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June 11, 1999

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The agony and ecstasy

Santosh Vempala

It's 3 am. I jump out of bed and switch on the little computer. Connect it to the modem, go through the routine of trying three times before I am online and type as if my life depended on it. "Who won the toss?" is the grave question in my mind. The answer comes up on my screen slowly and tantalizingly, and I smile in joy to see that the opposition's first two wickets have already fallen. Yeah!

I have never got up at 3 am so regularly. In high school, when I was preparing for the all-important engineering entrance examinations, Nanagaru (Dad) would wake me up at 4 am. It was quite an effort for both of us and we kept it up for almost a year. Since then, I sometimes longed to match the feat, especially to catch up with coursework in college, but never could manage to do it.

Until now! I don't even need an alarm. Here in Berkeley, California, 9:45 GMT is 2:45 am. I cannot watch the game on television. But this year I can hear it on the radio. I turn up the volume and turn on the stove to make some tea.

When my parents were growing up, they too would listen to cricket matches on the radio. After all, back then, they had no television. Not in Visakhapatnam, anyway. For Amma, it was an exciting match and an English lesson rolled into one!

The opposition's overrated number three batsman has struck a couple of fours and our number three bowler has responded with a couple of wides. My agony is greater than my annoyance. Couldn't he at least avoid the gifted extras?!

Today, Amma teaches English at AVN college in Vizag and has a PhD in English Literature. Nanagaru is a retired marine engineer. They still don't have a tele, but occasionally go over to our grandparents' place to catch a match. Yes, my grandparents with their car, airconditioning and real estate are much more in stride with the material world.

Meanwhile, the match is heating up. Kumble is on (finally) and appears confident. He started with three dot balls. Oh yes, for those of us with no live images, the dots take on an entirely larger character.

How did I manage you ask. A great set of friends, all with televisions, is the answer. I would show up right at the start of the match, get into the rhythm of the run-rate calculation in the course of the first innings, exult or agonise during the lunch break, which felt far too long either way, and follow the rest with bated breath and whoops of joy. Accompanied, of course, by cups of tea and sweetmeats and savories of untold delicacy.

Another wicket has fallen. To be honest, the ball was going down the legside, but such is the uncertainty of cricket. I am happy again. The match is "nicely poised" the commentator declares. Give me another two wickets and I'll think it much nicer.

Most evenings we played on the school grounds. At 4 pm we took up our fielding positions and batted and bowled our hearts out on the hard pitch. After the 10th class, I changed school and it was no longer convenient to play on the school grounds. Most of my friends were in different colleges. So our preferred playing field became the terrace of my house. It was big enough to provide an exciting game with some modified rules (hitting out was an automatic out) and my parents were accommodating enough to let us do this for almost two years. The neighbours were a different story, but we didn't let that bother us.

The opposition has scored 252. It is quite ridiculous that we should have let them do that. Agarkar is the main culprit. He top-scored with 70-odd even though he is on the bowling team. Aaghh! those extras..

In IIT Delhi, cricket life played out in the corridors and the television lounge. Many a victory was relished and as many defeats led to fierce debates. But it was only after I reached the shores of the land of opportunity that I realised what this game meant to me. After three months of the excitement of fast cars, skyscrapers, shopping malls and the general feeling of walking onto the sets of a generic Hollywood movie, I made a list of the things that I missed the most. After my family and friends, and the beaches and atmosphere of Vizag, next on the list to my surprise, was cricket.

Our innings has begun. Sachin is back home to be with his family. So Ramesh and Ganguly are opening the innings. Ganguly does time the ball sweetly on the offside. I spoke too soon. There's the first wicket. Dravid is at the crease now. I hope he keeps his customary cool.

I have never played cricket in the US of A. What kind of a fan am I, you ask. The most ardent kind. I cannot bear to play the diluted version that I would have to suffer through here. I prefer to save my treat for the times when I am at home. Each year I have managed to be home for a month and played cricket just about every morning. I estimated some time ago that on an average Sunday in Vizag there are roughly three thousand cricket games going on with at least six players in each. Most of them are played barefoot. If there is one thing that can bring joy to our corrupt politicians and lathi-weilding policemen, and to our barefoot backstreet kids and our grandparents, it is cricket.

To my dismay, Dravid is back in the pavilion. And to my anguish, Azhar has quickly followed him back. My heart will be in the vicinity of my mouth for the rest of the innings. What besides romance can be as suspenseful and anxiety inducing as this?!

After my PhD, I took up a faculty position at MIT in mathematics. I enjoy mathematical problems and to be able to do it for a living is very fortunate. After arriving in Boston, I met Rosa, a psychology student across town at Harvard University. Intelligent, passionate and beautiful from within as well as without, I was instantly drawn to her. I had heard before that cricket is a developed hobby, something that you grow up with and much like an accent is hard to "learn". This turned out to be utter nonsense. Rosa and I are now engaged, and sometimes it is she who updates me on the cricketing state of affairs. I can see the joy in her eyes when our team is on song. She must be the only Mexican to have had a sleepless night on account of the rain delayed India-England encounter. I can only be thankful for my blessings.

Ramesh and Jadeja are doing a decent job. The required run-rate is climbing but it is still within range and it is much more important to consolidate the innings. Robin Singh and Mongia are recognized batsmen so there is a buffer although it is not large enough for complacency.

It took a year for my parents to see that we were meant for each other. They were concerned at first. Was this a "heat of the moment" affair? What about language and culture? What about the children?

Six wickets have fallen now. It does not look good at all. Robin Singh and Mongia are at the crease. They seem to be batting sensibly but I cannot ignore the fear of an imminent collapse. Mongia's boundary helps quite a bit.

I had answers to all their questions. Only time can show you that we are soulmates. I speak Spanish and she is learning to read and write Telugu. Our children will be strong, honest and caring. The rest does not matter.

We are past the 200 mark now and the score does look achievable. My heart is jumping with excitement. If only, if only. I hope, I hope. But it was not to be. We got really close, thanks to Mongia and Srinath. Close is never good enough.

Sachin was back in the next match with Kenya, hit a century and ensured our victory. My dear brother Naresh said it perfectly --- it is a shame that we have to depend on him.

All that is in the past. After convincing wins against Sri Lanka and England, I am looking forward full of hope and excitement, in spite of the zero points we take into the next phase.

Oh, by the way, the wedding is on Aug 30th at 7 pm in Vizag, with my parents' blessings. You are all invited!

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