This post has nothing to do with cricket. No embellishing stats, no in-depth technical analysis of your stance, concentration and the way you have negotiated…deliveries that is. But I will probably allude to how you have negotiated far more significant things quite often.
I was watching the highlights from the test match where you scored your first century. It was against England. You were 17 years and 112 days old. When I was 17, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was standing at the counseling hall in Ahmedabad, wondering if I wanted to do Chemical or Mechanical Engineering. A voice whispered into my ears “Mechanical is kind of boring. I did Mechanical. It’ll get you a job for sure but it could be monotonous. Take Chemical. You seem to like Chemistry anyway”. I said “Thanks Appa” and checked Chemical Engineering at REC Surat as my first preference. I am fairly positive that is NOT how you chose your career. You probably knew what you wanted to do in life way before that. And you pursued it. To me, that is amazing!
Now let’s talk about how you got to that hundred. You drove a ball off Angus Fraser. Lovely cover drive. You were on 98. As the ball crossed the fielder, who started chasing it, it was certain that you’ll be scoring at least two more. But you never assumed that the ball would cross the boundary. You ran hard. You took three runs. You didn’t take off your helmet mid-way and started flinging your arms in air or bellowing in anger as you proved all your critics wrong in an imaginary, often self-inflicted man versus world slugfest. You just took your helmet off politely. You raised your Power bat, looked down first, then up, then pointed towards the stands. You looked down first?? You didn’t even smile! How could you afford to do that? I let out a beaming grin when I beat the traffic, let alone defy an entire team on their home soil at the brink of defeat. You were seventeen damn it! Even umpire John Holder’s eyes widened in bewilderment and his lips arched simultaneously, as if he were trying to say “That is it? That is all you’re going to do to celebrate your first hundred?” I have never seen any umpire do that to any other player. Ever. You started gathering some major fans. On the field!
There is something about you. Do you remember that Pepsi ad where a bunch of kids are playing cricket in a village and wearing your face mask at one point? When the song went “Yeh dil maange moooooooooooore”, you popped out of nowhere from one of those masks. The joy on those kids face is EXACTLY how I feel every single time I watch you take the field. When I saw you smash Qadir, desert storm, when you scored a hundred after you lost your father or when I saw the highlights of your final test inning. Even in that inning, when you reached 50, you just pointed your bat towards the crowd. That’s it. I didn’t see any defiance in your eyes but maybe an expression that said “cool. Now let me get back for more”, followed by a subtle, mischievous smile. How do you do it??? How have you done it? For twenty four years. Playing. Like a kid. Who just doesn’t want to stop. I think that is what you have done to me. You always bring out the child in me. The kid with unbridled enthusiasm. I think I was there in that ad vicariously through one of those kids. Forget all the fuss about how much you’ll score or how crunch the situation is. Watching you bat is a truly joyful experience. And you’ve brought so many people together with that same emotion. In a country where there are 1000 reasons for people to feel divided, you have made them sit together and watch a game of cricket and enjoy you bat with sheer happiness.
I guess that’s why I didn’t cry or feel sad when I saw you walk back after the lap at Wankhede. I wasn’t happy either. I felt, well, empty. I wasn’t sure. The usually cheerful kid inside me didn’t say a thing. He just sat there and gazed. Somehow, tears didn’t flow down my cheeks. But I could see that happening to you. You always look up after achieving something, no matter what. But on that day, you didn’t…you are full of surprises. You kid.
The lyrics of a song from Muqaddar ka Sikandar go “Rote hue, aate hain sab, hasta hua jo jayega…”
You are strange. You did the exact opposite. You came into my life smiling. Like this kid who had just gotten off a stroller for the first time, ready to run amok and explore the whole wild world in one day. And you left with a tear in your eye. After you went to your shrine, touched the field for one last time and returned to the pavilion. I think it is safe to say that in spite of defying the lyrics and probably a natural apothegm, you have captured innumerable hearts.
You know it’s funny how you asked coach Achrekar for some sort of validation during your farewell speech. He had never told you “well played” for the fear of you getting complacent. “You could try your luck today Sir…” you said. You know, you never exhibited any emotions on the field to demonstrate any kind of smugness. Maybe you could try your luck today and say “F**k yeaaaaaaaaaah!” or “B*******d!” while pumping your fists, jumping with sheer elation, now that you’re done. The way the folks who are supposed to carry the baton from you do. Because what you’ve done on the field over the last two dozen years is nothing short of a masterpiece built from sheer grit and determination, in addition to your magnificent style. You deserve to exhale. Vent a little. But don’t. Because you know what, that will make you enter the same old “nobody gave me a chance”,” suck on that haters”, “man versus world” slugfest.
I just want to remember you and cherish you forever the way you are. Not as a man. But a kid. A beaming little kid always ready to play.