World Cup Diary: From aboard a train to London

An Eritrean who speaks fluent Hindi, political posturing from a plane, India loses over two days and more from our World Cup diary.

A small plane made regular sorties with a banner attached to its tail.   -  AP

Eritrea and Bollywood

A day after India defeats Bangladesh at Birmingham, it is time to head to Leeds. The mane is a wee bit long and it is time to meet those dainty artists with their pairs of scissors.

A corner barber shop is found, and a man with African roots warmly welcomes two reporters. Soon he is speaking in Hindi and names himself Kabir, the name given to him by his Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends. To be in Leeds and to meet Kabir, an Eritrean who speaks fluent Hindi, is mind-boggling.

The accompanying friend is fluent in the language spoken beyond the Vindhyas, but yours truly only has a rudimentary knowledge. It is a struggle, but there is refuge in Bollywood.

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Kabir plays Hindi songs on loop over YouTube through a smart television. The hair is lost gradually and Kabir and three of his friends jabber away reeling off names of their favourite stars ranging from the Khan troika to Hrithik Roshan. Their customer – or rather victim – sagely nods his head to every utterance and after a while the four are jiving around him. It cannot get more surreal than this.

Headingley and beyond

It is time to step into Headingley and first up there is a match involving the West Indies and Afghanistan, and though both units had already crashed out of the World Cup, there was interest centred around Chris Gayle as the lumbering giant from Jamaica was playing his last clash in the global event. The opener failed with the bat, but he was a riveting presence on the turf.

From his great height he just toppled forward, plucked a catch and promptly did a set of push-ups with bowler Carlos Brathwaite giving him company. When Gayle is around, a touch of theatre is never far behind and the cameras went into a tizzy.

READ: How cricket replaced guns with roses in Afghanistan

The West Indies won the game and an overwhelmed Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib wanted to pay his respects to Gayle, who in turn hugged the all-rounder and whispered to him, “I ain’t retiring yet.”

Later, the southpaw moved to the stands with a fermented malted beverage in his hand, taking swigs and waving his hands at innumerable fans.

A few scribes then sneaked into the hallowed Long Room at the venue, the eyes settling on brown boards on the walls with their etchings of Headingley heroes, who either scored a hundred or grabbed a five-for. From the Indian quarter, the names of Vijay Manjrekar, M. A. K. Pataudi, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Roger Binny pop up.

A bit overwhelmed by history, two reporters sought warmth in tall glasses. One hack stuck to the liquid that Gayle imbibed, and another writer, perhaps thinking about the old line ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ ordered a potent mix, allegedly with anti-malarial properties, that was once dispensed to British soldiers doing duty in India’s swamp jungles. The same concoction is now a staple on the high table in restaurants across England.

Sport and politics

It is Saturday, July 6 to be precise, but more than the weekend, work beckons to cricket correspondents as they step into Headingley for the joust involving India and Sri Lanka.

Little would they imagine that in a while their eyes, instead of gazing at the turf, would peer skyward. There was a message in the clouds, and while the cricketers exerted themselves on the field, a small plane made regular sorties with a banner attached to its tail.

The messages were specific to Kashmir (‘stop genocide’) and the recent ghastly murders in India (‘stop mob lynching’). The plane kept reappearing and its political posturing forced sports scribes to dabble into the general pages.

READ: World Cup: How India fared in all matches from 1999 to 2015

The game was forgotten as fingers raced across laptops. The International Cricket Council issued a strong statement, but sport and politics had indeed mixed and the local police meanwhile harped about ‘freedom of expression’ and just gaped. Finally, the plane zoomed in again for one last time, and this time it offered love to Mumtaz and the confusion was whether it pertained to a damsel or a hotel by the same name in town.

And in other news, India won by seven wickets as Rohit Sharma and K. L. Rahul slammed hundreds, while Sri Lanka drew heart from Angelo Mathews and his doughty ton. Just before a long night was ushered in, the landlord, a Patel from Gujarat, dropped in. He offered a box of goodies. Samosas, cookies and savouries were crunched upon and cricket talk happened. Life is best when it is embellished with the warmth of strangers.

Rains and a loss

The caravan trundles into Manchester for the semifinal at Old Trafford. It is India against New Zealand on July 9. Rain is forecast and it proves to be true and the contest stretches over two days. It is time for the big upset as the Men in Blue lose to Kane Williamson’s men.

A low-scoring game turns on its head as the Kiwis swing and seam their way beyond India’s reach. Ravindra Jadeja and M. S. Dhoni resist in their contrasting ways, but a rare top-order collapse proves too heavy a burden to bear.

You can hear a pin drop at the stadium when the last wicket falls. The Black Caps, though, were graceful in triumph. Much later, after they were done with their media obligations, Williamson and his troops dispersed over the turf with their respective families in tow.

Tiny tots scampered around with plastic bats and balls. There were whoops of delight, baby gurgles, and it was all nice, pastoral and fuzzy.

And just to puncture this feel-good moment, news trickled in from back home about conspiracy theories being spun around India’s loss.

Come on, it is a sport, you win some, you lose some. And to Kohli’s credit, he was remarkably calm in the press conference. Life goes on.