A League of Unorthodox Gentlemen


A League of Unorthodox Gentlemen

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

There’s profound joy in watching Lagaan, even 16 years after its release. Apart from “our home bwoys” going all “Ghanan Ghanan” on our colonial masters in what is one of the finest films on underdog resilience made in this country, Lagaan is the victory of the unorthodox over the traditional. Over its three-hour plus runtime, it builds the utopian ideal by unifying scruffy-looking men from all castes, religions, and professions – a cobbler, poultry farmer, and fortune teller – all scampering across 22 yards giving the traditionalists a run for their money.

As I watched the last match of the Border-Gavaskar Test series between India and Australia and the serene flux of unorthodoxy at play from both ends of the cricket pitch, I was reminded of Lagaan and its argument for unorthodoxy. The fidgety Australian captain Steve Smith stood tall against a spell of brilliance from India’s first-ever “Chinaman” bowler – Kuldeep Yadav. If Lagaan’s Jack Russell was watching, he would have needed a lot more than just “teen guna lagaan” to swallow what the modern game has become.

Steve Smith started out fairly young, touted as the “next Shane Warne”, but in less than five years since his debut, he rose to being the Australian Test captain as well as the best Test batsman in the world. From dally leg breaks to Kangaroo hops on the popping crease, Smith now batted at the coveted No 3 position, the rank reserved for the best batsman of the team – Don Bradman, Viv Richards, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting – all of whom were either technically sound or gifted with strong wrists. Smith, unfortunately, had none of the above. He’d played a lot of white-ball cricket before stepping into the baggy greens and that had altered his style of play. Smith, like his nemesis Virat Kohli, is a predominantly bottom-handed player, whose initial stance is angled in such a way that his bat points to second slip – which means he more often than not plays across the line of the ball and that his bat doesn’t come down in a straight line as most pundits would like it to. This hardly bothered or stopped “Steve, the protége”, who went on to break record after record in his oft hilarious and unfathomable ways.

In the post-lunch session on the first morning of the Dharamsala Test match, Kuldeep Yadav grabbed four crucial wickets with a sublime guile one fails to see in debutants. In Chinaman, or unorthodox left-arm spin, a left-arm spinner bowls leg spin. Like a traditional right-arm leg spinner, the bowler here uses his wrist to spin the ball and not his fingers. It is a painfully difficult craft to perfect, but because of its novelty, it’s a lot more difficult to read for the batsmen as well. Yadav, who, like Steve Smith at the other end of the 22 yards, idolises Shane Warne, is a much-needed aberration in the game of cricket because he keeps a niche craft alive. It’s actually bizarre that he is the first Chinaman bowler to represent India because in the quest for the next Warne, next Kumble, or next Harbhajan, coaches across the board tamper with young talent, taming their innate skills in the “good-intentioned” desire of having them conform to a set identity.

Just like Smith emulates a badly choreographed Mithun Chakraborty move on the crease, right before the ball is bowled, Chanderpaul’s front foot lies in Noida while his back foot faces Gurgaon.

The same well-intentioned “curb your enthusiasm, son” is at play almost everywhere else. Vanity Fair’s Mike Hogan said this about Bob Dylan: “On a good day, he sounds like a chain-smoking bluesman celebrating his 100th birthday. On a bad day, he sounds like a bullfrog gargling broken glass.” Dylan himself has admitted to never being an overtly competent singer, but across his illustrious career he carved a niche for himself that became an unsettling thorn tickling every purist’s derriere. Who cares if Dylan’s voice is like “sand and glue”, when he can pen “Visions of Johanna” or “Tambourine Man”, and serve it alongside palatable, well-strummed acoustic guitars. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and many others have challenged convention by broadening the spectrum of the art itself. This is why one cannot dismiss or take lightly Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan, Paul Adams, Brian Lara, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Each of them used their unorthodox gift to fashion a new order in the world of cricket.

Among all the legends, Chanderpaul stands out. Just like Smith emulates a badly choreographed Mithun Chakraborty move on the crease, right before the ball is bowled, Chanderpaul’s front foot lies in Noida while his back foot faces Gurgaon. His throbbing heart and willow face the ball head on, allowing him a free-flowing stance akin to the breezy traffic in Lutyens’ Delhi. Chanderpaul hardly changed his stance in his cricket career that spanned over 20 years, but Steve Smith, over the years, has made a vital correction to his stance. He decided to play the ball late and hardly ever played outside the line of the imaginary fourth stump coaches teach us about. He cocked his right shoulder, right forearm, and right hip into one line right before impact, so that his bat came down straight, allowing him maximum access to the full face of the bat. But Smith hasn’t and will not change his definitive fidgeting right before the ball is bowled, which sees him move across to the middle off-stump in order to negate swing or seam movement.

Unorthodoxy, therefore, means drama, novelty, and a disregard for the status quo. It is what the French New Wave was for international cinema and Dil Chahta Hai was to modern Indian cinema. Though it did not challenge hegemonic structures directly through form like the French New Wave, Dil Chahta Hai imbibed a realistic approach to dialogue and screenplay much like the arthouse films of the NFDC era. It also challenged existing rules for commercial mainstream cinema by not following the formula of a single protagonist’s journey that ends in a cathartic resolution.

Farhan Akhtar may have directed only a couple of good films in the course of his career and Steve Smith might just become the next Don Bradman, but unorthodoxy dictates that the body of work is irrelevant. As long as the project contains within itself the ability to change the status quo and as long as the time has arrived, one man or a handful can expand the boundaries of possibility and change the course of history.

It’s something the scruffy men from Lagaan knew all too well.