Friday, May 18, 2012

Twelfth Man

N.B This is a fictional story based on one of my favourite cricketers. Any resemblance to real life incidents is purely co-incidental.

April 22nd, 2011, Mumbai – Present day, Wankhede Stadium

The stadium started buzzing again as soon as they announced entry of Arjun. Arjun was India’s second  down in the star-studded batting line up. Left handed bat. Hightest run scorer in the tournament so far. Few minutes back the stadium had observed a stunned silence,as the middle stump of demi god Sachin Tendulkar went flying off the pitch. It is the venue for World Cup Final; it cannot get bigger than this. Arjun started walking from the pavilion towards the ground. The roar was only picking up, this cricket frenzy nation has waited for 22 years for this day, for this moment, India to win the world cup . His past, his present seemed to merge in front of his eyes.

Cricket in India is only religion which is secular, appeals to people of all sect, caste, creed and gender. Arjun has been one of the most flourishing left handed talent in the Indian Cricket team for last few years. Of course he has had his shares of up and down but no can deny the elegance and charisma with which he bat always. He holds the record of hitting six sixes in an over of One day match. But this is not about his record, it is about India, it is about its pride and it’s about her son Arjun, who needs to win it for her. Arjun wondered how he has changed over the years – how his team comes first before his personal achievements. He took guard at the crease. The opposition bowler Malinga was breathing fire after taking two wickets and was ready to usher bouncer. The crowd of 60,000 in Wankedhe stadium had one name in their lips “Arjun, Arjun”

Four Years back - NCA Bangalore

“Arjun, Arjun, cmmon quickly get up, batsmen is asking for drinks” cried out his fellow mate. Arjun ran. He hated being 12th man in any match. But he never stopped boasting about it or anything, when it came to interacting with others. Arjun was 23, and his last achievement was that he was selected in Under 19 World Cup that went to Finals, and lost to Australia. Since then he has been playing Ranji but has not been able to make it to the Indian team. No body could deny he was a good bat, but inconsistency has been his greatest weakness in all the seasons. And he was a natural. Additionally he fielded well. The selectors have pounced upon a handful and send to NCA for 6 month all around training. And post that looking at the performance and feedback from coaches, BCCI will nominate a few players of Indian team.

The current Indian team, post their recent loss in West Indies is lackluster and looking rugged- in one word was at an all time low. Deep inside Arjun knew that this was his best chance, to get selected. He knew he had to focus but he did not want anybody to tell him that. His father being an ex cricketer always wanted to see him play. Arjun always wanted to be a model and in movies from childhood. The glamour world fascinated him and cricket was never his first choice. But slowly slowly, he had started to love cricket. Yes there was an anger within him buried that he was never given to choose. That’s why he never liked someone directing him be it coach or captain. His arrogant behavior has been his Achilles heels all his life and a reason for team management dropping him from the under 19 final. He was partying night before in the famous night club of Melbourne day to chill out before the finals, despite Management strict orders not to hang out late out of the hotel. And here he was fighting to find a place in the National cricket team.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Here he is all set to face the first ball of Malinga. It was an off swinger. It was touch and go. He played and missed. This is the moment he knew.He said within  “Focus, Focus”!!!

NCA Bangalore

“Focus Arjun”- shouted coach Allan Border. The Australian coach is generally calm and cool. But with Arjun his temper seemed to be out of the box. Arjun was clean bowled by his fellow mate Zaheer Khan. Arjun left the ground, irritated and walked towards the right hand edge of the ground, where drinks were kept. He took a chair, sat with a bottle of lemon juice. Suddenly he noticed a smart looking chick sitting right next to him, glued to the proceeding of the ground. She was wearing awesome shades that matched her white tee. Arjun smiled at her, and extended his hand towards her: “I am Arjun”. I have played for India and State’s top batsmen. Must have heard my name”. The girl shook hands with him and smile unimpressed. The girl got up, took away the bottle of lemon juice, took a sip and replied “You need to stop sitting and practice more. Do a little more excercise, you seemed to be gaining weight. Basically you need to be hungry for more ”.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Arjun has just hit a beautiful square cut. India score has reached 100 for 2 with that. He was not happy with the timing of the shot. He was hungry for more.

NCA Bangalore

The coach had called for a team meeting post lunch. He wanted to introduce someone to the team. Arjun was still preoccupied with what the girl said and why she said that. Suddenly he saw up. The person whom coach introduced as their new psychologist was none other than the girl whom he met during noon. Natasha. Her looks meant business. She looked all of 25, and she would counsel potential members of Indian National cricket team. The thought made Arjun laugh. The coach said that apart from team sessions Natasha would also take carry out individual sessions to work upon the strengths and weaknesses of the players. Natasha was handpicked and recommended for this job by seniors of her institute. Her age gave her the advantage of connecting to this age group. Of course Arjun thought otherwise. Two days later, Arjun had his appointment with Natasha at the conference room of NCA at 5 pm in the evening post practice.

Arjun saw the watch before entering for showers. It showed 4:55 pm. He had an appointment with Natasha today. However he showed no urgency. He casually entered for his shower. When he finally got dressed it was already 5:20 pm. He was entering the conference room, when he saw Natasha coming out. Seeing her coming out, Arjun blurted out “ I thought we had an appointment”. Natasha was quick, “We had. You missed it dude”. Arjun was taken aback by her kickass attitude “Cmmon, itna toh chalta hain”.

