Gilbert Jessop © Getty Images

 

The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.

 

As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.

 

This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.

 

 

I was having an extended hit in the middle when Bansi came out of the clubhouse, waving his hands. One end of his dhoti loosely swept the ground, having escaped the clutches of the knot around his voluminous waist.

 

That season, in all the friendlies, my highest score had been 31 and I had failed to reach double figures twice, including one blob. I was just starting to time the ball well … desperate to prove – more to myself than to others – that age was not really catching up with me … and I was in no mood for any interruption.

 

I looked at the scoreboard. Twenty seven runs announced itself against batsman No 6. I had been batting well over an hour. Ignoring the gesticulating groundsman, I resumed my stance.

 

However, first the long on – rather needlessly placed as I was pushing and prodding rather than hitting the ball with any authority or force – and then the mid off and finally Francis, the medium pace bowler about to return to the bowling mark were alarmed by the hand waving. As I moved away from the wicket, Bansi came running into the ground.

 

It became increasingly clear from his approach that the target of his interruption was none other than yours truly.

 

As he made his ground to the silly mid on area, I frowned at him.

 

“What is it?” I asked.

 

“There’s a phone call for you,” he replied.

 

I was annoyed. A phone call at the ground while I was at the wicket was not something that fascinated me.

 

“Did you say I was batting?” I asked.

 

“Yes, sir,” Bansi replied. “Babu said he’ll hold.”

 

There were some snickers around the wicket. My form was not at is greatest and this statement was an understandably hilarious malapropism. In fact it came close enough to an oft repeated joke about out of form cricketers.

 

“Tell him to hold till tea,” I said haughtily. It was just half an hour since lunch. There was some good natured laughter at this counter.

 

Bansi was amused at the whole thing. Naïve as he looked, he knew more about cricket than some of the younger cricketers around.

 

“It’s Kumar Babu,” he informed.

 

All the sniggers and laughter were hushed as if some school prefect had suddenly made his appearance amongst hooky playing school kids. Kumar Mangalsingh was the sponsor who literally ran the club with his funds. If he had called, there was no way that one could make him wait, even if he was batting on 99.

 

Now in his late sixties, he seldom made appearances at the club except on special occasions, but when he did, it was accompanied by regal splendour and flourish.

 

Pad, gloves unopened, I ran towards the clubhouse.

 

The receiver was waiting for me on the mahogany table. Short of breath from the long run in, I panted, “Hello.”

 

The rich voice was heard from the other end of the line.

 

“Yes, my dear historian. Are you out?”

 

I stood looking at the odd shaped table – a landmark of the club. It had been specially constructed during the time of Kumar Ajaysingh, the father of the man who now spoke to me from the other end of the line.

 

The famous Ajaysingh, a man of eccentric cricket fanaticism. The table had been specially made in an odd shape, with eleven seats around it. The seats arranged to depict fielding positions of an imaginary match. At the two heads were positions marked for the bowler and the wicket keeper.

 

Then the table extended backwards and went round with chairs for a slip, a gully, a point, cover, mid-off, a mid-on, a square-leg, a silly mid-on and a leg-slip. Each chair had handles carved in the form of the hands of a fielder and two of the legs were clad in brass cricket shoes.

 

To accommodate a sitting arrangement of this sort, the table was oddly shaped, and it required extremely robust vocal chords for the head of the table sitting at the striker’s end to make himself heard by the guest seated at mid on, over the head of the silly mid on.

 

However, this was one of the many exclusive cricket antiques collected by Ajaysingh during the first half of the century.

 

“Well, Kumar, I came in while I was batting,” I replied.

 

Kumar chuckled from the other end. “Have you been in better form than the last time I saw you?”

 

Mangalsingh had been in town two months earlier and had visited the club briefly. He had thrown a dinner for the touring West Indian cricketers. He had seen me bat around ten balls in the nets. But, for a cricket mind like his, it hardly took two deliveries to get an idea of my awful touch.

 

Mangalsingh was no fanatic about cricketing paraphernalia like his father, but he had been a much better cricketer. An Oxford Blue, in the fifties and early sixties, he had been a regular in the Rajasthan side and had also played for the Central Zone. He had more than 20 centuries in first-class cricket. Before he started having problems with myopia, he was expected to break into the Indian team any day.

 

Ajaysingh, too, had a Ranji Trophy century to his name, but that had come in an intra-zonal match during the pre-Independence era, when the game was dominated by the regalia. It is rumoured that he descended to the common practice of using his royal authority to make bowlers of the opposition dish out long hops to him.

 

“Well, honestly Kumar, I was struggling out there. Scratching for runs…”

 

Kumar laughed. “Get back to the basics and play straight. No trick shots past the slips and all that.”

 

I nodded. “Okay,” I bided time for him to come to the point. Obviously, he had not called me up to discuss my technique. “I did not know that you were in town, Kumar.”

 

“I’m not,” he replied.

 

This caught me on the wrong foot. Was Kumar calling from Calcutta?

 

“Where are you calling from?” I asked.

 

“Calcutta,” Kumar replied. The greatness of the man. Even while calling long distance during the busiest hours of the day, he had discussed my technique. But, then, he was a man of regal upbringing and royal funds. “In fact, I was wondering whether you could join me here tomorrow.”

 

“Tomorrow?” I was stunned.

 

“This is your long holiday, isn’t it?” he asked. “Not doing anything important are you?”

 

He was right. Classes did not start till next month. I did have some work to do with the book that I was writing, but that could wait. But, how on earth could I get to Calcutta from Jaipur in a day?

 

Kumar seemed to sense what I was thinking.

 

“Murli will be down at your place this evening with a ticket for the morning flight tomorrow. I’ll send someone to pick you up from Dumdum.”

 

Things were going too fast for me. I stared at the framed photograph of Ajaysingh with Douglas Jardine. Beside it was a small frame containing the autograph of WG Grace.

 

“Something urgent, Kumar?” I had been on good terms with the great man, but never had I been the solitary personal guest of royalty. At least not to the extent of being flown across the country to meet him.

 

“Yes,” the reply was provided in a matter of fact way. “A matter of some curiosity has come up which requires your expertise.”

 

In front of me, Kumar smiled from the frame as a young man in his twenties. He was clad in his flannels. It was the day he played his first match for Rajasthan. Ajaysingh had hung this photograph during his last days. The present Kumar was not so keen to add his own images among the likes of WG Grace, Douglas Jardine, Don Bradman, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad and other luminaries who looked at me from various corners of the room.

 

“Any other problem that you might have?” Kumar asked in the voice of polite authority.

 

I smiled. “My team would miss me…,” I began.

 

Kumar chuckled again. “Not by much, Professor, not by much. Now, go ahead and finish your innings.”

 

I threw a last look at the framed copy of the letter to Ajaysingh from Jack Fingleton and walked out of the clubhouse in deep thought. What could be the matter of some curiosity that needed my expertise so urgently?

 

My fellow cricketers had waited patiently for my return and eagerly got back to their positions as I walked back to the crease. All in vain, I might add. My concentration had deserted me and all the long distance advice of Kumar amounted to nothing.

 

After an airy- fairy pull shot which somehow eluded the mid wicket fielder to reach the fence, I tried to steer one down to the third man and got a nick to the ‘keeper. I had managed to equal my highest score for the season, but had failed to go past it.

 

 

This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)

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