After a thumping victory over Pakistan at Manchester’s Old Trafford, the Indian cricket caravan heads to Southampton. The sports scribes follow suit, switching trains and stations at London, using the underground metro beneath the sprawling metropolis as an intermediary. The players meanwhile travel in their swanky team bus while a few like Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan link up with their families and take the train.
The railway lines slice through back gardens, skirt around golf courses, cruise past rolling hills dotted with sheep in a languorous mood after munching on lush grass, and at times burrows through long tunnels and, hey, there is definitely a warm English sun at the end of it. However, correspondents don’t have the time to tap into their inner William Wordsworth. Duty calls and laptops surface, copies are belted out, inferences are drawn from the triumph against Pakistan and the mobile hotspot is activated to transmit stories back to offices in India. Writing on the run is intrinsic to any tour of England thanks to the time difference as Old Blighty is four-and-a-half hours behind India.
A cozy flat awaits in Southampton, fringed by the woods, a meadow and a road on the edge. A bird that looks like a distant cousin of the crow pheasant struts in the garden, and a squirrel much bulkier than the ones seen back home turns coy and scampers away. Life’s final stop is at close quarters too as a signboard points to a crematorium just a walk away.
But far from this brooding melancholy, news trickles in from Taunton: Bangladesh has stunned the West Indies. A middle-aged man at the nearby convenience store just can’t stop grinning and tries to strike up a conversation in Bengali with men hailing from the south of the Vindhyas. He is thrilled about his nation’s ability to cause upsets, and his assistant has a permanent smile plastered on his face. Colas, milk, bread and a warm brew in a long bottle are purchased and a discount is offered, too. May Bangladesh win more except against India!
A Monday night wanes with conversations over dinner sourced from an Indian restaurant, and it is washed down with a liquid brewed from fermented grapes as a nagging cold needs a certain medicine! A few days later, there is the sad breaking news of Shikhar Dhawan being ruled out following a thumb fracture he suffered in an earlier game against Australia. Rishabh Pant is named as his replacement. Sport’s vagaries never cease; a player returns and another cricketer gets a golden opportunity.
The Afghans and their winsome smiles
Afghanistan has been cricket’s Cinderella story. The game was learnt at refugee camps in Peshawar. It initially served as a distraction from the drudgery of a life fringed by Kalashnikovs and poverty. But the sport also provided a redemptive path, the willow game was imbibed, Urdu was also learnt and the men made merry on the 22 yards. Through sheer hard work, Afghanistan progressed on merit and even entered the current World Cup after defeating the West Indies in the final of the qualifying tournament.
For Indians, the first connect with Afghanistan was inculcated through that lovely short story by Rabindranath Tagore, Kabuliwala , published in 1892. It dealt with a man from Kabul coming over to Kolkata (Calcutta then) to sell dry fruits and the bond he forges with a child. Most of us have read this tale at school and much later we became aware of the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan as the USA and the then USSR struggled for control. The Taliban too had a wretched run and much changed. Just as the nation limped back to normalcy, cricket was its balm.
READ | Onwards to London!
Gulbadin Naib, the Afghanistan captain, keeps grinning during Friday’s press conference at the Hampshire Bowl. It is match eve and next day India awaits and guess what he says? “I am a big fan of Virat Kohli. My favourite team is India,” he gushes like a fanboy. On Saturday, the form book is respected in a close game that did hint at an upset, but Mohammed Shami’s hat-trick seals the deal. The Afghans lose, but there is this sweet moment when Naib gets a wicket and flexes his arms. He was a bodybuilder once.
Universe Boss and his crazy ways
It is time to head to Manchester where a game against the West Indies is lined up. Chris Gayle steps in for an impromptu press conference, banters with familiar correspondents, a senior mentions about a bar in the Caribbean islands and Gayle shoots back: “I never seen you there, you sure?” A bit of a funny back-and-forth ensures and once the formal presser starts, reporters eager to write a tribute ask him about his career highs and the road ahead. Gayle whips up a surprise and says: “Next I want to play the Tests and ODIs (One-Day Internationals) against India but not the Twenty20s.” Heads get scrambled — wasn’t he supposed to retire after the World Cup?
But then, he is the Universe Boss and strange are his ways. Later his captain Jason Holder confides that even he wasn’t aware of Gayle’s change of plans and the hall erupts in laughter. As for the contest, India has it easy and wins by 125 runs. And in other news, the scribes mull over dropping into Manchester United’s fortress as the ground is nearby, but such is the grind of cricket reporting that time lapses and an opportunity is missed.
It is time for the big game, the one involving England at Birmingham’s Edgbaston ground. The home team seems to be in a spot after back-to-back losses, and the newspapers echo the sound of knives being sharpened. Jonny Bairstow has a powwow with the media, former captain Michael Vaughan reacts on Twitter and the backdrop isn’t a bed of roses for Eoin Morgan’s men. Yet, sport is a leveller. Bairstow hammers a hundred, Ben Stokes excels and, despite another Rohit Sharma hundred, India loses by 31 runs, and M. S. Dhoni’s relatively slow batting comes under the scanner.
Kohli’s men regain their winning ways in a few days at the same venue by humbling a fighting Bangladesh. Rohit scores another inevitable hundred. But more than this, a fresh endeavour lures a few hacks and a visit to the watering hole Walkabout happens on a weekend night. The itch to collect forensic evidence about an old bust-up between David Warner and Joe Root fails. But never mind, glasses can be clinked. When the failed pseudo-detectives step out, a ghastly sight greets them – a man with a bloodied nose is being taken into an ambulance after a brawl.
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