Natasha was visibly angry. However Natasha recomposed herself and said “We will meet at our next appointment”. Arjun held her back with his hand. Now Natasha could not hold her back and howled “A sportsman is known for his commitment to his game, you don’t even have commitment for your time. You know what; yehi chalta hain attitude makes a difference between a guy in playing XI and twelfth man”. Arjun was furious. He pushed back Natasha to the wall “Fuck you Natasha. What you know about cricket, Just a fucking degree in Psychology doesn’t make you an expert”. He knew immediately he had crossed the line. He regreted . Natasha walked off, all red.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

117/2 at 23rd over. 163 runs more to score in 27 overs. Arjun knew this was the make or break period. Sledging was on in full force behind the wickets. He knew he had to be calm, he took a quick single and went to non-strikers end. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

NCA , Bangalore

Arjun closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He did not know what he was angry at – Natasha, his dad, his coach or cricket in general. He felt like crying. He tiredly looked at his watch, its almost two hours since the fight. He turned back. Natasha stood right back, saying “Let’s talk it out”. Arjun turned towards towards the conference room. Natasha turned back and said, “Not here, let’s go and sit in the seats of stadium in the open, you need fresh air”. For first time, Arjun did not contest but silently followed Natasha. They quietly settled near the wings. The empty green field was in front of them. Natasha broke the silence. “Can you shout loudly?”Arjun managed a half smile and said “What?”. Natasha said “ Can you shout your lungs out? “. Arjun looked confused. “Shout Arjun shout. Shout out all your anger tonight; shout everything that you wanted to at your father, your coach, to every person who doubted your abilities and me. You are closed for so many days,just exhale out the negativity so many years probably you have to open up”. He slowly stood up and looked at the flush lights directly, first hesitated  and then started shouting. As loud as he could. His lung pained, he didn’t stop. He went on, many years of pain and frustration, got flushed out of the system. When he was finished, smile was back in his face. He said "I feel better ". Natasha knew she had done her homework well.

“Now you are ready to talk” said Natasha. Arjun said “Actually I never wanted to be a cricketer. My dad wanted his unfinished dreams get fulfilled through me. And I took up cricket. My equilibrium was my mom. Luckily for me, cricket came naturally to me. Confidence grew in me. And I started playing for my state Punjab, and then gradually for India as under 19. But when confidence turned to arrogance, I don’t know. And then failure struck me. I just couldn’t handle it. And here I am struggling to make a place in Indian Senior Team”. Natasha was patiently listening to him. After she finished hearing his story “You hate being the twelfth man, right?.” Arjun looked amazed at her “How the fuck she knew. He has not shared this piece of information with her”.

 Arjun smiled and said “Carry on”. After her mother, Natasha was the first person; Arjun had ever given a patient hearing. Natasha held Arjun’s hand “Look Arjun, I am not a magician that I will solve all your problems. I can only help you identify your priorities. You know what essence of Twelfth Man is. Only as a twelfth man, you know what it means not to be in that playing eleven. And most important, being twelfth man is special, because it means when your team needs you at a critical moment, you can give your services. And then if you are famous, you will also get a chance to do your first love modelling, after cricketers are most sought out in the ad world these days”. Arjun looked up. Natasha continued: “You are not anyone or someone, you are Arjun, and whenever Arjun is born in whichever era, it is for bigger causes in life, your talent is special, and your country needs it. But you can showcase your good, only when you can curb the evil in you – your anger, your overconfidence, your satisfaction over what you have achieved”. Arjun continued looking at Natasha with brimming eyes. Natasha got up and turned back smiling. She knew the case was won. Arjun no longer needed her services. She has managed to make Arjun see himself. He will be on a roll.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Arjun is on a roll. He has already already hit two sixes off Murali in this over taking the total passed 150 in 28th over. Still 8 wickets in hand, India is progressing well with Arjun and Mahender Singh Dhoni on crease.

Allan had personally called Natasha to thank for her services. The change in Arjun was remarkable. He was getting prepared for the big day which lay exactly 3 weeks ahead. He focussed strenously on his physical excercise and was having long hours at net Natasha was born in Mallu community – of a christen mom and bramhin dad. Slender, a little on tanned side, she looked very smart and her eyes was very pretty and always has something to tell. Happily single, she lived with her sister and her parents in a 2BHK in MG Road, Bangalore. She was the elder of the two. Whenever she told her sister that, her sister gave her a look as if it was the biggest joke on this earth. Natasha was never taken seriously by her sister. She was 25 year and loved her profession. Loved adventure sports, in fact post compeletion of the assignment with the current cricket batch, she was going to river rafting in Hrishikesh. Natasha had met Arjun twice at coffee, at Arjun’s insistence. Arjun saw a source of confidante, a friend in Natasha.

