I ran into an old timer a few days ago during my morning walk at our nearby park. I employ the phrase old timer with due care, given that I am not exactly a spring chicken myself. Let’s just say that he had the drop on me on the seniority front, which made him a very senior citizen. That’s all I am willing to divulge so far as our respective ages are concerned. It’s simply not cricket to go around asking people how old they are, unless you happen to be an insurance agent cadging for business. And that is an excellent cue to take off on what this elderly gent and I got to talking about. The cue? Cricket, of course. This early morning walker’s name happened to be Thomas Cherian, and I addressed him as Uncle Tom. He was quite the cricket pundit, full of anecdotes and reminiscences. A voluminous book lay opened on his lap. Wisden, naturally. If you got stuck with him, you got that eerie feeling of being trapped that so engulfed young golfers who ran into The Oldest Member at the club in many of Wodehouse’s hilarious golfing stories. Frequently and ostentatiously shooting my cuffs, speaking metaphorically (I was wearing a tee-shirt), to look at my watch made not a blind bit of difference. Like Old Man River, he just kept rolling along. In present day parlance, he was on a roll. He was at that moment, seated on a park bench with a faraway look in his eyes. His companion was a rather overweight black Labrador on a leash, a bit long in the tooth, that sat motionlessly under the bench, doubtless dreaming of bones to gnaw and cats to chase.
‘Good morning, Uncle Tom. A penny for them. What is it that occupies your mind this early in the day? You seem to be deep in thought.’ That was my opening gambit while jogging in a stationary position, not wanting to make the cardinal error of sitting down next to him. I had things to do. The Labrador looked up at me balefully. I gave him a friendly scratch under the chin and he went back to sleep.
Uncle Tom peered at me quizzically, from the top of his bifocals. ‘Ah, young man. Ganesh, isn’t it? Good to see you. Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you what it is that is occupying my mind, as you so eloquently put it.’
‘Mar gaya,’ I muttered to myself. ‘It’s Suresh actually, not that it matters. Well alright, just a couple of minutes then. I have some guests coming round for breakfast and the wife will be getting anxious.’ So saying, I sat down next to him. Big mistake.
‘You were asking me what I was thinking about. This Kohli chap. Fine batsman and all that, but why does he keep jumping up and down, like one of our ancestral primates? Just can’t stand it.’ You could see the old codger was visibly upset, resorting to phrases like ‘ancestral primates,’ when a simple ‘monkeys’ would have met the case. What’s more he seemed primed for a long, leisurely chat. My references to guests, breakfast and the wife had made not the slightest impact on him.
Nevertheless, I decided to wade in on the debate. I sprang to the Indian skipper’s defence. ‘Look Uncle Tom, you can’t have it both ways. You know, hunting with the hares and running with the hounds. Or is it the other way round? If we lose, the captain was too laid back, allowed the game to drift. That’s what they said about the great Dhoni at times, and if Kohli gets into the opposition’s face, he is a monkey. We won the game, did we not? You are just biased because he sports a well-trimmed beard. Then again, pretty much every player in the team is bearded. It is the look of the day.’
‘Was Gavaskar bearded? Or Visvanath? Or, for that matter, the peerless Kapil Dev? All clean cricketers and clean shaven. As to your other point, winning is not everything. And don’t tell me it is the only thing. These present-day wisecracks will be the death of me. You speak as if Kohli will lose all his strength if he removes the fungus. He is not Samson, for God’s sake.’ He was in an irascible mood. Uncle Tom then went into a dreamlike trance. ‘Ah, the good old days, when cricket was cricket, and not the circus it is today. I well remember Frank Worrell and Len Hutton. Such thorough gentlemen.’
‘Uncle Tom, those gentlemen used to thrash us within an inch of our lives. They could afford to be gentle. And our Merchants and Hazares were even more gentlemanly, tamely genuflecting and taking it on the chin, at times literally. You talk so feelingly and go all misty-eyed about the good old days. What about Jardine, Larwood and all that leg-theory stuff? Bradman survived, but they nearly went to war on that one, the Poms and the Aussies.’
That was a huge error on my part. Once I engaged him in what was turning into an argument, he then launched into a major lecture on cricket being a gentleman’s game and that sort of claptrap. Holding my hand tightly, so I couldn’t get up, he proceeded to flow into his narrative from the 1940s. I couldn’t even shoot my non-existent cuffs. ‘You know Lala Amarnath, he bowled off the wrong foot. Foxed the batsman completely. Neck and crop. Lock, stock and barrel. What a man! He was a tough nut, independent India’s first cricket captain. Mind you, later on as a commentator he tended to shoot his mouth off somewhat.’
I was starting to shift uneasily. Time was ticking away and I was getting late. ‘Tell you what, Uncle Tom. I’ll come over to your place one of these evenings and we can have a long chinwag about those halcyon days when batsmen walked before the umpire could raise his finger. I’ll bring a bottle.’
This seemed to mollify him somewhat but he still had an iron grip on my left wrist. ‘No, no. What’s the rush Mahesh? By the way, I am very glad you don’t hold with this modern-day abomination of calling batsmen batters. All because women have started playing. Why can’t the women be called batspersons? To get back, I haven’t quite finished with this Kohli situation. Sit still, will you, otherwise Blackie will get restless.’
Blackie seemed perfectly at rest, just shaking his head once and flapping his ears, the way dogs do when winged insects alight on their heads. Uncle Tom continued remorselessly. ‘I know we won that Test match at Lord’s, and very exciting it was too. Joe Root held all the aces on the final day, but he was perhaps a bit too timid and…..’
‘Exactly, Uncle Tom. That is my point. In Root’s place Kohli would have moved in for the kill. Game, set and match.’ I apologised for mixing my sporting metaphors.
‘You surprise and disappoint me, Naresh. That Bumrah kid peppering their tailenders with bumper after bumper. That happened only because that wretched Kohli instructed him.’ I had long given up trying to correct him on my name.
‘But Uncle Tom, that fast bowling tailender was Anderson and he had given our nine, ten and Jack the same treatment. What’s more, the tailenders were all armed like one of the Knights of the Round Table. Tit for tat.’
‘Mind your language, Ramesh. I am 86 years old.’
‘What? What did I say?’ I was flummoxed.
‘You know what you said. I cannot repeat it,’ he said with prudish pomposity.
‘Oh, you mean…..’
‘That will do. I won’t hear another word. I thought you were a decent bloke, but I was clearly mistaken. If it’s all the same to you, this conversation is at an end. You may go. Come on Blackie.’
‘Uncle Tom, don’t take on so. I can explain everything. What is more, you are still holding my hand.’
He finally released my hand and I got up to go. As I was leaving, I thought I saw a couple of blue tits foraging for worms in the lawn. An incredibly rare sighting this, blue tits in India, if indeed they were so. I am no expert. I thought I will draw Uncle Tom’s attention to the birds, he being an avid bird watcher, if not a full-blown ornithologist. But after seeing his extraordinary reaction to my ‘tit for tat’ remark, I thought better of it and walked away, waving a courteous goodbye. Uncle Tom did not wave back, though Blackie gave me a friendly tail-wag.