One among the billionSiva Ananth |
Mahender Singh Dhoni turned around and said something funny to Virat Kohli. And Shikhar Dhawan chuckled. Kohli cracked a joke back. Ajinyka Rahane and Yuvraj Singh joined the banter. Then Dhoni came up with the mother of all punchlines and the whole team erupted with laughter. I laughed with them too.
I. Laughed. With. The. Indian. Cricket. Team.
And we laughed and laughed and laughed until the last man finished the job and zipped up.
Ladies and gentlemen!
I don’t really recall the jokes that passed inside the men’s room in a Mumbai multiplex where the Indian cricket team had congregated at the intermission of our film’s premiere.
All I remember is this. I entered the men’s room and quickly took a strategic position in between Dhoni and Kohli – my favourite cricketers in the current team. This way Dhoni and Kohli had to look at my face if they were to talk to each other. I was not going to address anyone directly but I was not going to leave that rest room until one of them figured out I didn’t belong there and chased me away.
But they didn’t. I walked in with them. I took up my position with them. I laughed with them. And washed my hands with them. (“After you Virat”, “No, no after you” “No, you’re the skipper” “Ok, thanks”). This – being in the men’s room with the Indian cricket team – I realised immediately, and I acknowledge now, was the greatest moment of my life.
Then Sachin Tendulkar turned up at the door and urged the boys to get back to their seats. He didn’t want them to be late for their flight to London. They had a Champions Trophy to play for, you see. And before leaving for the airport, they had to finish watching the second half of our movie. At his word, everyone rushed back to the movie hall. Then Sachin turned to me and asked, “Siva, you’re not going in?”. This, ladies and gentlemen, the fact that Mr. Tendulkar knows me by name, is the greatest achievement of my life.
I had been a film professional for 17 years and a cricket tragic for over 30 years when Ravi Bhagchandka called up to check if I would work as the screenwriter for the film he was producing, with James Erskine as the director. It was going to be on Sachin Tendulkar’s life and career.
I can’t imagine a life without cricket. And I can’t imagine cricket without Sachin. I just can’t.
There are weeks I can go without listening to music; and months without watching movies. In the past nine years, I have watched nothing on television except test cricket and Grand Slam tennis. I can probably carry on without books, too. But I just can’t deal with life without cricket.
Here is how I picture heaven to be. Sunshine. Green wicket. Men in white flannels. Four slips and two gullies. A brand new, shiny, hand-stitched red leather ball weighing 5 1/2 ounces bouncing around. A batsman with a willow deftly negotiating it. Mild shouts of “well bowled!”, coming from the wicket keeper.
I used to play the game regularly when I was in school. I have spent more time on the Cricinfo Statsguru page than any adult I have met. I still spend my days and nights and most of the moments while in flights – stuck in traffic – waiting in long queues – under the shower – dreaming up All Time XIs.
All Time Lefties XI. All Time Flair XI. All Time XI who played between 14 and 37 tests. The best XI from the players I have seen; which happens to be SM Gavaskar, CG Greenidge, IVA Richards, SR Tendulkar, BC Lara, AR Border *, AC Gilchrist +, RJ Hadlee, MD Marshall, SK Warne, J Garner.
But there are millions like me in every state of India. Every colony and gully and slum and swanky enclave in this country is filled with cricket fanatics who fall back on the game to escape from the drudgery of real life. Everyone knows everything about cricket that one needs to know. My neighbor knows as much about left arm spin bowling as Bishan Singh Bedi. So, anyone could write a movie about Sachin. I am just one among the billion.
But I could see why I would be offered the writing gig. I was the cricket tragic with the right kind of film pedigree. Someone who had succumbed to both the big temptations of our society. This double requirement – “we are looking to hire a cricket buff and a film addict” – makes the talent pool comparatively smaller; about the same size as kleptomaniacs with diabetes. I understood this unique qualification I have and didn’t question the wisdom of a new producer asking me to write a script on the life of India’s darling cricketer.
I knew every cricket lover in the country knew Sachin’s career inside out and whatever angle one chooses to take in narrating his life, it was bound to disappoint the majority. Ravi and James had the most sensible solution to this problem. It would be a documentary, and Sachin would have to be Sachin. Plain and simple.
The whole country had been closely following Sachin from his debut. We knew what music he listened to; what sweets he ate. We knew when he grew a moustache. We saw his cherubic cheeks transform into a well chiseled adult face without ever losing the boyishness. If we were to hear his story, why not hear it directly from him?
Putting together a team of XI players was the biggest deal in Manamadurai, where I grew up in the 80s. Chappells, Lillee, Roberts and Vishy had retired by the time television broadcast reached our village. And the first television signals we received came from Colombo. The grainy Roopavahini logo is inseparable for me from the first images of professional cricket I saw. Aravinda de Silva and Roy Dias locking horns with Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri was the first taste of televised cricket we got. About six of us would enter one of the only two houses that had televisions uninvited and plonk ourselves in their living room and watch the whole game in pin drop silence. We did not want to give the hosts any excuse to throw us out. If they did, we would storm the other house without missing a beat.
All six of us were totally dedicated to the great game. We would be playing cricket all the time in every available corner of the street. Every wall in the neighbourhood bore the marks of three stumps and two bails drawn with a red chalk. One of us admired Vengsarkar. The other one was a Kapil Dev fan. I was a big cheerleader for Gavaskar and Shastri.
