its own, and Farooq Engineer or Syed Kirmani, standing right up to the stumps intercepting a fizzing leg break sometimes over their heads as the groping batsman looked back in confused horror….unforgettable.

After months of walking by the two-storey house, and questioning the validity of our sources’ insistence that Chandra indeed lived there, the suspense became too unbearable for us and we decided to settle the matter for ourselves. So one chilly, misty Bangalore morning, three kids walked up boldly to the front door of the house and rang the doorbell. They then stood there, legs quivering, all the boldness spent now, expecting a yelling at from maybe an accountant or physicist who lived there, and not Chandra. Or Chandra himself, asking us to bugger off and not bother him that early in the morning. The door opened and we were greeted with the smiling face of a lady who seemed genuinely puzzled and amused to see three kids shaking with excitement at her doorstep. “What do you want and who are you kids anyway?” she asked. I guess the bravest one among us finally mustered up the chutzpah to look her in the eye and say, “We would like to meet Chandra and get his autograph”.

Now, two things were possible at this instant. She could have developed a furrow in her brow, glared at us and said “Chandra? Who? Don’t you kids have anything better to do than bother strangers this early in the morning? Don’t you have school to attend?” The second possibility was the one that did occur. She smiled at us, turned around and called out ”Chandraaaaaaaaa…” While we held on to each other in a state of ecstasy and nervousness for what seemed like an eternity, bounding down the steps from the second floor came the legendary leg spinner, clad in shorts and a T-shirt. Bounding down, I would like to think, with the same number of steps as his famed run-up to the crease. He towered over us, looking down with that very familiar calm and open look on his face. “These kids want your autograph”, she said to him. As he looked at us and that hand that had turned many a game for the country started to reach out towards us, we were suddenly aroused from the paralyzed state we were now in and three notebooks meant for the Sanskrit class shot out in unison and miraculously appeared under his nose. Three scrawls later, he smiled at us and was gone, bounding back upstairs, to the top of his run-up. The lady (his mother?) smiled at our incredulous faces one last time and gently closed the front door. I remember absolutely nothing else about what happened next. I assume we did make it to our Sanskrit class that day.

Years passed. School was just a fond memory now and sadly, my Sanskrit notebook was nowhere to be found. Then one day, right across Bangalore and the rest of India spread the news of a horrific accident in south Bangalore. A really bad one, we were told. Chandra, our Chandra, had been involved in a smashup on the street riding his two-wheeler. He was badly injured and in intensive care. Both legs, they said. Could he ever walk again, they asked. Bedridden…wheelchair bound. What kind of nightmare was this? Would he ever come bounding down those steps again?

“Why did it have to be him?” we asked, trying to reason quite unreasonably with I am not sure who or what. Why Chandra? Why the quiet, gentle, private, goateed, Mukesh loving wizard with the goofy-looking round arm return from the boundary? Why the unpredictable, dangerous, lightning fast Chandra (“Maaan, his fast one is faster than Thommo’s!” – Viv Richards) who could terrorize batsmen when he was on song? We wrestled with the combination of worry and sadness about his physical health. We had internal conversations with ourselves about how much the country owed him. Owed him for everything, starting with the Oval in 1971. While reading about cash donations being made for his hospital expenses in calculated moves by governments at the state and national level and the statements of cricketers empathizing with his unfortunate accident, we hoped that our Chandra was being emotionally supported too. By his friends and colleagues being by his bedside. By just being there for him during these trying times. We wanted to him to get back on his feet quickly and stand again, with friendly hands around his shoulder. We didn’t want him to just recover. We wanted him to recover with a smile on his face. With the peace, comfort and contentment that comes with the company of caring friends.

Michael Colin Cowdrey, the President of the ICC, was in India for meetings and landed in Bangalore, his birthplace, a stop on his trip crisscrossing the country. After he picked up his bags at the airport, he walked out, met the party waiting to drive him to the Chinnaswamy Stadium or his hotel, and politely, I am certain, requested that he be driven to the house of Bhagwat Chandrashekhar. The hotel and the meetings at the Chinnaswamy Stadium for that matter could wait. More prominent in his mind were thoughts of meeting a respected compatriot, an old nemesis on the field, a valued member of the cricketing fraternity and most importantly, a small part of the jigsaw puzzle that made up the picture. A picture of a game that Colin Cowdrey so eloquently stood for in all his efforts since he entered it as a player and continued to embody. His colleague from the cricket pitch was ailing, and paramount in his mind was the need to meet him, sit with him, hold his hands and just say, “We are thinking about you, mate. And we will be with you as you recover from this.”

I have this vivid mental picture of a car driving down that very same street in the typical middle class neighbourhood in Bangalore, pulling up in front of the same nondescript residence, the car door opening and Michael Colin Cowdrey getting out. Walking up to the same front door and his finger pressing the same doorbell. Courteously introducing himself to whoever opened the door (Chandra’s mother again, maybe?) and requesting that he be permitted to call on Chandra. I can also imagine with a great deal of certainty what this visit would have meant to Chandra as he laid there, wheelchair and bed bound. An unexpected visit from a concerned colleague of the game and a face from the past that brought back a million memories and smiles to his face. If there ever was a reassuring, thoughtful and caring gesture being made to a man in dire need of one, here it was.

The M.C.C has just announced that Adam Gilchrist will be delivering the Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture this year at Lord’s on June 24. It will be at the height of the Ashes frenzy in England as the Aussies would be just starting their tour then. As far as the rest of the cricketing world goes, having exhausted our competitive, nationalistic and jingoistic juices in the months preceding this at the IPL and the T20 World Cup (which actually ends just three days before the lecture at Lord’s), it may behoove us to take a small break from the action on the field and see what this year’s lecture brings. And also say a silent thank you to the man the lecture is named after. It won’t hurt. It may even be rewarding.

I never had a chance to watch Colin Cowdrey bat, and can only imagine that silken coverdrive that people who were lucky to see him swear by. But I don’t think I need to use my imagination to understand the sentiments of John Woodcock, who penned the simple epitaph on Sir Michael Colin Cowdrey’s headstone:

“…some journey, some life, some coverdrive, some friend.”

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