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                                THE PLAYER

       

            It was a typical Indian summer. It was 1’O clock in the afternoon and the sun was beating down on us without mercy. But the sun was not bothering us. We were in a very good mood.

            It was the final of the Intercollegiate Cricket Championships and the match had reached the halfway point. We had dismissed Andhra University for just 83 runs and it did not even take us the whole 25 overs to achieve the task. The Andhra University batsmen caved in by the 17th over. It was a surprising outcome as we were not considered much of a bowling team and we went back to the locker rooms very pleased with our effort.

            I had been the lucky charm for the team in the morning session. I got four important wickets with my part time medium pacers at a very economical rate. I guess they hadn’t watched me bowl before and hence the surprise element worked in my favor. I was sure they would take me down to pieces the next time we met them again, but I wasn’t thinking too much about that as all I was worried about was now.

            Most of the team members were feeling euphoric and considered it a cakewalk to score the required 84 runs in the allotted 25 overs. But not me. Not me. I could never be sure as long as I knew that Andhra University’s captain was Ajay.

Rajdhani express Ajay. Awesome Ajay. Amazing Ajay. These were just some of his nicknames and he did justice to everyone of them. That guy was just amazing. Andhra University had lost just once since he joined the college, Ajay, did not play in that match because of injury. It was as if playing cricket was his destiny. He was a perfectionist. He was constantly practicing. If he was not perfecting his run up then he would be tuning up his fielding or learning to reverse swing the ball. No, it was not going to be easy to beat Andhra university with Ajay in the line up.

“Vijay!”

Somebody was calling me. I turned around and saw coach Prakash come towards me.

“Well done boy! See, what a little practice in the nets gets you”, he said.

“But I am a little worried Vijay. Ajay is a seasoned campaigner and our boys seem a little overconfident. I want you to hold up the fort at one end and see us through. I want you to open the batting and lead from the front”.

“Oh, come on coach. Did you talk to Satish? He has the best batting average and he is the best batsman. Why did u come to me?”

“As I coach I am not supposed to tell you this, but anyway I have to tell you sometime. I know Satish has the best average, but as far as talent goes I think you are the best out there, bar none. I have always had a soft corner for you Vijay. But you never seem to do justice to your talent. It’s as if you are not trying. Batting comes naturally to you, but you just don’t put the effort to become the best. Now, I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but when your teammates see you not working hard enough it tends to reflect badly on you and it shows in their effort too. This is a very good opportunity and I want to give you one more chance to prove yourself. Think of it this way, I don’t want to expose Satish to the new ball and some one has to take the responsibility to face up to Ajay. Otherwise he will just rip through our batting order. You are the best player of the new ball on the team and so go out there and prove yourself.

“I will try my best coach”, I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know he had such high expectations of me. But as far as I was concerned it was bad coaching strategy. Now I was feeling tensed up. Up until that moment the match was not that important to me. But now I had a point to prove and usually in situations like this I would end up making a big mistake.

“All the best Vijay”, said coach and added, “Don’t forget, Priya will be in the stands. This will be your last chance to impress her until next season.”

“What…? How…? Who….?”, I blurted out. I was stunned to know that coach knew about my love for Priya. In fact even Priya did not know that I loved her. I was planning on proposing to her tomorrow. Maybe he just made a wild guess. Or maybe he was trying to tease me. Anyway, it won’t matter after priya accepts my proposal tomorrow.

“Come on Coach, we are just friends”, I finally managed to say.

“Yeah right, don’t sound like Salman Khan in Maine Pyar Kiya. At least be original”, he said with a grin.

“Anyway, what I want to stress is that she will never fall for your looks so at least try to impress her with your game.” Said coach Prakash with a grin.

 

“OK guys, huddle!” shouted coach Prakash.

His command was like a magnet. Within seconds everyone had gathered around him.

“Team, this is what you have been waiting for. You are in the finals and all you need to do is score 84 runs to go home with the trophy. I am not good at speeches. So I am going to keep this one short and sweet.”

“84, ……take time to put that number in your minds. That should be your goal. This is your mount everest. And you shouldn’t give up until you reach that goal. You won’t forget that number for the rest of your lives, win or lose. Making the memory sweet or sour is entirely in your hands. People say cricket is just a game. Yes, it is just a game, but how you play it reflects on what kind of a person you are. Up until this moment you have played like champions. You have faced all the battles and came out a winner. You just have to face one more battle, win it and you will win the war. Before you guys go out onto the field I would like to tell you guys one last thing. I will be proud of you no matter what. It took a lot of character to achieve what we have achieved this season and I am proud of you for that. Now all that you guys need to do is finish the job. And remember our motto: Always look up for inspiration, Never look down in desperation”

“GO GET THE CUP OSMANIA TIGERS.”

