"They've been relying far too much on one player - Tendulkar," Sunil speared a cube of in-season mango with his fork with rather more force than was necessary, and looked moodily around the table. "The problem isn't that they don't have any good players left. The problem's all in their mind." He nodded impressively, banged his fork down so that bits of mango flew everywhere and leant back across his chair in a huff.
Back in Chandigarh, in India, for the Easter holidays, I was spending a considerable amount of time with two cricket-obsessed cousins, ardent supporters of the Mumbai Indians. They consider a day wasted if they don't spend at least two hours glued to a television screen. Their less cricket-obsessed sister is nevertheless following the continuing Indian Premier League (IPL) closely, and procured, with great difficulty, the tickets to a match pitting King's 11 Punjab against the Pune Warriors, to be held in nearby Mohali. The reason for this was to catch a glimpse of the Kings' Stuart Broad, "like the dreamiest dreamboat ever", and she promptly burst into tears when she heard that he had pulled out due to a calf injury.
Almost every teenager in the home country seems to look upon cricket as something as essential to life as food, water or their mobile phones. Sunil and his brother Akash have a set ritual that they faithfully follow during every match they watch on telly. Whenever a bowler sets the little red ball soaring, my cousins comically freeze in anxiety. This is a fair few times during a T-20 cricket match - 240 times, to be precise, as there are two teams, each getting 20 overs, with six balls in each over. The batsman prepares to strike. Oblivious to the world, the boys' nails dig into the nearest surface. There is a dull thwack of the collision. The reverie shatters and they are suddenly dancing about in fright.
Sunil points a trembling finger at the screen. "Oh my goodness, he's running across the pitch!" he shrieks, as if he's never heard of such a thing in his life. Akash clutches his face, agonised. "It's going to be a six, a six, it's going to be a SIX!" He stares wonderingly around at everyone in the vicinity, and bows his head in reverence at the sheer greatness of the batsman who may be about to hit a six. The fielder catches the ball, making it all something of an anticlimax. The boys simultaneously gasp, assume expressions appropriate only at perhaps a funeral, and silently deflate. Everyone scurries back to their position, the ball is thrown again, and it all begins all over again.
I dared suggest that watching a load of men hitting balls with bits of wood might get a tad repetitive after a while, and they turned gazes of such incredulity upon me that I may as well have suggested that we renounce the world and trot off to meditate on the Himalayas for the rest of our lives. "Nothing wrong with that, of course," I added hurriedly, as their gazes grew glacial. "Some of the players being quite good looking and ..." They turned away from me in disgust, Akash trying to disguise as a snort what sounded unmistakably like a contemptuously muttered "Girls!"
Apart from the IPL, cricket has been figuring heavily in the Indian newspapers for a rather more sombre reason. Yuvraj Singh, a much-loved member of the Indian cricket team, recently returned home after treatment for cancer in the US. His fans have been touched to hear him talk about what he described as "the toughest battle of my life", and the Indian dailies have been devoting massive proportions of print space to his fight against cancer. More good may have come out of his illness than Singh could have envisaged; thousands of his adolescent fans could now well be more sensitive to the suffering of cancer patients because of the awareness that he generated.
Singh credited his wonderfully supportive mother and the book "It's not about the bike: My journey back to life" by Lance Armstrong, for helping him overcome his ordeal. The cyclist himself conquered testicular cancer to go on to win the Tour de France, and his autobiography makes for compelling reading, full of light humour. It neither skates over the gorier aspects of cancer nor aims to shock, but masterfully integrates the more unpleasant bits within richly described anecdotes of happier times.
Life-threatening experiences like cancer can often bring out the best in people. The disease, Singh said, had made him appreciate friends, family, health and happiness over fame, popularity, success or money. It's nice to hear a more personal side of the lives of sportsmen from time to time - it certainly makes you realise that games like cricket aren't just about which team wins but about living, breathing people who face trials and tribulations, just like ordinary mortals, with courage. And perhaps it'll encourage me to sit through an entire match with Sunil and Akash. Or not.
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