The World Cup is abuzz despite news of the fickle English weather draping rain on key games. The Indian cricket caravan, meanwhile, moves to London for the big game against defending champion Australia at the Oval on June 9.
Yuzvendra Chahal of the wispy frame, chess-loving brain and with the gift of the gab, shoots short videos of his teammates in transit. The asides are humorous, the anecdotes candid and there are guffaws all around. A picture pops up on social media and it shows some of the Men in Blue striking a pose in front of their bus on the motorway snaking through lush green countryside.
If Virat Kohli’s men are on the move, their shadow-men, consisting of a massive Indian media contingent, cannot be too far. Trains, buses and the London underground are all used as a few tired sports scribes tumble into their Airbnb flat on Brixton Road close to the Oval. The area has a distinct Afro-Caribbean flavour. Money-transfer outlets have pictures of hammocks tied between two coconut trees and with perhaps a Jamaican swigging his favourite potent brew on a sunny beach. The pubs hark back to reggae and a molasses-inspired drink. A fellow hack has his birthday and despite a larynx throttled by a cold, hearty toasts are raised.
Busy venue, Kohli’s kind gesture
The Oval is a teeming mass of people mostly in the blue shade. It is match day, pitting India against Australia and the perambulating road around the venue has sudden food pop-ups selling rotis and chicken tikka masala besides bacon sandwiches and enough ale to lubricate thirsty throats. A British gentleman even rustles up good old chaat varieties, and the air is a medley of the fragrance of Indian spices and the loud noise that excited Indians tend to bequeath to cricket’s surround sound.
Inside, India prevails over Aaron Finch’s men, riding on Shikhar Dhawan’s 117. The southpaw gets struck on his hand by Pat Cummins. The opener flinches, applies a pain-relief spray, gulps a pill and makes merry. Much later, news trickles in that he suffered a probable fracture in his left thumb. Typical of the smoke and mirrors that plague Indian cricket’s communication links, there is no clarity on Dhawan’s injury and it becomes an evolving story that cricket writers chase.
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The match, though, will be remembered for Kohli’s gesture. He requests a group of Indian supporters to stop booing Steve Smith, who has made a comeback following last year’s ball-tampering controversy. “I felt sorry for him and I wouldn’t be happy if a similar thing had happened to me. I apologised to him on behalf of the fans. They shouldn’t be setting a bad example,” Kohli said. The plunderer of runs won many hearts and later Finch acknowledged his Indian counterpart’s gesture.
Dark clouds and the long wait
India heads to Nottingham and the news dispensers chase the squad, in a bus from London. Urban sprawl makes way for the motorway, there is a drizzle, and as a few heads bob into intermittent sleep, the temperature outside dips. A few hours later, in Robin Hood country, exhausted cricket hacks make frantic calls and leave voice messages as the flat keys cannot be found. The air turns chilly, a feathery rain forces hands into jacket pockets and those who love their nicotine-fix find some surrogate warmth. A wretched 60 minutes ensue, silent four-letter words churn in the mind and then somehow the key code is cracked and it is time to step into another temporary home.
Inside, the heaters aren’t working, the geyser cannot be activated, but there is a roof over the head and warm furniture and expansive beds look inviting. The stomach growls, hunger pangs kick in and cold sandwiches are munched. A walk outside leads to a Chinese joint, and a takeaway of noodles, rice and side dishes are ordered. The local cooperative is scoured for sugar, teabags, ketchup, jam, tissues, liquid detergent, potato crisps and a dark spirit imported from the West Indies. Sports writers on tour convert their impromptu flats into welcoming homes. Provisions are purchased, the kettle bubbles and tea is brewed. Later at night, tinkling glasses and long conversations build up an appetite.
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The next morning, an electrician arrives and everything is sorted out. The heaters are on, there is hot water in the shower and all is fine with the world. Just that at the next door Trent Bridge, the weather gods are insistent about bequeathing water droplets from the skies. Both days — preview and match — are spent staring at the lumbering clouds and the game against New Zealand is washed out. Frustrated correspondents hop between two pubs — Larwood and Voce, and Trent Bridge Inn. Sorrow is shed through some swirling liquids cocooned in a glass.
The big game!
It is time to head to Manchester, venue of the World Cup’s big bust-up — India vs Pakistan. The rival camps, fused by a shared love for Punjabi pop and piping hot naan and curries, tone down the hype. On June 16, the roads leading to Old Trafford are packed. Much later, after his 140 set the base for India’s eventual triumph, Rohit Sharma quips: “I think the audience split was 51 percent Indian, 49 percent Pakistani.”
The stands are a cacophony of various slogans, but the subcontinental diaspora are a happy lot and the tensions around the Wagah border don’t seep in. There is humour in the press conference, a Pakistani scribe congratulates Rohit and then seeks his advice for Sarfaraz Ahmed’s men. Rohit drawls in Hindi and says: “Make me the Pakistan coach and then I will tell you.” He says it without malice and a smile lingers. Everyone laughs and it is a throwback to the past when Virender Sehwag or Inzamam-ul-Haq used to leave the press corps in splits with witty one-liners.
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