In a country besotted with Cricket, this ground wouldn’t stand out. It was not a stadium after all. Just a field, lush green with a pitch or two at its center and the sightscreens being the only structures attempting to stand tall. Even they seemed to be shy and forever unwilling to be the giants that their brethren around the world generally are. The trees of the cantonment, perhaps emboldened by their ‘military’ upbringing had to dwarf those sightscreens anyway.
The cricket ground at the Gymkhana, one of Hyderabad’s last big ‘open spaces’ and the pride of Secunderabad is now quiet and lonely. After Hyderabad cricket moved to the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, this looks deserted and deprived- an abandoned queen of an erstwhile kingdom who could at best admire her glorious past- it boasted of one of India’s very few lively cricket pitches, giving seamers a good chance to have a say in the way games shaped up. Now, whenever I drive along the road that winds itself around this ground’s periphery, I am overcome by the silence and emptiness. This was the same ground that I would read about in the papers- the home of my city’s Ranji team. A nursery that nurtured some of India’s finest cricketers. A breed that created and brought to prominence a very fine genre of the sport.
The summer of ’99 was for me an equivalent of Bryan Adams’ ‘69. “Those were the best days of my life” seemed apt to describe my life then. It was the first world cup where I was old enough to talk about cricket, have opinions, points of view and most importantly the ability to call an LBW as it played out on TV. I considered myself capable enough to engage in debates with older cousins about everything cricket and on one such occasion, I was asked to name my favorite cricketer. I obliged. They laughed at my innocence. I broke down.
That was what Azhar did to me.
Languid and laid back, nobody could be more Hyderabadi on the cricket field than him. He was the ‘Miyaan’ of batting, mixing indulgence with nonchalance and creating masterpieces out of scratchy beginnings. He could drop the ball and scamper for a single, or play and miss it- looking most elegant in both cases. A cover drive, a flick, a square cut later, cricket looked beautiful and lively. For those who cared to follow, some of his innings, especially when the team was facing the odds unfolded like an unbelievable assault. Between the rigmarole of technique and textbook, Azhar created enough space for thrills. He made a mockery of bowling, yet remained unassuming and seemingly unwilling to care for any personal milestone he reached. It was always a ‘matter of fact’, as if he was born to hit the cricket ball in beautiful ways to the boundary and then, sometimes, though rarely, when he looked like he believed he was omnipotent, he seemed to reinforce the matter and that it was a fact. By doing so, he became the doyen of the school of batsmanship of his hometown, to which, nobody could set fields, but admire and applaud.
Well, who can ever restrain imagination and artistry?
That innings of 167 started a rollicking love affair between bat and ball. Laxman had finally arrived. He would go on to score many of India’s most important runs on a cricket field. This was another example of Hyderabadi strokeplay. Whips, flicks, drives- all precisely placed, piercing the gaps in the field with perfection, all began being glorified as he demonstrated them. Yet, amidst all the magnificent and dazzling shot-making, his temperament and steely will stood out. Much like the hero of Telugu cinema who overcomes improbable odds with mathematical certainty, Laxman thrived in adversity and found it to be his greatest catalyst for success. But unlike the hero, he was always calm, collected and reasonable. A lot has been written about his 281, and rightly so because it was one of test cricket’s greatest knocks, but his greatness also lies in his 70s and 80s that he scored while batting with tailenders. He taught a careless bunch of lesser batsmen to bat like they cared about their wickets.
How can anybody forget the heist he pulled off against the Aussies in Mohali?
The bat moved like a wand, the ball like it was under a spell. Nothing seemed more beautiful when he was settled at the crease. Nowhere else could grace and grit converge and combine better, than in Laxman’s batting.
There was once a time when Hyderabad cricket was very approachable- Everybody could watch the game at the Gymkhana, even from the road, and seeing the home team train and compete was reason enough to follow its performances season after season. This and the abilities of those teams evoked much interest in the city’s cricket following fraternity. While the setup at the new stadium might be better, it has taken cricket away from the average Hyderabadi. That no Cricketer from the city plays test cricket is an indicator of where the game is going in the city.
Hyderabad cricket’s legacy is full of legends- larger than life, but still incomplete. There has always been more to Hyderabadi cricketers than they have shown, even in the case of Azhar and Laxman- two of its finest. Their achievements are huge, but given their cricketing abilities, they deserved to play much more. But, it is always about choices anyway, sometimes those of the selectors’ and at others those made by the players themselves.
One cannot but feel dejected at how many talented cricketers from the city have never managed to play at the highest level. That is the thing about a fan. The love and the hope never commit themselves to reason.
Just like the Gymkhana, I feel empty and the need to be silent.
Until another Hyderabadi earns the India test cap.
This article was originally published by the author at The Long Room.