Published on ESPN-Cricinfo, March 7, 2012
That would be around the time the opposition shook themselves out of their discombobulated stupor and contemplated the reality of their situation. Or the hopelessness. You blazed up to and past that number nonchalantly oh so often. You were never one for the numbers, were you?
Sixty today. In the theatre of life. Sixty candles to blow out. Hope you remember to lose the gum you’ve been chewing before you do. The gum that accompanied the swagger. The swagger that spooked out teams; that prefaced the gaze you trained on the bowler at the top of his run-up. Looking into his eyes as you patted down random spots on the pitch, having just taken guard. Sending chills down the spines of all who were watching. Starting with that day in Bangalore.
It wasn’t just your debut, it was mine too. I had never watched a cricket match in the flesh till then. It would be the day scrambled myths in an impressionable mind met reality – the sea of faces, the green grass and the magical figures in whites. I still cannot believe my luck that you were one of the first cricketers I set eyes upon. On my very first day of watching cricket! Yes, we were veritably blessed in Bangalore. Also four years later, when I watched Macko bowl his first ball in Test cricket.
I grew up with you. Ventured forth into cricket with your shadow over me. “De cricket is dead man. Wake myself up when Smokey start to bat,” was Big Bird’s purported request in the pavilion before dozing off. You sure did wake me up to cricket, and for that I owe you. After Bangalore, you widened my eyes a week later in Delhi and then grabbed me around the shoulders and took me on the journey of my life.
I never dreamt of batting like you in street-side cricket matches, you know. Your feats seemed so out of reach. But I did try to chew gum like you. Even wanted to sweat like you. Beads of sweat that clung to the brow and forearms like drops of oil. Sweat that made those muscular shoulder blades sheen through your white shirt. Lillee had his one-finger windshield wiper to flick the sweat off his brow. You deployed your biceps and forearms. But you did flick Lillee right off your brow, into the stands, with your Slazenger. Thommo and Lenny too.
Ah, Lenny. Who once stopped inches from your face after sending one whizzing past the regal nose – and traced out a crucifix on your forehead. And you followed him all the way back to the top of his endless run-up. To brandish your fist in his face, glowering. Then walked briskly back to the crease to smash him straight for six the very next ball. “He destroyed you physically, mentally and emotionally,” Lenny was to say later. You were all deeds; words and theatrics you dispensed with. “My bat is my sword,” you said.
Antigua, I missed out on. And Old Trafford too. I went mad reading the match reports. It was agonising that I had not lived them as they occurred. I was intensely jealous of those who were fortunate to be there. I felt cheated. For I had a stake in you that entitled me, I thought. Proceeded to wear out a VHS tape of that innings – watching you plant your foot three feet outside the leg stump as you bludgeoned Willis and Beefy into the stands at cover. Lord’s 1983; again the fates conspired. The TV signal blacked out nationwide during your manhandling of Madan Lal. But I do admit, that was probably the only time in my life I prayed that you failed miserably.
You were to become the “you” in YouTube. I turned scavenger when it arrived. Was there a backlog or what. Endless nights spent searching for imagery to accompany your music in my head. You had unfurled mainly in crackly sound when it all happened. Television was non-existent in Bangalore then. It was the BBC, the ABC and good old All India Radio we had to cope with. Late nights, Cozier, Arlott, Johnston, Benaud and McGilvray.
“Huccha, huccha,” (“Lunatic, lunatic” in Kannada) my grandfather would splutter as I sat grasping the antenna on that shortwave radio way past bedtime, cajoling out an audible signal. But he always sat down to listen, didn’t he? Eyes closed. Awaiting.
To this day, I look for the scores of Somerset during the season. Still get a kick out of them beating up on any other county. You did that to me. Not Sunny. Beefy and you (and Big Bird too) together as teenagers there. Rabble rousers, the two of you, especially out in the middle. Ah, Beefy. The times he got into dust-ups in pubs, trying to take out everyone in sight after hearing a racial epithet hurled in your direction. Even tried to climb into the stands seething at a yobbo with a coloured mouth once.
You even made me a fan of Jeffrey Archer. Not for his books, just for siring a son who would make a memorable observation about you during the Brixton race riots. Much later I would read Lester Bird, your prime minister, say, “Richards represented that touchstone: he was the embodiment of an opportunity for a whole nation to be galvanised for a single purpose… he personified what we perceived ourselves to be: young dynamic and talented, but yet unrecognised in the world.”
I would read Michael Manley too. And Hilary Beckles. Lap up Bunny Wailer’s tales. Bristle and sneer at David Frith for haranguing on about your Rastafari wrist-band. The one Bob Marley gave you. And oh, Bob! You were intertwined in his music irretrievably for me. You were Burnin’. Your every rumble was a Rastaman Vibration. You even shot the sheriff, and his deputies, in 1976.
I spot you now and then these days behind the glass in some pavilion out yonder – hands clasped behind back, the same smouldering eyes – watching your team impassively. Legacy is an oft-misused word in sport. But what you left behind and is being tarnished now is much more than a legacy. If only they would take an iota of it to heart, wonders could ensue.
Enough of that. This is a special day.
It may be mighty presumptuous of me as I say these words. But I still do feel like I am entitled, can still claim to have a stake in you. That first ball you faced in Bangalore under my gaze validates my right to say this. Sixties are nothing to you, Viv. A number you never really cared for. You just go on, you emperor.