The atmosphere is very, very Indian

MARCH 10. The roads to The Wanderers highlight the Indianness of cricket. Fans of the Indian team have descended in huge numbers from neighbouring African nations.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Ajit Agarkar's wife (left) and Yuvraj Singh's mother wave the National flag. The merchandise tent outside The Wanderers' Stadium ran out of Indian flags . — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

MARCH 10. The roads to The Wanderers highlight the Indianness of cricket. Fans of the Indian team have descended in huge numbers from neighbouring African nations. Chartered flights have flown in supporters from India but not all of them true lovers of the game, as I can make out from their boorish and embarrassing behaviour at the ground. Outside the stadium, the merchandise tent is doing brisk business. Caps and T-shirts of teams eliminated from the tournament attract none despite the slashing of prices. George Kerr repents stocking South African merchandise. "A big let down" he murmurs even as he makes up for the losses by selling Indian colours. "I'm a big fan of India. They have made my day," he says even as he apologises to the petite lady who has come from Botswana. "Sorry I've run out of Indian flags." Kerr orders for more Indian flags. "Come back in the afternoon" he assures the lady, who has by now draped herself in the India T-shirt with the tricolour painted on the cheeks. "I must say the Indians are proud of their National flag. I've not known fans from other countries show such patriotism," Kerr remarks. He is right. The Indian nationalism at cricket venues overseas has to be seen to be believed. Even the ringing tone on the mobile phone is "saare jahan se accha... ."

March 11. Hansie Cronje continues to live in the hearts of students at the Grey College in Bloemfontein. His ashes lie in a memorial erected within the school complex and every Saturday, an old man quietly walks up to replace the old flowers with fresh ones. The death of one of the most favourite and accomplished students of this prestigious school had a shattering effect on this man, the headmaster and former coach of Cronje. As I talk to him, I realise the truth that Cronje's death has not yet sunk in as far as this man is concerned. He speaks as if his favourite student is still around. Johan Volsteedt takes me around the place and speaks glowingly of his student who died in disgrace after having brought great laurels to the school, the state and the country. Volsteedt has preserved the e-mail that Cronje sent him just three days before his death, detailing his desire to be a student again. Cronje wrote: "When I left Grey in 1987, I really battled to believe that it could get better. How wrong I was! I thought Grey might go the inevitable route of slipping backwards, how wrong I was! Others have slipped back, but Grey has leaped forward every single day for 15 years. How I wish that 15 years would not go so fast. Proud of you all, and particularly of you Vollies. You are a champ." The mail speaks of the emotional side of his character even as he is ravaged by the match-fixing episode. The biggest punishment for Cronje was his banishment from anything connected with cricket. He could not even buy a ticket to watch a match. He was a brilliant student at Grey. He was a competitive cricketer. And we were all right in our reading of him until one fine morning the world changed for Cronje. Till then he was considered the finest sporting ambassador for new South Africa. How wrong we were!

March 12. Rameez Raja, in South Africa as a commentator, strolls into the press box at the Goodyear Park in Bloemfontein and strikes a conversation which brings back memories of his playing days, his visits to India and his interaction with Indian cricketers. He has plenty to share. How his son pesters him to get autographs of Indian cricketers and film stars. How Sunil Shetty stumps Rameez by requesting him for an autograph. "It should have been the other way round," quips the Pakistani. How Rameez yearns for the revival of India-Pakistan cricket. Rameez has some fond memories of India. His in-laws come from Delhi's Daryagunj and he has friends in different parts of India. Rameez simply marvels at the enthusiasm that Sachin Tendulkar exudes on the field and has very kind words for Indian cricketers. He wants to know if Nagpur still has the hotel near the stadium that serves the best dal makhani he has had. And then he talks of his own Lahore and the changes that have come about in the society after the communication revolution, how the private channels have improved the quality of television in his country and how streets are deserted in Lahore when the saas-bahu operas are beamed on Star Plus. And he narrates a true incident before he returns to his stint in the television box. A car carrying Geoff Boycott, Sunil Gavaskar and Rameez is stopped outside the main gate of the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. The gun-toting cop demands a pass from Boycott. The Englishman, in his typical response, informs the cop he has none. When Boycott does not relent despite increasingly strong demands, the cop trains his gun on him. Not losing his composure, Boycott raises his hands and exclaims "I am Geoffrey Boycott from England, famous batsman and commentator," and points at the man on the back seat, "Sunil Gavaskar from India, shoot him.'' The cop bursts out laughing and ushers the car in with a salute!

