Prose | Harish Mohan

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Shekhar Joshi and the sport of life

The time reads 07:30 am on a large oversized clock which dangles in long intervals at the platform of the Vadodara railway station. As you walk up to it, you read  the words ‘ Time Controls’ written in big black front placed right at the center.  I recalled having seen something similar at the Mumbai Central railway station. These must be old Victorian clocks from the British era which must have stayed on with the Indian Railways.

On this unusually cold morning towards the end of March, I found myself philosophizing in front of that grand clock of the railway station. By my accounts, I had reached early and there were about 15 minutes before the arrival of the train. I had seen enough of the surroundings to be thrilled by any new phenomenon particularly so early in the morning. I had seen the porters still reluctant to make their peace with the morning while chatting with the food vendors over a cup of badly brewed tea from the vending machines. I had seen the dogs being shooed away by the people who used to clean the railway station. They are a happy and a proud lot these days. They have been given fresh clean uniforms by the government. Under the Swacch Bharat initiative, they seem to have found a new sense of respect. At least the dogs definitely seemed to think so, or it seemed from their faces.

With nothing much to do, I ventured out slowly to the newspaper vendor hoping to buy a book which may keep me occupied if I was not asleep on the train. The newspaper vendor looked at me with a happiness which made me think that I was his first customer for the day. As my eyes searched through the magazines, I heard a faint chuckle on the other end of the stall.

“Saala, bach gaye kal. Match jeet gayein.”

These were the only words I could make out from his betel-stained mouth. It was not too difficult to see who they were. The two ticket collectors stood out the platform in their black jackets draped over a white uniform with a pink tie. They were the figures of authority, government servants who had got a comfortable job in the Railways and now seemed to be cherishing their slow paced life. The man who had said these words was a bit on the older side, with his faint flickering white moustache. On his right was what seemed to be a man just about entering his middle age. He looked to be about 5 years older than I am and I am by no means young. ( Officially, that can be vouched by the fact that I have even crossed the great demographic that the National Population register calls as the ‘youth of India’.) The man on the right, who looked like the younger of the two, seemed to silently approve the remarks of his superior.  Not wanting to be a fly on the wall in the conversation, I immediately picked up the newspaper and rushed to the nearest bench to read it.

I can still see the two from the corner of the eye. Their figures are blurred, existing only in silhouettes. I am trying to keep my attention on the newspaper but there is something at the back of my mind that seems to bother me. I cannot really put a finger on it, but it seems to be one of those tiny little nuggets of thought that have led a dormant existence in some deep dark corner of the brain and are now crawling on the surface of the cranium to express itself.

The face of the young ticket collector seems so familiar but I just cannot commit it to memory. My eyes are wide awake as I begin to shake off my stupor. Both of them have their back towards me now. They exchange the names of the passengers on the list. The younger one has broad shoulders and as he turns towards his superior to exchange and submit the final list, a small little ponytail at the back of his head flutters in the air. The only term I can give for it is the one we used to call it in our childhood, the puchdi.

The puchdi. It was Shekhar Joshi after all.

Even though it has been about 20 years, I remember the events of that morning today with as much freshness and clarity with which I now recall Shekhar’s face. I had enrolled myself into the Kiran More Sports Cricket Academy during my school vacations and found myself training for cricket with many other talented cricketers. It was more a reflection of my childhood dream to pick up a sport in any way and excel at it. During all those family functions when relatives used to prod us and ask that all too familiar question about what it was that you wanted to be when you grew up, I would always say that I didn’t really know. But I knew. Deep down, all I ever wanted to be was a sportsman. So to the constant bewilderment of my parents, I signed up for every sporting course available in the vacation and cricket happened to be one of them.

