Say the word ‘January’ and you start shivering, and New Zealand sounds like a cold place anyway. But it’s on the other side of the Equator! January is the warmest month in Maori land—which means 20-22°C max. Our team had reached well in advance, primarily to get a feel of New Zealand grounds. It was my first time here, I’d only seen England and Malaysia before this. The first thing you notice here is the breeze. It’s strong, and it’s constant. The grounds we played on were open, no high stands around. So it was there all the time, that draught blowing across the face, across the ground. Never letting up, almost nagging. You have to get used to it. You also need to get used to its effect: the ball travels faster on one side, that is, towards the direction of the wind. This was true of all the grounds we played on. My favourite one: the Bay Oval, Mt Maunganui. Our first match was there (we beat Australia). So was our last (we beat Australia again, in the day-night final). Fast outfield, good floodlights...all good!
I will not try to be modest and not talk about it. The high point of my campaign has to be my 102-ball 101 n.o. in the final! How could it be not? It helped India win the title and fetched me the ‘Player of the Final’ award. I’ll remember that knock throughout my life. Australia’s bowling attack was pretty good. But we had faced them earlier in the tournament, in that first league match that we’d won by 100 runs. I’d scored a 99-ball 86 in that match, so I thought I was well prepped going into the final. Still, we knew there could always be a twist. Sure enough, rain briefly interrupted the match—and that strong wind was blowing, tauntingly. The ball swung for about the first ten overs. But the weather didn’t make much of a difference to us. And the pitch was good for a final: flat and reliable. I sure enjoyed batting on it.
So we’d beaten Australia once before, and at the same Bay Oval, but I wasn’t ready to think of that as an advantage. When you play cricket (as against merely talking about it), you know what it means to ‘take each game as a new one’: every player has suffered enough shocks to know better than to be cock-sure! Max, you get a psychological comfort from knowing you are equals, and not way below league. Moreover, the Aussie boys must have been under pressure from the first loss—and smarting and eager for revenge. We thought they would fight it out, and we were ready for that. Personally speaking, I was confident since I’d faced almost all the Australian bowlers. They fielded two new bowlers for the final. Throughout, I’d been Whatsapping Suresh Batra sir, my coach back in Delhi. I was primed and ready for everything.
Pakistan’s was the best bowling attack we played against—counting Australia, Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Their medium pacers—Arshad Iqbal, Muhammad Musa Khan, and left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi—were very good. All of them got the cherry to zing through. It felt nice to beat Pakistan, but we’d taken it as a normal game, not something special just because we were playing Pakistan, as Rahul sir had pointed out to us. I’ve spent almost the whole of the last 12 months with Rahul sir, attending camps, playing matches under him. The way he explains things is brilliant, and he does that both in English and Hindi. The other outstanding thing about him: he’s the same person inside and outside the ground.
In the old days, they used to go mad abroad, without desi food. Now there are plenty of good Indian restaurants in New Zealand. At times we ate out. And anytime Indian supporters met us, they invariably asked if we needed home-cooked food. It wouldn’t have looked good, so we’d politely refuse! We also had an outing to Christchurch Gondola, a tourist hub in Heathcote Valley, on the slopes of Mount Cavendish.
I guess now no one will question my age, as they used to a few years ago when I was playing in age-group tournaments. I’ve passed a medical age-verification test! So, there’s not much left to be debated. A word about my India jersey number: there’s of course a reason why I chose No. 9, but I don’t want to share it here. I am a little superstitious. Anyway, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I live on Street No. 9 of Adarsh Nagar in Delhi. Let’s just say No. 9 is up my street.
(The left-handed India opener was named ‘player of the final’ in the U-19 World Cup)