This is the fourth part of an epic that has its beginnings shrouded in the mists of time. Or to be more precise, four posts earlier. Please read them before you peruse through this
There was a stunned silence as the truth sunk in, after which a couple of able bodied blokes dragged Mahendran over to where the rest of the team stood fuming.
Surendra Babu screamed, ‘Why the **** did you not tell any of us about this, you [replace with a hundred choice expletives]?’
‘ I thought it could be a, you know, surprise for you, guys…I was sure we would bowl them out quickly!’, said that prince among thieves.
‘You…yOU…thought so….YOU WERE SURE! And you bloody gave some sixty runs away in your five overs!!!’, sputtered Surendra Babu.
I felt it was rather unfair of Surendra Babu to blame Mahendran thus, for he had given away only 55 runs and not 60. I decided with immense tact not to correct him because I decided silence would be prudent at that moment.
Surendra Babu was in a quandary. He scratched a thoughtful chin, deliberating on whether to punch Mahendran in the face and send him home wailing, or to get on with the game.
A respectful hush descended upon those assembled at the sight of the great man cogitating. After a few seconds of deliberation, he decided upon the latter. He would need everybody, even rogues like Mahendran, to bat if he had to win the match. And besides, when we lost, being a proponent of the Scrooge McDuck School of Economics, Surendra Babu wanted Mahendran around to pay Surendra Babu’s share.
As three ‘senior members’ decided upon the batting order, I saw them throw a glance at me - a dashing figure in my ‘keeping pads - and raise their eyes to the heavens. They went into a huddle. Surendra Babu came out of the huddle and told me to open the batting.
I was astonished, shocked and a hundred other synonyms, if you know what I mean.
Surendra Babu was the kind of player who nursed a healthy disrespect for things like coaching manuals, playing along the line of the ball and stroking the ball along the ground. He was a firm believer in the efficacy of the cross batted heave and scoffed at everything else. I, on the other hand, had been scared at a young age by a heavy handed coach into never playing a shot in the air. And as far as cross-batted shots went, playing them was an even greater sin! The last time I had dared to play one, my coach almost dismembered me with a sturdy cricket bat. I did not ask the rationale behind their (obviously sensible) decision, lest they change their mind.
‘Coo, thanks…’, I sputtered.
I walked in with Radhakrishnan who was a legend among the patrons of the ‘chapatti’ shot – a cross-batted swipe that cut a heavy swathe in the air two times out of three and sent the ball sailing into the fence the other time. As I left, Surendra Babu told me tersely,
‘ If you ****ing defend one delivery…one teeny, weeny delivery… I will personally throw you into the well near the vice-principal’s quarters!’
I shuddered. I knew Surendra Babu was capable of all that and worse.
As I walked in, Sanjay Anand made a few disparaging remarks, in keeping with tradition. He once told me that great captains like Steve Waugh and himself often make such comments to keep the morale of the team high. Though he refused to let me in on how exactly a verbal barrage at the batsman kept the morale of his team high, I guess there was something in it – mysterious are the ways of great captains, I guess…
As usual, Sanjay Anand was the opening bowler. I liked Sanjay Anand’s bowling. He preferred to bowl either full tosses or deliveries he euphemistically called bouncers – they rarely bounced above waist level. That made things easy for a batsman like me.
I fended his first delivery off. I heard Surendra Babu turn the air blue in righteous anger. The next delivery was a Sanjay Anand bouncer, wide outside the off-stump. I played the only shot I could play well, the square cut. And the ball actually rushed to the boundary. I distinctly remember seeing Surendra Babu rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
The next delivery was Sanjay Anand’s other stock delivery – the gentle full toss. I turned the ball onto the legside and ran two runs. Surendra Babu wasn’t visible, then – and I suspected for a moment that he had passed out in disbelief. After ensuring that our great leader was still among those standing, I turned to face the next delivery.
For the next few overs, I did my best to give the strike to Radhakrishnan who did not feel in the least inhibited when playing cross-batted shots. We were well on course at the end of nine overs, with a score a healthy 70, to which I had contributed 23, which was by far the highest score I had ever scored in one of these encounters. Surendra Babu had thrown abuses, stones and other miscellany at me (‘dai t****** p*****, defend pannadei... vettiduvein!’) just six times in the last nine overs – good going, considering the general volatility of Surendra Babu’s temper at that time, and his complete lack of trust in my batting skill.
It was then that Jalandhar Singh came on. I felt a rare surge of adrenalin and decided to hit him into submission to make up for dropping that catch! I swung the bat wildly at the first delivery. I managed to take a top edge which went flying up straight into the hands of Jalandhar.
The next few overs seemed to have sealed the fate of our team as we lost four wickets for just eleven runs. Soon, it came to a point at which we needed another seventy five runs in the remaining eight overs. Then, the teams decided to call for a drinks break.
