Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

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As the World Cup caravan is set to roll across the length and breath of India, a pertinent question arises: how does a place and its social milieu shape a cricketer and influence their game? Could Virat Kohli have been the same man and player were he born in Guwahati East and not in West Delhi? Or what would have happened to Kuldeep Yadav had he been from Colaba in Mumbai? We find out over the next seven days.

Well-known political cartoonist Manjul is in the business of unpeeling complex national issues to their basic core with subtle and cutting humour. He left the place of his birth, Kanpur, in the 1990s. But despite the parting, distance and the decades, the chaotic city with an unfair share of comics and wry one-liners continues to influence his work.

Manjul likes to talk about his city and its character that is true to the region’s rail route – it’s between Delhi and Lucknow. “We are not overly polite like Lucknow, nor as brash as Delhi. Kanpur’s humour has humility. It isn’t too direct or toxic, it is …,” he trails off, searching for the right English word.

Eventually, it is Kanpur’s lovingly-preserved lexicon that comes handy. “Our favourite pastime is something called Chikayi, it sums up our self-deprecating city of closed mills, load-shedding and traffic jams where humour helps one to survive,” he says.

Chikayi isn’t bullying. It broadly means ‘leg-pulling’ but even that doesn’t capture the nuance of the banter and repartee heard at Kanpur’s many gumtis – small kiosks lining a marketplace – where every evening some poor pre-decided target faces the sarcastic barbs of many. The bakra of the day cornered at an adda.

Freedom Sale

The other day during the Asia Cup, the pitch in Colombo had the feel of a Kanpur gumti with the boy – Kuldeep Yadav – from the city leading the Chikayi. He had for company wicketkeeper KL Rahul, close-in fielders Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Shubhman Gill and Ishan Kishan. Their target that evening were the Lankan batsmen.

Kuldeep is a rarest of rare bowler. Left-arm spinners mostly use their fingers. They are called orthodox. A few, like Kuldeep, use their wrists. His repertoire is extensive, each of his stock balls has many versions and variations. He mixes his balls, plays with the mind of the batsmen.

Like the sharp-tongued and quick-witted people from his hometown, ‘Kuldeep the bowler’ can be trusted to come up with a stinging retort. If a batsman plays a booming drive through extra-cover, the counter would be a mean turner, disguised as a loopy delivery pitched outside the right-hander’s off-stump that would shut him up for the day.

At the Asia Cup game against Sri Lanka, India needed a win to confirm a place in the final. At the crease was the dangerous Sadeera Samarawickrama. When Kuldeep came on to bowl, something seemed to be cooking. Rahul put his arm around the left-arm spinner. They seemed to be hatching a conspiracy.

In the next over, Kuldeep, bowling from over the wicket, would amble close to the stumps. Inside his cocked wrist, hard-wired to his ever-ticking brain, he hid the ball. He unleashed his takia kalaam, his catchline – the well-flighted ball outside off that was pregnant with possibilities.

The previous ball, Samarawickrama, while rooted to the crease, had looked shaky while defending a turning ball. Kuldeep knew the batsman would dance down the track. He did.

It is a folly. By the time he realises it, it’s too late. Kuldeep has cut down the pace and dropped the ball short. Rahul stumps Samarawickrama, the fielders cackle. This was leg-pulling of the cricketing type, this was Chikai. Kuldeep had that trademark naughty grin on his face. This World Cup, India would join the adda, they are hoping to cackle when Kuldeep smiles.

Kuldeep Yadav Kanpur ODI World Cup India’s Kuldeep Yadav bowls a delivery during the third one day international cricket match between Australia and India in Rajkot, India, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Kanpur’s Chinaman is expressive but temperamentally very different from his role model – the great Shane Warne. They used to call the late Aussie legend Hollywood, he loved drama. Strikingly blonde hair, larger-than-life persona; with Warne you knew danger was always lurking around. Kuldeep doesn’t hype his skills, he doesn’t come with a forewarning. That’s again a Kanpur trait. Arguments here are won by subtle and smart turns of phrase and a sly sally.

Over the years, Kanpur, in its obsession with one-upmanship, has ended up glorifying the cunning and the con. The city’s most famous sweet shop goes by the name of Thaggu ke Laddu and prides itself on cheating even their relatives. Aisa koi sagaa nahi, jisko humne thagaa nahi, is their tagline. National award-winning film Katiyabaaz is about the country’s load-shedding capital’s hack of stealing electricity. Bollywood’s hat tip to the city was Bunty aur Babli, a movie about a con couple directed by local boy Shaad Ali.

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Much before Kuldeep, Kanpur had Gopal Sharma, the OG. A cricketer of the 1980s, he played over 100 first-class games, but just five Tests. In his hometown, he is a living legend. When Sharma played Tests, cartoonist Manjul was a young man. He recalls the off-spinner’s popularity. “He was a local hero. People would say, ‘Look, the shop, that’s where Gopal Sharma gets his milk from’,” says Manjul.

Sharma, 63 now, is in the habit of saying ‘Bilkul, bikul’ whenever he wholeheartedly agrees with anyone. Did Kanpur influence your game? Is it because of the city you were known as a chalaak spinner? “Bilkul, Bilkul,” he answers promptly.

Sharma’s ‘chalaaki’ was seen in his variation, the ball that went away. This was much before the word ‘doosra’ was coined. “Back in the day, it was called ‘leg-cutter’, in Uttar Pradesh we would call it ‘ulti’. It would be bowled with the same action like an off-spinner but would go away from the right-hander,” he says.

He gives a short precise explanation of his special ball. “For the ulti, I would use my wrist, not my finger. The spinning finger would not be used at all but the wrist would give a tweak and the ball would float and go the other way,” he says. Does Kuldeep have the same chalaaki? “Bilkul, bilkul”. Does his bowling have a bit of Kanpur in him? “Bilkul, bilkul, bilkul, bilkul …”

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They say it is the city that makes a man, Manjul says it’s more localised. He shares a couplet by late Pramod Tiwari, a reputed Kanpur poet, to make his point. “Mere ghar ke aage jo mod hai, meri zindagi ka nichod hai, use pata hai mai kahan gaya, mai jahan gaya woh wahan gaya,” he says.

Paraphrasing Tiwari, it would translate to: It’s the immediate surroundings, the turn that takes you home, that define one’s core character. Life’s journey can take one places but the turn never leaves you.

Kanpur’s serpentine lanes and sharp turns foster cleverness and one-upmanship. Cricket keeps Kuldeep far away from home but his turn gives him company, it reflects in his skill and spin.



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