Life that ebbed and flowed around the field as one man came close to a triple century.
Framroz Court is a graceful Art Deco building on Mumbai’s Marine Drive. A portion of the building faces the Arabian Sea, another overlooks Brabourne Stadium, which hosted the third Test between India and Sri Lanka. Some people watched the match from the terrace of Framroz Court. Prashant Bhaabal, a policeman, was one of them. He was there as part of security for the match (the dome of the Taj Mahal hotel was visible in the distance).
Bhaabal likes cricket. His cherished memory is spotting a young Sachin Tendulkar buying clothes at Dadar TT. But Bhaabal likes a shaded corner more. He moved his chair to one and sat, his rifle and lemonade by his side (he has low blood pressure).
This was on the second day of the match, when Virender Sehwag scored 284 of his 293 runs. At some point, the realisation that something special was unfolding on the Brabourne turf must have dawned upon the small gathering atop Framroz Court. Bhaabal must have risen from his chair and, like the other bystanders under a large red and white HSBC umbrella, leaned against the terrace railing for a better look. The harsh sun and blood pressure fears wouldn’t have deterred him. Not for a while at least.
It was not just yet another run glut on an Indian pitch. That day, 31-year-old Sehwag pushed the boundaries of strike-rate and endurance. He reached 200 in 168 balls, 14 less than his previous fastest. It was the fastest double hundred by an Indian and the second quickest in Test history, after Nathan Astle’s 153-ball effort. Had Sri Lanka not batted a bit on the second morning, he may very well have become the first since Sir Don Bradman to score 300 runs in a day. What must Brendon Kuruppu, the Sri Lankan manager, have thought while watching from the pavilion? Kuruppu scored the slowest double in Tests—an unbeaten 201 against New Zealand in 548 balls and 777 minutes in Colombo in 1986-87. Sehwag took only 257 minutes to reach 200 and 366 minutes for his entire innings.
The official cricket board and press box scorers for the match were the busy and enthusiastic three musketeers—Uday Gharat, Deepak Joshi and Ramesh Parab. In fact, Gharat completed 20 years as a scorer during the Test and was felicitated by senior cricket writer Ayaz Memon. As journalists clapped, Sunil Gavaskar turned around and looked at the proceedings with a smile.
Gharat is a quirky Girgaum resident who uses the plural selectively while speaking in English and travels to venues on Best buses or his motorbike. A typical Gharat announcement in the press box sounds like this: “Attention! Sehwag 293, 366 minute, 254 ball…” To stay alert, he drinks three to four bottles of water. Once in a while, “just for time pass”, he helps himself to a few grains of Madam supari which his colleagues carry. The supari sachet is red in colour and features a mildly bold sketch of ‘madam’.
Sehwag made Gharat’s 20th anniversary Test memorable as well as taxing. His 50 came from 54 balls and 100 from 101. Then he stepped it up even more. Sehwag’s next three blocks of 50 runs came from 29, 38 and 39 balls, respectively. The scorers had to be on their toes (and well-stocked on water and ‘Madam’).
“It is rare for a batsman to keep scoring at a strike rate of over 100 in Tests,” Gharat says. “Keeping up with Sehwag was a challenge for us. Apart from updating the scores, we have to keep an eye on the field, make announcements in the press box and, if needed, talk to the fourth umpire over the walkie-talkie. Sometimes, milestones coincide. A batsman might reach 50, the partnership 100 and the team score 150.”
Gharat says the job of scorers has become easier due to technology. They use laptops. But there still are days when he goes home, has a bath and sits in his easy chair for a half hour without speaking a word just to regain sanity. “I tell my missus, just give me half an hour,” he says. The second day of the Mumbai Test must have been like this. Luckily, scorers are well paid.
Sehwag often resembled Godzilla on the warpath. The Sri Lankan bowlers were like various types of fighters engaged by a desperate government to save the city. Even Muttiah Muralitharan could do nothing. Murali had been struggling anyway but many believed Sehwag’s assault would inspire him to summon his best. But whatever Murali tried bounced off the beast’s hide and ricocheted to the boundary. Eleven of Sehwag’s 40 fours and two of his seven sixes were plundered off Murali. The amazing thing was many of his shots were played with his strength and not the pace of the ball. Yet, only once was there any sign of strain, when he clutched his back in pain around tea time.
