A 15-BALL HUNDRED WITH TWO FOURS AND A SIX!

HARBHAJAN SINGH IS eminently likeable and has none of the trappings of stardom. Here he chats with a bunch of Jamaican kids.-AP

There's an easy energy to the Indian squad and a lot of trust and camaraderie. This is no show of solidarity for the outside world. This is a happy team, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

May 15: I find no cricket-crazy customs officer with an intimate knowledge of the game's history and a cunning turn of phrase; nor do I discover, with suitable surprise and delight, a taxi driver who turns out to be an ex-First Class cricketer playing a prank.

This diary will have to look elsewhere for its content then. Perhaps shameless name-dropping and just the right touch of pretentiousness will do the trick. But, not today. For I'm just off my second nine-hour flight in succession. And neither the sight of a duck asleep with beak tucked under wing on my coach ride between Heathrow and Gatwick airport nor the landing at Norman Manley airport in Kingston seemingly in the middle of the sea can soothe me. I'm pooped.

Small consolation that so is Lakshman Sivaramakrishnan — onetime legspin talent, now commentator — who is on the same flight.

May 16: I escape a near-death experience and meet Clive, prophet at large. Both happen at Jarett Park in Montego Bay, where India plays its warmup match. The 200km ride from Kingston to here is one of the best I've been in — if I scrunch my eyes up just so, I can picture myself paddling in a river through the Amazon rain forest. Water-eaten rocks, over-hanging roots, a canopy the sun struggles to put a ray through: surely this is it. Pity I forget it in a hurry in the cramped, muggy wooden cabin that passes off as a press box. An attempt to escape this takes me to the boundary rope, and Clive. "Your guys — they be gonna be the best team in the world maan," he tells me, shaking his red-check scarfed head at me. "Australia, all these guys, they be old, be very old man. They fall away." Ok, point taken, but, wait, there's more. "Pathan, he gonna get Gayle every time man, no feet, whoosh," — he thrusts his hand forward — "whoosh leg before." I return to the press box and try and convince an irate French photographer to send my copy — he has one of only two Internet connections. That done I see Ramky, Team India's analyst, and Ian Frazer, biomechanist, clambering up a rickety ladder, laptop in hand. The near-death experience happens when I attempt to follow them. A colleague stops me with sage advice. "Don't be an idiot," he says with a snort.

May 17: Whatever happened to the Indian team of that bygone era? The team that was famous for flattening its rump on grass at the slightest pretext? This one bears no resemblance. It rains at Kingston's Melbourne Cricket Club (Courtney Walsh is its president). The Indians, who are practising, rush to the clubhouse. Frazer cases out a long vestibule indoors and decides it will do. Batsmen, who were considering the prospect of eating the mangoes that had appeared from nowhere, are drilled on playing the short ball — the wet floor makes some skid on, while others come off slowly. Wait, the word drilled connotes tedium. This is fun, much like playing at home, and people queue for a hit. I find the time to slip in a point on technique to Chappell, who realises its blinding brilliance, and will now doubtless incorporate it in future revisions of `The Making of Champions'. Elsewhere two tables are set up and Frazer calls a game of modified catch like an American boxing announcer — those bald ones with thin moustaches, gold chains and tinny voices. The rule is: catches must be taken cleanly — no bobbles allowed — below the level of the table face. The key, to draw a parallel to table tennis, is to find the table edge with the throw. Sehwag is champion and his bout with Dravid is hotly contested. The skipper throws the ball away in mock frustration after losing, and soon Yuvraj builds a streak. But Chappell stops it with skillful catching, change of pace on the throws, and his own `International' rules that dictate a side change on whim. Banter flies around the place — there's an easy energy to the group and a lot of trust and camaraderie. There are just three of us journalists watching: this is no show of solidarity for the outside world. This is a happy team.

May 18: Match day. It's rained all night and I'll be darned if there's any play. I hear that one writer has actually filed a story that the match is called off! Ha. Ninety overs later, India win. It's a modern miracle of drainage.

May 19: I stop in at the Hilton, where the team is staying. Mohammad Kaif is scheduled to meet the press poolside. He's had a bit of a horror run recently, and it was nice to see him do well in the match. He tries so hard, it's tough not to like him. I spot another eminently likeable bloke. Harbhajan Singh has none of the trappings of stardom. He's a competitor alright, but off the field he's funny and prone to the odd philosophical thought. He refuses to dwell in the past — even on his successes — preferring instead to talk about the cricket coming up. "There are so many challenges before the World Cup," he says. "Why look that far ahead? There's the Test series here and South Africa." I look back to see the TV guys giving Kaif a tough time. He is forced through a variety of poses and languages as each channel has its 15 minutes with him. Where's a media manager when you need one? It begins to get ridiculous, and Kaif is understandably miffed. I say goodbye to Harbhajan, delay my interview with Kaif to give him time to recover, and head to Pizza Hut to catch a meal for a change. A little later Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Agarkar and Ramesh Powar walk in. Agarkar is unfailingly courteous when he leaves our table as the foursome find place to sit. Harbhajan cracks us up in between picking olives off my pizza. He's all admiration for the cricketers of the West Indies and speaks of Marlon Samuels in glowing terms — "Ah, he looks a batsman" — before joining his mates when their food arrives. We take a cab to Sabina Park to catch the West Indies practice, and I have my first cup of tea in days — in the pavilion. It rains outside. Perfect.

May 20: Now I've seen it all. A fifteen-ball hundred with two fours and a six! Or at least that's what the giant screen at Sabina proclaims. This batting freak is a certain Rasta, who plays for Jamaica. And he's partnering Wavell Hines (Hinds?) who is on two off six balls. Evidently, the screen operator is goofing off. The match starts after a brass band and a group of cheerleaders do their stuff. And then I see another thing I never thought I would. There's a runout attempt, but where is the leg umpire? Billy Doctrove steps on the field after a search party is launched. Dead ball people, it's all settled now. West Indies sneak in by a run, but you'll catch that in my report. Or at least so I fervently hope.