I felt the adrenaline rush through me as I heard his speech. I would play my heart out today. No one, not even Ajay was going to stop me.

 

 

 

 

The first thing that hit me as soon as I entered the ground was the heat. I was feeling very stuffy inside my helmet. I had half a mind to remove it, but I kept it on in respect to Ajay’s pace. “Come on” I reminded myself, “This is no time to think about silly stuff. Keep your mind on the game”. And then I heard the roar of the crowd. The realization that they were cheering for me sent a tingle up my spine. But at the same time it made me nervous. I didn’t know if I would live up to the crowd’s expectations but I certainly would play my heart out today. I slowly made my way up to the batting pitch with my fellow opener Ramu. I looked at him and saw that he was very nervous. He hadn’t had a great season and he was kind of hoping to make up for it in today’s final match. Ramu would open and I would be the runner today. Our opponents had already made their way into the ground and had taken up their places. Ajay, the teams’ captain had set up a very attacking field. I guess he had to as there was no way he could stop us from scoring the small target. The only way he was going to win the match was to get us all out. He had set up two slips and a gully for the catching positions. Looking at that I made up my mind that I would leave everything outside the offstump. If I could just hang around and score 20-25 runs, we would get 10-15 runs in extras and the rest of the team could chip in with the rest.

 

“Middle” shouted Ramu and lifted two of his right hand fingers to indicate to the umpire that he wanted a middle stump guard. Ajay had made his way unto his bowling mark. Everything was ready for the final half of the final match of the season to begin.

 

Even though he was my opponent, I couldn’t but admire Ajay’s run up. We used to call him the “Rajadhani Express” because he used to come in as smooth and deliver his balls as fast as the train “Rajadhani Express”. He was 6 feet tall and had broad shoulders. His eyes had a strong determination about them. There was a light breeze going around the ground and the breeze was hitting against his face ruffling his hair. He looked around once to see if every one was in their positions and started his run up and I prayed to God.

 

“HOWZZAAT”, everyone shouted. The first ball was a beauty. It pitched on middle and off and straightened up. Ramu had to play at it and there was a loud click as the ball got the edge of the bat and got deflected right into the hands of the wicket keeper. The umpire’s dreaded finger rose up. Ajay had stuck with his first ball. Our score was 0/1. Ramu began his long walk back. As much as a batsman likes to come into the ground to the roar of the crowd he hates it much more if he is out for a duck and has to walk all the way back with everyone’s eyes on him, some sympathizing, some antagonizing. 

 

Satish came out of the dressing room. He was our best batsman this season and a lot depended on him now. I had seen on T.V. that many top-level players go and meet the new batsman halfway down the ground as if they had something important to talk about. So I too went down to meet Satish. 

 

“Ajay is swinging the ball. Better look out for the swing” I cautioned Satish.

 

Satish also took a middle stump guard. Ajay came in once more and delivered a beauty. It pitched outside off stump and cut back in off the seam. But satish was ready for it. He saw the ball clearly and at the last moment tapped it back to the bowler. Carefully satish saw off the first over from Ajay. It was a maiden. It didn’t matter as long as we didn’t loose any wickets.

 

I had to face the bowling. I took an off stump guard just to be extra careful. Raja was sharing the new ball with Ajay. He was a very consistent bowler though he was not too dangerous. His first ball was a loosner. It was an over pitch ball which I took full advantage of. I waited until it came onto the bat and caressed it through covers for a four. The score moved onto 4/1 in 1.1 overs. The second ball was right on line. I could do nothing but tap it back slowly. He had settled into his rhythm very soon.

 

Both Satish and me played out the early hostile spell from the opening bowlers. We just gathered singles here and there and pushed the score to 13/1 in 4 overs slowly. At the end of the 4th over Ajay removed himself from the bowling attack. Maybe he wanted to keep his overs for the final attack. Since each bowler was given a quota of 5 overs he only had 3 more left. Now the second string bowlers would come into the attack. I beckoned to Satish to come near me so that I might speak to him.