It was in the 10th over of the innings, bowled by the left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, that Sehwag opened up. The Now-whack of Najafgarh stepped out and dispatched the ball over long-on for his first six. Then he hit an inside out scoop towards long-off. It fetched only two runs, but proved that as always, Sehwag was in the mood to be dangerous. His bold and regular use of the reverse sweep—with which he negated a leg side field set for him—underlined his intentions. And he did not even practise the shot.
“I did not practise the reverse. But I used it because I did not want the bowler to settle down,” Sehwag said.
At one stage the frequency of boundaries became so ridiculous that Ravi Shastri, during a break in commentary, pointed towards the pitch, shook his head and smiled. In one particularly inspired stretch, Sehwag took 11 fours and a six from 40 balls. It doesn’t happen often that there is a match in Mumbai and people sort of forget that Sachin Tendulkar is also in the scheme of things. But that seemed to be the case this afternoon. On most days, the Brabourne went crazy even if Sachin moved to the boundary to field, let alone batted. “Mumbai ka boss kaun? Sachin-Sachin,” the crowds screamed. But on Day Two, it was all Sehwag. He pushed everyone out of the frame.
The Brabourne chants were rousing. The entire North Stand would stand and launch into ‘Jana Gana Mana’, or ‘Om Jaye Jagdish Hare’. There was the usual ‘Ganapati Bappa Morya’. But sometimes the crowd abused the Sri Lankan players and commentator Brag Hogg, the former Australian spinner. “Aussie sucks!” people shouted every time Hogg emerged. It was funny, for a while. Hogg took it with a grin but felt it was uncalled for. In terms of humour, the crowd was nowhere near international standards. (Tennis player Luke Jensen revealed sometime ago that at one event, as he was about to serve, a spectator would say, “Luke, I’m your father.”)
There are several shops and offices in the Brabourne stadium premises. BD Dhalla & Co, transporters and bulk carriers, is one such enterprise. In the past, their office has been mistaken for the cricket board. It is possible that unwelcome cricket fans showed up at the door creating trouble. So, Dhalla & Co put up a notice. ‘Please do not inquire for cricket match tickets here. This is a private office. Thank you.’
The way Sehwag was batting, however, their own employees would have wanted to join the queue for tickets. The queues were longest on the third day, when Sehwag was on the verge of becoming the first batsman ever to score three Test triple hundreds, with Sachin yet to bat. That explained why wickets in India are flat. Nothing sells like entertaining batting. The line started opposite the Ambassador Hotel, went around the Asiatic corner and to the gates of the Brabourne on the other side. At times, some teenaged boys got carried away with their language and were censured by elders. Near Gaylords restaurant, a lady in her 40s couldn’t take the f-words anymore. She turned around and snapped at the guilty party, a gangly youth with acne. “Continuous bad words”, “Is this how you speak in front of your mother?” were among the snatches of the tirade I overheard. The boy looked sheepish.
The audience covered all age groups. There were typical South Mumbai teens in Chelsea football T-shirts and baggy shorts as well as elderly middle-class men from the suburbs. But even among the old, the spirit of boyhood was evident. One gent with white stubble and a French cap underwent frisking with a strawberry ice-cream cone tightly clenched in his right fist.
“You only trouble simple people like us,” he complained to the guard.
“Simple people can be dangerous, too,” the guard said.
Several actors came, most of them from the Marathi film industry. At various points of the match, one saw Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Pradeep Velankar, Vijay Kenkre and Vinay Yedekar.
Of course, Sehwag did not get the record. That evening, he faced the media in what must be among the few sports press conference rooms with a piano. “I thought I would get a single from the delivery. But I misjudged its length,” he said of his caught-and-bowled dismissal by Muttiah Muralitharan.
Sehwag arrived for the press conference carrying a backpack. Perhaps it contained his batting genius, magically condensed to dimensions that could fit in a knapsack and be handily transported to the next port of call.
In expressing his satisfaction over his effort, Sehwag revealed how players are acutely aware of individual milestones, even if they say records do not matter to them. “Along with two triple hundreds I now have a 293. Nobody has done that,” Sehwag said.
His son Aryavir watched parts of the innings on TV. We can assume that the two-year-old gets pecked a lot. But this time kissee turned kisser.
“My son kissed me on television,” Sehwag said.Asked if he believed batsmen should be entertainers, he said, “Depends upon the individual.”
What about him?
“I’m an entertainer,” he said.
At around 2pm on the second day, Gavaskar walked out of the commentary box with a big Nike bag. He made a flicking motion with his right wrist, mimicking a backhand. Sunny was off for a game of badminton, to which he is addicted. Sehwag had gotten out in the morning. Gavaskar would not be missing much.