After well over six decades of watching sport at the highest level, either live or on television, I am now able to say with a clear conscience, that top quality tennis is what I would like to sit and watch goggle-eyed till the end of my days. Like most Indians who are wedded to the arcane joys of cricket, I too belonged (I stress on the past tense) to that sturdy band of faithful who would follow the fortunes or misfortunes of the Indian cricket team to the ends of the earth. Well before our boys started strutting around the Elysian cricket fields of the world in blue-coloured clothing and before the ‘Men in Blue’ became a catchphrase in Indian cricket, I was rooting for the likes of Umrigar, Borde, Durrani, Pataudi, Jaisimha, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra, Viswanath and Gavaskar, all attired in virginal whites and doing their country proud, even if we lost more often than we won. The last named, Gavaskar, was also witness to the advent of coloured clothing and instant cricket, albeit briefly, and captained India in one of their famous ODI multi-national tournament victories in Australia in 1985, defeating our nemesis Pakistan in the final. Oh, what joy! Nowadays we have started losing to those men in green which kind of evens things out, though the ignominy of it all hurts. Only a game, did you say? Go tell that to the marines.
There is a piquant irony attached to Gavaskar’s involvement in that 1985 tourney I mentioned. This monumental Test opening batsman once, I blush to state, during a Prudential World Cup game against England in 1975, played an inexplicably soporific innings, scoring 36 runs while facing 174 balls at an appalling, cringe-worthy strike rate of 20.68. I’ll remind you this was a one-day game! Maybe they forgot to tell him that. If this had happened in another, bygone era, he might well have been hauled up for a public flogging. Gavaskar made amends, as stated earlier, before hanging up his boots, more as a leader than for any hurricane effort at the crease. Today he holds forth on the game on television in a statesmanlike fashion, though he tends to be a tad touchy and thin-skinned, ready to lash out at anyone who is critical of his era. Quite rightly too. The man is a legend, for God’s sake. Show some respect.
I have just consumed around 400 words talking about a game I have vowed never to watch. However, I needed to pay homage to those cricketers who did draw me to the game in the first place and who were a lasting advertisement for all that was good and decent about Test cricket. Gavaskar was one of its finest ambassadors along with several others, across nations, who graced Lord’s and the Eden Gardens with equal aplomb in sparkling white flannels and ‘walked’ when the umpire raised that dreaded forefinger, with no recourse to DRS. Let me tell you there were some appalling umpiring decisions those days, with neutral umpires an unknown entity. Gavaskar blotted his copybook when he threatened to walk out in a Test in Melbourne in 1981. The little master felt, justifiably, that he was the victim of a horrendous umpiring howler, though he proffers his own version as to why he almost left the field and potentially forfeited the game. However, as my games master in school used to chide us if we made a fuss about a decision that went against us, ‘Does the scoreboard say you are out? Then you are out. The umpire’s decision is final.’ Thus chastised, we sat glumly licking our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves.
The problem with watching cricket these days, even on television, is that there is far too much of it. Shakespeare’s Give me excess of it was all right for music, but cricket is a different kettle of fish, particularly the limited-overs version. T20 tops the list in terms of popularity, followed by the 50 over ODIs and those two versions of the game financially buttress Test cricket. The five-day Test sporadically produces interest whenever one’s own country does well. Otherwise, it seems to be living on borrowed time, surviving precariously on oxygen. There are those who aver that the death of Test cricket is greatly exaggerated, but I am ready to read the last rites. As I was saying, on our own television screens in India, international cricket is telecast wherever it is played in the world. Half the time, you are not sure who is playing whom and in which country. All these games kind of blur into one hazy, unrecognizable mass. Is it any wonder that many of us would rather watch something else, like tennis for instance?
Which gives me a little breathing space to talk about tennis. Only early this morning, I sat up to watch a quarter-final game at the US Open between two of the brightest young sparks adorning this lovely game at the present time. 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain took on 21-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy. For a little over five hours, these two youngsters served up an exhibition of tennis fit for the gods. Some of the rallies were simply off the wall, while the bemused spectators gawped open-mouthed in admiration. When the game finished, it was 3 am local time in New York. That Alcaraz eventually prevailed over the indefatigable Sinner is a minor detail of little consequence. To repeat that tired, old cliche, the game of tennis won. Move over Rafa, Novak and Roger. And probably Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas. The future of tennis is here in the shape and form of Alcaraz and Sinner. While I say that, someone else like Casper Ruud or Frances Tiafoe might sneak in and win this last Grand Slam of the calendar year. Which only underscores the point I am making about so much fresh talent in the tennis world to keep us riveted. The women are equally exciting with fresh names like Świątek Sabalenka, Jabeur and Garcia filling in the vacuum created by the exit of Serena, Venus and their generation.
To get back to my original theme, I am done with following cricket, primarily because of its excessive and endemic presence in the sub-continent. Also, too much needless non-cricketing controversy, particularly when India takes on Pakistan. Frankly it’s getting to be boring in the extreme. Then again, that’s just me. And let’s not forget the IPL which grindingly fills in the gap whenever we are not involved in international fixtures. Cricket is now an industry, no longer a game.
Anyone for tennis?