 

“I think it’s time we took some risks. You hold out one end while I go for the shots. We don’t know when Ajay is going to come back into the attack, so we better make use of the opportunity while we have it.” I said.

 

“No Vijay. Coach said that you were to hold out one end while I was to take risks. I think we should follow his advice.”

 

“Look Satish you are the better batsman. You have the better average. It makes more sense for you to stay and play on till the end. I will go for the shots. Just listen to me this once.”

 

A resigned look came over satish’s face. He knew that there was no point in arguing with me.

 

“O.K.” he said. “But at least go for the shots in an intelligent manner”.

 

Rajesh was coming on to bowl. So they were turning to spin to get a wicket. Too bad they didn’t do their homework well. They did not seem to realize that I was a very good player against spin. Well this over was going to be sweet.

 

Rajesh flighted the first ball. I waited until the ball was halfway down the pitch and then took two sift steps towards the ball and made contact with the ball as soon as it fell on the ground. I didn’t give it a chance to turn. The ball hit the middle of the bat and the moment it hit the bat I realized that it was going to be a six. Our score jumped to 20/1. The next ball Rajesh dropped the ball a little short, but he overcompensated and I was ready for him. I rocked back and pulled the ball towards midwicket. Nobody moved. I had picked out the gap beautifully and the ball raced towards the boundary. The next ball I swept for two runs. I was on a roll here. But rajesh was a seasoned campaigner. He came back strong and all I could do with the next two balls was defend them. The last ball of the over he again overpitched and I just stood in my crease and lofted him over long on for another six. At the end of the over we were 32/1 and I knew that Rajesh would not get to bowl again today.

 

The next over we gathered six singles so that our score moved to 38/1. We were very near our goal now and I was feeling very confident.

 

Looking at the way the runs were accelerating Ajay brought himself on. Well, I was not worried now. I was on a roll and no one was going to stop me. Ajay came running down with full steam and delivered a full-fledged bouncer. I ducked away just in time and since the ball was above shoulder height it was called a no ball. The next ball was again a bouncer and again I ducked.

 

Ajay came down the pitch towards me and looked me straight in the eye and said “Chicken!” I knew he was taunting me, but I couldn’t hold back. 

 

“Mind your own business. And by the way, your business is to bowl within the spirit of the game, not bowl a whole slew of bouncers if you can’t get me out the normal way.” I retorted.

 

Ajay came closer and looked down at me. He was a good 4 inches taller than I was. But I didn’t waver. I looked right back at him in the eye.

 

“You are nothing but a dumbass chicken shit. You can’t even stand up to a bouncer. Maybe I should teach your mother on how to bring up a child to stand up like a man and not run and duck like a girl” he taunted me.

 

That did it. I don’t know why, but something just snapped inside me.

 

“Don’t bring my mother into this asshole. Who the fuck do you think you are?” I shouted and would have jumped on him if it were not for Satish who had come up and pulled me back.  The umpire saw the argument breaking out and came towards us.

 

“People, this is cricket. It is a gentleman’s game. Let us keep this a gentleman’s game. Now, if I see any more outbursts from either of you I will have to fine you. So all of you calm down and go back to your places.

 

“Sorry!” said Ajay to the umpire and went back as if nothing happened. But I was not able to let it go so easily. I was a very short-tempered guy and now it was hurting me. Satish tried to calm me down. 

 

“Calm down Vijay. Just concentrate on the match. He is taunting you. Now don’t loose your concentration and let him get the better of you. Do you hear me?” he said.

 

I did not hear a single word of what Satish said. I was still seething with anger over Ajay. How dare he talk about my mother. 

 

“Do you hear me?” repeated Satish.

 

    I nodded my acknowledgement though I had no idea what he was talking about. I went back to my batting crease. I would show him who was the master. Let him bowl as fast as he wanted to, I would beat the shit out of him. “Leg” I shouted to the umpire and held up three fingers to indicate to the umpire that I wanted a leg stump guard.

Ajay came running down and once again bowled a bouncer. I didn’t expect that but I was not going to duck this time. I saw the ball pitch just short of a length and rise up sharply. I rocked back on my right leg and hooked at the ball.

 

    “THUD”, the ball hit my helmet with such force that I was knocked off my balance. I got up immediately and tried to put up a brave face even though it hurt me inside the head. Ajay came towards me just a little bit and said, “Now I know why you duck, it’s because you suck”. And before I could say anything he turned back and went towards his bowling mark. The umpire hadn’t heard him and I knew it was just a waste of time trying to complain to the umpire. All I could do was teach him a lesson with my bat

.

