Suresh Menon pays for his ticket, forgoes hoards of stuff from book to fingernails to win the trust of a security guard, and watches pandemonium descend as Sachin waves to a crowd of run-thirsty fans at the recent Test match in Chennai.
The first Test I remember watching fully was the one between India and the West Indies in Bangalore in 1974-75. I paid Rs.100 for a Rs.80 ticket, sat behind extra cover and marvelled at Alvin Kallicharan, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd. The last time I paid was probably a couple of years later. In the 1980s, as a sports writer, I began to receive free passes. For three decades, I haven’t paid to watch cricket.
Now here I was in Chennai, far from the air-conditioned confines of the media box, away from the plush sofas of the special enclosures and among the paying public on the terrace, among the flag-wavers and noise-makers.
The mathematician G.H. Hardy always carried his work to a cricket match. This was to trick god into ensuring a full day’s play thus: god, presuming Hardy had come prepared to work in case of rain, would deprive him of the chance by keeping the skies clear. Impressed by this story as a child, I always carry a book. But the security at the gate probably thinks the title Between the Sheets too suggestive. It is the story of literary liaisons of the 20 century: Plath and Hughes, Doolittle and Pound, de Beauvoir and Sartre. No, I can’t carry the book in. And no, I can’t carry the bag in which I carry the book either. Have to leave the bag outside while trying to wipe from the mind’s screen the response of someone who hasn’t heard of Sartre but knows the value of Samsonite.
“You know the book can be used as a missile,” explains a guard politely before proceeding to weigh the evidence, literally.
I am on the verge of telling him I could also throw my shoes, my belt, my glasses — but check myself, as I don’t want to sit in the stadium in only my underwear. I say instead that I am a lawyer and there is nothing on the ticket that says we cannot bring in bags. He reads the small print, moving his lips occasionally.
I need to have a throwing arm like a fast bowler’s to send Between the Sheets into the playing area. A trumpet, perhaps. A flagpole, certainly. But not a book. I see trumpets in the stands, and flagpoles. Books, however, are not allowed. So it must be censorship. Can I get a television channel to go apoplectic over yet another stumbling block to the freedom of expression?
The ride to the stadium showcases the Chief Minister at every corner, wall, lamp post and hoarding. In a reversal of the Dorian Gray theme, her portrait seems to get younger and younger.
Today’s special is sambar rice at lunch — and the rule on removing the battery from the cell phone and holding it up at the security check. The laws of cricket may be strange, but nothing compared to the rules of security.
The tannoy near the gate might burst a few security ear drums today. Why don’t you use your lathi to “accidentally” knock off the wire leading to the loud speaker, I suggest. The tall cop looks wistfully at his lathi, seems to consider. But training triumphs over tantrum.
Inside, it is Sachin time again. Sacheeeeeeeeen... Sachin. Every time the ball goes in the general direction of the player, the chant is taken up. Tendulkar is informed by the delightfully interactive display screen that he is god, he is the reason people are present, that everybody wants a century from him, that there are special cheers and whistles dedicated to him, that he is cricket. No pressure at all. When he comes out to bat, we rise. Probably his last Test series, certainly his last Test in Chennai. I reported his first Test 23 years ago in Karachi. My son sitting beside me now, was a few months old. He has lived all his life secure in the knowledge that Sachin Tendulkar would take care of India. “When you retire, I will die,” says a message on the display screen. Easy to understand that.
The crowd finds a new hero, Michael Clarke. The Australian captain waves and the crowd roars; he breaks into the Gangnam (as requested by a fan) and the crowd nearly jumps off the stands in excitement. Who among you will come back tomorrow to watch Tendulkar bat, asks a fan on the screen. Up goes Clarke’s hand. He will never have to pay for a drink again in Chennai.
At breakfast, we read the news: those wearing black T-shirts were turned away from the stadium yesterday. They had come to protest against Sri Lanka or the Sri Lankan umpire who gave Clarke not out, it was unclear. By a happy coincidence, some managed to buy the Indian jerseys, which just happened to be on sale nearby. Politics and commerce, always a potent mix. My son changes out of his black T-shirt (from a concert by the rock band “Yes”) and wears a red one. We figure you can’t go wrong with red, one of the other colours of the ruling party. The stadium is a sea of red — others have had the same idea too.
Possibility of a fight breaking out. Someone has reserved seven seats — not a great idea with Tendulkar coming in to bat at 71 and seats quickly filling up. Men in checked shirts — one of them with a handkerchief tied around his neck — walk in, sit down and refuse to move. The lone protestor’s voice trails away. Life, limb and Sachin win the day.
It is Dhoni day. Poor Virat Kohli. A classy century, but overshadowed by Dhoni’s double. Much like Lloyd’s 160-plus overshadowed Kallicharan’s 124 in that Bangalore Test long ago.
No book, no bag, batteries out, hair combed, T-shirt white, teeth brushed, nails clipped, chest hair shaved — we are taking no chances. Our friend the guard commends us for following the rules. We walk in late — the Oscars and Daniel Day Lewis having taken up the morning slot. It is a hot day. Sweat buckets just walking to the top of the road. Autorickshaw overcharges, the guys in charge of Pepsi and water at the stadium over charge, and then tempt fate by handing over the drinks in paper cups with their fingers residing inside. Perhaps that is how David Warner got his tummy upset, forcing him to drop down the batting order.
Highlight of the day: the great Sachin Tendulkar finally lets his hair down and reacts to the chants with a gentle wave. Then he claps. Pandemonium. It is like having a ringside seat when God spoke to Moses.
As India bat towards victory, it is time to recall predictions made on the first day. That 250 would be a good score on this track. That the match would be over in three days. That despite having only one spinner, the fitter Australians would carry the day. Might have all come true had Michael Clarke been given out when he was on 39. But who wants inglorious certainties? Who would have guessed that Tendulkar would hit the first two deliveries he faced for sixes? Hardy’s highest term of praise was to say that someone was in the “Bradman class”. Perhaps there is a class above that. The Tendulkar Class.