It was a gloomy afternoon in New York City. A time of unease and tension all across America – news had broken that day about the Soviet Union’s test of a hydrogen bomb. It was the dawn of the age of Cold War paranoia and people were on an edge. But some rituals and institutions are immune to the national milieu. To the thousands packed into the Polo Grounds in Manhattan that afternoon, the tension lay in the vicious rivalry that divided the city. And at 3:58 PM…
“The shot heard ’round the world” they called it.
The “world” that day extended as far as Texas…California perhaps. The deciding game of the playoff for the pennant between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers leading up to the 1951 World Series of baseball. Bottom of the ninth inning, Ralph Branca on the mound, Bobby Thomson at the plate and one out with the Giants trailing 4-2. Then the shot into left field which sailed over Andy Pafko’s head into the bleachers, leading to commentator Russ Hodges’ invocation of what is imprinted on generations of American sports fans now: “The Giants win the pennant! Giants win the pennant! Giants win the pennant! …The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!”
April 2, 2011, Mumbai.
At 10:49 PM, Nuwan Kulasekhara curled himself up into a foetal position in the footnotes of Wisden as his second ball of the 49th over of the Indian run-chase of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup final landed in the stands of the Wankhede Stadium. This shot lacked the dramatic suddenness of Thomson’s hit, but its imprint was more profound and far reaching. MS Dhoni, its perpetrator, embellished it with what will forever be a defining image of India’s victory: “The Twirl”. A shotgun swivel of his bat – one that would have made Sergio Leone proud – garnishing his poker-faced smash. A shot that is more awe inspiring and unnerving with each repeat viewing.
40,000 giddy heads had tracked the ball’s trajectory across the dark Mumbai skies. Skies which were to explode minutes later into a kaleidoscope of fireworks. But even amidst the delirium, a thought burrowed into my mind and has nagged ever since.
Whatever did happen to that match winning ball?
The intimacy a fan in the stands shares with the cricket ball during a match is tenuous. One may go an entire lifetime – and most fans do – without coming within sniffing, leave alone caressing distance of a match ball. When it does happen, we are bound by a covenant that prevents us from even peering at it for too long, leave alone contemplating giving it an affectionate rub against our Levi’s. One grinning face mugged at the nearest TV camera, a quick pose for the iPhone in the other hand and back it goes, flung at the morose fielder over whose head the six had soared.
One would think Dhoni’s shot would have created bedlam in the stands that night. A sea of upturned palms, mouths open in enlarged ovals – still screaming – reaching for that grass stained white ball. No covenant or scripture demanding that it be flung back for once. Was there a mad scramble for it? People climbing over each other? Slapping arms out of the way as it rolled down the steps? Or did someone actually nail it with a clean catch? Given the loaded occasion and the history it was destined to pack, were there punches thrown to establish ownership?
And where, I wonder, is it now? What is that ball’s story?
Underworld, Don DeLillo’s eleventh novel was published in 1997. The brilliant book infused with the American master’s sprawling vision and post Cold War thematic imagery was an instant classic. Dazzling in his inimitable prose, epic in its grandeur and yet intimate in the sketches of its characters, it remains an emphatic exclamatory mark of the American novel on world literature at the end of the millennium.
Its prologue – a sixty page jaw-dropper – was an exhilarating and tense depiction of the Bobby Thomson home run (and had in fact been published as a story Pafko at the Wall in Harper’s Magazine in 1992). Sixty pages of DeLillo’s staccato imagery describing in edgy detail Cotter Martin’s escapades of getting into the stadium that afternoon – Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover in audience – the buildup to the ninth inning – Thomson’s blast – and twenty pages detailing Cotter’s feverish quest to capture that (soon to be mythical) ball and bolt the stadium into the twilight evading those he had beat out.
That ball cuts a swathe through the novel – literally at times and metaphorically for the most. The obsessive quest to acquire it is one of the novel’s multitudes of strands woven through events that shook America in the latter half of the twentieth century The baseball is a literary prop used in multifarious ways to allow us to peek into the mind of Nick Shay – the protagonist – and also as a vehicle to allude to the historic events of those decades:
“Well, I didn’t buy that object for the glory and the drama attached to it. It’s not about Thomson hitting the homer. It’s about Branca making the pitch. It’s all about losing.”
