The beads of perspiration that painstakingly formed on my forehead before slowly trickling down the face were more to do with the nervous anticipation than the sweltering heat generated by a blazing sun. As I made sure that I was reasonably aware of the exact position of my off-stump (for what might have been the umpteenth time, there being no umpire to help me in this endeavour), the bowler beset with a sense of growing unease and understandable impatience stood with hands on hips and hurled a steely glare in my direction. Possessing a barrel for a chest and boulders for biceps, the tall and strapping lad with the cherry in hand was an intimidating sight. His hair was closely cropped and stood on their ends like tiny porcupine quills that were reluctant to attain their standard and acceptable measure. With a quasi-sadistic view to heighten my sense of intimidation, the bowler turned away from his bowling mark and with an ominous sense of purpose, increased the distance from where he would come hurtling in. It was going to be nothing short of a baptism by fire. After what might seem to have been an eternity, I finally turned towards my opponent, crouched a bit and anxiously began tapping my willow on the ground. The man with the ball in hand started his run-up with measured ease and with long loping strides gathered speed and momentum as he glided into his delivery stride. The right palm that held the ball firmly in its grasp was grotesquely huge and the enveloping fingers long and sturdy. At the point of delivery, the left arm was raised, neither too high nor too very low and the right arm came into position nice and easy and released the ball in a swinging arch that was in tandem with an appreciative loose limbed leap. The ball after pitching reared off a good length and before I could even get into position to essay a protective stroke, came hissing at me with pure and undisguised venom, rapping me heinously and hard right on the thumb!
Emitting an involuntary howl and throwing the bat away, I tried flexing the tormented part of the anatomy gauging the probabilities of a potential break. Even though I was fortunate enough to have come off with a nasty bruise that transformed into an ugly clot the suffering was explicit and severe. Spurred on by a sense of foolish bravado, I decided to remain at the crease. After 8 unconvincing, uncomfortable and ungainly runs, I spooned a rare loosener delivered by my tormentor, straight into the safe hands of a gleeful mid-off. No batsman ever would have been as much relieved as yours truly to have abdicated such an abject stay at the crease. At the end of the game, the fierce fast man offered me his commiserations and also had an appreciative word or two for what I honestly felt, was a display of silly gumption. Not only had I faced Mahendra, but I had also managed to glean some respect out of him!
Hailing from a district situated at a distance of 100 kilometres from Bangalore, Mahendra was born and bought up in a modest household. Never one to be shackled or bogged down by the rigours of academics, Mahendra hardly ever used to make the grades in school and was a constant and consistent headache for family and the fraternity of teachers alike. However, when it came to manipulating a cricket ball, he had no parallel. Apparently his only stated purpose of existence was to bowl and keep on bowling till kingdom come.
Unpretentious and unassuming he had no coach to teach him the nuances of either nip and tuck or swing and seam. He perfected his bowling action by bowling for an interminably long number of hours day after day and week after week at anybody who would be willing to wield a willow against him. Since there was an understandable scarcity of volunteers, Mahendra was often times a solitary figure running in against and with the wind to keep hurling the ball against a stone compound wall adjacent to the school campus. He could not be bothered whether the seam was upright or scrambled. He had no notion whatsoever of the difference between a ball swinging into the pads (or the bare legs as was the case invariably) of the batsman or the one moving away tantalisingly past the outstretched edge of a flailing blade. In fact at times, during the non-availability of leather balls, the unimaginatively titled ‘cork’ balls used to be in employ. Bereft of a seam, these hard solid red fiends had the unerring capability to imperil batsmen in multifarious ways. The absence of basic protective gear such as abdominal guards for example could have the unenviable effect of terminating a whole lineage of a family with an unfortunate batsman! One more fascinating aspect that I learnt over the course of an enriching friendship with Mahendra was the fact that he did not believe in the concept of having a fixed run-up! The concept of a bowling mark was a veritable misnomer and an absolutely nebulous notion. If he felt like engaging in a bout of intimidation, the run-up was accordingly extended. On days of disinterest and disinclination (which were very rare and restricted to those where he was slightly indisposed), there was a dramatic shortening of the run-up to the crease! However Mahendra could generate considerable pace even from a short and curtailed run. Rumours had it that on a couple of occasions, Mahendra had clocked up such a searing pace that he was responsible for the breaking of a couple of gingery bats! Though I was not privileged enough to witness this extraordinary incident, I firmly believe that it is more of a fable than a fact. Mahendra himself though, diplomatically has neither affirmed nor disputed this claim!
Entreaties and impassioned pleas from kindred souls to for an enrolment at a decent coaching centre at Mysore elicited no action. Though he would listen to our arguments with rapt attention, nodding his head at frequent intervals, the ‘porcupine’ never considered such a prospect to be appealing. He was contented doing what he had taught himself and he also had this baffling notion that all coaches would be merely cantankerous task masters. Using the physical instructor of our school as a sphere of influence was also an exercise in futility as Mahendra did not find the timid soul to be a catalyst that could rouse him from his self-imposed mental slumber. In my humble opinion of the dissuading factors could have been a trouble which he had over the English language and about which he felt extremely uncomfortable and regarding which he was overtly conscious. Being an avid cricketer himself, it was an unbelievable fact that he religiously shunned watching cricket matches on television. He would instead spend time aimlessly wandering the streets near his residence accumulating company of various hues and cries, some tolerable and the majority, undesirable.
As I completed my schooling and shifted base to the Garden City of Bangalore, I lost touch with this splendid character. Internet and instant messaging were concepts about the advent of which we had little or no prescience. However a few months ago, an old acquaintance called to inform that Mahendra had met with a horrific road accident and was paralysed below the waist. It was unthinkable to envisage this effervescent cricketer and more importantly, an exuberant personality being confined to the four corners of a bed. Friends who knew him sensed that it would only a matter of time before the dignified spirit and the dour self-esteem would be replaced by a sense of despondency and dread. Unfortunately the naysayers and doomsday prophets were right in their prediction as soon afterwards Mahendra developed some serious complications and decided to end his earthly sojourn. He was all of 35 years old.
With the requisite coaching and thrust Mahendra might or might not have matured into a cricketer of merit with a genuine prospect of making it to higher levels. Since most of the cricket played by us as kids was in the hinterlands without much exposure to cricket and cricketers of more illustrious and bigger cities, Mahendra as a fast bowler might even have been an exaggerated figment of an overworked collective imagination. Maybe the warmth he exuded and the bond of friendship that he shared might have clouded many a rational judgement and lent a personal bias that might have accentuated his feats with the ball. But there was no doubt that when it came to passion, practice and performance, there could be few who were as genuine as this affable ‘porcupine’.
All those batsmen of repute who have already met their Maker better be ready as they might be jolted out of their reverie of complacency. And the willows they employ up above better be sturdy and strong! RIP CHAMP! YOU WERE THE BEST!