An outbreak of overactive imagination was recorded in Mumbai in the early hours yesterday. The sufferers, about 20,000, reported strikingly similar – indeed, in many cases, identical – symptoms.
Each was at a storied cricket stadium the previous evening, where two teams were contesting a World Cup match. One team, it seems, had never played an international match until 14 years ago, while the other had been playing and winning them since 1877. That team learnt the sport in refugee camps. It had won five World Cup matches before this notional fixture, while the second had won five whole World Cups. This second team swayed with their arms around each other for the national anthem. The other stood at attention to sing an anthem – so it was claimed by geopolitically aware patients – officially de-recognised by the government.
There was consensus that the first team, identified as Afghanistan, had the second team, Australia, on the mat. Unusual things supposedly occurred. A handsome young opener, Ibrahim Zadran, carried his bat through the innings, as if this were a Test match, and still played shots respondents spoke of with ruminative pleasure – in particular, a kiss over the wicket-keeper’s head. When the team bowled, they said the whole stadium chanted for a fast bowler, Naveen, who would normally get booed for reasons a large number of patients attributed to the Indian cricketer Virat Kohli and mangoes. They claimed that a great spinner called Rashid took a wicket, caught by the keeper, when the ball had not touched the bat but the stump. This, it seems, plummeted Australia to a total of 91 for 7 with 200 still to get.
This is the stage at which the afflicted began to refer to a possibly mythical creature variously called “Maxi”, “Mad Max”, “Big Show” or “Maxwell”.
The way they invoked him, several clinicians believed the patients were only looking for a surrogate for good luck. Apparently a hard snick by Maxi while on duck and facing up on a hat-trick did not carry through to the keeper. He was dropped on 24, let off on an lbw referral on 27, dropped again on 33. Maxi, they said, hits centuries in 40 balls so the claim that he went from 50 to 100 in 25 balls was perhaps admissible.
Then the loonies really began to see things. All reported visions of this Maxi starting to cramp up when his score was about 125. He got down to his knees. Forget running, he could no longer walk. They described shots that made no sense to cricket-literate physicians.
Maxi started to hit sixes while hopping on one leg, since spasms were kicking in mid-shot. After that, they added, he decided not to move his legs at all! Down the ground, behind square, he swatted boundaries with both feet clamped to their spots. By their description, it was as if a robot had been trained to become a batting prodigy. A robot in garish yellow, bare-headed under the floodlights, hair wet with sweat, face red. One afflicted member at this stadium, whose notes I have before me, recorded the humidity at 9pm as 71%.
When he reached 146, they all imagined Maxi dropping to the ground and writhing about. Here they imitated him. One looked as though he was being electrocuted. Another flapped about like a fish in its last throes. Then Maxi’s yellow body went fully flat and still upon the earth. In the huge, frightening silence of the stadium, from spectators who had supported the other team all night, rose a chant. “Maxwell, Maxwell.” “Maxwell, Maxwell.” Maxwell lay still. Physiotherapists and doctors and nurses and whatnot ran on to the field; his captain and batting partner signalled (yet again) to the next man to come in. “Maxwell, Maxwell,” the chants continued. Maxwell rose. Started to walk towards the pavili––What’s this! He was, so it was claimed by every single patient, then standing at the crease again. “Delulu is his solulu,” suggested the younger ones.
Now came the part that made no sense at all and convinced everybody that instead a large and contagious delusion was afoot. Captain Cummins, the fit guy of the pair, did not go after the bowling. He defended and defended, patiently and nicely, although we have established already this was not a Test match.
At the other end, Maxi, depending on the examinee, stood on two feet, one foot or no feet at all. Some described him as an invalid, some a cripple. Some thought him a crippled penguin, the way he hobbled and waddled between the wickets and flapped his bat about like a hard wing. Some called him Charlie Chaplin. The elders recalled the Pakistani Majid Khan’s dictum that “you don’t need any footwork in batting, just hands and eye”.
The imaginary strokes they described! Bending just a touch at the waist, it seems this Maxi scooped out near-yorkers for one-bounce fours. With his stiff legs it seems he somehow opened up his stance and, standing quite upright, reverse swept a four. Then he did the same for a six! He swatted pull shots perfectly in gaps. He flick-drove sixes against spinners and seamers alike.
The cripple brought his team to within 21 runs of victory. Here many symptomatic patients ran out of vocabulary and once more acted out what they had seen. “Four balls,” they declared. Leaning over like arthritics, they issued a sudden flicking movement with their arms and shouted “full ball, six”. Standing straight, they extended their arms like traffic policemen and swung them across to the front, again shouting “short ball, six”. Stretching a little to the right they let just their left-arm sweep out, shouting “one-hand four”. Then spreading their legs a touch, and making as if to dig a piece of earth, they shouted “six” one last time, with an expression of utter and hysteric stupefaction.
Here many said the words ludicrous and ridiculous, and ridiculous and ludicrous, as if they meant different things. “Just ridiculous,” said Cummins the captain, who also evidently contracted the condition. With a straight face he claimed that he made 12 from 68 balls while his invalid partner smashed 201 not out in 128 balls with 21 fours and ten sixes.
The condition soon began to spread like a respiratory ailment that is bad luck to mention by name. On television, one expert explained how only a freakish genius with eye, hands and core strength could pull this off. Another said: “I’ve seen a lot of cricket, I have never seen anything like that.” Freak, freakoid, freakish, freakster – most respondents used the F word and its variants.
Some of the afflicted appear to be from the media. They described Cummins coming to a press conference – as if indeed all of this had happened – and saying this Maxwell “he can’t move and still manages to hit a six over third man with reverse – he’s a freak”, that the guy’s “back was cramping, and then hamstrings, calves, for one over he said his toe was gone”.
Symptomatic pressmen also mentioned talking to a man with a two-day stubble and scotch-all-night-nicotine-for-breakfast voice. This gent, who they referred to as Coach or Jonathan, rued that “it is difficult to get over the fact that one player’s got over 200 and the rest of the team have got sort of 80”. He repeated over and over “you’ve got to take it, if you’ve got a chance to take it, you’ve got to take it”. He apparently observed that “we can’t put fielders in the stands. I wish we could have.” At one point he allegedly sighed, “That’s cricket” – which is the closest anyone has yet identified as the likely cause for the hallucinatory condition now afflicting millions around the world.