Invitation to a voyage


Last chukka

Controversy about the actions of bowlers has been a part of cricket�s history. In the early stages of the game, when it had not moved beyond the village green and outside the patronage of the local squire and the parson, bowlers were called for throwing when they raised their hands above the waist and later above the shoulder. But even after the over arm revolution of 1864, throwing controversies continued to haunt the game. In 1885, in a celebrated incident of the time, Lord Harris of Kent advised his county not to play the return match against Lancashire because the actions of two Lancashire bowlers were suspect. In the modern era, what came to be known as the �chucking controversy�� became headline news in the 1960 English season. That summer, the South African G.M.Griffin and 10 other bowlers were called for throwing. This episode forced the M.C.C. to take cognizance of the matter and umpires were instructed to take firm action against offenders. The Imperial Cricket Conference, as it was then called, added a note to the no ball rule in an attempt to define what constituted throwing. In recent years, the controversy has come back again with charges of chucking being levelled against M. Muralitharan, Rajesh Chauhan and Shoaib Akhtar.

There are aspects to this controversy which are not being considered. First, if bowlers of previous eras had been put under the scrutiny which technology now permits, some of them would not have passed the test. Second, the law is not clear about what constitutes a �bent elbow��. The note to Law 24 states, �A ball shall be deemed to have been thrown if, in the opinion of either umpire, the process of straightening the bowling arm, whether it be partial or complete, takes place during that part of the delivery swing which directly precedes the ball leaving the hand. This definition shall not debar a bowler from the use of the wrist in the delivery swing.� This leaves open an enormous room of interpretation, and opinion about a bowler�s action is bound to vary from umpire to umpire. It is also important to remember that bowlers labelled �chuckers�� do not throw every single delivery. Some times the bowlers themselves are unaware that they are throwing the odd one. These ambiguities suggest that there exists a strong case to obliterate the term chucker from the cricket lexicon. There should be nothing called a suspect action.

One fallout of such a step would be to make the game difficult for batsmen. Most of the changes that have been introduced have served to make things easier for batsmen: the front foot no ball rule, protective gear, restrictions on field placings on the leg side, restrictions on the number of bumpers per over and so on. This one-sidedness has made the game boring. The balance should be restored. Cricket fundamentalists will no doubt call outlandish the proposal to remove the law on throwing. But they should pause to consider that none of the finer aspects of bowling � the swing, the googly, the chinaman, the floater, Saqlain Mushtaq�s doosra � can be delivered with a bent arm. Those bowlers who prefer to bowl with a bent elbow will be left with just pace in their armoury. No good batsman is worried about pace. He is worried about what the ball does.

Tradition and cricket are supposed to be inseparable. Hence the myth about cricket being a way of life rather than a mere game. There is a need to acknowledge that this is a myth. The reality is that cricket is now no more than a game. It has ceased to be a gentleman�s pastime. Things which were thought to be not cricket have become part of the game. The occasional quick ball delivered with a bent elbow should become as acceptable as coloured clothes, white balls, sledging, high fives and lights. If over 100 years umpires have not reached a consensus on what throwing is, they never will. The only option is to remove the evil by not thinking of it as an evil.    

These last days of the century were days of sleeplessness, and of disasters, both real and simulated ones. (The last days: only the other morning I heard a commentator refer to the �old-fashioned� caps that Australian cricketers wore in the �last century�, and wondered, after a few seconds, if it was the 20th century he was speaking of.) One saw the Indian Airlines flight land, and take off, and land again; the lights winking in its wing and tail reminded me of journeys made in and since childhood.

It is an airline that has no mascot like the Maharajah; it doesn�t even have a compelling logo; and, with other, better airlines now available on the domestic route, Indian Airlines is like an old word in a dead or little used language. Few protagonists more unlikely than it could have emerged, to occupy our attention, at the end of the millennium. A great, heavy miasma of waiting surrounded IC 814.

