'Rent a crowd'

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST


JUNE 7 : It is the first day of the Test match and the data analysis system in the Indian dressing room stops functioning. So typical of an Indian effort. We don't know how much difference it makes to the overall performance of the team on the field because Zimbabwe bats poorly. But Nandan, the cricket analyst from Bangalore, is a much harassed man. He looks as rattled as the Zimbabweans.

The Board has cleared him for the trip after much persuasion from coach John Wright and now the system has stopped functioning, making Nandan fret and fume. The computer failure sends him into the repair mode and by evening he is smiling. The cricketers have a job to do and so has Nandan, an affable software engineer and a former Karnataka wicketkeeper.

Nandan was a big help to the Indian team during the home series against Australia, travelling with the squad but not staying at the same hotel. And then running around to get his bills cleared was as taxing as his analysis.

On the trip to Zimbabwe, Nandan stays in the same hotel as the team and does not worry about the bills. Everything is taken care of and his job is to make his computer analyse the cricketers' game. His room is crowded with cricketers wanting to check on their weak and strong points and there the camaraderie is infectious. "A great asset," remarks one senior cricketer as he repeatedly watches his dismissal and makes a few mental notes on what to do and what not to. Nandan also makes a few notes in his mind. He is well-equipped and charged up too. The tour has just begun and so has his hard work.

June 8: "The buzz is missing," comments Craig Ray, the Reuters correspondent from Johannesburg. He is talking of the Test match buzz, which is certainly missing, as empty stands greet the cricketers at the Queen's Sports Club. It is in keeping with the trend these days where fans prefer watching the one-dayers instead of a five-day contest, which comes off as an ordeal for many employed people.

The Zimbabwe Cricket Union has hit upon a novel 'rent a crowd' scheme where schoolkids are packed into buses and brought to the ground. But the din created by the kids can't match the roar of a crowd which understands the intricacies of the game.

The kids' stand is a colourful area. They come in school uniforms and maintain amazing discipline. The kids are treated with cool drinks and handed lunch packets too. A lovely picnic for them really, basking in the sun, seeking autographs, having fun and not being marked absent in school. This is official duty and they are the official cheerleaders. But kids being kids, they cheer every boundary and every dismissal and it does not matter at all which camp, India or Zimbabwe, benefits. The best crowd for cricket one must say.

June 9 : Mrs. Naidoo is a very affectionate lady. She keeps aside some vegetarian food for five of us in the press tent. On the first day she is embarrassed when we ask for veg food. "No one told me about veg food," she says in mock anger. We manage with salads.

On the second and third days she has come prepared and takes great delight in serving us. "I've rice and some nice dal for you gentlemen. And there is a veg curry too," she welcomes us with a big smile. Today, she has added one more veg curry, a spicy one, to make it a feast really. "Enjoy your food gentlemen," she says and her face lights up when she learns that one more member of the scribes' party has turned vegetarian. She now has six men to take extra care of. But Mrs. Naidoo does not mind at all.

June 10 : "Watch out when you step out of the hotel," or "don't venture out after dusk." The warnings come from various quarters and it doesn't matter if you happen to be in London, Nairobi, Kingston, Johannesburg, Sydney. The big cities of the world are crime-ridden.

So, it was surprising when we were told to watch out even when going out in Bulawayo. It was not so three years ago when India played two one-dayers at the Queen's Sports Club. Like the Securex in Nairobi, the security agencies in Harare and Bulawayo too have a large clientele.

At the ground, the security is in place. The men in uniform are polite, unlike the boorish cops in India, and take care to guide you.

It is dark and we look around for a cab. There are a few young kids lurking and the securityman steps in to take charge of us. "Wait here please," he points towards the main gate and sprints off, to return with a cab. He is still panting as we ease into the backseat. "Please call for a cab before you come on to the road," he tells us again pleasantly.

June 11 : The Queen's Sports Club has undergone an amazing transformation from the time we visited Bulawayo in 1998. The ground continues to be scenic, but reflects the modern influence in the shape of corporate boxes and a jazzy pavilion.

The long line of trees still mark the general stand, but there is no crowd at all. The corporate boxes are deserted since businessmen come to watch only the one-dayers. An ugly structure, temporary though, hides the old pavilion and club house. The character of the ground has changed.

In keeping with the modern times, the ZCU has ensured that the cricket facilities are upgraded and this is what strikes one the most. Well-maintained pitches on one side of the ground make a pleasant sight and impress John Wright too, as he spends a lot of time before and after the day's play, working on the game of the Indians.

The practice facilities are modern. The pitches are well-maintained. There are slow and fast pitches and the Indians enjoy their training. You can jog around the ground taking in the fresh air and step into the team bus after a refreshing shower. Not many grounds in India offer such facilities. It reflects on the thinking of the officials in India, who have little time to spare for these very essential things.

June 12 : Gaurav Kalra and Harinath S. make a lively pair. The two young men from TWI have a tough assignment on hand - to gather off-beat stories for their news programme and their job becomes all the more tough when they find the cricketers difficult to approach. But they don't lose heart.

Well, the initial distrust of the cricketers for these two new additions to the party of scribes disappears and Gaurav and Hari soon have a busy schedule.

Their job becomes difficult when their cameras are confiscated at the ground by the CSI staff. CSI has won the telecast rights and is justified in denying any other television company the opportunity to shoot when the game is on but it is shocking to see the cameras being confiscated.

Getting the cricketers to talk can be tough but Gaurav and Hari have their way with pleasant manners. Their approach is liked by the team and there are few refusals for them. Why, even Daryl Harper willingly shares his view and grants them an interview.

Gaurav is adept in research and comes up with some little known facts about cricket in Zimbabwe and Hari's camera skills capture some interesting action off the field - black kids playing cricket and a game park.

June 13 : There are few cricketers I have seen with books in their hands. The Australian team is well-equipped with lap-tops and should rank as the most advanced in this regard. Even the South Africans are well-versed with computers, as are the Kiwis and some Englishmen. But not many of them read books.

Sunil Gavaskar is an exception. He enjoys reading - from newspapers to magazines to books. The subject does not matter for Sunny.

On tours, he often packs his bags with the latest magazines and makes it a point to circulate them among the team members, provided they show interest. He would often bring issues of The Sportstar and film magazines for us and the players. He has stopped that now since these are the days of the internet. But he has not stopped carrying his books.

Once his stint in the commentary box is over, you can see Sunny engrossed in a book or rapidly penning his daily column. He is quite a professional and takes care not to miss the deadline. Every minute of Sunny's time is marked. There is a time to commentate, a time to eat and drink, a time to chat and a time to write. And of course a time to read his book.

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