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Balding Zorros

by Telford Vice / 11.03.2011

The back of a truck offers sound advice for batsmen as it growls along Wardha Road, away from the addictively cheerful squalor of Nagpur and towards the pristine palace that is the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium at Jamtha. “Drive slowly,” the truth is writ in hand-painted black on yellow, “live long.” Rush your strokes, the sign seems to say, and you will not enjoy the best of what one of India’s finest batting pitches has to offer.

Could it be that the sign on the truck is a subtle marketing ploy for “Menwhopause”, a gently subversive band from Delhi who hook you with the seemingly innocent twang of a single guitar string and then reel you in like a fish? After all, men who pause are hardly likely to play their shots too hurriedly. Further down the road, as if to solve the riddle, second-hand bats stand propped in a row along the kerb, each of them discarded by the last next Tendulkar and waiting to be snapped up by the next next Tendulkar.

Jamtha, which has leaked runs at more than a run a ball in its 10 one-day internationals to date, will doubtless do so again on Saturday when it hosts a clash of two of the classiest titans of batting: India and South Africa.

Sachin Tendulkar

Despite what we might read and hear about Indians and spin bowling, batting is what this country’s cricketers do best. The ball leaves their bats as if it was honoured to have been there in the first place. To see Sachin Tendulkar, his back foot as unmoved as the Taj Mahal itself, carve even the fastest deliveries through the covers as effortlessly as if he is scooping butterflies into a net is to see something us mere mortals have no hope of understanding. Good thing, then, that he is a god around these parts.

When Virender Sehwag mercilessly mugs a ball through midwicket we experience, from a safe distance, thuggery at its most violent and clinical. Nothing pretty, nothing gained – except another fistful of runs.

Sachin Tendulkar

South African batsmen grow up wearing grey shorts and inhibitions. Not for them the regal arrogance of their Indian counterparts. But they do not want for other methods to put runs on the scoreboard. Jacques Kallis makes us realise what happens when we take consciousness out of the process of ensuring bat makes solid contact with ball, no matter what. There is something unnerving in seeing his bat end up on a line parallel to his eyes as he finishes a straight drive that is exactly that: perfectly straight. Man maketh machine, or is it the other way round?

AB de Villiers is a blond – albeit balding – Zorro at the crease, ripping through his strokes with a barbed flourish and the promise of many more where that one came from. His hunger for runs will surely last longer than that thinning hair. It’s OK: Kallis knows a decent rug merchant.

These are some of the strangiosities that can leap behind your Ray Bans and into your mind as you endure another tuk-tuk trawl along Wardha Road from Nagpur to Jamtha, hoping to survive your umpteenth pointless World Cup press conference.

The media liaison pterodactyl Nazis hover menacingly, ready to pounce at the first hint of an untoward question. The answers from the player-victim placed just so on the podium so that he doesn’t obscure too many of the logos of the tournament sponsors behind him are banal enough to make you remember to wash your underwear when you get back to your hotel.

The diesel and dust and deadly heat must have something to do with the swirling weirdness, not to mention, on the big screen opposite the ground as you sit in a pressbox at least as long as an airport runway, the bizarre sight of someone surfing a wave the size of a small house and then skiing down a steepling slope. Of course, as it finds itself at the dead centre of India, Nagpur
might well be the place where this country’s magnificent madness converges.

It is, for example, here where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right wing Hindu nationalist movement, has been centred since its founding in 1925. RSS has been banned three times, both by the British colonial government and in democratic times, once after a former member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

So I was filled with dark hopes of drama when I arrived. But, in the same way that I was disappointed when, after touching down in Georgetown, Guyana, I was looked at skeefly and told it was not possible to venture into the jungle to visit Jonestown – where religious nutter Jim Jones killed 918 people with poisoned Kool-Aid in 1978 – it was deflating to realise that the stadium at Jamtha is not where the devil made Hansie Cronje do it.

Zapiro - Hansie Cronje

It was indeed at Nagpur on March 19, 2000 that Cronje, Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams conspired to manipulate a one-day international between India and South Africa. But that match was played at a ground that hasn’t been used for international games since 2007. I may yet have to seek it out, if only to see what ghosts lurk in its shadows.

Downtown in dear old Nagpur proper, amid the burfee merchants and bicycle rickshaws and shops stacked with shoes that look like they have been designed by someone who has been watching too much Cartoon Network, everyone want to know if this white fella is here “for the match”.

To confirm that as fact is to write off the next half-hour at least, to reasons why Piyush Chawla is not a palooka, and why Australia have no hope of winning a fourth consecutive World Cup, and why that nice Hansie Cronje wasn’t really a crook.

And if you protest that Cronje was as bent as a corkscrew, and that what we know of his crookery isn’t nearly all there is to it, you’re entirely likely to run into the kind of logic that coloured a
recent conversation with room service.
“Do you have brown bread, for toast?”
“The bread is white, sir. But when it comes out of the toaster, it is brown.”
Which, of course, makes about as much sense as arguing that the Proteas did not choke in their match against England in Chennai. The truth is that when your top six don’t have the balls to smack 172 between them, and you lose seven wickets for 41 runs, choke is a kind word for your performance. And, no, the pitch wasn’t that bad.

Which brings us to the pitch in Nagpur, which from a couple of hundred metres away looks brown and benign and utterly devoid of anything so profane as a single blade of grass. It looks not a little like a road fit for a truck to drive on, slowly.

*Opening image courtesy © abdevilliers.com

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