I used to go to the KMSCA grounds in the morning batch. There were very few players who used to come in the morning batch. Most of them were school kids who were sent for their vacation camps. They were called the amateurs. Then there were those who mostly belonged to the evening batch. They used to come to the morning for some early warm-ups, bowling drills, and light exercise. These consisted mostly of Ranji probables and the people who were filled with potential wanting to make it to the Ranji team. They were called the seniors. In between both of them were the people who were potentially good and more skilled than the school kids, but really not good enough to make it to the evening batch which used to be more intense and had greater competition. I say this because, on some rare days, I was called to the evening batch and asked to bowl leg spin for over two hours at the nets to local cricketers who were polishing their skill for the rest of the season. Looking back, it was one of the greatest moments of my short life as a wannabe sportsman. But a more apt description for it would be the Spanish phrase  ‘Fuera Bonita Miestra Duro’ which literally translates to ‘It was great while it lasted.’

There were different coaches for the morning as well as the evening batch. Funnily enough, in the morning batch, the coaches thought of me more as a batsman than a bowler. There were hardly a handful of potential batsmen in the ‘ in betweens’ as I called them  and this meant that during the morning nets, I had a good chance to have a twenty minute net in front of the bowling machine and the local ‘senior’ bowlers.  This was the greatest moment of glory in what was an otherwise dull morning training session. There was a small kid who showed amazing skills who used to pad up first at the nets. The coach and the bowlers took it easy with the kid. The seniors would run up short and bowl their arms over to the kid who would time each ball with effortless ease. I was up second after the kid. By the time  I went and took my mark at the crease after the kid had left, the senior bowlers had gone back to their original run up and marked their territory by ferociously brushing their studs against the turf.

It was scary.

Fast bowling is the most beastly act in cricket which is often called a gentleman’s game. Everything that they tell you in television about facing fast bowling is true. The heart palpitates at an unbelievably fast rate. The feet try and shuffle a bit if they are not shivering. As a fast bowler approaches the bowling crease with the gait of a horse and the body of a bull armed with a big red leather ball in his hands, all you can hope is put your feet where the ball pitches and hope for the bat to connect with the ball. This, of course, is a highly unlikely event. The more likely event is that before you can blink your eyes and put your feet forward, the ball has already whooshed  past your body and the world around you looks shaded in a dizzy haze. You are then brought to earth by the grunt of the fast bowler as he catches up with his breath at the end of the run facing you with a glare.

As I marked my spot and looked forward to face the bowlers at the nets today, I try and scan the herd of fast bowlers for all potential signs of warning. There is the usual lot and having faced them a bit now, I can sense whether they would be hostile purely by their mood before the run-up. That morning with the rest of the bowlers, there is a new addition from the evening batch.

Shekhar Joshi.

It was difficult to miss Shekhar during the evening batches. He was one among many of the young boys who had come from Ratlam for the camp. Most of them had  fought with their parents to take up cricket as a professional sport. Their arrival was their sign of rebellion and independence.  They were a bunch that stayed together in cramped rooms and looked around for jobs when not training to become professional cricketers. Cricket in those days was hardly a shade of the glamorous sport that it is today, but they still carried those dreams in their eyes which had never left them  as children.  Shekhar was the apple of every coach’s eye including Kiran More. They had singled him out for his pace and felt that he could belong to that rare breed of Indian cricket who are called fast bowlers or pacemen.

Shekhar was quick, agile, athletic and used to train immensely hard. He carried with him the fancies of adolescence as he sported long hair and cracked lewd jokes about women with other boys when the coach was not looking. But when it came to playing at the nets, he bowled with a zeal and uprooted many a stumps and bones of Baroda hopefuls. The coaches groomed him as a long term Ranji prospect. Even in the elite batch, batsman used to take turns to face Shekhar in the nets.

This was it then. Taking my stance, I looked up to the heavens one last time to tell the almighty that I was too young to die. Shekhar started the session and the other bowlers were to follow. He came with a brisk gallop and delivered the first ball with his trademark grunt. I heard the sound of the ball kiss the concrete and thud against the net ropes. The pattern repeated itself with most of the fast bowlers. Shekhar beat me many times before my coach rose up in exasperation and asked me to hit the ball in the covers imagining that there is a gap in there. It was the last round of the nets having completed four out of the mandatory five rounds allocated to each batsman. The coach walked up and shouted ‘Last Round’ which meant that the batsman had the liberty to explode if he wished to. Shekhar took a step back and allowed all the other bowlers to bowl their share of the deliveries. On my last ball, Shekhar looked down before the run-up and then looked up immediately, beginning his charge on the crease. The coach and the rest of the players took a break to watch the last ball as Shekhar had a longer run up. Out came the jump before the crease, the ball left his right forearm like a slingshot and connected with my bat right in its sweet spot.