Finally D-Day arrived. It was the eve of the all crucial match with the local state team. And basis of the performance of the test match and feedback of the coaches 2 players will be picked up for the national team. Suresh Raina, Robin Utthapa were considered as strong contenders. Arjun called up Natasha and met up at 24 Carat Coffee shop at Hotel Capitol. Arjun was mighty nervous. Natasha identified his nervousness as soon she entered the coffee shop. Arjun ordered his coffee seriously. His body was stiff. Natasha said “Arjun you look so stiff. I think we met so that you can divert your mind. You need to relax”. Natasha knew she had to do a little more. She smiled and excused herself. Her parents were out of her town. She called up her sister and said “Accha listen, when are you planning to be back home”. Her sister thought and replied “By 8”. Natasha thought for a while and said “Please be back by 9, go for a movie.” Her sister sounded shocked “What, why?. Natasha smiled and replied: “I will be on national duty and don’t want any disturbance”. She disconnected the phone. She went back to Arjun and said “Let’s go”. An equally confused Arjun asked “Where?”. Natasha looked back with a smile and said “Your life is going to change”.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

It is drink break at the end of 33rd over. India is 190/2. Coach Gary has sent a small note. It read “This is the last lap if you play well; your life is going to change”. Arjun smiled to himself and remembered few years back, someone told him this and his life changed forever.

Natasha opened the lock of her flat. It was small, well decorated flat. Chirst was hanging on the right wall of the drawing room. Arjun asked her “You believe in Christianity?” Natasha nodded “I am one, almost”. Arjun still did not understand what they were doing here. It is not the first time he is with a girl, but he felt all the more nervous. Actually he had a little secret – he was in awe of Natasha. Natasha opened the latch of her bedroom. It was one cute room, stuffed with toys. Arjun went and sat in the bed. Natasha locked the room. “Have you ever had sex?” Natasha asked Arjun. Arjun looked in awe, and his eyes wide open. He smiled shyly. Natasha unbuttoned the first three button of her check top. Arjun looked glued. Natasha smiled and said “Don’t worry, there is always a first time”. Arjun sighed in nervousness, his heart beat has doubled from inside. She untied her hair and asked with a smile : “Do you like what you see”. Arjun shook himself up and said in a very hush voice “Yes, your black designer bra looks sexy and what it hides appears promising. Is this what is the agenda of our meeting?”. Natasha smiled and said “How about a 20 minutes waiting Mr. Arjun, then we will discuss”. Arjun looked horrified. Natasha added “  Itna toh chalta hain, remember ".

Arjun got up and quickly got to her “ Ok you got me. What a way to teach time management. Will never forget this ever “. She came close to Arjun and implanted a kiss on his chin, saying “ Nicee, now I like that “. Now Arjun knew what Natasha meant. His life was indeed going to change. He held her softly and caressed her hair as they kissed harder. She unbuttoned Arjun as Arjun lay his hands on her. Giving a long look at his torso, Natasha naughtily smiled and said “Impressive. I think I am in for a customer delight”. Arjun smiled with confidence. He drew Natasha close to him and placed her carefully on to the bed, her head well placed above the pillow. He held her hand tight, he just couldn’t wait. He moved fast and hard over her much to her discomfort. Natasha intervened and whispered to him “Remember, idea is not to hit the ball harder but to time it. Timing baby, Timing is key to success….both on and off the field”. Arjun smiled, kissed her lips and got busy into some intense love making. When they were over, all Arjun knew is that he was all set to make milestones tomorrow. He  body was no longer stiff, his mind felt relaxed and charged. Her head lay over his shoulders as his lips played with her finger tips softly. He never felt better before. He wondered how life has changed within span of one month. He kissed Natasha gently at her foresaid and said “Thank you”.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Arjun swallowed the entire juice in the bottle, as he wanted to drown his entire thirst down the body. At the end of it, he handed over the bottle to the twelfth man, who was caressing his hurting toes gently. He wondered how he undermined importance of twelfth man. He was all set, rejuvenated for the last lap.

“I can’t believe you slept with that cricketer, just like that, randomly. What were you thinking, for god sake Natasha, he is two years younger to you. And this was your national duty?”.Natasha had always found her sister’s reactions over the top. She was amused and replied” Of course national duty. Arjun needed me today, if he did not perform tomorrow, he would have got lost forever and India would have lost its national treasure. I performed my duty by providing boost to India’s future national treasure. Remember Sachin’s ad. Boost is the secret of my energy. This was my way of energizing me and filling him up with positivity and nothing like good sex. Body, mind and heart in perfect equilibrium. Finally Natasha said " I did what made feel right, you should have seen the smile on his face".

Deep inside, Natasha knew she liked him. Even her sister realized that. Finally her sister could not suppress her curiosity and asked “By the way, how was it?. Natasha bit her lips, glanced and replied “It was fun, nothing short of river rafting. Up and down, Rough and wild. Next week ka practice aaj hi kara diya”.She added “Don’t worry practice make men perfect. Just a little more net practice is required”. And both laughed loudly giving a high five. Natasha and her sister were like two bodies, one soul. They shared everything. Almost.

