Thursday, February 24, 2011


Archibald Jackson was the only Australian cricketer who died during the infamous Bodyline series in 1933. Archie Jackson was only 23 years old, and engaged to be married when he died. Those were strange times. It all began in 1930 when England was hosting the battle for the Ashes and the great Donald Bradman scored 974 runs at a mind boggling average of 139.14 to wrest the series from the Englishmen. For the return series in Australia in 1932-33, the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) appointed a ‘gentleman’ cricketer by the name of Douglas Jardine to captain England. Jardine, a Mumbai born Scotsman, though not in the team during the 1930 Ashes series, had keenly studied the rise of the phenomenon called Bradman. He was an intensely competitive cricketer with an astute understanding of the game and had devised a plan called ‘leg theory’ to stall the Aussie juggernaut.

Central to his plan was a small wiry man who was at that time the fastest bowler in the world – Harold Larwood. Larwood, a coal miner from Nuncargate, unlike Jardine, came from a working class background. On one occasion, he bled from the nose during a morning’s game aft er having worked all night in the collieries of Annesley. Undaunted, young Harold had gone on to take a hat-trick in that match. While Jardine, many believed, played cricket with a sense of colonial snobbery and pride, Larwood was a passionate professional for whom cricket was his only way out of the mines. These two men became the central figures of the series which came to be known as Bodyline. The term was coined by an Aussie journalist to describe a method of attack where a battery of fast bowlers, led by Larwood, would aim a series of short pitched deliveries at the body with a predominantly leg-side field. Chins were cut, knuckles broken and skulls cracked open. The crowds were furious. Jardine and Larwood were mocked and abused, and were even offered police protection. But Jardine’s plans were undeniably successful, for the Don was only scoring half as many runs. He still retained a more than respectable series average of 56.57 but compared to his career average, and especially his staggering average of the previous series, the Don had finally been caught fending off the backfoot.

Archie Jackson though, was far away from the action. In the previous series, he had scored a valuable 73 as he partnered Bradman in a 243-run stand, and in 1928- 29, Archie had scored 164 runs on debut at the age of 19. At the time, and through out his brief career, Archie was spoken of in the same breath as the great Don himself. Many considered him as great a batsman, none less so than the man who was rated by Bradman himself as the greatest fast bowler he ever faced – Larwood. Larwood had tremendous respect and admiration for young Archie, ever since the moment when Archie, on 97 on debut, cracked a lightning fast delivery from Larwood to the fence to bring up his hundred. Larwood and Archie became the best of friends and the toughest of competitors. The great bowler respected Archie because even on nightmarish pitches, Archie would take a beating without fl inching and more oft en than not gave back as good as he got. But this time, Archie was’t there. Larwood, like an angry god in heaven was sending down thunder and lightning while Archie was dying of tuberculosis in a hospital bed in Brisbane. An artist with the bat, Archie was loved for his respectful and sporting behaviour on the field. Always a kind word for a ball well bowled, or a catch well taken, even if it happened to get him out, Archie had friends in both teams but dearest among them was the much maligned Larwood. As the crowds in Brisbane bayed for Larwood’s blood, 23-year-old Archie was preparing to say goodbye to it all, but there was one last thing he had to do before he died.

During the fourth day of the Brisbane Test, Larwood received a telegram “Congratulations. Magnificent bowling. Good luck – all matches, Archie Jackson.” Hours later, Archie passed away. Australia forgave Larwood and accepted him as their own, and a few years later Larwoodmade Australia his home. The telegram remained one of Larwood’s prized possessions till the day he died in 1995, aged 90. The World Cup is here, but as the battle rages, let’s not forget the lessons from Archie’s life – its just a game, played not for a cup or an urn, but to find friends and share love in return.