    Once again Ajay came running down and delivered a bouncer. It was the fourth bouncer in a row. But this time I was ready. I rocked back and swiped at the ball.

“THUD”, the ball hit the middle of the bat and raced towards the boundary. I went down the pitch just a little bit so that Ajay was within my earshot and said, “I don’t chat. I bat”, and then I turned back.

 

    I    knew that Ajay was gonna come back at me again with a bouncer. But the pitch was slow and if a batsman expects a bouncer on a slow pitch then there is very little chance a bowler can do anything but stop bowling bouncers.

 

    I prepared once again to face a bouncer from Ajay. As he was running down towards me I could see the aggression in his eyes. He was going to bowl me a fast bouncer. He wanted to beat me for pace. So as soon as he lifted his arm to deliver I rocked back and was ready for his bouncer. But what happened next was not what I expected. Ajay bowled a yorker length delivery with such pace that before I could adjust my stance and bring down my bat, the ball whistled past my pads and crashed into my stumps. The pace of the ball took out the middle stump and threw it 15 feet away. I was shell-shocked. Ajay had thrown in the sucker punch and I had fallen for it like an amateur. All the 11 people of the opposing team jumped up in joy.

 

    “Sucker”, said Ajay as he passed me to celebrate with his team. How could I not have seen what was coming. Well anyway, our score was now 46/2 and we were still well on our way towards a victory. Ajay had given up 8 runs in his over to get me out. I was not gonna let this get me down. I played cricket because I enjoyed it. I didn’t want it to give me sorrow. So what if I had got out. I had played my part. I would just go back to the dressing room and relax and watch as my team played out the rest of the overs. Some of the crowd was clapping. I don’t know if they were clapping because I was gone or because they were appreciating my innings. I didn’t care. I slowly made my way back to the dressing room.

    “Well done Vijay. But you should have stayed on till the end”, said coach Prakash. 

 

    “ I know coach. But Ajay got on my nerve and frankly he beat me fair and square. I will just go in and refresh myself” I said and made my way into the bathroom.

I let the cold water run and washed my face with it. It felt so refreshing that I put my head under the running tap and let the cold water run through my hair and unto my face. The bathroom was so quiet and so cool that I sat down on the floor and rested for 10 minutes before I went back into the dressing room.

 

            The moment I entered the dressing room I knew something was wrong.

 

“I told you, you should have stayed on till the end Vijay.” said my coach dejectedly.

 

“Why? What happened?” I asked.

 

“Ajay got a hat-trick. And then he brought Rajesh on again since you were out, and you know how bad our team is against leg spin. He immediately got two wickets in his over.”

 

“What’s the score now?” I asked, though I didn’t want to hear it.

 

“49 for 6. Satish is the last recognized batsman out there.”

 

I had let down my team again. Now I knew reaching the target would be an uphill task. I started fidgeting. I could not bear the tension. I picked up a Perry Mason novel that had been left behind by a teammate and went into the spare room. I always did that. Whenever some trouble came up, I would try to run away from it and hope that the trouble would go away by itself. I just didn’t have the guts to stand up to difficult situations. Maybe there was some truth in what Ajay was saying when he taunted me. Maybe I was a sissy.

 

I sat down on the bed and started reading the Perry Mason novel. Erle Stanely Gardner was a great author. Whenever I read his books, I would be transported into another world. 

 

            I was midway through the book when Satish came inside the room. I looked up at him and saw the dejected look in his eyes.

 

“What’s the margin of defeat?”, I inquired.

 

“11 runs. I ran out of partners. Why did you have to hit out Vijay? I told you to stay put, but you wouldn’t listen to me. We could have won the match Vijay. We could have won it.” His voice broke down. I could see the tears well up in his eyes.

 

“Take it easy Satish. You did your best. There will always be a next time”, I tried to comfort him. But it was a feeble effort and I knew it.

 

“Come on let’s go outside. The presentation ceremony is about to start and we need to be present there”.

 

            “The man of the match is AJAY for his wonderful bowling spell”, announced the announcer. “ He is also the man of the series”.

 

            Ajay went up the podium to receive the awards and posed for some photographs. I would have given anything in the world then to wipe the smile of his face. Human Nature is a complex thing. All Ajay did was play his heart out and win. And here I was trying to figure out ways with which I could take away his happiness.

