At 34/3, India was looking down the barrel yet again. And for the umpteenth occasion, the barrel turned out to be one bathed in yellow-green hues. With each passing game against the Kangaroos, India was taking predictability nearer perfection. For the Indian supporters, the scores and the result had long become matters of mere academic interest. The actual point of discussion lay more and more in the margin and the shamelessness of the defeat.
The day had started, yet again, with most things going right for India. The pitch at Eden Gardens had looked as good as any other for batting, the sun shone brightly in a sky shorn of even the tiniest hint of cloud cover, Australia’s best bowler, Shane Warner was out with an injury and they had managed to win the toss. The decision to bat was one that even the dumbest character on the planet would’ve considered a no-brainer. The execution so far was not turning out to be very different either.
The Kolkata crowd had swarmed into the ground with an enthusiasm that belied the team’s recent performances. They had looked on expectantly as the match referee, the two captains and the mandatory and totally unnecessary television commentator had wandered out towards the pitch for the toss. They had roared in unison with a zeal that would’ve put a tsunami-infested ocean to shame when the massive scoreboard informed them that India had won it and had then proceeded to outdo themselves when the opening batsmen had emerged from the dressing rooms. They had produced a stunned silence when the first wicket fell off the first ball, looked on in despair as their team had poked and prodded its way to double digits in the seventh over, had resorted to an angry booing when the second wicket had fallen which had become even more vociferous when the third had followed suit and were on the verge of hysteric mass destruction when Sunil Singh had walked in. In an instant, even as the stupefied fielding side took in the incredulously fickle and chameleon-ic ways of them, they had discovered new vigor and resorted to delirious chanting again. Other than the fact that it had looked and sounded quite ridiculous, it had also made Sunil look like a messiah, second not even to Christ himself.
Sunil Singh was the best batsman India had produced in the last two years. His rise to superstardom within six months of his debut was attributed as much to his cricketing exploits as to his ‘Greek God’ countenance. His bat had talked for those months. And since then he’d talked more than the bat. Endorsement offers had rained upon him from every known quarter; insipid and oft-repeated interviews were aired more frequently than he scored his runs. Thankfully, however, his bat had managed to hold its own against the competition from these verbal devices, and he had continued to demolish oppositions and mesmerize spectators around the world.
The first two deliveries saw Sunil unleash two exquisite square driven boundaries. The average human being, in most cases (the generalization tends to become a tad more accentuated where the un-fairer sex is concerned), is not allocated a significant quantity of that intangible commodity known as intuition, which someone with an obviously well developed numerical intellect and a retarded sense of the beauty of English language alternately also termed as ‘Sixth sense’. But there are those rare occasions when this commodity does lend itself favorably to a very large chunk of the populace, and this was one such occasion. Everyone intuitively felt that they were going to witness something out of the ordinary. A murmur of subdued but hopeful anticipation went around the ground. The buzz in the stadium was back. Sunil Singh acknowledged this refreshed vigor with another imperious straight drive. The contest had begun.
For the cricket enthusiast and the players themselves, the Eden Gardens is, undoubtedly, the best stadium in the world, comfortably outshining its nearest rival for the exhilarating experience it offers. It is a ground which lives the game. Every blade of grass seems to resonate with an intensity that is unmatched till it remains unseen. The seats might perhaps have been less taxing on the human posteriors, but that hardly matters; the human posterior hardly has occasion to descend on the seats.
One man, however, was continuously refuting this tradition and had been doing so for quite sometime. Seated right above the dressing room (A location that afforded one of the best views of the proceedings), he sat in rapt attention, and watched the game unfold.
Sudhir Vyas was generally a likeable character. At forty four, he still carried a juvenile sense of humor, which though lacking in maturity, was gratifyingly well endowed in quality. His wide traversal of the planet had made him fairly knowledgeable in the ways and charms that various parts of the world held which, intermingled with the aforementioned sense of humor, ensured that he was a good sort to be with. His profession, however, left a lot to be desired and was one of the chief reasons why, among the living, those out to get his arse were to be found in decidedly larger quantities than those out to get his camaraderie.
Sudhir had been a betting man for as long as he could or cared to remember. His formative years in the art had been fairly successful. More importantly, however, they had been shorn of possible harm to anyone else except him. His chief pleasure, during those days, had been the excitement of the game itself – undeniable qualities of the quintessential gambler. With time, however, the glorious abandon of youth had begun to fade away and had given way to more worldly desires and aspirations. That is when he had graduated to ‘fixing’.
Finding the right contacts for this diversification of operation had not been very difficult. It was almost as if the shift in outlook had been blessed and urged on by God Himself, which is amusing, for we all construe Him to frown upon anything ungodly and perhaps He too not infrequently purports to be similarly inclined, but as matters suggest and have suggested since time immemorial and indeed immaterial, this probably is not a very reliable assumption to make.