Friday, February 18, 2011


“There he is….,” whispered the good doctor in my ears as we stopped and I followed his gaze and that long thin finger pointing straight ahead. I peered through the trees and the bushes and saw a tall dark figure sitting on his haunches under a tree. He was looking away from us, leaning lazily against the tree. His long powerful arms were resting on his knees and those sad eyes were looking away into the distance, perhaps reflecting on the years spent on the road… years of untold agony. The wounds on his body had healed now but the memory of that festering wound, the humiliation and searing pain of being castrated while he writhed on the ground, tied to pegs that pulled him apart, and the dull gnawing ache of slow starvation had scarred him forever. He wouldn’t have been a year older than twenty and yet he seemed so old. There was great strength that still remained in his limbs but his spirit seemed to have grown weary of the world.

“Don’t make any sudden movements…”, warned the doctor. “He hasn’t gotten over the trauma of the torture. We don’t know how he might react.” I nodded as I kept staring at the hulking figure under the tree. Mesmerised by the scene, I had forgotten about my camera. Ever so slowly, I raised the camera to my eyes, took aim and pressed the shutter button, and even as I did so, I realised I had made a mistake. The muffled whirring of the camera as I shot the frame had been magnified manifold in the quiet stillness of the evening. My heart skipped a beat and the doctor’s hand gripped my shoulder in a gesture that conveyed both concern and fear. Shimmering in the fading light of a setting sun, the figure under the tree shift ed his weight slowly and turned towards the sound. His eyes seemed to search for something to focus on and found me… with a scream he lumbered towards us as if in a rage, and then just as suddenly he seemed to remember something that had been burnt into his very soul that stopped him in his tracks. He rose to his full height and that scream of anger merged into one of pain. He folded his arms and shook his head and body from side to side, gyrating to a strange rhythm – it was a grotesque dance that would have made me laugh had I not known the pain and fear that had gripped Bhola when he saw me… and realised who I was – a human being.

I stood there for long, perhaps a whole minute as I watched Bhola dance his funny dance, standing tall at more than six feet, his head moving round and round in giddying circles like a man possessed but his eyes… his eyes, they just begged and pleaded for the pain to go away… from his head.

His mother had been murdered while he was still a toddler, and he had been sold off to a master who trained him to dance in front of an audience. The punishment for not dancing on cue was terrible torture. His teeth were broken, and he had his nails pulled out. He was starved and branded with hot irons. He was emasculated, without pain-killers or medication while still very young because his master thought Bhola would be easier to control as he grew older and stronger. When Bhola saw people clapping as he danced, he wanted to rip their throats because he blamed them for his pain but his master’s presence stopped him. Th at day when he saw me, all that pent up his anger and hate erupted inside him. He wanted to strike me down and hurt me the way he had been hurt for so long but then he remembered the pain that always stopped him… the pain that would never go away unless he danced… the pain that would never go away until the day he died...

“Let’s go…”, the doctor said. “He will keep dancing as long as we stand here”. We turned to walk away but aft er a few steps I was tempted to turn and steal a glance at Bhola again. I turned just in time to see Bhola slow down when he realised we had walked away and saw him come down on all fours, take a step or two towards us, twitch his nose and then gently walk away towards the shadows. An electric wire-fence is all that separated us from that large male sloth bear but Bhola was so terrified of us humans that he would never come close… always seeking seclusion like a hermit. I had come to this bear rescue centre near Agra run by Wildlife SOS, an NGO committed to wildliferescues and anti-poaching operations seeking stirring stories of rescues and heart warming stories of the bears and their keepers. And sure, all that was there, but the most powerful memory I walked away with was the memory of Bhola dancing to drown out the pain in his heart.

Dancing bears were a common weekend sight during my days in junior school. And I loved to see them dance. The bear looked like a large cuddly dog and to see it rear up and dance was almost to see a talking animal from a fairy tale step out of the pages of a book and walk through the lanes of my childhood. At that time, I didn’t know that the bear danced because a red hot spike had been driven through it muzzle and one end of a rope was inserted into that burning hole. Th at rope ensured that the wound never healed and even the slightest tug would send the beast into paroxysms of pain. Then as the wildlife laws started being taken seriously in the cities, they moved to other towns and busy tourist highways like the ones that go to Jaipur and Agra until the eff orts of NGOs like Wildlife SOS and enforcement agencies across the country ensured the complete rehabilitation of all the Kalandhars (bear trainers who trace their family trade to the wild animal trainers of the Mughal court) and all the bears had found homes in rescue centres like the one in Agra. Th at, one hoped, had brought down the curtain on a terrible tradition and secured the future of a species for a long time to come.

