| Forests of light
English cricket-lovers are a funny sub-species. On the one hand, the English cricket fan strives to project an attitude of “couldn’t-care-less-really”, deploying a much-practised slight shrug and a self- or team-deprecating comment whenever news of another defeat comes in: “Oh well, it’s only to be expected isn’t it'” But give him a victory, or even a whiff of one, and you’ll see him turn into a barely contained triumphalist, his knees twitching to jump, one arm pulling desperately at the other to stop it from fisting into the air, the eyebrows contracting and expanding like transistor sparks trying to choose between utter disbelief and supercharged smugness. Whenever this happens, you have to be extremely careful around the Angrez, you have to treat him with the greatest sensitivity, as you would a patient having an epileptic fit.
Two weekends ago, my Aussie mate Mark and I were putting our kids’ club cricket team through their paces at the indoor nets. These sessions basically involve little, and not so little, boys trying to brain each other with cricket balls while yelling insults about each others’ favourite football teams, and that day was no different. Suddenly the general mayhem was interrupted by one of the boys’ fathers walking in, actually “prancing” would be more correct, and announcing that England had brought down the West Indies batting for a paltry 47 runs. Soon after, another English dad came in with the news that Vaughan and Trescothick had knocked off the runs needed to seal victory. This was followed by dads # 3 and 4 both looking as if they had just flown in from Jamaica after having themselves, with their own fair hands, put paid to Lara & Co. England, believe it or not, had achieved a shocking, massive win at Sabina Park.
Mark and I made sure to bring out the right congratulatory noises, and we made sure we didn’t break into gales of laughter till we were well away from the nets. Only in the safety of Mark’s car, with one Australian and two Indian boys in the back seat, did we let go. “Can you believe these guys'” guffawed Mark,”I mean, this is the weekend when Australia have just fought back to this amazing victory in Sri Lanka, this is the same weekend when India-Pakistan have played this thriller of a first match, and these guys are celebrating their third-rate team bashing up another!”
It’s churlish and stingy-spirited, perhaps, not to allow the locals their rare moments of triumph, but the problem my Aussie pal and I were having had more to do with the general English attitude of feigning indifference whenever (meaning all too often) their teams lose. Both of us would, I suspect, be far more tolerant of the glee if the disappointments were equally emphatically expressed. Mark, for example, is a level-headed man in his early forties, but I can now make a mushroom-cloud of gloom rise from him simply by saying the words, “Seven Hundred plus, mate.” Referring — in case you need to be told — to the recent Indian first innings score at Sydney. Mark then retaliates by saying “Great final in Jo’burgh wasn’t it' You reckon Gaingooly will EVER put anyone in to bat again'” which, of course, leads me to dig my nails hard into the leather upholstery of his nice car. The thing is, both of us care and neither is afraid to show it.
Now, no one has ever accused me of the scoundrality that usually goes with patriotism, but in sport, especially cricket, I am unashamedly jingoistic. Both my sons are British citizens and, while my younger son doesn’t care too much yet, my older one would proudly and forcefully smash the Tebbit-test for a six over mid-wicket. Don’t ask me why (and it can no longer be called “just a boy thing” either), but when India are playing, I scream and shout at the television. When we lose, I am miserable for days, and when we win, I exult, also for days, sometimes months. And in this, the pleasure of beating Pakistan comes a very close second to the pleasure of beating Australia.
Why then, you may ask, have I not installed myself in a tent on the floor of some friend who has cable TV showing the current Indo-Pak series' Why did I follow the first three matches only with the odd checking of scores on the net' And why did I force some poor chap, who’s not even a cricket fan, to get up at 4 am on a winter morning to tape the entire Karachi match'
Though there is a tinge of it in my reasoning, it’s not the fact that March-April is no time to play serious cricket in these parts, or that having an India-Pak series now, so soon after the glorious Australia tour, is a bit like wolfing down a Kobiraji cutlet right after finishing an eight-course gourmet meal. Nor is it that I am overcome by a massive attack of sour grapes because I am stuck in wintry England while various friends are going to be there, well, not massive, anyway (e-mail from Indian writer friend: I am invited to Lahore when India play there. Isn’t it wasted on a non-cricket type like me' Aren’t you jealous'”, Pakistani writer friend: “If you’ve got cable TV look out for me at the Karachi match. I’ll be sitting in the Ha- nif Mohammad stand.”). It’s not even that I’m worried about my cardiac condition — recent trials have shown that I can run between wickets at least as fast as Hippomam-ul Haq, though probably not if I also have to wave a heavy bat around, and certainly not for more than one over.
No, it’s just that every cricket match or series has a balance, a cocktail, of what can be called pure-cricket-content (PCC) and extra-cricket-content (ECC). For example, the Australia series had a high level of PCC and a decent level of ECC but not too much, except at the Waugh farewell in Sydney. Now, this India-Pak series, the close matches notwithstanding, is heavily loaded with ECC and though I may be in the minority of one, for once I’m actually not that bothered by the result — enormously happy-making though the first leg of the tour has turned out to be.
I’m actually quite content to examine the whole thing afterwards for what it may or may not mean for the future of the subcontinent. So, while there are plenty of cricket-writers getting caught up in the emotion triggered by the two flags painted on two cheeks, or the amazing sight of Pakistani Grand Dames applauding Tendulkar while puffing on their Sobranie cigarettes, or indeed the varied beauty of Dravid, Kaif, Laxman and Pathan, I am happy to taste these dishes a day or two after they’ve been made, once the flavours have melded properly.
Also, just as I would want the English cricket fan to keep things in their proper perspective, I too have to be mindful that there are rare occasions when something more important than an India-Pakistan match could be taking place in the world. A few days ago came one such moment: the train-bombs in Spain and then the response of the Spanish people did somewhat knock the wind out of my cricket-watching mechanism.
It’s unlikely that too many of the millions who gathered to mourn the atrocities in Spain will have heard of Gandhi or ahimsa or satyagraha, but their response in gathering en masse and raising their palms to the sky was something the old man would have been proud of. The Spanish then had a second, non-violent, but equally earth-shaking response to follow the first, when they emphatically voted out Aznar’s war-mongering government.
Many commentators here, and especially in the States, insist on seeing this Spanish vote as playing into the hands of the terrorists, as a positive “score” for the perpetrators of the killings, as an “appeasement” of Islamic fundamentalism. In this, I don’t think they could be more pitifully wrong. My guess is the response the terrorists most desired was to see mobs rampaging into Muslim neighbourhoods, for the world to see an anti-Muslim pogrom unfold, first in Spain, and then across Europe. What the murderers would have loved is to see something in fact a bit like another response to another atrocity on a train — a bit like what happened in Gujarat. These bombs were meant to smash Spain into a Right turn but their result was the exact opposite. If I was one of the planners of the Madrid blasts, that gathering of quiet millions across Spanish cities, that simple rain-forest of raised hands would terrify me far more than anything, just as a child’s face rudimentarily painted with the Pakistani and Indian flags might briefly rob many of our homegrown butchers of their sleep and dreams.