Friday, August 1, 2014

Short story: Captain of the St. John's team.

(This story was written many years back. I am republishing it)

Ponnaiah could hear the crowd inside the stadium from where he stood in a corner of the dressing room watching his team lace up. It was obvious from the clamour that the stands were full.

The Maharajah’s Gold Cup Hockey Finals always attracted a large turnout but that year was something special. St. John’s College had reached the finals of the tournament for the first time. The college team was always the sentimental favourites in Sengalore, a cantonment town in South of India. Several generations of fans had followed the fortunes of the team with such intense feeling. Today, in the finals, the St. John’s team was pitted against the reigning champions, the Army XI.

Ponnaiah looked at his watch; there were twenty minutes for the game to start. He would have to announce the playing eleven almost immediately. Normally that would have been a routine exercise. But on this occasion it was different.

He watched the face of each player. They looked young and vulnerable. But the Captain knew that he had a very good team, probably the best ever to don the famous blue and gold colours. St. John’s could be champions that day. Their rivals had won three all-India tournaments earlier in the season. That did not overawe Ponnaiah. He and the coach, Donald, had assessed the opponents shrewdly. They could be beaten on that bare, hard ground. In the semi finals against the Madras Sporting Club, St. John’s had purposely slowed down the play with elaborate moves to upset the rhythm of the rivals. The Army XI was too good for such tactics. They had to be beaten in a fast, fluctuating game.

Ponnaiah was confident that his team had the edge if all the players were in form. The intelligent, talented and physically fit boys had been trained to near perfection. The rules of the game had been drilled into them to the extent that each player could possibly qualify as an umpire. The tactics and strategies for different situations were taught over and over again. Their defence was solid and could not be hustled. The half-line was capable of blunting enemy offence and initiating and supporting counter attacks. The inside forwards had been taught to fall back with the game and to take up moves. The well-knit forward line had speed, penetration, opportunism and marksmanship. This was a dream team.

But morale was the major factor at the moment. The Captain knew that the uncertainty about the final eleven had a dampening effect on the players. For the first time that season, there were conflicting views on the team to be fielded.

A number of people, all with good intentions, had advised Ponnaiah about the selection. He had listened to them patiently but that had not helped. A captain walked a lonely path; he had to make his own choice. If the match were won, they would praise his judgment. If St. John’s lost that day, they would be talking about his big mistake for a long time.

Will Swamy be retained in the team? This, the captain new, was the question on everybody’s mind. For days the boys had been talking about it in whispers. Then there was Fr. Antonio whom they affectionately called Anty. The priest practically lived with the team and died a little at each game. He was obviously troubled by the question mark on Swamy. During the last few days the creases on the forehead of Donald had grown deeper. This balding man was a bundle of hockey wisdom, but never interfered unnecessarily. At St. John’s, finalizing the team was always the captain’s prerogative.

That morning The Sengalore Sentinel had carried a pre-match assessment, which discussed Swamy’s place in the team. Ponnaiah knew that the people out there on the stands would be debating the matter at that moment. He was aware too that there was discreet betting going on in the crowd and that his decision would affect the odds.

Swamy’s case was intriguing. Ponnaiah had not seen anything like it before. The boy was a superb centre forward who could some day play for India. He had started the season well. St. John’s routine was two practice matches a week, in a carefully planned program beginning with mediocre opposition and gradually involving increasingly tougher rivals to peak out for the tournament circuit. In the second half of July, Swamy had scored eleven goals. In August his tally was eighteen, and twenty-one in September. Then came the inexplicable slide – three goals in October, none in November. The bad patch continued through December though they did win the inter-collegiate. In the Gold Cup tournament Swamy had been a mere passenger so far.

In the beginning, everyone took it as a temporary loss of form. Many good players occasionally experienced some lean patches. The boy was rested for a few games. When that did not help, the captain became apprehensive. But Swamy was retained in the Gold Cup playing eleven because Ponnaiah was afraid that the boy’s confidence would be shattered if he were dropped. Once the centre forward lost heart it would be difficult for him to regain form and he would fade out. Others were waiting in line for a chance. In an outfit like St. John’s, there could be no comeback for a man who failed. That was the problem with having too much talent on hand.

At times the captain felt that he was worrying unnecessarily. The safe tactic for him would be to replace Swamy with the reserve centre forward. That boy too was very good and would have walked into any college team. With him in the side St. John’s would still be a top class team but not one capable of beating the Army XI. That was the difference an in-form Swamy could make. The boy had sheer genius, the kind that won critical games.

There had to be an explanation, and hopefully, some corrective action was possible. The captain had talked to Swamy’s friends, teachers and parents. No one had a clue. Then he went to the girl with whom the centre forward was reportedly close. Perhaps they had a tiff. That sort of thing could have an adverse effect on a player’s concentration.

But the girl was hurt that such a thought even crossed the captain’s mind. “Every morning,” she said, “I go to the temple and pray for him.”

“I’m sorry,” Ponnaiah apologized. “Will you come for the finals?”

“I would be too tense.”

“You must come,” Ponnaiah insisted. “That might inspire him.”

The girl nodded.

The morning of the finals, the Principal had summoned the captain. That was a rare event. The saying in the college was that no student who entered the Principal’s room came out in one piece. Ponnaiah waited silently for couple of minutes before the big, bearded Jesuit looked up and said, “Must win today.” That was all.

When the captain came out of the college, Swamy was waiting for him near the gate. The moment Ponnaiah was near enough the centre forward said in one breath, “Please drop me. I can’t play.” He seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown.

“Recommendations,” Ponnaiah said sternly, “about team selection are unacceptable.” He got on to his bike and rode away.