But one had hoped in vain. The dancing bears were gone and no one was poaching them for the Kalandhars now and yet the sloth bear was disappearing from our forests. While the country clamoured and laboured to save the tiger in a place like Ranthambore and celebrated the slightest jump in numbers, no one noticed that the sloth bear population in the very same park had been reduced to less than 15 per cent of its original population in a little over a decade and a half. Where had the bears gone and why? I will try and answer that question next week. Meanwhile, you could go and pay Bhola a visit… but speak gently and tread soft ly. Remember, he is hurting still….


Thursday, February 10, 2011


This one’s from the trash-can of time. Written then as hopefully handy advice to make up for cheap gifts at a slew of weddings, here’s another look at some of the ‘notes from the secret diaries of a still happy husband’. Thought you might find it useful as the season of love finds its way to our shores again… especially if you happen to be on the right side of a marriage ;-)

Don’t bother reading this, because in all probability, I didn’t write these hurriedly scribbled words of advice for you. And who needs advice anyway…not you. Not unless you just got married, like two of my cousins just did. In that case, you’ll be busy climbing every tree in the vicinity hoping to find the ‘Fruit of Knowledge’, failing which, you might find every bit of advice rather useful…something to hold onto, albeit briefly – just like rocks on a shoreline that give you hope even as the high tide of holy matrimony sweeps you off your feet and into those turbulent waters. Advice, on such occasions, could be your life jacket to the future…

And why am I just the person to dispense it? Well, if I haven’t said this before, let me say it again…We, my bride and I, got married when I was 21. About as soon as I could. And yes… yes… mujhe unme Rab dikhta hai… except, of course, when she’s screaming at me for leaving my clothes on the floor and my shoes on the bed (tab unme Mom dikhti hain… and what’s worse, it’s not like Mom has stopped screaming either. The baton wasn’t passed, it just gets flung at me... in twos now!). But that isn’t the point. The point is, between all the baton ducking, we’ve managed to find our way through many a marital mire, thanks to a little luck and a lot of love. And now that ‘tis the season for sayin ‘I do’, maybe I could share my learning with those, who, like my cousins, have leapt before they could look, and help you, even as you try to smell the roses through the coffee. And even if you didn’t JUST get married, JUST pretend that you did… it’ll only help…

1. DON’T BELIEVE THAT MARRIAGE CHANGES ANYTHING FOR IT DOESN’T: Marriage doesn‘t and isn’t supposed to make you more committed, secure, responsible or keep you in love. It’s merely an announcement that two people, because they’re in love or because they believe they might learn to love, have decided to live together. The two of you have to make the marriage work; the marriage can’t work for the two of you.

Just because you’re married, don’t expect too much of each other. Pretend the marriage never happened and you’re just living-in, two souls in love, bound by nothing but love and friendship. And do keep these two bonds alive, and fresh...

2. YOUR BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING SHOULD ALSO BE YOUR OWN: Th is isn’t about community weddings and nor am I insisting that you marry whoever your best friend happens to be, irrespective of gender. All I’m saying is that you and your partner should grow up to be, if you aren’t already, the best of friends. Romance and lust are like autumn and spring – short beautiful interludes between blazing summers and freezing winters. They’ll surely return, but just as surely, they’ll disappear in the heat and dust of summers or the cold hard truths of winter. Then, what you’d need most is a friend – someone to stand by you, selflessly, without passing judgment. And if your partner can’t be your best friend, he/she will be someone else’s. You might not like that.

