A long journey begins
The North-East monsoon tiptoes into the Coromandel Coast through the odd drizzle while the taxi cruises into the Chennai International Airport on a Thursday night (October 20). But this journey is about embracing the warmth of cricket in the southern hemisphere where summer is about to start. Australia beckons as the ICC Twenty20 World Cup moves to the land of tough sport, blunt speech and leaping kangaroos.
At the immigration counter, passport is checked, the surname hints at roots from Kerala and the officer briefly switches to Malayalam. And then it is time to pause and wait for the flight to Bangkok. And as a trip commences largely in the midst of tourists keen to savour the oriental charms of Thailand besides a few heading beyond to Australia, it is time to grab some shut-eye. The transfer at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is smooth and the nomenclature hints at ancient ties between India and Siam, as Thailand was once known.
The connecting flight to Melbourne has denizens from both India and Pakistan. Journalists, broadcast crew, fans and families are all part of the mix and sporadic conversations inevitably veer towards the big match – India against Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Sunday.
The touch-down at Melbourne on Friday night (October 21) is followed by a quick dash to pick fermented extracts sourced from Cuban sugarcanes. Once that organic exercise is done, it is time to stand in a long queue for immigration. There is a dash of Punjabi in the air as people from either side of India’s western border call back home to speak about the game ahead.
The immigration officer asks for the purpose of visit, the T20 World Cup is mentioned and the next salvo is immediate: “You have mentioned the MCG as your local address?” The sheepish reply is that there is work at the MCG and as for stay, it is with fellow journalists from India. An address is whispered, the officer grins and the tour is on.
Bleary-eyed December mornings watching cricket from Down Under flits across the mind’s eye as an Uber ferries a few sports correspondents to MCG on Saturday (October 22). The driver talks about races and then dives into cricket while the city seems to be nursing a weekend hangover. Or may be it is the weather, nippy when summer is supposed to set in and people are either huddled under blankets or grabbing a steaming cup of coffee while the fitness-conscious hit the parks.
If it is all about the slow life in an urban space, the MCG offers a contrast as decibel levels rise thanks to excited Indian and Pakistani fans. The nets draw in crowds while the young shriek their heroes’ names and try and take pictures for Instagram stories. Drums are thumped, a conch is blown and you could be anywhere in India on a match’s eve and a line from Sania Mirza pops up: “There is always support around the world because we are so many of us.”
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Caressed by history and studded with statues of iconic legends including Shane Warne, the MCG has an aura that defies words. Soon it is time to dive into the pre-match build-up as rival skippers Rohit Sharma and Babar Azam take turns to address the media. The G as the MCG is popularly known stirs to sub-continental strains of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi besides a smattering of Tamil and Bengali. The fans cannot restrain themselves and there is banter while expectations soar.
Clash of the Titans
Super Sunday (October 23) at the MCG dawns with gloomy skies and while rains are forecast, fans spilling over from the rest of Australia and the world at large implore their respective gods to send across sunshine. In a practical bid to beat the crowd, correspondents get to the ground four hours before the contest.
Seats are secured, wifi is checked and logged in, the basic spadework is done and then some caffeine is had while bonhomie reigns between scribes on either side of the Radcliffe Line. Jokes are cracked while ICC officials ensure that the cuisine on offer is palatable to all without offending sensibilities.
There is something incredible about listening to the national anthem in a faraway land and as the teams assemble, even the most cynical among the tribe of reporters stand in respect and a few sing along. Out on the field, Pakistan loses early wickets, recovers and finally musters 159 for eight. And from the sidelines, commentators Ravi Shastri and K. Srikkanth watch, there is a blast from the past as the two as openers had countered the likes of Imran Khan while India defeated Pakistan in the World Championship of Cricket final at the same venue in 1985.
If the senior trio had weathered the storm 37 years ago, there was no such assurance cutting back to the present as Rohit and K. L. Rahul returned to the hut. India lost two more wickets and Melbourne almost seemed like a mirror image of Sharjah in the 1980s when Pakistan reigned supreme, riding high on Javed Miandad’s last-ball six and its lingering after-effects. Just as a forgettable night seemed imminent for the Indians, Virat Kohli offered a monk’s serenity, an athlete’s frenetic running and an experienced professional’s halo.
Still, India was way behind the chase even if Kohli and Hardik Pandya strung a century-plus partnership. Kohli, wending his way back to form, believed that miracles were possible. Great players believe that destiny can be controlled on the field and what followed was a magical innings. Spinners were countered, pacers were hoisted into the skies and Kohli became Moses parting the seas.
A nervy last over was handled and a triumph was secured and Kohli’s unbeaten 82 gained a permanence that eludes even most centuries of the gifted. A knock for the ages, a match to savour, the fans couldn’t have asked for more and the G erupted. It was electric and while reporters wondered what just happened, the practical need of filing a copy meant that their sense of wonder had to be held back while fingers flew over harried keyboards.
Perhaps the most heartening thing to see on a feverish Sunday was a placard held by a Pakistani fan: “Kohli please score a century in Pakistan, I am your big fan.” Sport like art can blur boundaries too.
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