Arjun scored 64 out of 54 balls in next day’s match. 9 fours and 1 sixes. His choice of shots impressed the selectors most. He along with Zaheer Khan, was selected for trip to England. He wanted to celebrate it with Natasha. He wanted to tell her that nervousness of the match was so much less than what happened last nite. He was smiling by himself – he was feeling so happy. He called up Natasha to tell her about selection. Natasha was super excited, she was super happy and super proud of herself, she can now officially boast to her sister about her so called national duty. Arjun wanted to meet her. But she was out of town for some urgent work and she was leaving for Delhi next week. Arjun got disappointed because it means now he will get to meet her post England trip. Super excited Arjun finally asked Natasha, “Why don’t you accompany to England”. Natasha kept laughing, and said “Arjun, I know I am due for a good orgasm but not so soon baby. You have to earn it. Focus on your cricket baby, rest will fall into place some day”. Arjun was clean bowled by the sheer guts of the girl.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Soon after drinks, Mahinder Singh Dhoni was clean bowled by Malinga. The bowling change paid off big by Srilanka. Just lapse of concentration has again opened up the game for Srilanka again. Cricket and life goes hand in hand- when destiny changes no one can say.

Arjun flew out of India in the second week of August, 2007. He had spoken to Natasha the day before he left for England with a promise that if given a chance he will score one century in England. Finally Arjun got chance to play second test match. He scored a half century. Later in one day series, he scored 2 fifties and 1 century. And then there was no looking back for Arjun. Arjun got busy, he tried calling Natasha but she never picked her phone.. He was back briefly to India. And he had requested a local guy to find out about Natasha. It seemed Natasha’s family had shifted. Arjun flew to Srilanka and then Australia. His life was now around cricket. Slowly fame and adulation was part of Arjun’s life. He had some great players to share dressing room with. He was awe of Sachin paaji. Sometimes if he had a bad match or he felt lonely, he remembered Natasha. He wondered probably for Natasha he was just another case or date may be. Girls loved him and he also dated many in this period. Life had changed for Arjun, but he never forgot one thing, “Focus on your cricket and rest will fall in place”. Natasha was impeccable.

Two years have passed since then, March 2009, during the series to West Indies, life changed for Arjun yet again. 2nd day, 2nd test match, when he was batting at 34. He got hit by a ball on his helmet so hard, that he got knocked down. He was immediately taken to the local hospital for a CT Scan on his head. During the CT Scan, it was diagnosed that a small tumor has developed in the left side of his brain. In all likely, malignant in nature.In simple words, brain cancer. Good news was that it was detected at the initial stage and hence curable. His family was informed and his mother was flown all the way just to break the news to him. Arjun could not believe what he heard, he was shattered from inside. He knew his career was finished. Forget career, he did not know he would live or not. He felt angry, very angry.

Arjun was immediately discharged and flown to India. Board did not want this news to get into media. Hence everything was done in a very hush hush way. Doctors consulted were taken into confidence. Finally it was decided Arjun would be taken to Cancer Institute of Research, Florida, USA. The treatment was long and surgery had to be done. Arjun wondered whether his life has completed a full cycle. Two years back his life had changed in a month, two years hence, his life again has again changed in a month. But he was not ready to lose this battle. He had to win it for him, for his country, for his mother and probably for Natasha.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Post Mahi’s exit, two wickets gone. Raina and Yusuf Pathan. Suddenly India was 200/5 at the end of 35th over. He has seen life changing in a month, here game changed in an over. But he was not ready to lose this battle. He had to win for his country, for his mother and for Natasha for sure. And …….

Dr. Jacob Smith and his team were assigned with Arjun’s treatment. Arjun was explained at the time of admission that it will be a 9 -12 month treatment. There will be difficult phases, he will grow physically weak, and because of the treatment he will be side effect including headache, loss of hair ,vomiting, rashes in body and others problems. But he has to be patient and positive. And he will be from time to time supported by team of psychologists. Arjun’s brain registered everything but his heart was there in the cricket field, in his bat and ball. He realized how much he loved cricket. He had never missed Natasha more. His treatment started.

First month of treatment got completed. Arjun’s mom was staying with him in a house nearby the hospital. Indian media has come to know about Arjun’s cancer but they understood the sensitivity of the matter. They reported it but did not make it a breaking news coverage. They respected his privacy.One day while climbing stairs of hospital, Arjun slipped. He was at the right time supported by a hand. When he turned back to thank, he realized it was a doctor. At least for him.. She had given him lease of life once. He wondered what she was doing here – Natasha stood in front of him. If he would have wished to seen God, probably his wish would have got fulfilled.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Arjun and Virat was steadying the ship, but in 39th over, Arjun while scampering for a single, slipped and bruised his legs badly. He needed treatment and also realized to bat further he would need a runner. Dhoni was back as runner. Arjun was very surprised to see his skipper back in action. He told Dhoni, he expected the twelfth man to join as his legs would be fresh. Dhoni smiled at him and said “ I am your twelfth man today. We have to win Arjun and I promise I would not let you down. After all, mom had kept my name Mahendra; I think it was for this day. You know who Mahendra was – Lord of Indra – or in other word Lord Krishna – Arjun ki sarthi Krishna”. Arjun was overwhelmed to hear that. They gave a high five with their gloves. A strange will power came within him hearing Mahi. In this era, he was chosen to demolish the Lankans.
It’s almost two years after he is seeing Natasha. Natasha looks sea-change. Her hair has grown considerably long. She is wearing a white kurta with a white jean, and has gained a bit of weight. Her hands graced with thin black metal bangles. The street smartness is gone, she looks more civilized. Rather than surprised Arjun was more amused to see her. She looked an Indian girl. He kept staring at her for some time. Even she was completely taken aback. She looked perplexed as if caught on a wrong foot. Arjun forwarded his hand to say “Hi”. She nervously stepped forwards her hand and acknowledged. Arjun was dying to ask why Natasha never contacted her, what was she doing in USA, maybe she came to knew about his cancer, may be she had just come only for him.

