June 18, 2021
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Playing With The Enemy

An Indian in San Francisco Bay Area spent a sleepless night in a Pakistani friend's house, watching the India-Pakistan match that, despite early cut and thrust, ended almost in an anti-climax.

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Playing With The Enemy
Playing With The Enemy
It’s been a while since I watched a live cricket match. The last one -- if watching a match on TV qualifies as live -- was during the 1996 world cup. This time around, I was dimly aware that India had received a drubbing from Australia, that we managed to best England in a big match and generally that the Indian team was trying to scrabble its way back after an early reverse. Preoccupations of work and what might loosely be described as ‘life’ had prevented me from following world cup matches more closely.

Of course, all this changed when the buzz over the upcoming Indo-Pak match started. In the hallways at work, around the lunch table in the cafeteria and in email messages, conversation began to converge around the big event. With the Indian population in the San Francisco Bay area having skyrocketed over the last decade, not to mention the wonders of satellite communications, it is now perfectly commonplace to order cable reception of such subcontinental fare as cricket matches or Tamil movies in this part of California where mention of cricket will still cause puzzlement among a majority of residents. ("Cricket?" my Chinese colleague asks, brows wrinkled "Isn’t that a game that can last a whole day?")

So the real choice was between watching the game in the solitude of my apartment on a big LCD screen or accepting the invitation extended by my friend Moazzam - who happens to be from Pakistan - and watch it in the company of a mixed Indian-Pakistani gathering of fans.

It was a no-contest.

So, just before midnight on Friday (Pacific Standard Time) I am speeding up Father Junipero Serra freeway on my way to San Francisco hoping desperately (a) that I reach Moazzam's house before the first ball is bowled (b) that I find parking within two blocks of his house and (c) that I don’t get a speeding ticket in my hurry to beat the clock. The Santa Cruz mountains look lovely in the night and traffic is sparse. Amazingly, (b) and (c) work out and I only miss the first delivery of the game.

The TV is set up in the living room. A couple of mattresses are spread out in a sort of desi baithak with plenty of cushions to lean on or against. A low table holding cookies, chips and nuts is conveniently within reach. Despite the late hour, Amna, my friend’s wife, sits gamely in a corner under a pile of blankets. There are only two guests besides myself -- Hassan, a young family friend -- also from Lahore -- and Anthony, a native San Franciscan swept up in the excitement of the big game, for whom the game is a needlessly complicated version of baseball. My friend's old mother has retired to bed.

My friend tells me that before the game began, the teams exchanged ties and shook hands in a conspicuous display of civility. Pillows and cushions are passed around and everybody settles in.

If any of us have strong feelings of partisan pride, they are well under control. My friend had announced earlier that he and his wife would be rooting for India. The young guest, a long time resident of the US, speaks approvingly of the Indian batting line-up, Tendulkar in particular. Anthony wants to know who I am rooting for. I have to admit I am rooting for India but that more than who wins, I am hoping to see a well-fought exciting game considering all the trouble I have gone to, to watch it. Little do I know just how true this will turn out to be.

The San Franciscan asks what part of India I am from. When I tell him Bombay, he says "Oh, you mean Mumbai" and grins. We go into an etymological discussion involving local deities and Portuguese seafarers.

The Pakistani openers Saeed Anwar and Taufeeq Umar start confidently. Zaheer Khan and Srinath don’t seem to be causing them much anxiety. Zaheer especially, is having difficulty maintaining his direction, the extras are beginning to pile up fast and when Nehra comes on, he is treated with considerable contempt by the batsmen. My friends are interested to hear that Nehra regards Wasim Akram as his mentor and has often sought his guidance.

Just as the pair seems to have settled down, Zaheer zips one through to knock down the stumps as Umar is a little slow in bringing his bat down. Abdur Razzaq and Saeed Anwar move the score along, Anwar growing increasingly comfortable. But once again, just when the pair seems set, Dravid lunges to hold on to Razzaq’s edged shot.

2 down for 90 in just over 20 overs. Anybody’s game.

I am surprised to see how slim Inzamam-ul Haq looks as he saunters in. My memories of him from 96 are those of a considerably pudgier individual. My friend dismisses any suggestions of Inzamam doing anything to redeem what has so far been a dismal tournament for him. Inzamam’s dispatching the first delivery he faces straight past the bowler to the fence leaves him unimpressed. Actually, he is looking good to me in the first few balls. It’s a shame therefore when he is run out in the very next over as he races down the wicket for a cheeky single that Saeed Anwar shows no interest in.

3 down for 98.

Anwar gets a nasty hit on his forearm and as he waits for the team physiotherapist to come down and spray his arm (with what magic lotion, I wonder) he takes off his helmet revealing an impressive beard. Moazzam and Hassan confer over whether this beard marks him as Wahhabi or Tableeghi. Commercials with special desi appeal are flashed between overs: We laugh at ‘Zindagi kee googly par Metlife ka sixer’ and groan at the cute but airheaded desi wife running up minutes on her super-low long distance calling plan while her nerdy husband clamors for food.

My friend’s wife has rolled herself up in a ball and gone to sleep. His mother - Ammijaan to all of his friends - is woken by the sounds and looks in to see what the fuss is all about. I put my hands together and mouth a wordless greeting. She nods at me and leaves. Anthony gets up rubbing sleep from his eyes and bids goodbye. It’s just us three now.

My friend rustles up a round of chai.

Youhana and Anwar add another 70+ runs, thanks mostly to Anwar before Zaheer picks Youhana off and soon he bowls Anwar out. But any expectations of a quick collapse are put to rest by Rashid Latif and Younis Khan. It’s clear Pakistan is on target for about 250 and if they let loose in the last few overs, a bit more.

