I had never heard of the expression ‘cricket tragic’ before. I knew who a cricket lover was, had seen a few who qualified to be cricket fanatics, could understand what women meant when they said they were cricket widows but until Mark Taylor called John Howard a cricket tragic, I had never heard it used before. I thought it was a bit irreverent to address your prime minister thus but having once heard Allan Border let slip a cheerful “howdy Bob” to the then prime minister Bob Hawke, it didn’t surprise me very much.
I only met John Howard once, when he was a guest in the ABC commentary box at the Sydney Cricket Ground while I was doing the ball-by-ball description, so I don’t know of any other cricket tragics. Or maybe I did.
His name was Suri and he was the opening batsman on our campus colleges team that played in the senior division. He had two obsessions in life. One was to walk, and occasionally bat, like Jaisimha and the other was to play for the university in the All-India inter-varsity tournament. Outside of the nets I’d occasionally meet him at the law college bus stop and he would sidle up and whisper “yeh sunday hundred karna padta nai to selection mushkil hai”. ‘Selection’ was almost six months away, but Suri sat in his law college dreaming of opening the batting for the university team.
A couple of Sundays later, we came up against the Marredpally Cricket Club side. Jaisimha was still playing, still bowling huge swingers with the new ball. It was the nicest match of the year, always played in great spirit but for Suri it was the only game that mattered. He turned up in clean whites, which was a bit of a change, and as we were catching a few he came up and said “kuch change nai dikhra”. I said “kapde saaf dikh rain”. “Dadhi banaaya miya,” he said disappointed that I hadn’t noticed. “Jai ka match hai na, tip-top rehna”
Suri had scored a few when the great man took the ball. He marked his run, an angle of almost forty five degrees, then jogged up to the stumps in that eternally graceful style and bowled a slow in-swinger. Suri, too overawed to notice, was stuck in his crease, played down the wrong line and was lbw! When he had recovered from the fact that his hero had dented a little part of his other ambition, he consoled himself “out huwe bhi to class player ku out hona”
It wasn’t the only time that Suri was awe-struck. Both of us did eventually make it to the university side for the All-India Inter-University tournament at Delhi and throughout the long train journey, Suri was selecting his own playing eleven. He was a good batsman against quick bowling and played the pull shot particularly well and deserved to open the batting on the first morning.
This was the day he was waiting for. Delhi in January can be cold but Suri needed nothing more than a loose shirt. His opening partner was a very stocky young man called Pavan Kumar who, a couple of years earlier, had played for the Indian Schoolboys. Rajinder Singh Ghai had the new ball for Guru Nanak Dev and for some reason, as he ran in, my eyes were on Suri at the non-striker’s end. The first ball was pushed between point and cover and with a little yelp of “one” Pavan took off. Given his girth it wasn’t the easiest thing to do but the need to get off the mark can have such an effect! In truth it was quite an easy single but in a couple of seconds, we realized that something strange was happening at the other end. Suri wasn’t running!
“One, one,one” we could hear Pavan say. “Bhag, bhag, bhag” we screamed from the Khalsa College pavilion. But Suri was like in a trance, his dream still playing out in front of his eyes. Eventually, reality shook him awake and he began running. He got no further than half the pitch before the wicket keeper broke the stumps. He stood there for a moment as his world crumbled around him, looked at the bat specially selected to script a great innings and somehow held himself together long enough to reach the pavilion.