In any event, Sudhir’s stint in his newfound profession had been dazzling and he had soon made it to the big league. And that is where he had continued ever since. There had been periods of unrest, when a couple of incompetent accomplices had spilled more beans than were affordable, but he had managed to wiggle his way out of the situation largely unscathed, barring of course the financial ramifications.
But the scuffle had had its impact in other quarters. The brief drop in guard and subsequent weakening of his financial muscle, in the fiercely competitive industry, had allowed other players to move in and cover ground. Most notably among those, had been Utkal Mehta.
Sunil Singh was in total control of the game. He had moved to 42 off 35 deliveries and had pushed India’s total to 92/4. At the other end, Anupam Goel was battling away in as unwatchable a fashion as possible. To his credit though, he was hanging on where quite a few of his teammates had failed and nobody had expected a vastly differing performance from him either.
Mehta had risen to the top at a pace that had mystified everyone else. His rise had been fuelled by a cunning that was unmatched and a complete disregard for ethics and morality. En route, he had forged alliances, used them and finally destroyed them with ruthless impunity. Till all else had been rolled over and only Sudhir remained.
Sudhir had foreseen the day and had prepared his trenches for it, but he had not foreseen the ferocity and the deviousness with which Mehta had come down upon him. Stakes had been raised so high that Sudhir had given them up as foolhardy and self destructing to indulge in. But Mehta had, somehow, managed to cling on. For a while, they had both bled. After that while, only Sudhir bled.
As matters stood on this day, Mehta’s decimation of Sudhir was all but complete. In a space of three years, Sudhir, from being a multi billionaire, had been pummeled past bankruptcy and into a state of perpetual debt, running into millions. His meticulously built network had been reduced to rubbles. The point of no return was a hair’s breadth away.
The carnage had destroyed the business but it had not destroyed the man. The will to fight had survived. Sudhir, with every lost battle, had defied rationale and gone on. Every blow Mehta had inflicted and had hoped to be the last, had been risen back from. Sudhir had hung on, waiting for that one window of opportunity which would bring him back from the dead. The day had finally arrived.
Another ball disappeared into the crowd. Singh moved on to 59.
Today was Sudhir’s final roll of the die. The risk was reason-defying. But there was no other choice. Sunil Singh hadn’t been the easiest to conquer but he had, after seven long months, managed it. A dismissal on 99 – that was the deal. And Sudhir knew that it didn’t even all depend upon Sunil. A stray unplayable delivery, one mistimed shot somewhere, and all would be lost. If he won, he’d erase all his deficits and be back up on his feet again. If he lost…He knew he couldn’t lose. The .38 Automatic felt cold against his right thigh.
India – 145/5. Sunil Singh batting on 83. Singh’s progress to the moment of truth had registered only dimly in Sudhir’s consciousness. But nevertheless, the progress had been registered and the realization of the closeness of the moment had not escaped detection.
The crowd watched in a trance as Singh went past 90 with a stunning drive through Point. Two balls later, another shot went past a diving deep midwicket. Singh moved onto 96. Australia was visibly rattled and for once, their cocksure captain was at a loss of ideas. His repeated consultations with the bowler and changes in field had not helped matters in the least. Sunil Singh guided the next ball to the right of the fielder at Cover and set out for a single. He caught the other batsman napping. Halfway down the track, he found he still had a little more than halfway to go to shake hands with the non striker. Panic ensued. Singh turned back towards the crease. The ball was already out of the fielder’s hands and making its way towards the stumps. Singh’s lower limbs frantically attempted to reach safety, but he saw they weren’t fast enough. He dived.
The third umpire took a long while. Every eye in the stadium and in television sets all over the world was riveted to the digital screen, where the decision would eventually pop out. It took eternity. And then the green bulb appeared onscreen. Not out. Sudhir loosened his grip on the .38.
Three pokes and prods here and there took Singh to 99. At the beginning of the next over, he was back on strike. The first two balls were outside off stump and Singh played them straight back to the bowler. The bowler slowly made his way back to his mark. Sudhir felt his stomach tighten.
The ball was outside the off stump again. This time, Sunil Singh flashed hard at it, a reckless and needless shot to all eyes except the ones that knew. The ball took the outside edge and went towards the wicket keeper, Jack Howard – a simple catch by any standard. The keeper moved slightly and nimbly to his right to cover the ball. Singh turned and looked behind with wide open eyes. The bowler raised his arms up in the air…it all happened with such precise unision as to seem orchestraed- a picture perfect moment that remained frozen in time for a split second. And then the bowler's arms slumped.
The ball didn’t even touch the keeper’s gloves. It flew past him and rolled away to the boundary. The crowd erupted.
The shot was never heard amongst the din. No one noticed the man slump in his seat.
“Deposit Seven Million dollars to Jack Howard’s account.” he said.
Utkal Mehta emerged from the restroom and made his way into the crowd again.