It was then that Mahendran propounded his idea to me. He told me that Amit’s position as an umpire was a gift from God himself. I soon realized the portent of what he was saying. Amit, being the proverbial bad apple, would be easier to bribe than Mohammed Azharuddin. However, my sense of fair play pricked at the thought of bribing a match official. I apprised him of my conscientious objections, and also worried aloud as to whether we would be booked under the ICC.
Mahendran gave a short bark, which I interpreted to be a sarcastic laugh.
‘Okay! Let’s go by your rules! Do you have fifty rupees to pay your share if we lose the match?’
I winced. It had been a long time since I had last seen Mahatma Gandhi’s benign face smiling down at me from his position of pride right next to the signature of the RBI governor. This held true irrespective of the denomination of the note. A 50 rupee note seemed to me a particular distant dream. And I shuddered to think of what would happen to the Warrier soul (or more importantly, the corporeal self of the Warrier), if I informed Surendra Babu of my inability to pay.
I arrived at a decision.
‘Let’s do it!’, I said.
Upon this, Mahendran strode purposefully to Amit and told him,
‘We can’t afford to lose this match…’
‘If you can’t, then win it!’, said Amit slyly for he realized where the conversation was heading. He knew we were about to violate the code that had made the gentleman’s game what it is today by bribing a match official. And he didn’t seem to particularly mind that. Amit, unfettered by scruples as he was, was indeed a gift from the heavens.
‘You know, those Pepsi Blue Bottles with Ajay Jadeja’s face on them are rarer than an intelligent remark from Siddhu here!’, said Mahendran rather uncharitably.
Amit laughed, a guffaw eerily reminiscent of the devil in the Exorcist. (or am I thinking of the Real Adventures of Jonny Quest?).
‘Pepsi bottle …!!!’, he spat, and went on to describe in graphic detail his views on Pepsi bottles with Jadeja’s photos on them, and what he thought Mahendran could do with the Pepsi bottle. It was extremely unpleasant for one of my refined sensibilities to tolerate. But Amit was in the driver’s seat, and I could do little but laugh with the boor.
‘What do you want?’, said Mahendran simply.
Amit jumped at the opportunity.
‘One beer – that’s all!’, said the brazen mercenary and stood there, an ugly smile plastered on his face.
To say that Mahendran and I reeled would be to understate it entirely. Being the sweet, innocent kids that we were, we lived under the delusion that the consumption of alcoholic beverages was restricted to the dregs of society. (A delusion we were cured of in later life). Though neither of us thought very highly of Amit, we hadn’t expected him to plumb the depths as quickly as this. But the man had to be humoured, and both of us realized that. We threw a conspirational glance at each other and Mahendran answered quickly.
‘If you do as we wish you to and ensure the trophy is ours - a beaker full of the warm South, full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple-stainèd mouth will be all yours.’, said Mahendra almost lyrically. Mahendra was the kind of bloke who thought of himself as a modern day Jeeves. He buried himself in dull books of poetry written by such hardened criminals as Shakespeare, Milton and Keats and tried to use quotations from their works as often as possible.
But the poetry was wasted on Amit. Being a person with a single digit IQ, he was incapable of understanding cryptic sentences such as those Mahendran had been displaying a penchant for. He bristled visibly, and said rather violently,
‘Dai, I don’t want any of this shit you offer me. Beer is what I want, and beer is what I better get! No beer, no deal…’, said he, contributing his bit of doggerel to the conversation – the conversation began to take the aspect of a kavi sammelan.
‘Indeed, but that was just what the poet Keats had to say on the topic in Ode to a Nightingale.’, said Mahendran, ever the intellectual.
When Amit began to speak frankly on what he thought of the poet Keat’s (and Mahendran’s) ancestry, I realized that the conversation appeared to be heading towards fistcuffs.
I decided to intervene. I told Amit in simple, almost pidgin, English,
“See, Amit … No balls, wides, all you give nicely, especially when batsman out…then you get nice cold beer bottle. You open you drink and then you hit wife, do what you want–not my problem. I am making myself suitably clear?”
Amit’s face lit up visibly. He agreed after arguing a bit on how he couldn’t possibly hit his wife because he didn’t have one and how it would be impossible for him to call a wide when the batsman was out. After shaking on the deal and refusing Amit money in advance, we walked away, leaving Amit dreaming sweet dreams about the alcohol that he would soon down.
Sanjay Anand waved his players onto the field imperiously as he walked his way to mid-on – his fielding position of choice, for it offered him an untrammeled opportunity to advise bowlers on the ‘finer aspects of the fine art of bowling’.
Jalandhar tossed the tennis ball up and down and glared balefully at the batsman on strike. Amit settled himself in behind the stumps. Mahendran and I crossed our fingers and prayed. Hard!
Does Amit prove himself as adept at malpractice on the cricket field as in the classroom? Will Mahendran have to make the long, arduous journey to the wine shop at the end of the match? Or will he make the longer, more painful journey to the bottom of the well near the vice-principal’s office? All this and more tomorrow, same place same time!