Eye of the tiger

Shoaib Akhtar places a miniature tiger on a stump during net practice at the Kotla.-AP

Shoaib Akhtar has been a survivor. The man may have his faults, but is not short of resilience, or speed. He is still swarmed by admirers, notes S. Dinakar in his diary.

There is an air of expectancy inside the Feroze Shah Kotla. Cricket in the country is returning to the longer variety and the opponent is Pakistan. The training sessions are intense. Pakistan pace spearhead Shoaib Akhtar has a miniature tiger on a stump. Perhaps, he had listened to that inspirational song ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor. Perhaps, he was responding to a comment. Perhaps, he was sending out a signal to the Indian camp.

Shoaib has been a survivor himself. The man may have his faults, but is not short of resilience, or speed. He is still swarmed by admirers. It is also time to catch up with journalist friends from across the border. The Pakistani media is a cheerful bunch, not lacking in humour. “Delhi, it is so much like Lahore,” says one of the younger Pakistani scribes. I had felt the same during my visits to Pakistan.

The Kotla brings back old memories. It was here that I watched most of my early matches, often bunking classes. The much-maligned Kotla of yesteryear had its own charm.

There was a very informal air to the venue, which is rare in Indian cricket. From a particular vantage point, we could follow the football contests at the neighbouring Ambedkar Stadium.

Now Kotla sports a new look, even if the stands are sprinkled with colours that are gaudy. There are more facilities, but aesthetically, the stadium does not quite blend with Delhi’s ubiquitous elegance.

Delhi has its charm. The government quarters with spacious lawns, a beautifully spaced out diplomatic enclave, the lively market places... all add to the capital’s colour. The roads are broad and the new railway network has cut time and distances. An ancient city is evolving. This is winter time in Delhi and the woollens are out. The mornings are foggy and there is a nip in the air in the evening. Smog envelops the Kotla before the start of the match. Given the conditions, cricket appears a distant possibility. However, as the locals point out, the cricketers’ visibility on the ground is not affected unless the smog is very thick. There are times when reality can be an illusion.

At the Kotla the crowd grows as the Test progresses, and on November 25 (Sunday) it's a full house. Who says Test cricket is dying?-PTI

The press box at the Kotla

The Board is not happy and rumours fly around that Vengsarkar is putting in his papers over the issue. Momentarily, at least, the attention shifts from the middle.

The debate evokes contrasting opinion. Former member of the selection panel, Yashpal Sharma, reveals he had to make a choice between continuing in the media and taking up the job in the selection panel. “The Board told me beforehand that I could have only one of the jobs. I had a talk with my wife and decided to give something back to the game. I could always come back to the media job,” said Yashpal.

Former India opener Arun Lal says the selectors should be compensated handsomely by the Board. “The cricketers are paid so much. The job of a selector should not be a honorary one. Without doing that the Board cannot impose itself on the selectors. How can the BCCI stop the selectors from making money through a column if it does not pay them a regular salary?” Arun Lal has a point. This is a story with a happy ending. Vengsarkar informs the Board that he will stop penning columns. The Board, reportedly, assures the selection panel chief that it would compensate him for his monetary loss. The head of the Pakistan selection panel, Salahuddin Ahmed, has no such worries. He is an affable man, easily approachable. He is pleased with Akhtar’s performance in the Test.

Akhtar’s run-up, one of gradual acceleration and an explosive finish, captivates the crowd. Cricket can cut across barriers. The crowd grows as the Test progresses and on November 25 (Sunday) it’s a full house. Who says Test cricket is dying?