By Satadru Sen
When the team that you support has had an unbelievably bad series, and the angry and serious post-mortems
are out there for all to see
, the sporting thing to do is to look for the brighter side of the whole affair. The India-vs-England Test series is over: that is a joy. It is also surprisingly helpful to remember that the world is no worse that it was before: waking up to a 0-4 whitewash is not like waking up to unemployment, a divorce or a death in the family. Godzilla has not ravaged Tokyo. And best of all, Varun Aaron has declared that he enjoys hitting batsmen on the head. Ah, an Indian-accented echo of “I like to see blood on the pitch.” Aaron is a 21-year-old fast bowler from Jharkhand
, M.S. Dhoni’s home state. He is, by most reports, seriously quick. He is not Jeff Thomson, of course, and in these days of helmets it’s unlikely that he will send many batsmen to the hospital or shatter a good batting line-up with pace alone. Still, the boy – who is on his way to England to beef up the Indian team for the ODI section of the Magical Disaster Tour – has the right idea about bowling, and my heart rejoices.
Pace bowling is the great Indian mystery and obsession, mainly because it has been rare in India. That rarity is cultural, in two senses. One is negative: it is not a national-biological peculiarity. The other is positive: Indian failures with fast bowling, and its moments of success, have generated a mass of writing, regret and fantasy built around the desire to hit a batsman on the head with a shiny ball going 150 kmh.
If bowling fast was an ethnic accomplishment, pacemen would be as common among Indian Punjabis as among Pakistani Punjabis, and there would no apparently India-shaped hole between Imran Khan in the northwest of the subcontinent and Lasith Malinga in the southeast. Also, if we look at where Indian quick bowlers have come from in the past couple of decades, the distribution is pretty wide: Bombay, Baroda, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Bihar. They have come, in other words, from all over the country, not a particular region or ethnic group.
But like any other form of culture, modern sport is the stuff of myths, especially the myths of what-we-are-like. As the most overtly physical aspect of cricket, fast bowling cannot escape the discourse of bodies and ethnicity. In Bengal, a region particularly hard hit by the colonial theory of ‘martial’ and ‘effeminate’ races, there was an early and enduring obsession with bowling fast. (Ramachandra Guha made this connection many years ago, so my observation is not original.) Spin was for sissies in Bengal, even in the heyday of Indian spin. Not coincidentally, the first really promising Indian pace bowler after the era of Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh was Sarodindu ‘Shute’ Banerjee. Banerjee’s career was a casualty of the world war, and he was unlucky to miss out on the 1948 tour of Australia. By then he was already past his prime, and it is ironic that he is remembered primarily for a batting record: a last-wicket stand of 249 with Chandu Sarwate against Surrey in 1946.
After the Partition, with a large chunk of Punjab and its ‘martial races’ lost to Pakistan, a crisis of fast bowling seemed natural and unavoidable. The solution, too, seemed obvious: Sikhs. One enthusiastic cricket administrator declared that given a few Sikhs to train and feed, he could ensure an adequate supply of pacemen for the national team. (Unfortunately, except for Balwinder Singh Sandhu and that surly, burly fellow in Lagaan
, the Sikh fast bowler has proved elusive.)
It is not that quick bowlers no longer existed in India. Ramakant Desai could be disconcertingly fast on his day, and as a Gujarati not much over five feet tall, was a living rebuttal of the ‘ethnic’ theory of Indian bowling. Indian cricket fans revere Anil Kumble for bowling with a broken jaw
(against the West Indies), but Desai did it first, against New Zealand in 1968. Shute Banerjee’s legacy continued in Bengal’s Subrata Guha, who had an unremarkable Test career but took 299 first-class wickets at just over 20 per wicket, including 209 Ranji Trophy scalps at an average of under 15, and eleven wickets in a zonal match against the West Indies in 1966-67
. Amazingly, he was not selected for the next Test, which began in Calcutta three days later. Bowlers like Desai and Guha, who played in India’s pace-bowling wilderness of the 1950s and 60s, were casualties of culture as much as of their own limitations. They barely registered in the consciousness at a time when crowds, coaches, selectors and journalists alike saw no pace bowlers in India and teams were packed with twirlers. And that semi-invisibility became a self-fulfilling prophecy; without supporting quicks to keep the other end going, both men were severely overbowled. Desai bowled 49 overs in his very first Test innings. Guha bowled 43 in his.