Above all, when you’re both old and wrinkled, your greatest joy would be to sit in a garden in the evenings with your best friend, enjoying a cup of tea, a heartfelt conversation and the beautiful sunset…

3. BEWARE OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY SYNDROME: Partners in a marriage, oft en inadvertently, become imperialists and colonisers. A husband I happen to know, I’m not going to say who, once complained bitterly about how his wife always chooses which side of the bed she’d want to sleep on. That’s cute enough but here’s what made it worse. “Whenever I get out of bed to go to the loo or for water, I’d always return to find the missus sleeping right in the middle of the bed, splayed out at such an angle that the only way I could get some sleep was by hanging on to the edge of the bed, my legs sticking out like sugarcane from one of those heavily loaded tractor trolleys you see on the highway. When I get to office, my sleepless eyes all red and puffy, colleagues elbow me in the ribs, wink and say ‘you don’t seem to be getting much sleep. Way to go, old chap.’ If only the buggers knew…”

This state of mind is rather common amongst newly married couples. The ‘bed’ incident is only a microcosm of a greater malaise. A partner might not even realise when and how he/she intrudes into the other’s space so much that things become claustrophobically dire for the other. Trying to control your partner who trusts you, inadvertently or otherwise, is akin to betrayal. Guard against this at all costs, for then the relationship dynamics and the friendship will suffer. If ever in doubt, just ask. You’re best of friends, remember…

4. LAST BUT NOT THE LEAST, THE BEDROOM BRAWL: Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking the idea of marriage must’ve been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. A man and a woman have near opposite body rhythms when it comes to ‘getting cosy’, if you’ll pardon the euphemism…You see it’s a bit like the rainsand the river. One is programmed to manifest itself in short bursts and a trifle indiscriminately while the other is programmed to stay its course, relatively speaking, and go on and on… and yet they’d die without each other. To cut a long and rather interesting story short, the bedroom offers a couple its greatest challenge because of the physiological, psychological and evolutionary differences which, once surmounted through a bit of educated understanding, could become the bedrock of the relationship. There are other more opportune platforms to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the birds and the bees, but your key words are ‘understanding, patience and passion’. Understanding would take a while coming, so meanwhile be patient and don’t let the wait dim your, or your partner’s, passion.

This isn’t the last word and you will have to swim in these waters on your own, but if this piece keeps you afloat for a while, it would’ve done its bit…Stay in love, stay together and God bless.


Thursday, February 3, 2011


The balls don’t matter for we have more than we need. But it’s poor Sreesanth. The temperamental fast bowler has been mumbling away between deliveries to all the gods that might care to listen, promising that he would be a good boy…A better than good boy, if only he could last a little while longer. There’s a deafening silence in the packed Wankhede Stadium as the tall mean Morkel, South Africa’s and this World Cup’s stingiest bowler starts off on his long gangly run towards the wicket…Sree stops mumbling and tucks his chin behind his left shoulder as he takes guard… thumps the bat into the dusty Wankhede pitch and billion hearts stop breathing as the sweaty lump of leather leaves Morkel’s hand, singes the pitch and swings away towards first slip. It’s fast and full but wide.

At the other end, the man who has been carrying the cross for daring to play god, breathes a sigh of relief… “Leave it alone, Sree… Please.”

Sree did not want to play at it. He told his body to let it go. But in a rebellious insolent corner of his head, the desire to hit it hard raised its reckless head. What pleasure it’d be to thrash this arrogant fast bowler, to put him in his place. That impetuous voice in his head grew louder, drowning out every other voice. Sree’s feet stayed rooted but his hands were drawn towards the ball like a moth to the flame. Wild wood met shy leather and the ball ballooned up towards third-man. Sree shook his head in disgust. He couldn’t bring himself to look…the players, the stadium, the country, they all held their breath as Lonwabo Tsotsobe back-pedalled in a hurry (he had been brought in to stop Sreesanth from scoring the all important single and scampering away from the firing zone). Tall though he is, Tsotsobe wasn’t tall enough for the occasion. The ball danced tantalisingly close to the outstretched hands and then like a teasing mirage floated away from the fielder and gently tripped over the ropes.

Like bubbles rising to the surface in a glass of freshly poured champagne, the stadium erupted with joy. Sreesanth was running around in circles of incredulous joy while the South Africans slumped to the ground, surrendering to the celebrations all around. They had yet again come so near, only to be left standing without the ring…the eternal best-man at his beloved’s wedding.