Now it was time to announce the team. Tension in the dressing room was almost tangible. Anty was stroking his beard. Donald was staring blankly at the wall. Swamy’s eyes were focused on his boots. Others were looking at the captain in anticipation.

“We are,” Ponnaiah said in an even tone, “fielding the same team that won the semi - finals.”

It took time for the statement to sink in.

“Well boys,” finally Anty broke the silence and said cheerfully, “you’re going to win the finals.” Turning to Swamy he continued, “I’ve said a special novena for you. Today you’ll do well.”

Ponnaiah looked away as he saw Swamy’s eyes fill with tears.

There was a pep talk by Donald and then it was on to the field. The stands were packed. For a moment Ponnaiah wondered whether Swamy’s girl friend was in the crowd.

The whistle blew and the play started with a missile attack. The ball was scooped towards the St. John’s goal. An Army forward trapped it and was within the ‘D’ in a flash, bringing the crowd to its feet. But his shot hit the upright and bounced out of play. For a short while the game swung to the Army half. Then the blitzkrieg started. It was relentless. The tanks came rolling down the flanks and through the middle. The St. John’s goalkeeper made two miraculous saves.

On the few occasions the college team managed to swing the play to the other half, the moves fizzled out. The void in the centre was noticeable. Couple of opportunities that came Swamy’s way went begging. From then on, whenever St. John’s got the chance to take up the ball, the players ignored Swamy and tried to develop moves along the flanks. That was not enough to penetrate the Army defense. But Ponnaiah did not try to alter the pattern.

Right from the beginning, the aggressive soldiers had crushed the St. John’s plan for a fast game. The Army men were all over the collegians. But they were overdoing it. Most of the time there were eighteen players in the St. John’s half – all excluding Swamy who stayed up, and the Army goalkeeper and backs. The soldiers were rough and the pressure on the college team kept mounting. But Ponnaiah knew that crowding the area reduced maneuverability. The opponents could not open out the game and carry out well-planned moves. St. John’s had another advantage – Donald’s dictum “A foul always works against you” was followed to the hilt. Still, before the interval they conceded six penalty corners, but none was converted.

The halftime break came as a lifesaver. The players sat quietly taking light refreshments, each one alone with his thoughts. Hardly any of them listened to the colorful police band that marched smartly up and down the ground. Donald was tending to the players, but gave no advice; there was no point. The boys were doing their best but it was doubtful whether they could hold out through the second half.

The captain sat alone. This was his last big match. Once the degree exams were over by April, he would be back at Coorg to assist his father in their coffee plantation and that would be the end of serious hockey for him. Why bother about the outcome of this match, he asked himself. After all it was only a game. What did it matter whether they won or lost? Tomorrow’s headlines would either scream “St. John’s Lift Gold Cup” or “St. John’s Goes Down Fighting.” In any case they would be heroes. People would stop them on the roads to shake hands. Girls would ogle and giggle at them. Other students would look at them with respect. They would get special attention at the restaurants frequented by the college crowds.

Then what was the point in this desperate need to win, the attitude of come back with the shield or in it? Ponnaiah suddenly realized that the answer was simple. They didn’t like to go down, fighting or otherwise. That was the St. John’s spirit. For them it was more difficult to give up than to fight on. And that was the captain’s message to the team as they returned to the ground for the second half.

There was no let up when the game resumed. In spite of the vociferous support from the stands for St. John’s, the fight could not go on forever. At some point of time the tide would overflow the dykes. The well-oiled Army machine seemed unstoppable. Still the boys held out. They lived by the minute, not thinking of what would happen next. They resorted to long clearances to gain breathing time. The goalkeeper was brilliant and made a few unbelievable saves.

About seven minutes of play was left. Now there was a feeble hope that St. John’s might survive to fight another day. It was then that Ponnaiah saw the opportunity. He intercepted a pass and noticed Swamy standing almost statue-like deep within enemy territory. There were only two Army defenders between him and the goalkeeper. The captain passed the ball quickly to the centre forward and ran after it shouting, “Go, Swamy, go.” The defense had not anticipated the move that was totally against the run of play.

“Go, Swamy, go.” The stands too screamed.

The ball came near Swamy and passed him and one of the  Army backs rushed towards it. Ponnaiah’s heart sank.

It was then that the centre forward came to life. He trapped the ball on the run. There was a feint to the left and a swing to the right, throwing the defenders off position. The move had a touch of class.

Now only the goalkeeper was between Swamy and the net. It was a position that not even a novice would mess up. The crowd was on its feet shouting. The St. John’s players had frozen, except the captain who kept running after Swamy. The Army backs were trying to recover.

Time stood still. Hearts were little drums beating a rapid tattoo.

Swamy was the college sprint champion as well but his legs seemed to be moving agonizingly slow. Footsteps thundered behind him like canon fire. But slowly the distance to the net reduced. The goalkeeper rushed out and encountered Swamy at the top of the ‘D’. That was his only chance.

What had to be done was elementary. All along Swamy had been in full control. He waited till the custodian was committed to a dive. Then he pulled the ball to the right as the goalkeeper skidded past. Now there was nothing that stood between the ball and the citadel. Only a push was required.

That push never came.

Swamy took one more step forward and tapped the ball to Ponnaiah who had reached the top of the ‘D’ by then. Almost in a reflex action the captain shot it into the unguarded net and the stands exploded.

The Army came back, all guns firing. Six minutes were still left. The game turned rougher than before and two college players had to be carried out, hurt. But in an all out, desperate, crying rearguard action, the rest of them managed to survive miraculously.

The final whistle blew.

Strangely, at that moment of glory, Ponnaiah’s thoughts were of the coffee estate in Coorg, the cool, secluded home.


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