I was inducted into the world of cricket at a very early age. On gloomy winter mornings, the faint sound of commentary was the first sound I heard when I awoke at around five in the morning, the low flickering of the television in the living room telling me my father had woken up earlier than usual to watch England struggle in Australia in the Ashes. Channel 9’s coverage gave me my first experience of the weird scoring system used by the Australians, introduced me to the concept of being dismissed for a “duck”, and of course enabled me to comprehend the Australian accent. By the time I was up, I usually saw Appa standing in front of the mirror, a razor blade carefully clearing his overnight stubble. I would walk past my father, sit in front of the TV, raise the volume slightly from its mustn’t-wake-up-the-rest-of-the-family levels, not understand what the big fuss was about, and catch a few winks before the basin was available for me to brush my teeth.
Appa was an avid follower of the game, no matter who was playing. You would have to be, if you were the kind of man who would flick to the cricket channels and usually watch whatever was on, even the domestic fixtures in England, Australia or the West Indies! And I think, much like the Y chromosome, this interest was handed down in a father-to-son way. My grandfather, my father told me, loved cricket and would go to great lengths to watch a match when he could. There was a local match in the Police Gymkhana Grounds in Bombay, I believe, and on the team batting first was an international player, supposed to come to the crease after the first wicket fell. My grandfather was keen to watch him bat, and so decided to skip work in the morning, go to the match, watch said international player, and then go in to work around lunchtime. My grandfather, presumably keen to induct his son into the world of cricket, took Appa along with him. Unfortunately for my grandfather (although I think the batting team had a different perspective), the opening pair put up an unbroken partnership and batted through the day, depriving my grandfather of the opportunity to see the man he had skipped work for! When my father told me this story, it became all to clear to me why he himself was such a lover of the game. And he passed this down to me: the only two international matches I saw (Ind vs Aus and Ind vs SA, both at Bombay’s Wankhede Stadium) were on tickets that his boss had given him. There was only a single ticket available on each occasion, and as soon as his boss offered them to my father, he called me and asked if I would rather go. Somehow, I expected we would be able to go see at least one international fixture together.
Before the days of Cricinfo and ball-by-ball updates, the only accessible scorecards were those that appeared in the newspapers. Therefore, Appa devoted at least one afternoon of his weekend to going through the sports sections of all of the newspapers delivered home that week, cutting out the scorecards and articles that appeared in them, and carefully pasting them into scrapbooks. He seemed to get an almost childlike joy from doing so, and I remember keeping him company on some afternoons as he went about his rituals.
These scrapbooks weren’t the only thing Cricinfo put a stop to. Whenever there was a match on during the day and I was home either before or after school, Appa would call me multiple times to ask me what the score was. These brief conversations in the middle of the day were some of the best we had! I was his eyes and ears, and after his first call, I would often watch a few minutes before he called back so that I had more to tell him than just the score. I would describe what was going on, and he would give me his affected, West-African “Wha’ ‘appy’, ol’ man? People are not si-ri-o! (What happened? The people are not serious!)”, because inevitably India would be doing miserably. Eventually Cricinfo brought live scores to one’s computer, Appa could access the scores at work whenever he felt like, and the cricket-related calls were slowly phased out.
Even though we spoke a lot about the game, we almost never played it together, thanks to Appa’s diabetes. I say “almost” because there was this one exhilarating day when we did play. I really wanted to go downstairs and play cricket, but none of my neighbours were free and my brother wasn’t in the mood to do so. There I sat, a sulking, grumpy boy, until my father changed his clothes and said, “Let’s go, young man.” We didn’t play for long — Appa bowled a few deliveries, some with his right arm and some with his left — but it was one of the best days I had and the rarity of the occasion made it all the more special.
When I moved out of India, first for my studies and then for work, my homesickness meant that I began following Indian cricket even more closely. I began to read long features, and tended to send links to Appa when I came across a particularly good one. The ongoing tour of the English team to India is the first test series I’m following without him around. I have come across some beautiful stories while reading about the day’s play, and almost instinctively I begin to compose an e-mail to him with a link. Alas, he has played his final innings.