After having finished that net session I sat down and watched the morning sky against the large backdrop of the cricket ground.  The indescribable feeling of exhilaration that came over me made me believe that this is why my dream of being a sportsman in some form was worth it. Because sport, they say is war minus the bloodshed. It is the most glorified form of combat there exists. This holds true for the team and individual sports. Probably more so in an individual sport, as the biggest demon, you are fighting in an individual sport is the one within you. But perhaps that was not the only glorious thing about sport and why most of us as kids cultivated that desire of becoming a sportsman. Sport teaches us to be a gracious loser, accept and assess our strengths and weaknesses and on some levels, makes us more aware of whom we are as individuals.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3)

In his seminal book, the psychologist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi explores a condition of optimum performance in the human mind.  These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now.  Athletes tend to call it as ‘being in the zone’.  All of us  course are likely to experience this state hopefully in every aspect of life at some time or the other. But the most beautiful physical depiction of this is through the medium of sport. You must have seen it or experienced it while playing a sport. You are simply one with your physical motions and there exists as a sense of timelessness as you execute your actions with grace and each action is produced with an optimum effect.  You may see this in a Roger Federer backhand on TV as much as you can see it in the intense monologue of a brilliant actor towards the end of a movie.  The world of language has also lent some adjectives unique to the phenomenon of sport called gamesmanship and sportsmanship which can be seen perhaps in all walks of life but comes from the practice of playing or watching a sport.

I was to see Shekhar only once more before this fortuitous meeting. It was another chance encounter in the local municipal swimming pool.  I had heard of him on and off, having once read his name in the newspapers as he eventually went on to play for the Vadodara Ranji team.  Stealthily, my chest swelled with pride at having known and played with a sportsman, albeit for the brief tenure of one bright morning. He was there at the pool in a much more stout and portly frame. He was teaching his kid how to swim and seemed to enjoy it. I was not surprised to see that he hardly recalled my face as we exchanged glances for a second. But I was amused at how a figure who I had admired and dreaded so much as a fast bowler was now a happy dad trying to teach his toddler to rough the waves.

But as they say, a sport is not life and life is not a sport. Cut to the present and I find myself running to catch my train which has arrived. I have the newspaper bent against my arm as I settle myself into my window seat . I open the newspaper and the front page carries a big photo of Sushant Singh Rajput as a railway collector playing the enigmatic Indian captain M S Dhoni in his biopic. The story is about MS Dhoni’s rag to riches story from being a ticket collector on the Eastern Railway. I strain my eyes to catch a glimpse of Shekhar Joshi in an animated conversation with a passenger through my window which is glazed with the morning mist. It should come as no surprise that being a true mascot of the “in betweens” in my cricket academy,  Shekhar still doesn’t have any clue about who I am. But as our train leaves and I find him looking onward with the hum of the train whistle and the figure of the giant Victorian clock as a backdrop, I try and picture the present portrait of the man who I once  admired  and dreaded as an aspiring childhood cricketer.

Put together, the journeys of M S Dhoni and Shekhar Joshi say all there is to say about all those professional sportsmen who live out their lives in the hope of achieving their dream. Some make it and some don’t. After a small stint with the Vadodara Ranji team, Shekhar seems to have made his peace by being a railway employee and watching the trains go by on the Vadodara platform as the big clock passes by us with its ominous words that still read “Time Controls”.

(P.S  Much as I would love to say that this whole thing was a figment of my imagination, Shekhar Joshi is actually a real person. His Cricinfo profile is here)

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