March 13. I spot them at the reception of the Centurion Lake Hotel, a group of young Sri Lankans. I wonder what they are doing in Centurion when Sanath Jayasuriya and his men are in East London, playing the crucial match against Zimbabwe. I am stumped by their response. "We have come to watch the best team in the world." For Firdowsi Muslim, Nishantha Amunugama, Imtiaz Iqbal and Giethal Weerasekera, it has been a trip, which has brought them close to Indian cricket. Working with the HSBC in Colombo, they have snatched this quick trip to the World Cup and do not hesitate to announce that their own team has a lot to learn from the Indians. They talk about the passion for the game in Sri Lanka and then the conversation shifts to India and the industry that cricket has now grown into. Before we part, Firdowsi wants to know why do the Indians react violently when the team does not fare well. Stoning a cricketer's house or damaging his car. I am stumped again, and left speechless. Such things are unheard of in Sri Lanka.

March 14. He carries his drums to the ground, only to be told that he cannot play them. How can Shivamani live without drums? One of the key components of A. R. Rahman's music, Shivamani is shattered when the security says no drums allowed to the grounds in South Africa. At the Newlands, he just sits in the company of Nana Patekar and the two shout themselves hoarse. "I enjoy my cricket," says Patekar and I am impressed with his knowledge of the game. But can you keep Shivamani down. He comes to the Centurion and gets into business with some clever thinking. He converts small bins, a huge beer barrel and trays into his instruments of joy and gives a commanding performance. Even the securitymen join in the fun and enjoy every moment of it. The match over, Shivamani flies off to New York for a performance, this time with the drums he values so dearly.

March 15. `Vukuhambe'. In local language it means `Stand up and walk'. The Buffalo Park is in great spirits even if it is not a match involving the home team. And a group of physically challenged kids are given a vantage position outside the press box to watch the match. It is part of the programme to attract people to the ground and these kids have a gala time. The kids come from the Vukuhambe School, which is known to encourage sports among the physically challenged children. There are events especially organised for such youngsters. The popularity for such events has grown over the years and as signified by these kids, there is support from the society too. So different from the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi where students from the school for deaf and dumb are often chased out by insensitive officials of the Delhi and District Cricket Association.

March 16. Suresh Saraiya is a veteran on the cricket circuit and a legend among the millions of Gujaratis settled overseas. A distinguished radio commentator for 37 years, he continues to be sought after by his Gujju fans all over the world. Suresh bhai, as he is better known in the cricket fraternity, has done broadcasts from all Test playing nations. His forte has always been his speed, which matches the tempo of the game and love for radio commentary despite offers from television in early 80s. I have some fond memories of time spent with him on tours and especially evenings when he enlightens you with splendid anecdotes from an era which has not been recorded or documented by television. Of matches, which he had the privilege to commentate on. Of some great players he had the fortune to interact with. He has vivid details of some innings played by Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar, Vinoo Mankad. I envy him. Suresh bhai has many firsts to his credit — first Indian commentator to broadcast live from the West Indies in 1976 and also as a guest for Radio New Zealand the same year. Among his proud moments are sharing the mike with the legendary Allan McGilvray and Tony Cozier, not to forget some pleasant stints with our own matchless Dicky Rutnagar and Anant Setalwad. Watching him prepare for a match is an education. His homework, statistics and history of the two teams, is impeccably accumulated. And then his pilgrimage to inspect the pitch and the commentators' box is an exercise he has never missed. "It's a pilgrimage to me. To go and feel the pitch,'' says Suresh bhai, who retired after serving in the Central Bank of India in Mumbai. His mind is a rich treasure house of cricket history.

Why does he not preserve them in a book form for young writers and cricket lovers of today. Suresh bhai promises to consider the request. For those who want to know his achievements, it would suffice to say he has done 89 Tests and 100 one-day internationals. His best moments? "Without doubt the interview of Don Bradman I did in 1980 in Adelaide for All India Radio and Janmabhoomi and the historic win at Port of Spain in 1976," I can see his eyes are moist.