Publised in Cricinfo, August 10, 2011
The kid was about 10 years old. There he sat in his white three-lions shirt, with a look of intense concentration, all his attention on the shiny new Dukes ball in his little hand. The father gently positioned his son’s index and middle fingers across the seam, whispering into his ear. Whispering stories and anecdotes, I imagined, about the magic that the grip could impart to that red, shiny object, larger than life in the child’s imagination.
I stood alongside looking down at this age-old ritual, holding on to an overhead hand-rail as the train clattered on. The car was packed to the point of suffocation but no one seemed to notice. The air of expectation and excitement was palpable, and faces were bright, smiling and animated all around. At St John’s Wood, as the doors slid open, the train emptied out, and the platform turned into a sea of the backpack- and hamper-laden, purposefully shuffling towards the escalators. I spotted the kid and his father ahead of us. The father was wearing an England ODI shirt with “Flintoff” on the back. The kid’s pants, too, were white.
There are moments when hyperbole and overwrought emotion invade one’s thoughts and all attempts to resist turn futile. Walking around Lord’s that morning, gazing at all the history that had been imprinted on the mind over decades of watching and following cricket, it was impossible to not let them run amok. The moment I walked up the steps leading to the Tavern Concourse and that hallowed pristine turf burst into view for the first time in my life – with that oh-so-familiar Victorian pavilion on one side and the benevolent and watchful Wall-E eye of the media centre at the other – I am not ashamed to admit that it was overwhelming.
In all honesty, can a setting for Test cricket be any more picture-perfect? How can a venue be so disarming in its intimacy and coziness, dazzling in its beauty, and yet be enveloped in an aura of wonder, majesty and history? Arlott’s descriptions of the village green intermingled with a blurred collage of indelible moments from the ground: Bradman, Miller, Compton, Sobers, Viv, Lloyd, Greenidge, Vengsarkar, Azharuddin, Lillee, McGrath, Botham, Gooch, Akram, Younis, Mahela, Ganguly, Dravid, and of course, a radiant Kapil on the balcony of the glorious pavilion.
I have done my share of ranting about the grandiosity of the MCC and their pig-headedness of not allowing women into that very pavilion during a women’s World Cup final. But all of that was forgotten now in the gorgeous aesthetics of cricket in whites in this wonderful setting. Lord’s lay bathed in sunshine, three slips and two gullies crouching, Anderson steaming in, Dravid stretching, airborne, feet together like a ballerina, toes pointing pitch-ward, dropping the ball rearing at his ribcage down softly at his feet. Poetry.
“The future belongs to crowds” wrote Don DeLillo in Mao II. Reaching Lord’s early on the morning of the fifth day and seeing lines stretch for miles around the stadium, one would think he was taking about Test cricket. My anxiety about procuring tickets aside, there was something wonderful about that morning; just to see thousands of anxious faces in line to watch Test cricket. Five sold-out days made the match at Lord’s an intoxicating experience. One basked in it – joining in happily to boo the stuffy members in the pavilion as they played hiccup to the roaring Mexican waves that went around Lord’s repeatedly. Basked in it with the TMS commentary in your ear as the match stood poised on a knife edge for an eternity.
Trent Bridge should have been underwhelming after the dazzling setting for the first Test, but it wasn’t. On the contrary, it had an even more picturesque intimacy. And while Lord’s had felt like a home game for India, with every other person in the crowd an Indian, it seemed, it was an interesting experience in Nottingham to be surrounded mainly by locals.
We had some wonderful (and knowledgeable) company on each of the days in the stands. A Notts member who was seated with us in the Radcliffe Stand took to my son and spent the day chatting with him about Test cricket on day four. I overheard them discuss and dissect the match in detail all day, and the gentleman bid us a very fond farewell at the end of the match.
I myself had an elderly gent and his family for company next to me. He swooned over Tendulkar’s little gem of an innings that day: “Magical…Perfection and class personified,” he said to me as the flawless strokes brought the crowd to their feet repeatedly. The beer concessions emptied out in a mad rush as people tried to get back into the stands – for Tendulkar was at the crease.
Nine days – not 10 as it should have been – enveloped by Test cricket, in a country that unabashedly loves the five-day game. On the streets, in the bars, and all over the newspapers – the England team’s white shirt was ubiquitous. Especially on children. I tried to find at least one India fan in the team’s white replica shirt in the sea of the ODI blue – and failed.
I couldn’t begrudge the English media – notorious vacillators between gloating and pathological navel-gazing – their delight at the unravelling of the Indian team. Yes, the defeats stung – painfully, but you could only admire Strauss and gang for repeatedly punching their way out of trouble and turning the tables on Dhoni’s men.
As I walked out of Trent Bridge on day four, I could only echo the words of the American writer Mike Marqusee: “I was enchanted by the sheer visual beauty of the game: the vast green fields adorned with immaculate white-clad figures moving in obscure, complex patterns as if in keeping with an ancient ritual”. And I really do not give a damn if there ever is another match in coloured clothing at either of these gorgeous venues.
The evening after the fifth day’s play at Lord’s, I headed off on the tube to catch up with an old friend from Toronto, who now lives in London. The day’s play and the result were front and centre in the mind on the train as I replayed the match and its moments in my head endlessly. My mate was, thankfully, not into cricket. Apart from a “So they lost, huh?”, he denied me the opportunity to inflict a smorgasbord of opinions, criticism and lethally incisive analysis on him. A pub crawl, laughs and chat later, past midnight I bid him goodbye and hopped onto the tube at King’s Cross. The feeling by now was contentment, happiness, melancholy even. Possibly just inebriation.
I got into what I thought was an empty subway car, relieved I hadn’t missed the last train. As the doors slid shut, I heard loud singing, looked around and realised to my horror that my sole co-passengers were six loopy men in England cricket paraphernalia, more inebriated than I was. Heading home after what seemed like a heady night of celebration, they were singing and laughing their faces off.
As I furiously plotted hopping out at the next stop and switching cars, one of them, in a Pietersen shirt and floppy hat, spotted me and shouted, “You Indian, mate?” I did contemplate lying and co-opting instant citizenship of one of India’s subcontinental neighbours for the night, but I nodded back in the affirmative.
Now I was surrounded. I conceded to them that, yes, I did know the result of the match. Congratulated them, got a couple of good-natured slaps on the shoulder and taunts of “One more to go for No. 1”. Their demeanour was so happy and cheerful that I volunteered the bit of information that was to seal my fate – that I had been at the cricket myself, like them.
That did it. Pietersen sat himself next to me, arm around my shoulder as the other five formed a chorus line in front. They swayed, sang, chanted and taunted. Goaded me to join them in their chant: “Who are we?” “Severely overrated,” they proclaimed India. “Bollocks” I said to them, unconvincingly.
The only concession I got was when they all swore earnestly that the only thing that would have made them as happy on the day was a Tendulkar century. “Class. Sheer class, mate,” they said.
At Vauxhall station, I bid goodbye. Handshakes, bear hugs and grins all around. I stepped out of the train as they continued to sing and shout away behind me. I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked down the platform. This was no melancholy caused by inebriation.