We six were the core of our team. The remaining five players needed to make up a full XI would have to be begged and emotionally blackmailed to join us on match days. Our captain, Srini, was the patient, mature organiser who would go from door to door to persuade every friend and acquaintance to join us when we played real matches on the school ground or at the large empty land behind the church.
We had one set of stumps. One bat. And no protective gear. The opponents from the railway colony or from “the other bank” across the Vaigai river were probably worse off. I remember most of us playing barefoot ignoring the blisters caused by the burning river bed.
When many of our families eventually bought televisions, we no longer had to go to other homes to watch the game. But this meant we had to host other people in our home on match days. So, when Miandad hit that last ball for a six or when the Chennai test match ended in a tie, we had close to 50 people in our house shouting and screaming and cursing non stop.
My love for the game followed me out of our village and to my undergrad days when Sachin started to overtake the other superstars of the Indian team in cricketing ability and in popularity. But the fun of watching the game with such a large crowd jostling for space in a cramped hall would never be matched anywhere else.
When we shot the scene of the young Sachin watching India’s 1983 World Cup win with a bunch of friends, James asked me and my friend and fellow writer Sandeep to stage it because this experience of watching cricket together in one house was so representative of that time and of our society.
Sachin made his mark in international cricket and we learnt the benefits of playing a team sport. We became less selfish. We learnt to appreciate the achievements of our mates. And we figured out that in life, like in test cricket, most people do not succeed or fail but just survive, and that is good enough.
Obviously, for this reason alone test cricket would not appeal to the Americans. I tried my best to explain the nuances of the five day game to my grad school friends in Gainesville. That winning did not matter and not losing is a good enough goal to have. It didn’t fly with them. I managed to convince a total of zero American friends of mine to become cricket fans.
With some of our Pakistani mates sharing the tab, we rented out a house and installed a satellite dish to bring in the 1996 World Cup telecast to Florida. That was the time Sachin transformed from a great cricketer to a superhero. Believe me, I still turn to Sunil Gavaskar for inspiration. My early lockdown days were spent watching YouTube videos of Sunny batting. To beat depression and loneliness you need the technical mastery and businesslike artistry of the Little Master. He will help you keep your head above the water. But you need Sachin to help you dream. To soar above the limitations – both real and imagined – you are bogged down by, you need to watch the Little Champion bat, especially from that 1996 World Cup onwards.
When I returned to India and started working in movies, I could not remember my childhood before Sachin entered our collective conscience. In the decade since he faced that famous pace attack in Pakistan as a 16 year old, he had grown in front of our eyes in stature. He had grown with the ever expanding media, quickly filling up the television screens, hoarding spaces and newspaper pages. He had become synonymous with the game like Jordan was for hoops.
We wanted to say all of this in our film. For the benefit of the kids born after his test debut, now playing the game in the remote corners of this country, we needed to tell his cricketing story the way it unfolded in front of our eyes.
Satellite television took cricket to all parts of the country. Sachin was playing the game on those millions of television sets. Our new found buying power allowed the middle class Indians to travel abroad more easily and attend matches on all the famous grounds of the world. Sachin batted in all of them. Mobile phones came in. And each person alive became an individual consumer of media; and Sachin played on all our devices. The shorter version of the game became the face of cricket; and Sachin became the face of that format.
Sachin was a delight to work with. He patiently answered fan questions disguised as professional enquiries. (“Who was the most difficult bowler you faced? And please don’t say Hansie Cronje” “What is your Dream XI?”). He walked us through Shivaji Park and relived his childhood memories for our cameras. If there was a cricket game on TV he would predict the fate of the delivery before the bowler released the ball. “Single to mid wicket”, he would say and that is where the ball would end up. He showed us the bats he used throughout his career. “This was the one I used in Sharjah, 1998”. He hosted us with warmth and laughed for our jokes. He was a dream.
When the Indian cricket team returned to the movie hall for our preview and took their seats, I sat in the last row and watched each player watching our film. Throughout the film there were smiles, hearty cheers, vigorous clapping and some tears. The film was called “Sachin: A Billion Dreams” and it was this bunch that had made those dreams a reality.
When lights came on, I went down and stood next to Ravi and James. Sachin walked in and addressed the team. He thanked each one of them for their time and quickly switched to the upcoming Champions Trophy in England. Everyone, from Dhoni to Kohli to the junior members of the team, listened to him in rapt attention. Sachin’s voice remained steady and his gentle humor never deserted him as he wished his team from his heart and urged them to play to the best of their ability and how that would be good enough to be world beaters for he knew this bunch in front of him was the best cricket team in the world.
Suddenly I realised I was eavesdropping on an Indian team meeting before a big series and I did not know where to hide. Inadvertently, I had become the fly on the wall in the Indian dressing room. I turned to Ravi for advise and saw him tearing up on hearing Sachin’s speech. I looked up again at all those wonderful cricketers playing for our team, listening to their role model. And all of them were tearing up involuntarily.
I remembered that Sachin knew me by name. That brought tears to my eyes too.
Siva Ananth (is a right arm off spinner who once took 6-23 in 12.3 overs at Lords’ and bowled India to victory in his dreams)