Finally she spoke, “How are you?” Arjun smiled and said “I am fighting to live And if I do managed live, I will fight to go to cricket field. And may be some day god will, you will see me bat Natasha again”. With moist eyes, she said “ I am, I am..…”. Arjun stopped her, in between. He didn’t want her to say sorry, after all they were not in a relationship, they were not even in an informal commitment, it was not fair for Arjun to expect. Probably their relationship was an instinctive friendship. But it gave him everything. Everything to become a responsible man. He was grateful. Arjun said to her. I was 80 percent confident to recover. After seeing you here, you removed that 20% doubt. I know, when I am lost God sends you to me to support me and bail me out.”. Natasha kept looking at him. Her hopes of telling him what she wanted to share dashed.

Arjun went ahead and completed his routine checkup. Natasha kept waiting down Arjun completed his tests. When he came down, he saw her with an American. His name was Neil, Natasha introduced him as his boyfriend. Actually Nick got injured while driving and they came down here. Coincidence, Coincidence. She wanted to leave, she extended her hand to say bye. Natasha said she was here to do her summers in Advanced Psychology. She stayed 4 km away in the next ville. Neil nodded in consent. Arjun took her hand and said “Look I am being selfish but please don’t leave me and go. I stay nearby please come and meet me some day. I will not ask you any questions about this last two years”. She felt relieved from inside.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

When two overs last had passed, Arjun did not realize. India has just scored 10 runs, in these 3 overs. Spinners are bowling in tandem, idea of the Srilankans were to quickly complete the overs. Bowl was spinning off the pitch; life looked a spin for Arjun at that moment. He was determined to tackle it.

Natasha looked at the mirror. She had a good look at herself as she blankly combed her hair. Mirror is where she could bare her heart. Her life has changed in these two years. She now remains a shadow of herself. Her strength is gone and the worst she cannot tell Arjun now. He sees himself source of strength. She did not what to do. Life looked a puzzle for her. She closed her eyes, she thought and she finally decided she will do what her heart says. Her heart said she should be with Arjun. It was a path of disaster, she knew it but it saves someone’s life why not. She had to make Neil understand. Niel and she were only colleagues. Natasha met Neil during the summer. And he asked Neil to pose as her boyfriend in front of Arjun. She did not know why she did so. But she first needed to sort out her biggest issue of life at this moment, Arjun. Without taking Neil into confidence she knew she could not handle this.

It was 5 in the evening. Arjun had a visitor. With orchids, she entered. She was wearing a flowery print white long skirt and a light top. She looked ethereal. A very new Natasha to Arjun. Calm and composed. He liked this new her. Although her wild side managed to electrified him not once but twice in the past.

How can he forget? The day before he left Bangalore, happily soaked Arjun after days cricket when he entered shower in the locker room. He had a surpise. Natasha was standing right there with him in the showers. Arjun whispered nervously “What the **** are you doing here?”. Natasha took him aside, and said “I thought I will give you a concession before you leave for England. The other night, you were nervous and it was your first time, hence I considered your river rafting. Now that you had a fair practice on and off field, and by the way you owe me one. You know what”. Arjun’s expression showed he was Leg before Wicket even before the match started. Next he knew, that he was directed into a dark room, where he got himself happily molested in the wildest fashion he ever imagined. Clothes flew in all directions in matter of seconds. He was proud of himself and his partner. They had technically made out in an Indian cricket team’s men locker room. They knew they would not meet each other for months. They did not want to end. It was marathon. At the end of it, Arjun said “I hope I have made up for river-rafting last night”. Natasha had kissed him on his lips and said “Lets make it out in the boat next time; anyways Punjab is the land of seven rivers,we will get plenty of boats”.Arjun replied " Back waters of Kerela is also an option ". Both of them  laughed like hell.

Years have brought an unusual silence within them that was killing. Arjun held her hand and said “Where is Natasha?”. She managed a weak smile and said “You stay in room that is why always think negative, let’s go to garden. I am here only. She held his hand and took him to the garden”. The medicines have made him considerably weak. They settled blissfully in the garden. It was that time of evening, sun was almost set, and moon was also visible. Red golden rays made the sky look beautiful. Arjun looked at the sky and then at her “You look as radiant as the sky. Beautiful”. She replied “Are you trying to flirt with me?. Arjun said “Yes again. In fact Mam, we shared much more than just flirting. Remember the mens locker room. And river rafting”. She managed a dry smile, trying to avoid the topic and said “Let’s forget the past and try to make a new beginning. This time just as friends”. It sounded unusual from Natasha but never the less Arjun was all for it.

