Continuing my series [Baba Deewana] on people who inspired me (a spin-off on the chapter in my book “May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss” on inspirational movies of the 90s) , I present to you yet another of my gurus.
Bhagwan ke liye tujhe chod doon to main kya khayoon—Prasad?
-Shakti Kapoor (Insaniyat Ki Dushman)
Cricket provided role models and life lessons for people who were at their formative stages in the 90s. Vinod Kambli taught us that without self-control, one can keep on flunking Class 11 even when you are the second best boy in class, Azharuddin taught us why you should not spend so much time on the phone talking to friends and Inzamam showed us how you should never ever be provoked even when people called you a potato.
But the man who influenced me most was, without doubt, Venkatesh Prasad.
For starters, he convinced me never to go by appearances.
Now normally a person who Ravi Shastri would use the sobriquet “strong strapping lad” to describe and whose job description included the three words “Right arm fast” would be expected to bowl fast. Most of the time.
His shock ball was the slow-leg cutter till very soon it became his stock ball, with the shock ball now being the slower leg-cutter. A few years down the line that became his stock ball and yes you guess it his shock ball was now the even slower leg-cutter.
As a matter of fact, according to legend, once it seems the non-striker, Arjuna Ranatunga, had detected the leg-spin grip when Prasad was about to deliver the ball. Aware that the batsman facing up, Chaminda Vaas, was not skilled enough to read the finger position, Ranatunga walked to the other end(at Ranatungian pace), whispered in his ear “Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas, this guy has bowled a leg-cutter”, Vaas said “Thanks for telling me. Not a surprise though. After all what else could it be !” , then told Ranatunga two jokes about overweight, potbellied people which angered Ranatunga who then walked back to the popping crease, just in time for the ball to reach the batsman.
Someone once told me that Samuel Beckett, himself a very good cricketer, wrote En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), a play about people waiting for something that never arrives, after batting against Prasad (a homage line being “Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can’t you, once in a way?”), but I find that tough to believe.
Besides inspiring me to pace my life properly, Prasad also showed me the power of giving. Match after match, he would keep on giving to the batsmen till they got tired of hitting him round the park and gave up their wickets in sheer embarrassment. And yet the smile on his face would never vanish.
The true generational significance of Prasad, which is why I am such a fan, is because he exorcised India of the demons of defeat. Yes I am referring to the six off last ball at Sharjah that broke us totally—-so much so that teams never believed they could look at Pakistan in the eye. In 1996, on a magical night in one of the crucial games of the decade, the kind that comes rarely in history, when Aamir Sohail raised his bat to taunt India, Prasad, normally the angel of peace and giving, snapped in a way that made me stand up, my throat choked with emotion. In real life, we may react to 26/11 by surrendering and licking boot in Sharm-el-Sheikh but at least on the cricket pitch, we will give as good as we get. It was Venkatesh Prasad who sent that message with the uprooted stump and the earful that, to use a phrase from Gladiator, “echoed in eternity” and taught us once again that we can defeat Pakistan. At least on the field.
While many do remember that act of Prasad, what many forget is Prasad’s encore performance in the next World Cup in 1999. Against the same opposition. Akram had taunted India’s strength by calling it a practice match. With the shadow of Kargil, the man who raised his arm was Venkatesh Prasad destroying the Pakistani batting line-up, then one of the strongest in the world, in another lethal display of “rising to the occasion” concluding the match, tellingly, with the wicket of Wasim Akram. Pakistan was advancing to the semis and we were almost out. But the magic of Prasad was that despite this, he made Pakistan feel defeated and us swell like champions.
It would not be unfair to say that Pakistan brought out the best in Prasad, including once taking five wickets for zero runs in a Test match in 1999. Of course Pakistan never forgave him for his repeated demolitions of their batting line-up with the Jang-iya group even carrying an article during IPL 1.0 saying that Prasad as a coach of Royal Challengers apologized for leaving out Misbah-ul-Haq. But we know better.
The 90s were a tumultous time— marked by increasing commercialization of the game, match fixing, collusion between opposing teams and other similar malfeasance. Now of course the game has changed a lot, match-fixing, money power, influence-peddling and politicking are a thing of the past and people like Sreesanth have emerged the role-models of today.
And yet the main man remains, a beacon of light to people like us, a living lesson that while slow and steady may not hit the target always, it sure does make the ride worth taking.
[Picture courtesy the Hindu]