Playing on the top of Europe

On India’s Independence Day, cricket made its debut on snow, that too, at an altitude of 11,333 feet at the highest point of the Bernese Alps at Jungfraujoch, Switzerland. Rakesh Rao reports.

Cricket has transcended many boundaries, charmed several generations and stayed atop the priority list of millions of sports lovers across the globe.

Novelties have only added to the charm and following of this game. If Kerry Packer experimented with day-night contests in the 1970s, it was Abdul Rahman Bukhatir who brought the sport to the desert destination of Sharjah in the early 1980s.

These days, with Twenty20 threatening to give instant gratification to the game’s addicts, beach cricket is enjoying a ‘captive’ audience of its own.

On India’s Independence Day, cricket made its debut on snow, that too, at an altitude of 11,333 feet at the highest point of the Bernese Alps at Jungfraujoch, Switzerland.

A select six-member Indian team, comprising skipper Kapil Dev, Aunshuman Gaekwad, Sandeep Patil, Roger Binny, Syed Kirmani and Ajay Jadeja faced an All Stars team consisting of captain Alvin Kallicharran, Collis King, Geoff Howarth, Chris Broad, John Emburey and Neal Radford.

The aim of this initiative was to use cricket as an incentive to attract tourists, particularly from India, to Switzerland. In fact, the number of Indian tourists visiting this picturesque destination is next only to those from Korea and Japan.

Surely, no other sporting activity gets the attention of the Indians as cricket does. So the choice of discipline was right. But the challenge lay in making a “pitch” on the carefully identified “field” that was around 100 metres in length and 70 metres in width. A wooden “pitch” covered by a green mat was put in place. A custom-made tennis ball, heavier than usual, replaced its leather counterpart.

Once it became clear that despite the odd set-up, the “bounce” was going to be even, the players looked ahead to the contest. Indeed, the players were not expected to fool around and make a mockery of it all.

Both Kapil and Kallicharran minced no words when talking about their approach to what was otherwise considered a “fun event.”

Kapil said, “I’ve always played my cricket with intensity. Once I wear the kit and enter a cricket ground, I play to win. I am sure it is going to be fun playing in such a beautiful setting. Never thought cricket will bring all of us here. It will be great to win here.”

Kallicharran, who was keen to play a 10-over-a-side game instead of five, was of the view that “fun lies in winning. If you try to give your best every time, you want to win every time.”

As expected, during the game, no quarter was given. With the teams agreeing to retire any player who scored 21 runs or more, it became certain that most players would get to bat. And it did turn out that way.

Opting to bat, India lost Gaekwad early, but still managed to reach 108 with Jadeja (26), Kapil (26) and Patil (25) doing their job before “retiring”. Binny and Kirmani remained unbeaten on 12 each.

At the changeover, Kallicharran wondered whether it was possible to score in excess of 20 runs per over.

As things turned out, the All Stars almost pulled it off after Collis King (26), the hero of West Indies’ 1979 World Cup final victory over England, Broad (26) and Radford (25) put the team on course.

Kapil’s economical penultimate over left the All Stars needing 38 runs off the last over, but the target looked achievable once Jadeja started the final over with a no-ball that was duly dispatched for a six.

Kallicharran kept hitting sixes off Jadeja and needed one more off the last ball to clinch the issue. However, the left-hander’s miscued pull only fetched a single. That left the Indians celebrating their four-run victory.

Backed vociferously by a good bunch of tourists, some curious, some excited but mostly Indian, Kapil and his men had given their fans an added reason to celebrate the Independence Day. The Indian triumph was made all the more special when the Indians in the crowd joined the cricketers in the middle to sing the National Anthem. This was indeed the most memorable moment.

After all, lesser mortals can only dream of joining Kapil and his spirited ‘Devils’ in singing the National Anthem at ‘Top of Europe’ on Independence Day!

Just when the Anthem was about to end, to the pleasant surprise of everyone, Kallicharran joined the players and let go a loud “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. This was surely the moment of the day for all present.

“You know, I never lose to India,” revealed Kallicharran and continued with a smile, “I look at it like this: When West Indies wins, I am obviously happy. And when India wins, I feel happy because I am an Indian, after all,” declared this devout follower of Sai Baba while adding to the flavour of Independence Day.

The two umpires also played their role to perfection. If the presence of former captain Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi in the middle ensured order, former wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer provided some light moments. In fact, the respect “Tiger” commands from all the cricketers present was to be seen to be believed.

Even before the event got over, the players were enquiring from the gracious host, Jaideep Sinh Parmar and his wife Nupur, about the cricket destination for 2010. “We all would love to be part of this next year, too,” said Patil, with Gaekwad and Kirmani nodding in agreement.

“Believe me, this event is a great success,” certified Kallicharran and offered all help to make the next edition even bigger. Indeed, with a bit more publicity of this promotional match around Jungfrau, it could have attracted many more Indian tourists.

The two local partners of the event, Swiss Airlines and Jungfraubahen (Swiss Railways) did their best to keep the celebrity guests pleased. The well-organised cruise on Lake Brienz and excursion surely left everyone wanting to return for more.

“This one was a sure hit,” said Sony Abraham, Jungfraubahnen’s Mumbai-based representative and looked ahead to more Indians making it to the “Top of Europe” when the Jungfrau Railways offers tourists from India, Britain and Switzerland great deals in December 2009 and March-April 2010.

Meanwhile, cricketers, old and new alike, are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the next edition.