Monday, 13 June 2016

Second Life

"When you're done with this world, you know the next is up to you"- John Mayer, in ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’.

For sportspeople, retirement marks the beginning of a 'second life'. Much like the online virtual world of the same name, it involves building of a new ‘self’, a new avatar, one that must have its own identity- for no self respecting athlete will want to lean on the laurels (if any) of her athletic pursuit. 

For the retired athlete, the visceral eat-train-sleep grind exists no more, nor do the accolades and critiques. They are in the past, nothing more than the wisps of memory and strips of statistics. And life on the other side of the R word is too nascent to be given any form or name, like the embryo that won't be called a foetus until 10 weeks. As a result, the athlete who has just retired is in a unique, vulnerable, and almost insubstantial position.

That is why most foresighted sportspeople come to some idea of what they will do with the rest of their lives at some point towards the end of their careers. Some will start laying the groundwork while still playing. It was no different with me, although it was less foresight and more chance. At the end of 2011, at the suggestion of my roommates, I started a blog, as outlet to express myself on this game we love and more. 

I was fortunate that by the time I said goodbye to my spikes, I was fairly well acquainted with my keyboard, addicted to the narcissism of twitter, and eager to make my presence felt online to –hopefully- make a difference on the field. I carried that hope with me when I got to cover three women's matches of the WT20 in India in March, for Wisden India: two league games in Nagpur, and the semi final in Delhi. 

The two trips threw up different emotions, some expected, some less so. On training days, I was not complaining about being on the sidelines as opposed to out in the middle, since the mercury and my age were both on the wrong side of 30. A chat with the net bowlers was like wading through a pool of soothing nostalgia, and it inspired this piece about my own days as a net bowler. Match reports and previews, new to me, were a rushed and high pressure affair, leaving little time for creative juices to flow. All said and done, I was thoroughly enjoying my short stint, a big step in my own second life.

The Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium at Jamtha, Nagpur.

While there were many happy boxes I ticked along the way, part of the learning curve turned out to be a slippery slope. Two of the more unexpected experiences I had while on the road were in the two places journalists perhaps spend most of their time: the hotel room and the press box. 

While hotels were nothing new to me, travelling alone was. I was used to at least 17 other people I knew occupying the same property. A team hotel feels like a honeycomb. Bored of your cell? Pop into the next one, where the channel choices are better, though the smell of socks could be worse. Our rooms generally had little empty space: open kit bags, shoes, and medicine balls were the kind of detritus usually lying around. However, in Nagpur, the only thing giving me company in my hotel room was my laptop sitting on the empty bed next to me. It was eerie to have so much space to myself. 

Two T20 games in five days meant plenty of down time, and with the heat dissuading me from exploring the city, I found a lot of time to stay cooped up in my room. Despite the work that had to be done, there were moments of loneliness. I could see the hairs of the Black Dog strewn around the room, ready to assume corporeal form for those who lived this life day in day out, as Geoff Lemon courageously shared in his eye-opening piece.  Loneliness –even within teams- is nothing new for people like us -with jobs that require many days on the road, away from the anchors of home and hearth. Still, just knowing that the rooms next door are occupied by familiar faces was a comfort I had taken for granted before.

The second unsettling experiences came in the press box. As soon as I arrived with a handful of colleagues at the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium at Jamtha, going straight up to the press box felt decidedly wrong. I looked out of the glass panes that offered such an impressive view of the ground, and then realised why. My body was resisting my natural instinct to walk out on to the ground, check the grass for dew, and have a look at the wicket (whenever the match referee wasn’t looking). Here, I was incarcerated by my life choices to the confines of the press box. It was strange being so near a cricket match, and not being able to step on the grass. This would take some getting used to, I thought to myself. 

The press box in Nagpur.

Then I somewhat naively asked for the volume of the many TVs showing the game to be turned on. When I was informed that that wasn't the done thing, I was perplexed. How are we supposed to hear the game, I asked. There, sequestered in the air conditioning of the VCA's well equipped and spacious press box, I could not hear the sounds of ball hitting bat, of shoes scuffing turf, of players appealing. The view was breathtaking, to be sure, but it was like looking at the earth from space: beautiful, but so far away, so silent, and so cold. Even the PA that announced every wicket exacerbated the feeling: It sounded like Houston radioing the space shuttle to deliver ominous news.   

The two venues I visited presented two very different faces of the trade. In Nagpur, there were only three journalists from out of town to cover the women's games, both of whom I met for the first time. The small clique meant that the three of us actually got to talk, exchanging contacts and stories, and I got a lot of useful journalistic advice.

My first-ever-match-as-a-reporter selfie.

My stint in Delhi on the other hand, was very different. Sitting in a packed press box, surrounded by faces and voices I didn't know, I was lost. I ran into a Twitter acquaintance on the way in, and she was gracious enough to introduce me around, which made me feel a bit better. After thus finding my bearings, I settled down at my seat and got to work, but was distracted by so many things: the loud and frustrated ICC official sitting beside me, the veteran journalist from my home town making audio notes in my mother tongue, and the whiff of cigarette smoke, whose origin eluded me. I was far from my usual outgoing self, and thought ten times before making conversation. Even the mild outrage I felt to see empty seats for the women's press conferences and match failed to rouse me out of my imposed cocoon.

View from the press box in Delhi, the night of the semi final.

So, I sat back and soaked in the buzz in the air, so missing in Nagpur. While the Nagpur leg was a quiet affair, akin to a stargazing trip in the countryside with colleagues, Delhi was like a corporate lunch in a five star hotel. I barely cast second glances to the former players and commentators walking around, but my disobedient gaze followed my favourite columnists everywhere. The heroes of my second life had changed. I had changed, I slowly realised. 

In Delhi, I was not a little overawed by the company of those whose writing I deeply admired. Assigning genial faces to the sometimes sharp words I read so often, I felt like a schoolgirl sitting in the staff room watching my favourite teachers plan their lessons. It prompted the return of the feeling of insubstantiality, and tugged at my gut like shoelaces caught in my bicycle chain. It took some effort and a few deep breaths to centre myself again.

Hopefully, the next time I find myself in such a situation, my second life will be a translucent avatar no longer. Hopefully, my desire to make a difference will be undiminished as well. The first few steps have given me reason to hope that this journey will be as real, substantial, and fulfilling as my first one. I look forward to the next few years.