The year was 1992. A young boy and his even younger brother were playing in their room while parents left for office. The maid, a cricket fanatic, promptly switched on the television. India was playing Pakistan in an ODI World Cup. Hearing her applause, the boy peeped across and saw an infantile batsman at work. The seven-year-old never went back to play with his brother, spending the day watching his first ever cricket match.
That World Cup inspired a scrapbook collection. It was a fad among his schoolmates. How could he not have one? And a cricket bat with the 'Power' logo - that was a must-buy. But this was just the beginning of an attraction. On this particular November night, that batsman showed he could bowl as well. The kid was at a wedding function for his parents had forced him along. They couldn't stop him from standing at the local kirana store from across the hall, from watching that last over. Love seldom happens at age nine. Even so he wasn't the only one afflicted. The whole country went bonkers, he realized much later. The year was 1993.
His father was strict. 'No cable TV until you are in eleventh standard', he decreed. The boy couldn't do anything, but follow commentary on All India Radio and read in newspapers. The few matches on Doordarshan were a benefit, for he could watch him bat in all the possible glory. He had started opening now, was all the kid understood. Then, the year was 1996. Cricket came to town, in all its pomp and splendor, and no parent could inflict boundaries anymore.
Kenya and Zimbabwe were shown their place. Australia were smacked, Sri Lanka too. But these two teams couldn't be compressed, especially the latter, especially that night in Kolkata. The batsman was still pretty young in comparison to his peers. Yet he carried the hopes of a billion people, the kid was told by his cricket-mad uncle. Why alone? He couldn't answer that question, no one could.
The year was 1998. Australia was a epicure for punishment and Doordarshan started a new channel to showcase their misery, DD Sports. They were thumped in every nook and corner of the country. Their next beating happened in Sharjah. His schoolmates yelled out before morning prayers. 'They are calling it the Desert Storm', said one, imitating his shots, trying to. 'He said Australia could lose in the final, that too on his birthday', said another, also trying to imitate his shots. The teenager, meanwhile, cursed his ill-luck. He pestered his parents to take him to grandma's place, for he could watch the final on cable TV there. Then, on the way, he prayed for an encore. Lightning did strike twice.
Another World Cup came around and an India Today Special was bought.
In it, a senior journalist named Peter Roebuck explained that particular batsman's greatest shot yet. A straight important drive down the ground for six - a first lesson in cricket nuance. There were other things to bother about though. His father passed away and he didn't play against Zimbabwe, who won. He returned to play against Kenya, and conjured up a century batting at number four. The gaze at the sky was long and hard, it pierced hearts, old and young.
Even so the teenager, who played gully cricket only with an MRF-stickered bat, thought he needs to open the batting against Australia in the Super Six stage. His father predicted a cheap dismissal and a loss for India. It came true - a four-ball duck to Glenn McGrath. Oh well! The remote was flung in anger and it broke. The TV escaped the impact. The boy didn't escape his father's thumping. The year was 1999.
Diwali that year was sweet though. The TV was in his parents' room and they locked it to make the brothers study whilst they were away, or atleast hoped to. That particular day, India were playing New Zealand in an ODI in Hyderabad. As his mother got ready, an innocent crime was committed. The younger one was asked to keep watch, while he stole the duplicate keys. They were caught in the evening, though it was worth it. He made 186 that day, not out!
The years passed. Boards, entrance exams and college life came up. Never mind that it was miles away from home, travelling from college to home on weekends to watch cricket was the norm. There was a cable connection at home, none at college. Another World Cup meant attendance went for a toss. The reward was wholesome. He played the greatest ODI innings ever. He hit the greatest six, and, the greatest cover drive punch and follow-through ever in the history of limited-overs cricket. Pakistan lost, again. Stockpiles of firecrackers vanished in seconds that night. Then, in his last teen year, he ran like a kid possessed, from door to door, asking if anyone had any more crackers stashed up. The year was 2003.
Life brought up more routine, college, exams, family drama, MBA. In a parallel world, routine brought runs, statistics and records, almost all of them. It also brought debate. He is selfish, not a match-winner. There were arguments, with his uncle over dinner, with friends in the canteen and with strangers on internet forums. An engineer, he learned everything about tennis elbow. A glorious hundred in Rawalpindi went waste. That glorious catch at the boundary in Lahore did not. A World Cup dream was shattered. Tears were shed, both in an obscure hostel in Pune and the dressing room in Port-of-Spain. The year was 2007.
Work beckoned. It meant a new life as an adult. It also meant a mature batsman stepped to resurrect himself on the field, amid comparisons with elephants in small silent dressing rooms. CB Series flashed past, 163* in Christchurch and 175 in Hyderabad came about. It pointed to something gargantuan. Gwalior, a first ODI double hundred. The year was 2010. Firecrackers were passed.
All these imprints etched by a bat! Yet, the search for that one moment to treasure was still on. 'I was there', that moment. It came. They came, in fact. The year was 2011. The young adult was there when the 48th hundred came up at Chinnaswamy. He was there at Nagpur, when a rousing delivery from Dale Steyn was dispatched to square leg for six, en-route to the 49th. He was there at Mohali when Pakistan lost again. He was there at Mumbai when they approved him on their shoulders. He was there when his name was chanted outside the Wankhede, all over Marine Drive. He chanted too, arm-in-arm with complete strangers, till 6am.
The year is 2012. 100th hundred, yet discuss simmers still, with uncles, friends and strangers. Then it stops, on a cold Sunday morning. 'No more in Blue', he says. The heart skips a beat, brain goes numb. Voice chokes. 'He plays Tests still', says the mind, almost an after-thought. If only to make the world of a twenty-eight-year-old carry on.