“It’s about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss. I don’t know. I keep saying I don’t know and I don’t. But it is the only thing in my life that I absolutely had to own.”
“To commemorate failure. To have that moment in my hand when Branca turned and watched the ball go into the stands – from him to me.”
Forget homage from a legendary author, the cricket ball’s celebrity persona is usually of the dubious kind. While the sight of a shiny red ball in the hands of a fast bowler in his whites against a sea of green grass remains one of the most refreshing and reassuring sights in cricket, things go awry after that. Every instance of a cricket ball in the zeitgeist seems scandalous: vaseline, bottle tops, mints, dirt, lozenges, manicured nails, dental records, suspensions, libel lawsuits, forfeitures and unproven suspicions. The poor ball can’t cop a break.
It does lead a very sequestered life. Umpires take possession diligently during stoppages. Television cameras swoop in from all angles trying to spot nefarious activities. The footage is analyzed like the Zapruder film. All an exercise in iron-clad security instigated by a history of malfeasance, suspicion and innuendo. Liberation from this stifling surveillance into the hands of a commoner is possible under only one circumstance – a match winning six. Ah those lucky souls in the parking lots of English county grounds in the 70’s and 80’s, with balls flying out like popcorn from a machine courtesy Viv Richards. A mere four would consign it to the gutter, where it would be at the mercy of ground-staff and security men. Unless a Steve Waugh trotted over to retrieve it and handed it over to Rahul Dravid.
Players, umpires and administrative coteries infesting the pavilion are most likely to end up with possession. Bowlers claim it for themselves as mementos of landmark performances. Players on the winning team argue and haggle for it amongst themselves. Mostly, it ends up in cricket ball purgatory – the box of balls the third umpire lugs around like Jules with the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Unless Darrell Hair sends it down to the pathology lab for an autopsy. Surely DNA analysis can’t be far behind?
Unlike baseball, where collecting memorabilia is a disease, cricket has a tepid attitude towards collector’s items. Convention centers regularly host baseball extravaganzas – trading cards, cigarette packs, bubble gum wrappers, ticket stubs, flags and pennants, seats of stadiums past, uniforms, stadium signs, bags from the bases, shoes, balls, bats, hats – a century of artifacts up for sale. A multi-million dollar cottage industry of historians, appraisers, authenticators, detective agencies, forensic experts and auctioneers catering to an obsessive fan base. A baseball card is sold by Sotheby’s for a million dollars – you get the idea. DeLillo provides an astonishing portrayal of one such collector in Underworld – Marvin Lundy, the cranky and cancer-ridden codger whose recanting of his twenty two year quest to track down the Thomson baseball is riveting.
Cricket? We have Tony Greig hawking Matthew Hayden’s jockstrap, Adam Gilchrist’s socks and Shane Warne’s Blackberry. Kitsch for the gullible. Laminated and glass encased exercises in manufactured memories. No drama, no context – all website and toll-free number.
April 18, 1986, Sharjah.
“The shot that traumatized a nation” it should be called. When Javed Miandad gleefully latched onto the deluded attempt at a yorker by Chetan Sharma and sent it soaring into the desert sky, Indian cricket had the air let out of it for years to come. Sharma went on to a tortured existence, anointed the supreme goat of Indian cricket to this day. (The goat one might argue was Kapil Dev, whose miscalculation ended up with him finishing his quota in the 49th over). Miandad’s innings that night was a gem in its calculated execution – an extraordinary sequence of nudges, prods and furiously scrambled runs that was to culminate in Sharma being given the sadistic plastic glove treatment by irate customs officers on his return to India.
And the fate of that ball? In Miandad’s living room in Karachi? Acquired secretly by Sharma for a private cremation? Or since everything in cricket eventually ends up in Dubai, mounted on the dashboard of an oil-baron’s Rolls Royce? New car, caviar, four star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team…and a cricket ball?
In case you were wondering, the Bobby Thomson home run ball has never been traced.
But the next time you are watching a rerun of The Godfather, pulse racing as the enraged Sonny drives up to the desolate toll-booth en route to remodeling his brother-in-law’s skull (and his own bullet-ridden death), listen carefully to the sounds of the transistor radio in the attendant’s booth. To the voice of commentator Russ Hodges, about to describe the trajectory of that baseball on October 3, 1951.