We do not associate Indian Airlines flights with the long haul and insomnia of intercontinental routes; they are anything between half an hour to two and a half hours long, and can be brief as a one act play or a feature film. Their interiors have less to do with the profound currents than with the banal accessories of human life: cotton wool for ear-plugs, plastic knives and forks, tea, coffee, peas pulao. What could be a less satisfying and, on the other hand, more apposite emblem for the end of a millennium than a view of the edge of a runway, that little significant piece of waste land we never look at before the plane takes off?

There were those who tried hard to give the event an air of simulatedness, and borrowed from the lay vocabulary of theatre in doing so. Apparently one of General Musharraf�s earliest remarks was that the hijack was an �Indian drama�; and former foreign secretaries gathered on chairs in a PTV studio observed, at least towards the beginning, that the whole thing had been �stage-managed�. Later, obstinately sceptical Indians on Star News accused the taliban, in their show of compassion, as they filled mineral water bottles with water, of �putting on an act�.

On another channel, a disaster that truly was simulated, oxymoron-like though that might sound, had been unravelling; Star Plus had promised to show its viewers Titanic. All week, as the hijacking protracted itself, and as we stared at the frozen images of the Indian Airlines plane on the tarmac, Star Plus flashed clips of the impending disaster involving a vessel more famous than IC 814, which we would all be able to partake of on the night of the 31st. Much planning seemed to have gone into the making of the film; the title itself was the outcome of considerable thought; �the� of �the Titanic� had been the first casualty, and thrown overboard, turning the title into an adjective, or a special kind of noun.

Just as the pictures of the hijacked aircraft were repeated again and again, the sinking of the Titanic was shown twice on television in the last days of 1999, once on Star Plus, and once, a few days earlier, probably on Christmas day, on a home-grown cable channel. I�d never seen the film before; yet, as I prepared to go out in the evening on Christmas day, I saw, by accident, while switching channels, the depiction of a more momentous accident, as the ship tilted to one side, and water flowed in through the port-holes. These were roughly the last twenty minutes of the film.

One couldn�t help noticing the film had an astonishingly tacky, cut-and-paste air about it. Its preoccupations seemed not so much the mythic themes of death and love and separation, enacted in the lives of the doomed passengers, and echoed in the story being shown elsewhere daily on Zee and Star News, as the manufacturedness of the ship, and, indeed, the disaster, itself: its assemblage from its different parts by set designers and computer technicians, and the way the North Atlantic ocean had been created inside a studio. Everything � the sky, the decks, the water � seemed to belong inside a studio, as in the early days of Hollywood, except that many of the effects would have been achieved on a computer � which, increasingly, has become the studio of the contemporary artist.

In Kandahar, the plane refused to take off from the tarmac;here, the ship tilted so it stood upright in the ocean, tall as Sear�s tower; people hung from the railings; the hero and the heroine, who�d had the foresight and luck to be on the right side of the sinking ship, lay recumbent on the topmost railings, not far from heaven. In contrast, the swimmers, down below, seemed to be flailing, when seen in close-up, in a large swimming pool. The first class passengers, on their boats in another part of the swimming pool, stared gravely at the toy ship sinking in the distance.

The studio atmosphere of artificiality and enclosedness meant that, even in the presence of the elements, of water and sky, one was reminded of the interior of the hijacked aircraft and a sense of imprisonment; and yet it also gave those scenes from the film the buried feel of the first printed stories we read. It was as if a theme of epic proportions had been rewritten in Disneyland.

At about six or seven o�clock on New Year�s Eve, it was heard that the hostages had been released in exchange for three militants, and that the hijackers were free. I suppose this piece of news must have brought a modicum of relief to the celebrations, and also an element of ambiguity; what, now that such a debatable deal had been struck and executed by some masked men and a nation, had we exactly gained or lost in all those hours on the tarmac?

Rupen Katyal was dead; yet there is a strange sanguinity about the popular art of films such as Titanic, as we watch the drowning passengers flail about in the shallows, in that we are sure the actors will get up and dry themselves once the shot is over. Tragic art gives us the pleasure of catharsis; real tragedy gives us none; but popular art gives us elements of banal, recyclable material that will never be completely lost to us, but surface repeatedly.

