Perched directly behind the bowler’s arm, Ajit Agarkar’s to be precise, in the Sir Donald Bradman stand at the Adelaide oval, the heat was flat, dry and in the mid-thirties. Capped with the strong Australian light, without a trace of humidity, it made one ask why Australian teams complained when they toured the sub-continent.
The air-conditioning notwithstanding, it made me perspire just to think of buttoning a collar, let alone yoking oneself to a tie. The Bhogles, Shastris and Gavaskars strolling around on breaks from TV commentary duties, contractually obligated to suffer under the noose, looked like they might have been far more comfortable in the South Indian veshti-banian (white wrap-singlet), or perhaps a loose cotton kurta.
Which was exactly what Peter Roebuck had on as he came around the corner, his straw hat crowning patrician features, telling a companion Indian journalist in that clipped and firm voice “I don’t know why you wouldn’t wear a kurta in such weather”.
The occasion was of course the watershed match when India trumped Australia in Australia for the first time in 23 years. It was notable for Ponting and Dravid’s double centuries, Ajit ‘Bombay Duck’ Agarkar’s 6-for, and it must be said, the teenage Parthiv Patel’s woeful ‘keeping.
For me, it was the first sighting of the man, long listened to, who it was said was getting to be a more widely read English writer in India than P.G.Wodehouse. For long had I admired his neatly struck coinages ‘leather-flingers’ and the one that combined English wit with a dig at the upstart colonials;
“Yousuf Youhana was only the fifth Christian to play for Pakistan, a number higher, one supposes, than have played for Australia”.
As the series made its way to Melbourne, Srini Vasan of Melbourne’s ‘Indian Voice’ organised a buffet with the cricketing faithful during the course of the Boxing day test. To bear out Kerry O’Keefe’s introduction in ‘Sometimes I forgot to laugh’, it was in a ‘one-star’ Indian restaurant out in the suburbs. The audience was largely of Indian origin and still delirious after the Adelaide win and Sehwag’s 195 on the first day at the MCG. We quietened down and listened in rapt silence to Peter’s views on the day’s play. The event concluded with what soon became an annual ritual; Srini presenting Peter with a kurta.
But that was not all. The restaurateur emerged with a bottle of wine. Peter graciously accepted the bottle but it was followed up with a marker pen and a semaphored request for a signature. Peter signed with a rueful smile and handed the bottle back to the clueless restaurateur amid much raucous laughter.
The Boxing Day Test buffet soon became a much looked-forward-to annual event thanks to Srini Vasan and Peter Roebuck. Given this was not a publicised event, a flurry of calls elicited the venue of each year’s event and Peter soon grew to recognise us regulars.
Mario Puzo wrote “The migrant retains with him a fossilized image of the country he left behind”. As these dinners progressed over the years, Peter, who travelled to India more often and widely than we could or did, became quite the voice of India. Peter began painting for us first hand the image of an India that was changing and growing beyond the realms of our ‘fossilized image’. Our discussions spanned Indian fast food to changing mores and moralities. One either imagined or sensed his wistful nostalgia for the fast disappearing days of genteel cricketers as epitomised by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and the alarming rise of Cricket moms.
Far from the popular view the cricketing world has of him being an apologist for Indian cricket, I consider him to be more of a realist, closer to the action.
On one occasion, we were as usual playing armchair generals and castigating the BCCI. He took a contrary view and without disagreeing, made constructive observations that could only come from one who had begun to understand how such an essentially Indian organisation as the BCCI worked.
That was as telling a metaphor to underline that we had drifted away from comprehension while he had begun to arrive closer to the centre.
RIP Peter. The world of cricket will be a lesser place without you.
P.S. Here’s a link to the last such event.