HARARE, the ideal place for a camp

Rahul Dravid keeps wickets during an interaction programme organised by UNICEF for children from families impacted by AIDS.-V.V. KRISHNAN

IN olden times sadhus went to the mountains to meditate and reflect, seek peace and search for the ultimate essence of life. Recently, the Aussies have trained in places away from Australia, and England goes to strange venues to prepare before important tours.

Next time the Indian team has to get ready for a tough series it should seriously consider putting the players on a flight to Harare — the ideal place for a camp is not Bangalore but the capital of Zimbabwe.

The benefits of shifting the camp there are obvious because, for the team, there would be total cricket, no disturbance, zero distraction. Players will focus squarely on cricket with every bit of their energy directed towards the game.

Zimbabwe is the only country in the world where a one-dayer featuring our boys attracted a crowd so thin you could actually count people sitting in the stands. Spectator disinterest was so low the 75 complimentary passes issued to the team went unutilised.

The cricketers, understandably, are not too worried by this neglect, on the contrary they are heaving a collective sigh of relief at being left alone. Nobody minds the lack of attention, the general feeling is it is good to be unharassed. Absent are requests from passers-by to pose for mobile phones, there are hardly any autograph seekers, no mob of fans waiting in hotel lobbies or outside the dressing room.

Players enjoy the freedom to move around, some sit in the hotel bar after play or wander aimlessly through the restaurants. With time weighing heavily on everyone's hands you see Kartik trying to hit the right notes on the piano with his spinning fingers in the coffee shop. The result is not exactly tuneful and Harbhajan (who has grown up on bhangra rhythm and balle-balle) winces visibly.

On a rest day players visit a UNICEF run education camp for kids from families impacted by AIDS. Led by elder statesman Dravid, and accompanied by Ajit Kumar, India's ambassador in Zimbabwe, they drive 30 minutes to Movuku and watch OVC (orphaned and vulnerable children) dance to music, paint and play cricket. When one left-handed child bowls with an action more dodgy than that of Murali, Shabbir and Shoaib Malik put together, Irfan Pathan takes him aside for a quiet word.

Sehwag records a TV spot for an anti-AIDS campaign. The shoot takes place near the swimming pool, he is given some lines to speak, which he does in effortless style with the practised ease of a veteran who has faced the camera many times without flinching. The message is clear: I play cricket to make runs and defeat the bowlers. All of us must fight AIDS and defeat this enemy. Be aggressive in this contest. Don't take any chances.

Indian players savour a joyous moment during the recent Tri-series in Zimbabwe. Strangely, for all the excitement generated on the field, the Indians could not attract a good crowd.-AP

The relaxed nature of Zimbabwe sits well with captain Ganguly too. In India he is besieged by people, so much he needs security even to visit the loo. His various mobile phones never stop ringing, 20 mediamen are always waiting outside his hotel room for quotes/bytes, sponsors chase him for dates to shoot commercials, officials want him for functions/inaugurations or something or the other. The coach wants him (for finalising team plans) the physio/coach (for another gym session), then there are endless demands from fans and friends. All this put together is a nightmare, the man is in a complete spin.

Here, life is dramatically different, it unfolds in slow motion, there is time to breathe, relax and take things easy. The phones are silent, India is almost Rupees 200 on international roaming and it is impossible to get through on the Zim mobile. Fawning fans don't exist, the media contingent is a slim 10 compared to the hefty 150 odd that chased the Indian team in Pakistan last year. After a practice session Sourav addresses the press near the boundary, in front of the Harare Club while gents drink beer, speaking into two microphones in front of a few cameras, only this time there are kids in the crowd wanting autographs and one young Gujarati lady clicks photos with a digital camera. He answers questions he has answered a million times, repeating what he has said on each such occasion before a game.

Why aren't the boys doing well? It is a matter of time. We have a talented team.

What are your plans? We know we have to fire. Why does not India win? Well,... .

Later in the evening Sourav drifts into the hotel restaurant, scans the buffet spread, settles for soup and a light meal. Then, spotting some friends, orders hot chocolate, chats with them for a while before retiring for the night.

For him, and others, Zimbabwe offers a strict, disciplined nowhere-to-go-nothing-to-do routine. In hotel rooms TV screens pop up nothing more exciting than CNN and BBC, some music entertainment and sports action but that is about it. Outside the Sheraton, there exist some malls but shopping is not attractive enough and the Indian restaurants (researched by Irfan Pathan) only serve oily and spicy curries. Besides, going out is a huge effort because cabs are difficult to find due to the on-going fuel shortage which has driven many out of business.

Yet, for all these irritants, Harare has a distinctive charm, its natural splendour unspoilt by modern commercialisation. Zimbabwe has 90 per cent literacy, reasonable infrastructure, little traffic even in the city centre, its broad roads lined with jacaranda trees and white roses. Wonderful game parks hold immense tourism potential, and there is the majestic Victoria falls. The economy is struggling (like India's cricket), unemployment is at an all-time high, agriculture production is sliding. Political observers point to ominous signs of instability and discontent, notice the growing noise of international criticism over its policies. But all that is a different ball game.