Brain initially gets treated to Radiation theraphy to stop the cancerous cells to grow inside brain. Arjun was given treatment externally as doctors were preparing to do his surgery. But surgery was complex hence body needed to be completely conducive to take the pain. Dexamethasone is usually the steroid drug which is given to prevent swelling in the brain under such conditions. This is given to prepare the brain for operation. Arjun used to feel drowsy each time he was given this medicine. Natasha had classes in the day time, she used to visit her in the evening. Arjun could see her enter the room, however he was too much in sleep. She quietly sat beside Arjun, looked at him – she has seen him bat in the television, she could not believe what he has reduced into in a couple of months time. She was wondering what she was doing here – she ran from him and yet she bumped into him again. She could not understand this connection. She held Arjun’s hand close to her heart and said “I wish I could share my pain with him”.

Two and half months has already passed. Side effects were effectively more and more visible in Arjun. As day progressed he complained of headaches. There were rashes in his body. His mom was losing heart. But doctors were not confident to operate him as it could be fatal. Every day evening Natasha visited him. She used to tell him what was happening in the world, how India team won New Zealand series, and that Rohit Sharma is the new exciting star. Then Arjun like a kid would ask her “Does he play better than me ?”.Natasha would reply “On off side, After God, there is Saurav and after him it’s you. Best left-handed batsmen is right now with me. Can’t tell about others?

Another couple of weeks have passed by. Arjun was sleeping and when he opened his eyes, he saw Natasha sitting and reading a book. Arjun had so much pain that he could not speak”. Seeing Arjun wake up, she drew herself close to him. For Arjun, seeing Natasha was the hope to live and his superstition told him that if Natasha stays with him, he would be alright. She just could not break his belief and she thought if her hidden truth saves a dying man’s life what the harm in it. And now it was no more only about the truth, she was connected to him. She could not deny the bond within. She would feel restless the day she won’t meet Arjun. He would listen carefully the story of Note Book, how positive the protagonist was about his love, even when she was dying. She has been strong, she cannot break. As days went on Arjun could hardly get out of bed, as chemotheraphy started in the second stage of treatment. Arjun would feel restless as she would chant Hanuman Chalisa to give him strength. Arjun sometimes thought of asking Natasha about Neil, but he was afraid she would lose her. At least she is a friend to him.

Arjun has started showing recoverey. Doctors have given date of surgery in another three weeks. Chemotheraphy is working. Arjun has lost all his hair. He doesn’t like to look in the mirror any more. One fine evening, he heard suddenly lot of noise and he could hear his name. When he went outside, it was a small crowd comprising of local Indians cheering his name and with placard “Get well soon”. And then he saw, Natasha coming in the middle of the crowd with cake and balloons. And the crowd started singing. “Shit, how could he forget. It was his birthday, 12th October”. They all sang loud and his mother took him till the garden. He cut his cake. Soon the crowd wished him and left. Natasha and his mom had planned this surprise. He loved them. And somehow he couldn’t express to either of them. Arjun looked at Natasha and wondered, that while she had been fun and motivating in his first phase, this phase she has been invalueable. How would he have survived 6 months, if she would not have been around. Suddenly Arjun felt breathlessness.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Arjun has hooked a ball for a six last ball. Last ball of 43rd over. Malinga produced a nasty bouncer. It sneaked inside the helmet and hit his face. For a moment, there was darkness around him. He lay in the ground breathless. His subconscious mind chanted Hanuman Chalisa.

He was semi-conscious. He could hear Natasha consoling her mom. He could see the frantic look in her. He was taken to the ICU. And then he does not remember anything. It took 10 hours and 20 min to operate his cancer and remove the formation of tumour. Doctors did not take any more chances. He got his conscious back exactly 3 days after operation. He was cancer-free. His eyes could see Natasha. He softly said “ I didn’t die Natasha”. She could not hold back tears. She ran to the church. God has been kind. She needed to thank him, she has lost enough in life, and she could not lose him. At the church, probably the first time, she confessed her feelings to Jesus. There was no denial; she has fallen in love with him. She knew it was sin for her. She knew it meant disaster for her. She could not love her, how she could. She had to tell him the truth soon, very soon before it’s too late.

In two weeks time Arjun was released from hospital. He was looking forward to getting back to India, and playing cricket. His recovery was complete and doctor had assured chances of relapse are practically nil. The world cup selection is exactly 14 months away. He was not confident. But Natasha kept telling at the airport “No Arjun, you will bring the world cup for India. If you ever considered me my friend, take it as my only wish from you”. She had come to see him off, she will be returning only by middle of next year. Arjun loved her but he wanted to wait for the right moment. She wanted to tell him but something inside stopped her. She waited for the right moment.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium
Arjun stood on his feet. His nose was injured and covered with a bandage. He was determined. Last 5 overs, remained. India was 240/5. 40 run to score off 30 balls.