As the 20th century ended, revellers on Park Street saw the Titanic go under on a giant Samsung screen, and then witnessed its paradisial and digital resurrection, as the aged actress, supposedly Kate Winslett grown old, dreams of it before she sleeps, or dies. So the year 2000 was born in Calcutta. In the last two years, I have seen the Titanic resurface from the depths in the most unexpected places; on the back of state transport buses on Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, where it appears intact and still afloat; and I have heard it was spotted at not a few Puja pandals.

Perhaps the stranded IC 814 will also reappear, in spite of the time lag, in the Puja lights in the coming year. It will have become banal and lost the weight of its tragedy; but the lighting artistes during the Pujas are adept at recording, and illuminating, in both senses of the word, the clutter of sensory and informational data that inhabits our psyche and existence, and which our conscious mind cannot always accommodate and often rejects. Will there be anything we know of the bygone century beyond these immense, or trivial, inventions?    


Sickle denies hammering

Sir � The decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to overhaul its �outdated� party programme is merely a move to appease the rebels from West Bengal within the party (�CPM awaits feedback for overhaul�, Jan 5). Even while these rebels are about to be served show cause notices, the party is making moves towards giving in to their demands. These are all actions of a party in the throes of extinction. The need for inner party democracy was never felt so urgently. As a saving grace, the West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu, announced the date for finalizing the draft of his party�s new programme. Basu must realize that a dose of oxygen can hardly revive the terminally ill.

Yours faithfully,
Binayendra Mitra, Burdwan

Hills in turmoil

Sir � Is it necessary to continue to recruit Nepalese nationals into the Indian army, especially since unemployment is widespread among the Indian Gurkha community? The British were the ones to start this tradition of recruiting Nepalese Gurkhas into the British Indian army. They were clever enough to realize a separate armed force of Nepalese subjects was a handy tool against native uprisings elsewhere. The Gurkhas were deployed during the 1857 sepoy uprising and the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. No one could question the loyalty of these Nepalese mercenaries to their master, whoever he might be.

This was proved during the 1947 communal riots when Nepalese soldiers were deployed by the home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. They displayed exemplary loyalty to their new masters. Even after 1947, the British were interested in the Gurkha regiments and retained two battalions each of the second, sixth, seventh and 10th Gurkha regiments out of the total 10. Even today there is need to maintain such brave soldiers in the Indian army. But the recruitment policy must be reviewed, so that eligible Indian Gurkhas can replace foreign mercenaries.

Yours faithfully,
Jogendra Basnet, Sikkim

Sir � The security forces� inference that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Izak-Muivah) has extended its zone of operations to places outside Nagaland, like the Barak Valley and Tripura, under cover of the cease fire in Nagaland is not wholly true. First, the NSCN(IM)�s claims that it wants to bring all areas inhabited by Nagas under the ceasefire area sounds as if it wants to make the Indian government concede this territory to it. Second, the NSCN(IM) has demanded approximately three-fourths of the north Cachar hill district which is primarily inhabited by the Dimasas. Nagas cannot operate there or live peacefully without the cooperation of the Dimasa people. Possibly the Dimasa have been led to understand that in lieu of the territory in the north Cachar hills they will be compensated for in their ancestral kingdom of Cachari raj.

Yours faithfully,
S. Roy Choudhury, Birati

Sir � A huge hoarding in the heart of Guwahati exhorts the public to buy The Telegraph because it carries a lot of information on books. But the �Books� page seems to have disappeared altogether from the Northeast edition of the newspaper. Instead, one is confronted with a full-page inane advertisement. To make matters worse, there is a an arts review section appearing every week dealing with cultural events in Calcutta. The Telegraph�s extensive readership in the Northeast is just not interested in Calcutta. Also, films are reviewed a whole week after their release.

Yours faithfully,
Prodipto Sanker Guha, Guwahati

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