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October 29, 1997


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Amrit Mathur

Cricket, the perception runs, is a game of glitz and instant glamour. Of instant stardom, and unbelievable riches. And when they look for an exemplar for that perception, they point to the likes of Sachin Tendulkar.

Reality, though, is vastly different. Cricket is actually about ceaseless toil and endless hours of work -- all towards a rather uncertain end. What we tend to overlook, at times, is that despite millions of people trying to get into the side, only eleven make it, while the rest are forgotten.

The reason for this glitzy image cricket has is easy enough to understand -- the mega events organised with huge opening ceremonies and celebrities lining up to shake the hand of the stars, the millions spent on laser shows and live telecasts, are all tailored to feed the hype.

In our country, cricket is the enduring passion, a sport that is both hobby and religion, whose prime position is maintained by incessant media attention. And in all this celebration, one day matches are the irresistible ingredient, because they generate incredible hysteria. Simply because it is instant, exciting, easy to comprehend (simple equations of so many runs per so many balls apply).

To encounter the real face of cricket, though, one needs to watch a Ranji Trophy game. This is first class cricket. The national championship, the solid base on which rests the national team. The striking thing about such cricket is that it lacks tamasha, the fizz is absent, there is no artificial excitement -- and that is not inappropriate, because this is serious business, where the professionals are at work.

When Rajasthan played Vidharba at Jaipur, the proceedings had a somewhat impoverished look, the match resembled a club contest somewhere deep in the desert. The players sat in a tattered shamiana, spectators, numbering all of one hundred, sat in the sun, scorers operated from a makeshift tent, there was no proper toilet, scoreboard or dining area. And not even Pepsi, officially the sponsors of the tournament, showed much interest -- there was not one single banner to be seen.

The chief interest in the game was on account of the duel between two seasoned warriors, Lalchand Rajput and Pravind Amre, captaining the respective sides despite being imported professionals. Both are crusty pros who learnt their trade in the ultimate cricket institute -- the maidans of Bombay. There, hundreds of kids jostle to play, ten matches are carried on simultaneously within the same ground.

Rajput and Amre have both been mobile, hop-step-jumping from one Ranji side to the other. Rajput shifted to Assam before landing in Nagpur, Amre's route was Bombay-Railways-Rajasthan-Bengal (where after a string of poor scores he was dropped) before coming back to Rajasthan.

While Rajput and Amre are similar in some ways, in others their outlook is entirely different. Rajput is a true pro, playing not just for personal satisfaction but for money. Cricket for him is a job where, apart from the bowler, you fight advancing age, creaking bones, family pressures. It is a hard world, nobody does you a favour, as a contracted pro you deliver, or you are out.

Amre is hopping around like an agitated monkey, not for money but for a mauka, a chance. He seeks better prospects, searches desperately for one final chance to return to Test cricket. He started in dazzling style, scoring a Test century on debut in Durban on a dodgy track, but thereafter his career floundered. Now he is a struggling performer looking for a platform to parade his skills and attract the attention of selectors. Central Zone, that way, is the ideal place -- competition for batting places is none too intense, bowling is more often than not friendly as juicy half volleys are the norm and scoring runs is relatively easy.

The Rajasthan-Vidharbha game produced fairly ordinary cricket as the wicket was a bit moist and the ball was moving around. Inept batsmen found themselves in all kinds of trouble against some steady, though hardly lethal, medium pace. Several players appeared out of their depth in Ranji, pretenders who gave the impression that they had landed at the wrong party by mistake.

Amre adjusted skilfully. Realising that the wicket wasn't trustworthy, he decided on assault, not occupation, and shifted into top gear to smash a century. In the past, Amre was a sedate, solid, careful player who would wait hours for a loose ball. Now he leaves patience behind in the dressing room, and gets after the bowling with the ferocity of a hungry hound pouncing on a piece of meat. The problem with Gagan is that he is Jaipur-based. Jaipur has no cricket whatsoever, and without support, he is left to train (he works on a schedule devised by Ali Irani) and to knock balls in a cricket academy run by father in law Hemendra Surana, a former Rajasthan/Services player. The bowling machine at the academy is a huge help -- facing balls at 120 kmph sharpens reflexes, more so when the bounce is unpredictable. The ball also swings crazily, and if the batsman is even a shade slow, he gets knocked.

Gagan is working seriously on his fielding. Azhar apparently has been very helpful to him in this, he advised Gagan on the finer points of close catching. Which is all very well, of course, but standing at silly point to Jayasuriya requires much more than technical competence -- with the Sri Lankan giving the ball an almighty whack, a large insurance policy is basic protection.

As a fringe player, Gagan had little to do but look interested, remain busy in the dressing room and treat the whole thing as a valuable learning experience. The poor chap hardly playyed a game, even opportunities for a decent net were woefully limited. On a short tour, with the Tests and ODIs squeezed into a very tight schedule, only the regulars play regularly.

Actually, Gagan's plight was no different than that of W V Raman, who on an earlier trip to Sri Lanka did not play a single innings. After a tour of 40 days duration, thus, a player picked for his batting returned without ever having reached the batting crease!

Amrit Mathur

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