Post returning to India, Arjun took another 2 months to fully recover. He was getting restless as time was short. But he was determined. He began practice in his local ground. First month, he only did cardio and warm up exercise. He had to get his fitness back. Second month onwards he started light batting. He was in touch with Natasha on Skype, on and off. Arjun could not understand but he knew deep inside there was more than it meets the eye. He wished she was here; he would have sorted everything out. He wanted to tell her that he felt great when he made love to her but the feeling of love for her is incomparable. Both had feelings for each other but both could not tell for their own individual reasons. Time flew by and it was December selection. Arjun had started playing Ranji only one month and he was timing the ball well. He was eyeing return to Indian team in the forthcoming one day series in Srilanka. He got selected. The day he left for Srilanka, she returned to India.

They met the day before World cup started. Arjun thanked her yet again for being with him at the most crucial juncture and that he wanted to won the world cup for India, for her mother and for her. She felt silent. All she knew, she wanted the same that he won for her – Natasha. He did not get to see her through the World Cup. And they decided to meet on the eve of the Finals. Last time they met five years back, his life changed. Little did Arjun know his life would change again?

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Match changed again in 47th over. India won Virat Kohli and Harbhajan Singh in span of 3 balls. India was 248/7. 19 balls to go, 32 runs to score.

They met at Carter Road. She knew the moment has come to tell him the truth. Arjun came around 11 o clock at nite in a hooded jacket. It was a quiet night. The peace before the storm. Old habits die hard. He was again out of his hotel. His saw Natasha, she was wearing a white salwar with a white dupatta. She looked straight out of some Yash Raj movie. She slowly moved close to him and hugged him tightly. Very tightly as if she is hugging him for the last time. Arjun gets strength when she is around. She had tears in her eyes. She handed an envelope in the hands of Arjun, she could not muster the courage upfront. “Open it when I go. Everything you ever wanted to know, everything I wanted to tell is written here. Please do not hate me”. She planted a kiss on Arjun’s cheeks and said “Bring us the World cup tomorrow”. Arjun stood silent, holding the letter. He was too nervous to open it. He decided to open it after the finals. She had already left. Arjun knew tomorrow was a big day. The day when his life can change forever.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

India scampered to 268/7 till the penultimate over. Final Over, 12 runs. Zaheer Khan to face the first ball. Muralitharan was assigned the final over. Arjun was nervous. Very nervous.

Arjun was waiting anxiously at the wings. India was 1 wicket down. He was next in line. He was very nervous. Letter was still with him. In the spur of the moment he decided to read the letter just before his outing in the world cup.

Present Day, Wankhede Stadium

Zaheer Khan took a single and gave Arjun strike. The crowd was cheering every run. This has been a nail biting finish every worth a penny. Either team could not afford to lose from here. Next ball Arjun hit a cover drive. Excellent fielding restricted only to two. 4 balls to go and 9 runs to win. India needed a 6. Srilanka needed a wicket. Next ball was nervous break down and it proved suicidal. Zaheer sacrificed his wicket for Arjun. Ashish Nehra joined Arjun in the non-striker end.

3 balls to go. 9 runs to get. Arjun focused hard. Murali tossed it up, Arjun came forward picked the balls and hit it over cover field on the on side for a four. Crowd was ballistic. Cheers and Whistles were all over. 2 balls 5 runs. Fielders closed in. Next ball, Arjun could push it , single was on offer. He refused. That was it. Last ball 5 runs. He needed a four to tie. Six to win. Not a single soul in the stadium moved. Probably across India too. Arjun closed his eyes. The content of the letter flashed before him.

Dear Arjun,

I cannot tell you how happy and proud I am for you. Over last one year, there has been a connect – call it emotional, call it spiritual or may be karmic, I don’t know. I never planned it this way, but probably this was destined. You met a girl- few years ago. Confident, smart and wild – probably you shared with her what people rightly or wrongly called chemistry. And lot of biology of course. A year back you met the girl again. And again you bonded with her. This time bonding was more platonic probably. Hold yourself strong Arjun-because now you are going to hear the truth that will change your life. The girl you met a few years back and the girl you met last year were similar but not same. Mirror Images, born out of same mother, in span of 20 seconds difference. Natasha is the eldest. The girl you met last year was not Natasha, but me. Her identical twin. I am not Natasha, I am only her substitute in your life. The twelfth man of your life. I just tried to fill her shoes when you needed her. I wished I had the strength tell you truth this before.
She died the same summer, in the same trip she went for river rafting in Hrishikesh, trying to save a friend when her boat capsized. That was her my sister, my friend and my strength and yours too. She was always instinctive, thought about others. We never found her body - probably Mother nature loved her so much that she kept her within itself. Mom and Dad could not bear the pain - they went back to their native village. And I, went away from all this, very far. You know what is the last thing she ever told me going, when I joked about you. She told that one day you will win the World cup for us. Unfortunately that became her last wish and my karma. As luck would have it, we met. Probably we were destined to. Forgive me for hiding the truth but when you looked at me, you saw Natasha . I saw hope of life in you. Like Natasha would have said, I was on a national duty, to save national treasure . You may wonder why I chose to disclose now because I realize she was your strength and she wanted you to go tomorrow in the field to win it for her. All the best. And I am very very sorry. I have a flight back to US late night tomorrow. Anyways it will be a big night for sure.
Arjun was sitting numb. Flashes of Natasha came and gone by. His legs were shivering. That’s why she never responded to his any calls. He now realized when Natasha came back why she was so quiet, so different, never quite let her close by – Natasha was never there. Same eyes, same complexion, same looks and similar voices. He just didn’t know it was a different person. He felt cheated. He felt angry. He felt pained by the fact he could never see Natasha again. And yet the girl who was there became opulent source of strength when he required. Her conversations he could listen whole day. Her positivity lightened his life. She made him realize there is a world outside cricket. He had never looked at a garden, observed its flowers swirling against wind, or the full moon – she made him see small yet beautiful nuances of life. His calmness affected him in a positive way. He and she shared what was rare - pain. He don’t know how to react to this googly – he loved someone thinking some one else. He closed his eyes in hope he would forget this girl. Love did not go, he still felt love for this girl.

