Movies and cricket

S. DINAKAR

THE cricketing caravan journeys to Hyderabad. This is a fresh series for India. The South Africans had arrived with a record of 19 undefeated games.

But the Indians are enjoying their cricket and during the practice sessions at the new Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, Team India throbs with energy.

The stadium is not yet complete, but it looks promising. The players are happy, and the media too has an air-conditioned press box. The endeavour of the Hyderabad Cricket Association to create a modern facility has to be appreciated.

Traffic jams, the unending and snakelike lines of cars, confront us on match day. We make it just in time for the game.

The Indian media manager, Wing Commander M. Baladitya, greets us. He is a warm, friendly man but needs to be given time to implement his ideas. He does have plans to improve the facilities for the scribes in the smaller centres. Among them is a two-day seminar ahead of the season that will enlighten the delegates from the local associations about the requirements of the media. "What they must understand is that the facilities must be ready a day before the match and not on the match day alone," says Baladitya. Right words indeed.

Former India off-spinner Shivlal Yadav is a busy man as the contest gets underway. He visits the press box, spends time with the scribes. His role in the construction of the stadium, that has endured a controversy over its naming, is a rather significant one.

Back in the team hotel V. V. S. Laxman can be spotted. The smooth-stroking player is a sought after man in Hyderabad and understandably so. A couple of days ahead of the match, he was present at the launch of the late stylist M. L. Jaisimha's biography. The co-author of the book is Joseph Antony, one of the sports correspondents of The Hindu in the city. Incidentally, Sunil Gavaskar, for whom Jaisimha was an idol, also graced the function.

The Garden City of Bangalore is the next stop for the teams. The South Africans are on the threshold of equalling Australia's record streak of 21 unbeaten matches in the ODIs. They are on a roll, while India faces a must-win situation, well almost.

The ODI tours are such a rush that it is often impossible for the cricketers to squeeze out time for discovering any place. Bangalore has varied attractions — the city's unplanned growth is undermining its cause though — and the players manage to find some space in a hectic schedule to go out.

The weather is wonderful as the teams practise at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. And the giant screen flashes scenes from India's sensational victory in the NatWest final at Lord's in 2002. And the image of Sourav Ganguly, who removes his shirt in an extraordinary bout of celebration at the end of it all, stares at you. How quickly times change, and how they don't spare even a long-standing Indian captain. If the Indians needed inspiration ahead of the match, the stirring triumph at Lord's would have got their competitive juices flowing.

In the event, the Indians ambush the South Africans on a dusty track in Bangalore. It's also a victory for strategic brilliance. The crowd rocks to the rhythm of the cricket pounded out by the Indians in a lively arena. Those in the media are pleased too. The facilities in the Bangalore press box are excellent. Brijesh Patel and his team have done their homework. The only sour note in a happy match for the host is when a group of spectators rush into the arena at the conclusion of the game causing a security hazard.

Rahul Dravid smiles after leading India to victory in his first match as the national captain in his home city. And Sachin Tendulkar is now level with Wasim Akram on 356 for the most number of ODI caps.

If Bangalore marks an Indian celebration, then a seemingly unending bout of inclement weather ensures that cricket is the biggest casualty at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. The ground-staff works tirelessly, but the hard and persistent spells of showers make their task an impossible one.

The M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is among the foremost cricketing venues in the country and the Chennai spectators among the most discerning. The previous two matches in the city — India's ODI against New Zealand (2003) and the Test against Australia (2004) in October — - had been affected by rain. It does pour hard in the Tamil Nadu capital during the months of October and November.

In the past, the second and third weeks of January, that coincided with the Pongal festival, were earmarked for international cricket. And some extraordinary matches were witnessed.

The Board laid the blame on the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) for accepting the itinerary, but then the local association, under the trigger, has little choice in the matter. If it refuses and loses its turn in the rotation system, then it might have to wait for an eternity before hosting another international match.

The huge covers on the arena do not present a pretty sight. A sizable number of spectators, braving the weather, wait patiently at the stadium, hoping against hope for a truncated game. At 3.15 p.m., the umpires call off the match.

Not a single ball is bowled in the game, and the TNCA schedules an executive committee meeting to discuss the issue of refunding money to those who had purchased tickets. The weather plays the spoilsport.

There is an opportunity, though, to talk to Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, whose brilliance as a leg-spinner is still remembered. Siva, at his peak around the mid-80s, had just about everything, fizz off the pitch, a hissing leg-break, a well-disguised googly, a potent top-spinner, a deceptive flipper.

Siva is impressed with young leg-spinner Piyush Chawla. "He has the talent, but needs to be groomed carefully. He has variety, has a useful wrong 'un. He needs to be given time. Too much pressure should not be put on the kid."

He feels the team-management's idea to have Chawla travelling with the side in the concluding stages of the India-Sri Lanka ODI series was the right one. "It is important that he gets the feel of the big games."

Sivaramakrishnan was in his teens himself when he bamboozled the Englishmen in the 1984-85 home series. "Actually, I didn't feel any pressure when I was that young. As I grew up, I started feeling it more because of you guys (the media)."

While Siva's international career is a tale of what might have been, he is relishing his role as a television commentator. Life then is all about picking up the pieces and beginning afresh.

Jeff Crowe has done that as well. He is the elder brother of Martin, who has his place in the pantheon of great batsmen. Jeff was a hard-hitting middle-order batsman himself apart from being a strong-willed skipper of the New Zealand team. But, then he often lived under the shadow of his brother. Now, he is married to an American, is settled in Florida, and is also on the road as one of ICC's match referees.

"I enjoy the role. But there is so much of travelling. I am journeying for nearly seven months in a year," says the affable Jeff. He is also involved with a sports goods firm and visits New Zealand from time to time.

Interestingly, the Oscar-winning Hollywood star Russell Crowe is his first cousin. "My father and his father are brothers. Myself, Martin, Russell, we grew up together. Russell's passionate about the game. He follows the game intensely. He now lives in Australia and has a cricket ground for himself. To celebrate his wedding, he had a cricket game organised."

Despite achieving super success in movies, Russell remains a simple, caring man at heart, says Jeff. "He really cares for the needy. That's what I like about him the most. Any cause for charity, he is there."

Jeff goes on: "He is such an easy going, jovial guy. But he is completely different on the sets.

I went to the sets of Gladiator, and could not believe it was Russell out there with all those clothes and make-up on!"

There is a common thread running through movies and cricket — both are unpredictable. So is the weather!