For Tendulkar, it began here 16 years ago

S. DINAKAR

Indian skipper Rahul Dravid arrives in Lahore with his wife and son.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THERE is an air of expectancy at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. The Indian cricket team will be flying out to Pakistan on what should be an eventful campaign across the border. The morning of January 5 is foggy and chilly, before sunlight finally pierces through the mist. Think of it, cricket between the two countries has survived a period of darkness and uncertainty. The brightly lit afternoon holds out hope for the future. The tour will make severe demands on the minds and bodies of the cricketers; it will also be another step in the bridge building process between the people of the two countries.

India's tour of Pakistan 2004 was an unprecedented success on and off the field, raising the stakes for this visit. But a sense of frustration creeps in among the passengers of the Lahore-bound Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight. The aircraft, scheduled to leave at 5.45 p.m., is delayed by more than three hours. The wait appears endless. The team has been made aware of the delayed departure.

The cricketers finally make an appearance. They are given bouquets by the airport staff. The cricketers troop into the packed aircraft after everybody else is seated. Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni have a small difficulty. There is no space for their hand baggage in the business class. The problem is sorted out soon. The 45-minute journey is a pleasant one. Children walk up to the cricketers for autographs. They return with a smile adorning their face. The flight lands at 10.15 p.m. local time at the modern Alama Iqbal Airport. Cricketers begin searching for network on their mobiles. Rahul Dravid's visage reflects a quiet determination. Sachin Tendulkar walks into the corridor leading to the immigration counter, administrative manager Raj Singh Dungarpur by his side. It was to Pakistan in 1989, as a precociously talented 16-year-old, that Tendulkar first toured with the Indian team. "16 years...it's been a long time," says Tendulkar about his long, fulfilling career, that has a few more summers left. He breaks into a laugh when reminded how the Indian manager, Chandu Borde, found him practising with his willow in his room on a cold Sialkot night of 1989. Interestingly, Mr. Dungarpur was the chief of selectors when the momentous decision to select Tendulkar was arrived at. He remembers, "His name went through like a rocket. I recall Naren Tamhane telling me, `This boy Tendulkar, he never fails.'"

A hearty welcome for Tendulkar at the airport.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

This is the maiden tour of Pakistan for Harbhajan Singh; he misses out in 2004 due to a finger injury. The Sardar anticipates exciting cricket. He also intends to visit some famous Gurudwaras in Pakistan. "Akhir border par kar liya," he quips with typical nonchalance.

The officials of the Pakistan Cricket Board receive the Indians with warmth. However, Irfan Pathan discovers banners anticipating what should be a high-voltage face-off with another Pathan, Shahid Afridi. Minutes later the Indians are being driven down the highway, escorted by a convoy of security vehicles. The roar of the engines breaks the silence of the night. Next morning Dravid handles his first press conference of the tour with great charm and dignity.

When one meets Inzamam-ul-Haq at the Pakistan Cricket Academy's modern facility, the Pakistan captain responds with an affectionate handshake. Then he excuses himself saying, "it's time for my prayers." The devout Inzamam has been inspirational for Pakistan. Danish Kaneria is also around at the Academy as the Pakistan `A' side, India's opponent in its only tour game of the visit, goes through a training session. The ace leg-spinner mulls not receiving enough credit for his performances as one of the leading members of the tribe in contemporary cricket. "They always talk about Shane Warne. Warne is a great bowler but..." he trails off. "It does hurt sometimes," he winds up the conversation.

Somehow the hype that accompanied the 2004 series is missing. Probably India and Pakistan have been playing each other too much over the last 18 months. "We should avoid an overkill," Dravid warns. The Indians begin their match at the beautiful Bagh-e-Jinnah — which is among the prettiest gardens of Pakistan — ground that is surrounded by trees, with a lovely old-fashioned brick-roofed pavilion adding character to the place. The ambience is relaxed at a venue without stands; the spectators follow the proceedings from outside the fence circling the ground.

The biting winter cold sends the temperature hurtling below 1 degree Celsius, but things have hotted up for Dungarpur. One of the television channels shows him saying uncomplimentary words about former captain Sourav Ganguly, who is part of the team. Ganguly, along with Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag, and Parthiv Patel — they all had to turn out for their sides in the Ranji Trophy — has not yet landed in Pakistan, which makes the situation slightly more manageable for the manager.

Sachin Tendulkar with young cancer patients at Imran Khan's (in the background) hospital in Lahore.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Dungarpur is a man of strong opinions, but then it would not be acceptable if a manager makes adverse comments about a member of the team at the beginning of an important tour. He swings into the damage control mode. Dungarpur claims he had not uttered the words on the current tour. "I might have said it a couple of months ago," he clarifies. The reporter defends the authenticity of his story. Ganguly arrives and the issue peters out without causing too much harm to the individuals concerned. The game at Bagh-e-Jinnah presents an opportunity to meet the suave PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan. He dwells on the team spirit and discipline in the Pakistan team, lauds Inzamam's leadership, acknowledges Shoaib Akhtar's transformation. He feels cricket has brought the people of the two countries closer. "The public is treating the India-Pakistan matches with a lot more maturity," he says.

The gap between the tour game and the first Test allows time for a meeting between the Indian side and the media at the team hotel. Some of the scribes from the print media are unhappy with the arrangements since the interaction is more on the lines of a press conference than a one-on-one chat. Some others see this as a glorious opportunity to probe the minds of, among others, the three greats of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and Kumble, ahead of what should be a gripping series. Also sharing the same table are Chappell and Ganguly, which is a `dream scenario' from a questioner's perspective. The session turns out to be an engaging affair. Kumble, a keen photographer himself, records the event for posterity.

In a noteworthy gesture, the Indian cricket team pays a visit to Imran Khan's cancer hospital named after his mother Shaukhat Khanum. The legendary Pakistani cricketer is on hand to receive the side. The cricketers spend time with the patients, many of whom are children. Dravid calls the experience "humbling." Tendulkar talks of how a young one told him, "my life depends on you."

The cricketers find the experience deeply moving. Dravid spends his birthday with those who are waging a much bigger fight, between life and death. The significance of the occasion is not lost on the erudite and thoughtful Indian captain.