 

            “And the winner of the Intercollegiate 2000-2001 cricket series is Andhra University”. Everybody started shouting and applauding. The 11 members of the Andhra University team ran up the podium, picked up the cup and held it up for everyone to see. Everyone around me was happy. They were having the time of their life while I was wallowing in my sorrow. I started to get lonely. I wanted to be comforted. I looked around to see a happy familiar face. But all I saw was the faces of my teammates who were in the same position as me. So I looked into the stands and there I saw Priya. She was also obviously searching for me and our eyes met at the same time. She gave me a sympathetic look and I winked and smiled at her to show that everything was all right. There was something about her that made me forget everything else. I looked at her standing in the stands looking back at me. She was 5’4”. She was wheatish in color and she had long lustrous hair, which came down halfway down her back. She had an almost perfect figure, which made heads turn, when she walked by. But the most important aspect of her which attracted her to me were her eyes. She had eyes which would take one look at you and recognize all the faults that you had but at the same time forgive those faults and accept you for what you are. I had met her on the first day of my college life which was now 3 years old. It was not love at first sight, but I knew that there was something special about her. By the end of first year we were close friends and as the years went by our friendship became stronger. But still it hadn’t turned to love. It was only one or two months back that I was starting to realize that maybe I was in love with her. Now don’t ask me how friendship turned to love or what made me think I was in love now and not before. Frankly, I don’t know. Maybe I was in love with her from the time I first saw her or maybe I fell in love as I got to know her better through my friendship. I didn’t care. All I knew was that just looking at her would lift my spirits and I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life. Right now I wanted to talk to her badly. I needed to hear her comforting voice telling me that everything was all right and that I had tried my best. She was wearing a red T-shirt and blue jeans and she looked all the more striking. I pointed the side door of the stands to her indicating that I wanted her to come there so that I could talk to her.

 

“Get the gang to come tonight to our meeting place. I have something to tell you guys”, I said to Satish. Satish, four other classmates and me had formed a group and we used to hang out together. They were my best friends in the whole world and I never did anything important without consulting them. Today I wanted to tell them that I was going to propose to Priya and wanted to hear what they thought about it.

 

“O.K. what time?” asked Satish.

 

“8:30 p.m after dinner”, I said and ran towards the side door of the stands to meet Priya.

 

She was waiting for me. There was a light breeze going across the ground and it was pushing her hair across her face and she was brushing it aside with her hand. She

 looked so beautiful standing there that it was only with the greatest restraint that I stopped myself from kissing her.

 

“Tough luck. Don’t worry, everything will be all right. You did your best.” she said. 

 

“Yeah, I know. But I shouldn’t have thrown away my wicket. My team depended on me”, I said. I was just being hard on myself so that I would get more sympathy from Priya.

 

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did what you thought was best at that time. There will always be a next season. Anyway, are we still on for the movie tonight?”, asked Priya.

 

Damn, I had completely forgotten about the movie plan tonight and I had already asked my friends to meet me tonight.

 

“Sorry Priya. I promised my friends that I would meet them tonight. We have something important to discuss. Can I take a rain check on the movie. What about next Saturday?” I asked hopefully.

 

A disappointed look came into Priya’s eyes. I knew she was looking forward to spending the evening with me. But she quickly disguised the disappointment and said “No problemo chief. You go and enjoy with your friends while I will just lie around my house. After all what am I but a useless trinket for you to show around.”

 

She was trying to be playful. Well, I would play along then.

 

“Who said you are just a trinket in my life. You are not even that. And who said I am showing you off. As much as I try to get rid of you, you keep tagging along. Is it my fault that I am so smart that you can’t resist me?” I teased.

 

“YOU!” she shouted and punched me in the shoulder. “Get out of here before I hurt you!”

 

“OK sweetie pie, I am going. But don’t forget to come to Pick ‘n Move tomorrow afternoon at 1:00. I have to talk to you.”

 

“OK, see ya” she said and went away.

 

I looked at my watch. It was already 5:30 p.m. I just had time to rush home grab some dinner and make to our meeting spot. My friends were in for a shock tonight. Though Priya and me were very close no one thought that we were in love. Everyone thought we were just friends. Well, today I would surprise my friends and watch their reaction. But most importantly I wanted to know what they thought about my decision.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                   TO BE CONTINUED ……..