Panache beyond Bat and Ball

Stylish Indian cricketers of the past and present. Stylish as distinct from dandified
PITCH-PERFECT
Some like MAK Pataudi just oozed the stuff...
...Farokh Engineer does it through his humour and zest for life
...MS Dhoni by being an individualist
...Sachin Tendulkar uses his eyes to telling effect

“Hi, (I’m) style,” the young man said upon introduction in a Mumbai nightspot one evening in the mid-1990s. The man was Style Bhai. The occasion was Style Bhai’s press conference.

The Indipop boom of the 90s produced some interesting characters. Style Bhai was one of them. He sang rap (“Main hoon Stylebhai, with the profile, of da Bombay, and its lifestyle...”) And yes, when he shook hands, he said, “Hi. Style.”

In colloquial terms, ‘Style Bhai’ meant someone fashionable. But being fashionable is one thing, being stylish another. Fashion is about externals like clothes and hair. Style goes deeper. It has to do with personality. Some unlikely people are stylish. Steve Jobs showered once a week and stank. But will anyone say he didn’t have style? Similarly, some people have everything—they make a decent picture and presumably bathe every day—but they lack something vital. Siddharth Mallya, Rahul Khanna, almost all the heroines of Bollywood… these are some of the people built up by media as models of human beauty. But they have as much personality as hospital food.

Indian cricket is somewhat better than contemporary Bollywood and the glamour world. Right from the time of CK Nayudu, it has produced some interesting personalities, people who made an impression for one reason or another, not necessarily looks. Style has different manifestations after all. Nayudu was a giant, literally and figuratively. Lala Amarnath was a rebel. Farokh Engineer looks like he is going to give birth to a planet. But he has such a terrific sense of humour and zest for life that he wins people over in an instant.

Some feel that India’s current players are pushovers in the charisma department compared to an Engineer, ML Jaisimha or MAK Pataudi. Sunil Gavaskar said, half-jokingly, that India’s 1983 World Cup winning team was better looking than the 2011 one. But there are some individuals from the presiding bunch that have the X-factor. MS Dhoni has it, and he made it evident right at the start of his career. In April 2005, when he scored his first ODI hundred against Pakistan in Vishakhapatnam, he pointed the handle of the bat up like a gun and pulled an imaginary trigger. There you had it. Style. A whizbang innings had a whizbang celebration. Dhoni did not curse, like Virat Kohli used to after reaching a milestone.  Yet he was bold and free-spirited. In top-level team sport, newcomers are supposed to keep a low profile. If you get a hundred, kid, be humble. But in Vizag, Dhoni went rat-a-tat. He showed he was his own man. And this quality has defined his captaincy (forget for a moment the troubles of the last one year). He has not been afraid to take tough decisions. Some of these have backfired. And he really should answer calls from some people. But most of his manoeuvres have worked. Let us not be thankless. Under Dhoni India have won the World Cup, the chhota World Cup (T20), a triangular in Australia, and a lot of other things.   

Sometimes a man’s work alone is enough for him to gain a halo. That is why Sachin Tendulkar, despite his shyness and occasionally iffy fashion choices, has star quality. You cannot forget the first time you saw Sachin. And every time you see him again you still gape a little. Here is a man who has shouldered a crushing pressure of expectation for 23 years, and yet has not been crushed. On the contrary, he exceeded all expectations, probably his own too. A 100 centuries and a 23-year career is insane.

Sachin’s other striking feature is his eyes. He doesn’t express much, but his eyes do. There is a glint in those eyes and they tango well with his eyebrows to convey a range of emotions—joy, warmth, exasperation or determination. Watching and decoding Sachin is interesting because he gives little away. Like a detective, you come away from each experience with a little strand of evidence, and gradually unlock a little bit of his nature.

Rohit Sharma has style. There are two reasons for this—the lazy elegance of his batting and his natural insouciance. He arrives at the crease looking like a boy pissed off about having been woken from a nap, then hits an elegant four, and still looks pissed off. Sharma is the Federer of cricket, if a somewhat surly one. His game has the same silken grace. But unlike RF, Sharma doesn’t seem to care what others think of him. That adds to his appeal.

There was a time when Virat Kohli looked like a bratty son of a Delhi minister. His excessively styled look went against him too. But his form has been divine since the Australia tour. While it would be naïve to assume he has become a monk, he has become more responsible. Kohli’s cricketing abilities and his willingness to grow up make him special.

In 2009, an exhibition cricket match was played on the Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Here one saw up close, for four whole days, the miracle that is Farokh Engineer. The man is a riot. Dale Steyn could have you doubling over with a delivery into the solar plexus. Engineer does it with jokes. Make sure your stomach is strong. Also make sure your teeth are scrubbed because Engineer will make you laugh in a way that will expose your dentals to the world. In Switzerland, Engineer’s joke about ‘The Amazing Sikh’, among others, brought water to the eyes of Kapil Dev and Pataudi. He also has childlike enthusiasm for the simplest pleasures—like his own photographs or breakfast. He told a photographer on the trip to make an album of his pictures taken in Switzerland and meet him at the Cricket Club of India for breakfast when he was in Mumbai next. “Anda-vanda khaayenge, yaar,” Engineer said.

Homage to India’s stylish cricketers would be incomplete without talking about Salim Durrani. One didn’t see him in his pomp but has heard the legendary tales—of his ability to hit sixes on demand, of his reckless generosity. Some of these stories may be romanticised, but there was plenty in the man to inspire the stories. In 2006, Durrani travelled with Indian sports journalists to Trivandrum for the Sports Journalists Federation of India’s (SJFI) annual symposium. He wore old crumpled shirts, but with the collar popped up. The popped collar is not very stylish in today’s world, but Durrani made some kind of a statement with it. And you could see that in his youth the man must have made heads whip around. Tall, fair, with light eyes, Durrani looked like a ruin in Jaipur or Rome, decrepit but still grand. “Abhi bhi rajwadi aadmi lagta hai,” a colleague remarked.

There is no one in Indian cricket with the combination of professional excellence, force of personality and engaging personal attributes as Sunil Gavaskar. That is why he is the most stylish Indian cricketer yet. Gavaskar was a great batsman. Although it was Test cricket that earned him his reputation, he adapted himself to the one-day age, not only playing some breezy knocks but also captaining India to one of its great wins—the 1985 Benson and Hedges World Championship in Australia. He was a multi-faceted personality. He wrote the first of his four books, Sunny Days, at 27.  He acted in films. He is the rare cricket columnist who writes his own columns. In 1995, during the BSI World Masters veterans’ tournament, Gavaskar, who was captaining India, would come to the Brabourne press box and hand-write his column. Most journalists at the time used typewriters. The only other person using a pen in that press box was this writer, on his first assignment. Gavaskar christened me his “fellow hand-written man.”

Gavaskar is known to be moody, but is also known to be great company. During breaks in play, he sits with friends from cricket and media and regales them with impersonations. Harsha Bhogle wrote in an SJFI brochure last year that Gavaskar’s spot-on impressions once threw the commentators in a quandary. They were laughing so much they were in no condition to go back on air. Two years ago, at the Sahara India Sports Awards in Mumbai, host Shah Rukh Khan asked Gavaskar to sing. Gavaskar, without hesitation, competently crooned a few lines of Chand si mehbooba ho meri. Kohli and gang have a long way to go.