It’s Sunday morning and outside St Mark’s Church of England primary school a preacher in brown tweed, with cordless headphones and mike, is extolling those willing to listen about Jesus’ power. “Compassion, mercy, empathy, kindness, brotherly love…” he goes on breathlessly. But sadly for him the St Mark’s is right at the entrance of The Oval’s Alec Steward gate and today the only gods are the eleven on the field inside, with these virtues he is gushing about what’s least on their minds. The crowds could be the scene outside Wankhade or Chinnaswamy—the snatches of conversations in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali—except for the black London hackneys, white policemen in blue uniform and the grey sky.
As we wait to take the lift up to the fourth floor to the Corinthian Roof Terrace, there is a chant of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ and sure enough there he is a few paces ahead, neat and compact in a dark suit, his security right behind him. He turns and gives a little wave sending those in the reception area to ecstasy. Corinthian, after passing from the usher to the concierge to the lobby manager and finally to the stadium in-charge through walkie-talkie, turns out was the name of the first club to play cricket at The Oval some 150 years ago before Surrey County made it its home. This stadium is, as often repeated, the oldest in the world where cricket has been played without a break. As we come on to the terrace about an hour before the start of the game, the grand view of the stadium with both India and Australia warming up on two sides is breathtaking. Equally inviting is the smell of frying bacon, crackling sausages and bubbling omelettes wafting over the sumptuous breakfast spread. What, is that…vada pav? It is indeed, specially made for the India game, it’s more of a vada in a burger bun, but pretty close to the original complete with tamarind, coconut and garlic chutney. The menu says for lunch, apart from the heaps of cold cuts and cheeses (here’s a sampling from the menu: beetroot cured salmon, dill marinated Atlantic prawns, mussels and peppered mackerel served with Marie Rose dressing and saffron aioli, rare roasted sirloin of beef, terrines and pates, hand-raised meat pies, Clara goat cheese, Winterdale Kentish cheese, Oxford blue cheese…), there is kadai chicken, rogan josh and chhole-alu.
“The bar opens at 11, sir” says the lady behind the counter as many start to hover in the area—India’s run rate is less than four, the ball is yet to cross the ropes, the Aussie pacers are bowling in fierce rhythm, the nerves are jangling. Just as the first ale is poured, Shikhar Dhawan cuts one to the boundary, the dholak in the stands downstairs reaches a crescendo of bhangra beats, and the crowd erupts in a blue wave. In between overs, it is Yo Yo Honey Singh and Guru Randhawa on the ground PA system. If Australia too has a pop song culture, it is not audible today. Suddenly, runs are flowing as freely as the lager from the tap, goblets and flutes are brimming as much as our openers’ confidence and the fruit juice counter is looking as askance as the Oz fielders. Dhawan’s century is greeted with champagne, and as the heady pair of Dhoni and Hardik Pandya is all set to take the total well beyond 300, the difference between stout and ale starts to blur.
Two English lads—Ian, bulky, balding and boisterous in an oversized hoodie, and his friend Rob, thin, redhead, reticent in a well-cut blue suit—with large mugs of Pimms next to them are having their own game. They look like spies in the enemy camp surrounded by the blue fatigues of the Bharat army. In the Australian innings, as Aaron Finch and Steve Smith take charge, Ian suddenly gets up and screams ‘Sixer, sixer’. Rob pulls him down, asks him to hush, looks panic-stricken all around. When Finch actually hits a six, Ian is up again, cheering ‘Go, Australia, go’. Rob gets up and calms him down, bowing to those near him for his friend’s behaviour, smiling sheepishly. It’s an act they put up, the only Aussie supporters in this congregation of the devout, and the Indian fans around them join in the camaraderie. When Finch is run out, a bunch of them break into a jig next to them. As the game slips away from Australia, Ian and Rob quickly switch sides.
After the game, as the milling crowds wait for taxis and buses, we spot a family of six ‘real’ Aussie fans dressed in their team’s colour, walking somberly with their heads down, looking for transport. All the black cabs have their taxi lights off as it seems they don’t want to pick up a fare in this melee. One with lights on turns the curve and a group of Indian fans jump at it to flag it down. The Australian family is right behind them, there is a little huddle among the Indians, the decision is quickly made, and they offer the cab to them. There’s a round of hand-shakes and the Australians are on their way.(Satish Padmanabhan is Executive editor, Outlook)