Kapil Dev played in a different cultural reality. To a considerable degree, he created that reality, with his skill, hard work and undeniable success. But it is worth remembering that Kapil Dev’s career began unspectacularly; he did not take many wickets in Pakistan in 1978. In an earlier era, that could very well have been the end of the experiment. But the context of Indian pace bowling had changed, partly because that tour of Pakistan snuffed out the hegemony of Indian spin, partly because the simultaneous emergence of televised cricket generated a growing audience for the excitement of fast bowling, and partly, I would suggest, because Gavaskar’s burgeoning status as an opening batsman who could hold his own against Roberts, Holding, Thomson and Imran – and his displacement of Bishan Singh Bedi as the dominant personality on the national team, which Bedi is yet to forgive – made Indian fans more interested in pace, and the team more hospitable to pacemen. So even very limited talents like Karsan Ghavri and Manoj Prabhakar got extended runs as Kapil’s partners.
Much has been written about the place of Kapil Dev in Indian cricket history and I need not go into that. I will limit myself to a simple observation. Kapil brought to the Indian supporter an element of joy that goes beyond results. My favorite image in all of cricket is Kapil Dev in delivery stride: side-on, airborne, athletic, kinetic, a freeze-frame of aesthetic perfection. (See top of page.) My three favorite memories from Indian cricket are all Kapil-centric: the seven for fifty-six in the second innings against Pakistan in Madras in 1980 (which was also the first time I listened to an entire Test match on the radio), the five for twenty-eight on painkillers in seventeen straight overs against Australia in Melbourne in 1981, and a brief, intense burst in the dying minutes of the fourth day of a losing Test at Lords in 1982, when he ripped out three English wickets (immediately after scoring a murderous, 55-ball 89 in the Indian follow-on).
That kind of irrational air-punching pleasure, even when it comes crackling out of the radio, is closely connected to fast bowling itself: its violence, the element of explosive release that one feels vicariously in the muscles of the arm, shoulder, back and leg, the touch of madness. Kapil Dev did not walk down the pitch to glare childishly at the batsman, and he did not sledge: he did not have to. To quote Jeff Thomson again, he just wound up and went whang, and while his whang was more modest than Thomson's, it lasted longer and took more wickets. And he did not clutch his hamstring and limp off the field every three Tests like the present generation of Indian bowlers. Nietzsche would have approved – almost. Almost but not quite, because the Indian cricket fan’s attitude to the game is invariably tied up with ressentiment, the need for revenge against history and discourse, which goes against the ethos of the Ubermensch. Varun Aaron’s pleasure in hitting batsmen on the head – or rather, the Indian fan’s satisfaction at Aaron’s desire to crack heads – is slightly different from Thomson’s pleasure at seeing blood on the pitch. That’s just fine; ressentiment on the cricket field is better than ressentiment in fields of actual slaughter. Cricket without a frisson of revenge would be boring, hardly worth the late nights with radio static.
A generation after Kapil Dev, Indian cricket is again in a crisis of pace bowling. Promising quick bowlers keep losing their pace and turning into 120-kmh trundlers: a tendency that began with Venkatesh Prasad and has now become an epidemic, thanks to a calendar that burns out players’ bodies and gives them no time to recover, and a trend in coaching (influenced, no doubt, by the ascendency of limited-overs cricket) that emphasizes line-and-length bowling and sees pace as an indulgence. The resulting run-fests may have enriched the coffers of the Indian board and its corporate cronies, but it has impoverished the serious fan by taking away a basic pleasure of the sport. This was all too evident in England in the past few weeks. The humiliation of losing a series or a rank is nothing compared to the humiliation of having a fat, slow R.P. Singh open your bowling. Perhaps Aaron will turn out to be ineffective at the highest level of the game. Perhaps he too will be a medium pacer by the time the BCCI is through with him. But until then, break some helmets, kid.