While the world around him whipped up a frenzied whirlpool of emotions that threatened to pull him in, resisting its pull for a few moments more, all by himself at the centre of the wicket stood that man from the other end. Looking up at the dark night sky, beyond the hot white light of the floodlights, the man whispered a silent prayer of thanks. Though they might still call him a God, the cross had finally lift ed. India had finally won the World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar was free to be a man again. He took off his helmet and smiled, more in relief than joy, and collapsed on his knees. And then a wave of blue engulfed him as his team mates hugged him in a joyous pile up.

Something tells me that these are the scenes we’ll see at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2nd, 2011 when the curtain comes down on the biggest extravaganza in the cricketing world. Ask yourself, whether you be Indian or not, and put a hand on your heart and tell me if it isn’t true that India seems destined to win this World Cup? They are a team as good as any that’ll take the field for ‘the cup that counts’. And playing at home these tigers are well nigh invincible. No host has ever won the World Cup you say? The pressure’s too much, is it? Well Dhoni’s boys have shown time and time again that they have learnt to play the game for the sheer joy of it, with victory or defeat being an important but not an all consuming factor in the game. This approach has helped them win from near impossible situations like champion sides are wont to do and my bet is that the well endorsed cool carbonated waters running in their veins would keep them safe from the pressures of playing in front of us rabid fans.

So since we are not really holding back our fantasies,let me go the whole hog and take the sheets off the rest of them.

So going a step beyond the late Paul’s call here’s prediction number two. I say that the batsman of the World Cup would be Sachin Tendulkar. Now before you crinkle a tired nose and begin to pull it down as unoriginal fanaticism, hear me out. I enjoy watching a fast bowler sending the stumps on a merry cartwheel far more than a batsman carting the ball over legs square or long, and so while the rest of India was gushing over a teenaged Sachin’s exploits in the 90s, I was out cheering for the thunderbolts from Allan Donald and Waseem Akram. Even today, I would take a torrid spell of scorchers from a fast bowler over most other sporting spectacles. But the idea of establishing Sachin Tendulkar’s unquestioned greatness above all others of his generation is an idea whose time has come. Lara may have been more lyrical, Kallis more resolute and Ponting more aggressive, but no one has given more back to the game and the fans than Tendulkar, and if the 200 at Gwalior and his recent purple patch is anything to go by, it is a sign of the game paying its dues to the great man. This fairy-tale promises a happy ending.

Prediction number three is one of those relatively uncomplicated ones. The four semi-finalists. I think India and South Africa would make it from their group with India topping it and going up against Sri Lanka. And South Africa would face off against defending champions Australia for a repeat of the semi-final between the two titans at the last World Cup in 2007. This time though I would expect the South Africans to turn the tables on the Aussies on the strength of a batting line up that fights hard and deep with the likes of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, good old Jacques and Graeme Smith having consistently belted truck loads of runs in in the sub-continent. And with a bowling line-up that has two of the most dangerous, and I daresay, two of the very best fast bowlers in the game today in Morne Morkel and the magnificent Dale Steyn, I usually wouldn’t worry too much about the remaining 30 overs. Not until you are up against a batting line up that starts with Sehwag and doesn’t stop at Yusuf Pathan.

And why no England or Pakistan, you ask? Well ever since the Raj, the English have always been unhappy tourists to the sub-continent. Kevin Pietersen has started complaining already. Their seamers rarely feel at home in our dust bowls and except for Gatting, none of their batters ever get it when the ball starts spinning.

As for Pakistan, fate, or what you will, has dealt them a flurry of body blows. Their best bowlers are either too old or absent; their batters are pulling in different directions and the fans don’t know which way to look and for how long. Pakistan cricket needs to take a long hard look at itself and any miracles against the run of play would do Pakistan cricket more harm than good in the long run, so for their sake let’s not hope for any.

Lastly, you wonder how Sreesanth got to play the final when he isn’t even in the team? Well, since we’re just whetting our world cup dreams, I thought why not reward him for his gallant showing in South Africa by selecting him in place of the injured Praveen Kumar. It might happen yet.

And what if the weeks to come prove me horribly wrong, and leave me with an egg all over my face? Well Holi’s round the corner. I’m hoping it wouldn’t look all that bad.