Sachin was out at that moment. Arjun was padded up. He got up, he had to play for his country.  He walked towards the field. Sixty thousand people were shouting “Arjun, Arjun”. His past, his present seemed to merge in front of his eyes

Final Over, Wankhedhe

Arjun opened his eyes, his eyes were brimming. He wiped it up with her hands. He had to win it for India, for his mother and definitely for Natasha. And…… above all for the girl, who selflessly devoted her life to him, for her sister – the girl whom he loved more than ever. Yes that’s the name of his angel.

Murali was taking his time. Arjun tapped his back. His eyes took a final glance at the fielders. There was a pin drop silence in the stadium. He had made up his mind where to hit. Murali threw the ball. It was flighted. Arjun stepped out and hit. It went straight as an arrow.

Two fielders were running for the catch. The people watched. The players watched. The  fielders catching also watched. Only Arjun knew the moment, it left the bat, it was a six. It had great timing written all over it. His did not forget his first lessons of love “Timing baby, timing”. And what timing, India won the World cup after 22 years. Arjun looked up, somewhere up above Natasha would be very happy for her. Celebrations erupted. Arjun hugged Mahi. He reinstated his belief what twelfth man can do, He owed him big time. Arjun was in tears. He could not believe he had done it for his country. Everyone came and picked up Arjun. That also completed his 600th run in the tournament. He remained 95 not out. There was an eruption in the field.

The cricket match was definitely over but his personal match was very much on. He had to stop the twelfth man, the woman of his life, from going. A little late in the day but he knew how much he loved her. Arjun was declared Man of the series but he lost Man of the Match to Srilankan Captain. The award ceremony got over, the team dedicated the world cup to Sachin, and they took a victory lap. Holding the trophy was dream come true. It was Diwali in India, kids, adults and old all dancing in the streets, with same vigour, music flowing out of every car, Indian flag all over. Arjun put color across his face, and escaped, in between from stadium and hotel. He called her from his mobile. After ringing for a long time, she picked up.

He took a ride till Carter Road. He spotted her in a blue tee and jeans sitting quietly in the corner watching people dance. The road was full of people, all crazy and mad.

Seeing Arjun she became nervous. Arjun came close to her , held her tightly and said “ You are worse than your sister. She did not have a choice but you had. But you choose to leave me”. Arjun’s anger was justified. Arjun continued “You had a choice. But you never believed me. In us”. She looked up. “Just because you are not what you posed, does not take away the moments we shared, the emotions we felt, the pain and the joy of being together. It may be a play act for you, fulfilling your sisters last wish, some bloody national duty; it was real for me as real as flesh and blood. And still you are hiding one lie – Neil is not your boyfriend” His emotions were riding high. She was taken aback,”I am sorry Arjun, I was just. How did you know about Neil?”. Arjun smiled “Look at you, your eyes. You had fallen in love with me long back. You did not say it, your eyes did”

She was overwhelmed “You did it Arjun, you did it. Thank you for fulfilling the last wish my sister had”. Arjun looked at her eyes and said “It was you who made this possible, my twelfth man. I may have lost the man of the match, but I will not lose the woman of my match. It is you, it will always be you….. I don’t understand much but  I know - we were destined to meet, Natasha was only God's messenger for us. All I know that you are there, I am there, you go and I go with you. Without you, I am incomplete. My world cup win, My life, my everything". Finally Arjun was in jovial mood “Isnt it time for your flight?”. She looked at him, with a smile “ I just couldn’t go when I saw you hit the six. It was so well timed, that it made me miss me my flight and fall in love”. Both of them laughed. She looked at him again, she was in all tears. Arjun hold her from the back brought his face and placed in her shoulder, and kissed her. He  said “ Ab toh kiss bhi ho gaya, ab toh apna naam bata do”. She said “Ayesha”. "Ayesha matlab?",Arjun asked. She shyly replied “Love”. Arjun smiled and kissed her lovingly again. Ayesha withdrawn herslef and said " By the way let me tell you, in Mallu community, Punjabis are like banned item.". Arjun jokingly said then " How did you sister get involved with me then?". She replied " She loved banned substance always. And let me tell you a secret". Arjun came closer, Ayesha kissed his cheeks softly, and said in his ears" I love them too ". Arjun hugged her tightly.

Celebrations had just begun in India. And in Arjun and Ayesha’s life too. Natasha sitting somewhere up there in the sky, would be smiling and hoping - her sister and Arjun would make out some day in the boat - her ultimate dream !!

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