Growing up in those times, especially in a city like Bombay, with its rich tradition of batsmanship, you almost felt the pressure of needing to be a batsman. Like pretty much every boy who wants to play cricket, I loved batting. If there is a god somewhere and he likes a game of cricket, I’m fairly certain he would bat all the time. Some of his minions would be asked to bowl, and they would pick the worst offenders from hell to field.
Was I a bit cuckoo, then, that I wanted to be a fast bowler? And not just a seam bowler, mind you, but a fast bowler. I wanted to have a long run-up with the wind behind my back and bowl fast and hostile spells that would have the batsman hopping around.
I wanted to bowl mean bouncers and fast yorkers and perfectly disguised slower ones. Inasmuch as I loved Sachin and worshipped the ground that he trod on, my favourite cricketer was Wasim Akram. I remember facing a conundrum of religious proportions around this time. I had a limited amount of real estate space in my room and if I wanted to adorn the most vaunted spot within that space with a hero I completely identified with, I would have had to do something unthinkable.
Could I really take down a poster of the great Sachin Tendulkar – pride of the Marathi manus – and replace it with a poster of Wasim Akram?
Not only was he not a member of the great hall of fame of batsmanship from Bombay, he was a fast bowler and a Pakistani to boot. I can confess this now – I did just that. I just had to.
While the stereotypical bowler is one of a less intelligent life form (compared to batsmen anyway) and needs to be controlled at all times, Wasim Akram totally bucked that trend. I felt like he was one of the more intelligent fast bowlers to have ever played the game, and, being the brainy type, this was something that I could relate to. Of course, Wasim wasn’t just all about intelligence, now, was he? He was over six feet tall and I was barely five feet. He was strong and well built, and I was slightly pudgy and prone to losing my breath pretty quickly.
Which brings us to a subject that I’ve only briefly alluded to, thus far.
I suppose it’s time to paint the full picture of my nearly-twelve-year-old self. Before you snigger away, please remember that most unkind picture of you that’s stashed somewhere in an old box, and be kind. As I have mentioned before, our class was below average as far as height was concerned and I was at least a head shorter than you’d expect someone my age to be. Add to that the fact that I was thicker at the waistline than I’d have liked to be. It definitely did not make for a picture of athleticism.
Moreover, an acne-ridden visage and tidy hair meant that most people assumed that I had strayed onto the cricket field whilst actually looking for the science club. One of my maternal aunts once gave me a back-handed compliment, saying that I would have probably been a pretty girl due to my round eyes and dimpled chin, albeit a fat one. She wasn’t my favourite aunt, needless to say.
I was determined to prove everyone wrong. Cricket has had a long, proud history of utterly unathletic-looking players going on to do (somewhat) great things, and Indian cricket has a few we can call our own. Right from Dilip Doshi all the way to Ramesh Powar, we’ve had a few examples of cricketers who looked as fit as a cuddly bear.
None of my physical, shall we say, imperfections, stopped me from imagining running and bowling like Wasim Akram.
Also, there is an important distinction to be made here. The fastest Indian bowler (Srinath, at the time) was still considered fast medium, or worse still, medium fast. I did not want any trace of the word “medium” next to my name. I wanted to be a fast bowler. Left arm fast. Was I fanciful, and maybe just plain stupid to have such dreams? Perhaps.
Due to these ambitions, I really yearned to play at the school grounds as much as possible. That meant no restriction in space, and it allowed us to take an extended run-up. I knew that a lot of my teammates poked fun at me for the length of my run-up and the lack of pace on the ball at the end of my efforts. But I wasn’t willing to give up on my long run-up. To me, that was the essence of being a fast bowler. On one such day when we were lucky enough to get to a spot on the ground before anyone else, I went through something that I won’t forget in a hurry. Unfortunately, it didn’t have anything to do with bowling.
We were fielding first in one of these games, and the captain asked me to go field at long on. I was happy about that for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t expect the ball to come in my direction too much, because, in these kind of encounters, the good old-fashioned mow towards cow corner tended to be employed most often and the fielders at deep square leg and deep midwicket used to be kept the busiest. Secondly, that was a shady spot out of the evening sun and I expected a few quiet overs before it was my turn to go roll my arm over. How wrong I was!
In the second over itself, the batsman felt like he needed to liven up proceedings and decided to try and hit one as far as he could. Granted that the exploits of my fielding were unlikely to ever make their way into a Bollywood movie, I wasn’t Mr Butter Fingers either. But something just happened that day that took all of the confidence inside me, threw it really high and proceeded to drop it. Because no matter what I did, I found that I was unable to take a catch.
Anyone who has played any kind of cricket at all will be able to relate to the feeling of general dread that a below-average fielder faces when the ball is hit in the air in their direction. While the Azhars and Kapils of this world, who have a natural predilection towards that kind of thing, may not concur, this feeling of dread grabs me by the collar and refuses to let go. My first instinct was to always look around to see if someone else wanted to claim the catch. I’d have been perfectly happy to play the gentleman in that situation. However, there was no one else in my vicinity on that fateful day. Memories of the fiasco of the missed catch when I was fielding with Gopal came rushing to mind. I was finally able to blank all that out of my head when I realised that the ball was on its way downwards, directly at me.
Excerpted with permission from Medium Fast and Furious, Rahul Oak, illustrated by Ajit Narayan, Scholastic.