One of the joys of growing up in middle-class India in the 1990s was the inherent idealism of colony cricket. What started as a character-building outdoor activity soon morphed into an ultra-competitive cultural universe. The inter-colony summer leagues became a stepping stone to coaching camps, bragging rights and pincode fame. The post-school evening matches honed skills and imaginations. Reputations were developed. Teenagers modeled their game on their favourite international players. Somebody bowled (and ate) like Shane Warne, somebody marked a run-up like Aaqib Javed. The Tendulkar straight-drive was desirable but rare: the gold-standard of amateur imitation.
I took myself very seriously as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Over the years, my impressionable technique had flipped through several stylebooks. One day I hooked extravagantly like a young Ricky Ponting; another day I defended late like Rahul Dravid; and yet another I punched with Sadagoppan Ramesh's evasive foot movement. But my obsession with looking "casual" at the crease had me settle on three distinct traits. I took guard with a hunched back like the ever-smiling Ajay Jadeja. I played my trademark shot – the wristy flick – like Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin. And I slog-swept like my favourite South African cricketer, Hansie Cronje.
When the match-fixing scandal broke in April of 2000, I was in the middle of a lean batting phase. A friend jokingly asked if I was being paid by the opposition to bat slowly, citing a newly-disgraced Cronje as my idol. By June, I had stopped playing the slog-sweep. Azharuddin's name soon cropped up, as did Jadeja's. At some point in November, I stopped playing the flick shot. By December, I stopped taking guard altogether. Almost on cue, the sprawling garden – the unofficial cricket ground – of our apartment complex was demolished to make way for a 'link road.' We half-heartedly protested this evil capitalist move, but the writing was on the wall. My colony cricket career had been cut short. Hours after the devastating Gujarat earthquake in January 2001, I naively told my father that perhaps God was just a disillusioned cricket fan.
Divine intervention came in the form of a Test series. It is widely believed that India's miraculous 2-1 Test victory over an invincible Australian team healed an entire generation of grieving cricket enthusiasts. Most of us watched the series alone in our halls and bedrooms, like broken souls reluctant to be serenaded by an unreliable ex-lover. It felt sacrilegious to hope again. On 14th March, 2001, while VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid strung together one of the great partnerships in the history of cricket, I found myself observing the Australian players on the field. I scrutinized their body language, particularly Warne and Mark Waugh's, searching for telltale signs of guilt. The two had previously been punished for conveying match information to a bookmaker, so there was reason they might have gone a step further to ensure that – nearly a year to the day Cronje was named – the narrative of cricket would be magically rescued. Maybe they were conscious enablers of this underdog story. I cursed myself for the cynicism, but couldn't help it. Housing colonies of die-hard believers had, overnight, turned into a nation of misanthropes. Our Ganguly-led pride was marked with an asterisk – who was the culprit this time? Did I see Michael Slater play some suspicious shots? Just like that, the spiritual connotation of the term "fix" – slang for 'repair' on a good day – had become irreparable.
On June 16th, 2001, I lost my voice. It was my first time in a cricket stadium since the scandal. Only, the stadium was actually a cinema hall on the Gandhinagar highway. The atmosphere was raucous. Deep into the third hour of Ashutosh Gowarikar's Lagaan, art imitates life. An unheralded spinner takes a hat-trick for the "home" team against the run of play. Kachra follows in the footsteps of 20-year-old Harbhajan Singh. It's a huge moment. I cheer for all the months I didn't and couldn't. But that wasn't when my throat faded. It was in fact when Lakha took a diving catch. The night before, a sheepish Lakha had been exposed as a two-faced traitor. A cheater. A…fixer. He had been in cahoots with the opposition, pledging to field badly during their innings. Everyone in the village was enraged, his old father was ashamed, but captain Bhuvan was heartbroken. He wore a familiar expression: that of a commoner losing faith in a sport. When Lakha pulled off a stunner at point on the second morning, defying his "deal" with the British, a dam of pent-up emotions burst in our little stadium.
I turned to a stranger and crushed the gentleman in a bearhug. My friend threw his packet of popcorn in the air – and for a split second, the flying flakes merged with the backdrop of the screen in a way that made it appear as though the desert village of Champaner was seeing its first snowfall. You'd think most spectators – the theatre viewers – would reserve their loudest celebrations for Bhuvan's iconic last-ball six. For the winning stroke. For an isolated moment of triumph. But Lakha's catch did so much more than make history. It revised history. This is where art stopped imitating and started resolving life. It gave a billion cricket fans a chance to watch their fallen heroes resurrect themselves on the field. We saw in Lakha's dive the agility of Azhar, the awareness of Jadeja, and the redemption of both. He had defied the bookies and relocated his conscience. When the camera cut to his humbled but tearful father in the crowd, it was effectively cutting to all of us beyond the screen. We were disappointed and proud at once, if that were even possible. His teammates had forgiven him. The demons were gone. The village welcomed the return of a prodigal son.
Watching Lakha do an Imran-Tahir-style victory sprint after the catch evoked a universe where those like Azhar, Jadeja and even Cronje were punished in private, behind closed doors, before vindicating themselves in the eyes of their colleagues. It was what many of us secretly hoped would happen. The reality, of course, was different and necessary. Lagaan was the story we needed to hear. The reality remained that, sometime during the expansive production of Ashutosh Gowariker's epic in sunbaked Kutch, cricket had lost some of its shine. The script was written long before the 2001 series, and the crew shot through 2000 against the backdrop of the shocking scandal (I'd pay to hear the late-night chats on set, none of which were broached in the terrific behind-the-scenes documentary Madness in the Desert – picture the mood, with the makers' passion being tested and the fortunes of the 'cricket film' fluctuating in tandem with the integrity of the sport). The fact, then, was that life was actually imitating art.
Once the dust settled, Lagaan went on to be known for many things – for being a visionary Hindi movie, a commercial blockbuster, a rare Oscar-nominated Indian film, a distinct period drama, a top-notch sports thriller. It imagined a work of unique fiction, but what Lagaan did at a subliminal level was reimagine a glitch in our collective truth. That the eerily prescient film was being made in parallel with the unfolding events of world cricket elevated its larger-than-life legacy into life itself. Gowariker was trying to pitch the story for years, but perhaps it was fated to hit the screens only in 2001. The film's responsibility was, after all, not solely restricted to the confines of art and entertainment. It was meant to go above and beyond, filling in the blanks of a culture that was on the verge of losing its religion. It was destined to be a reminder that our relationship with a sport, too, isn't exempt from the upheavals of growing up – the parameters of love are often reset when adolescence knocks on the doors of adulthood. The India-Australia series had merely commenced the process of healing. But it was Lagaan that became an unlikely source of closure. And it was Lagaan that started the transition to full-blooded companionship.
On June 17th, 2001, I held a bat for the first time all year. The colony was split into two, so I took a leg-stump guard in the living room of our two-bedroom flat. My back hunched a little. I tapped the bat in a swirling, circular motion, as though it were a casual afterthought. I stared down the bowler – my 48-year-old father – with a droopy smile. With an exaggerated underarm action, he spun the first one towards my 'pads'. Dormant limbs came to life, the wrist snapped, and my body conspired to play the forgotten flick shot. My head instinctively turned towards midwicket, the dining table, where I expected the tennis ball to go. But it ricocheted off my knees onto the sofa-stump. I was bowled. But at least I was fixed.