“… We the noble warriors of the ‘Righteous Intrepid Daring Independent Cricket Union League Of United States’, consisting wholly and exclusively of persons working at the US Consulate in Calcutta, do CHALLENGE you and your staff to a cricket match of 25 overs each, with the winner to lord it gloriously over the loser for at least a fortnight… I challenge you sir! Ignore this at your peril!”
Fighting words from George N. Sibley, US consul-general, addressed to Paul Walsh, deputy head of mission, at the British deputy high commission, Calcutta. Especially when ‘the challenger’ — and captain of Team Ridiculous (Righteous, Intrepid…) — has tried his hand at cricket just once (“with generally disastrous results”) earlier this month, on the Maidan.
The response to the high-pitched American challenge was typically British in its terseness: “Challenge accepted”. So, the war allies in the Gulf will battle it out with bat and ball on a Calcutta pitch, kept under cover due to security reasons, next month.
Paul Walsh did admit that Friday’s cricket cry, from a few blocks down Ho Chi Minh Sarani, had come as “a shock”. “The letter was so funny and the tone was so absolutely impertinent (urging the Brits to prove they were not the “pusillanimous knaves” they were reputed to be) that I accepted the challenge within two minutes,” smiled the seniormost British official in Calcutta, who idolises Ian Botham and Viv Richards. “We can assure the Americans that we are taking the match very seriously and will start intensive training from this evening, in a local pub!”
If the nature of their ‘nets’ and the ache-and-pain aftermath are anything to go by, the Americans will have to do much more than that. “I had played a bit of baseball in my distant youth and I must admit that cricket was far tougher than we had imagined,” revealed Sibley, the day he “performed the ultimate impertinence” of challenging the British to a game of cricket.
“Bowling has nothing to do with baseball and I ended up throwing the ball all over the place. Batting was slightly better, as the basic hand-eye co-ordination is more similar to baseball, while fielding and throwing proved to be the easiest,” added the US consul-general, admitting that there would not be more than “two or three” Americans in the final flanelled XI. The British office will also depend heavily on its Indian staff, with only three or four from the land that “taught the world cricket” making the cut.
But what made the baseball brigade make a pitch for the cricket pitch' The sporting snigger goes that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘unconditional’ support to President George W. Bush actually came with a condition: that the Americans start playing cricket. There is no confirmation of this from the White House or Whitehall.
Sibley, meanwhile, says: “Ever since I came to Calcutta in July 2002, I have been interested in learning something about cricket. And though I still find Test matches perplexing, I have been watching a lot of One-Day matches.”
Enough to name Sachin Tendulkar as his “favourite cricketer” and express “disappointment” over the way India (who he is “definitely rooting for”) lost to Australia.
The final push to form a team and “throw down the gauntlet” comes amidst the “huge hype in Calcutta over the World Cup”. So, war clouds willing, the consulate set up in 1792 will pad up for a whole new ball game.
And all the pressure will be on the British. As Sibley summed up: “For once, we are the underdogs and happy to be so.”