My host is convinced this will not be enough to win the match. "This is nothing" he shakes his head "The Indian batting line-up is too good. A score of 300 was needed." I am skeptical -- both that such a high score is necessary and also that coming second and under pressure, the nerves of Indian batsmen will hold out. Eventually it will turn out that my friend has a better grasp of things than I do.

It is about 3:40 am in San Francisco as the teams withdraw for lunch. We are aching for a smoke but I have now lived in California long enough to regard smoking indoors as a godless sinful activity. We troop outside and sit on the stoop in the chilly dawn and light up.

Garbage trucks and other service vehicles are clanging their way in the neighborhood. My friend and the young guest exchange news of family members and familiar sights in Lahore. I ask the guest about his courses. A couple of guys enter our alley and one of them mumbles a greeting to my friend as he fishes out a key and lets himself in. Later when we finish our cigarettes and try to get back into the flat we find we have somehow locked ourselves out and shamefacedly ring the doorbell for Amna to let us in. She brushes my apology aside with a smile.

Another round of tea follows. I make my prediction: a good start and then the Indian batting will crumble. No one believes me. Moazzam is certain Pakistan will lose.

And now the Indian openers are in. This is what I have really been waiting to see -- Pakistani pacers breathing fire at Indian batsmen. I have read Shoaib Akhtar’s interview promising to give Indians hell and am expecting fireworks. But something is wrong.

In their determination to step up the pace, the Pakistani bowlers are having difficulty holding a line and length. Sachin Tendulkar is quick to take advantage. We can scarcely believe our eyes as he begins an impressive display of intimidation himself. Fours and sixes follow and the scoreboard is climbing by double digits every over.

Can they keep this up for long ? Or will overconfidence be their downfall ? My heart skips a beat as Sehwag tries once too often to find the gap between offside fielders. He succeeds the first time, plays the next one uppishly to point and finally holes out to Afridi off Waqar Younis who has replaced Shoaib after his first over.

Ganguly comes in and right away, Waqar raps him high on the right pad with an inward -- for the left handed Ganguly -- turning, rising delivery. There is a loud chorus of appeals. We are almost sure it has been turned down when umpire Koertzen holds up his finger after what seems like an eternity of deliberation. "If only he had been on his front foot, he’d have got the benefit of the doubt" The young guest says. "The umpire would have assumed the ball was too short. But caught on the backfoot like that …" he shakes his head.

"Where's Tendulkar from?" My friend wants to know. I tell him everybody whose name ends with -kar is from Bombay. I ask if Pakistani names have any regional significance. He shakes his head.

Okay, here it comes, I think. The collapse with Sachin trying to hold one end up. Mohammed Kaif comes in. I remember the ugly incident at his house in U.P. after India’s loss to Australia earlier. If it is weighing on Kaif’s mind he gives no indication. He buckles down and is perfectly willing to let Sachin monopolise the strike. Early on in the partnership, Sachin lifts Akram over mid-off where a hapless Razzaq struggles to hold on to the ball with outstretched fingers. This will prove to be a costly mistake. A visibly annoyed Akram shouts imprecations at Razzaq. Soon Kaif is seeing the ball well and making some attractive on-side strokes himself.

As the score goes past a hundred, I drift off.

When I snap awake, the score has just crossed 150 and the third wicket partnership is still unbroken. My friend informs me that Sachin has pulled a muscle and is visibly uncomfortable. The scoring rate has come down from double digits per over to just over seven but the target is safely within grasp. Just when things are looking too easy, Kaif drags an outgoing ball from Afridi onto his stumps.

Dravid is in. All talk has ceased as we stare intently at the screen. The game is nearly three-fourth over and it can still go either way. The only good news from the Indian perspective is that Pakistani pacemen have had little success in rattling Indian batsmen so far.

Sachin’s cramps seemed to have stopped bothering him for some time. But after Dravid comes in they begin to act up again. Several times he is visibly in pain. He tries stretching, then squatting, but nothing seems to help. The expression on his face after every run is painful to watch.

"Come on, don’t kill yourself. Take a runner." Hassan shouts at the TV. His shouts wake up my friend’s wife who enquires in a sleepy voice what the score is. Sachin must have heard the shouting for Sehwag comes in as his runner. This does little good for scarcely two balls later, Shoaib -- who has been brought back on -- slams down a vicious short delivery that rises menacingly in the direction of Sachin’s ribcage. As he covers up, bat held high, the ball catches his glove and flies towards point where Younis Khan swoops low to bring off a neat catch.

Things are definitely looking grim for India now. 4 down for 177.

Two more wickets and it’ll be all over. Will Dravid, Mongia and Yuvraj Singh manage to hold out? The camera pans the players’ pavilion showing a tense looking Kumble and Mongia all padded up, leaning forward in their seats. Ganguly sits looking grim and distracted. The Pakistani team, in contrast, is all smiles.

Eventually, it turns out, Dravid and Yuvraj will outlast the Pakistani attack. Their grimly professional batting is almost an anti-climax to the excitement we have been watching so far. This is more like watching a slow strangulation compared to the previous cut-and-thrust. My fellow viewers are scathing in their criticism of Pakistani bowling. "Who do they think they are bowling to?" My friend asks witheringly.

Dravid makes the winning hit with four overs to spare. We are all exhausted and there is little exchange of pleasantries. I mumble farewell and then Hassan and I are out in the cool San Francisco morning. It’s just after eight o’clock.

The Santa Cruz mountains look even more lovely on the drive back and the weekend stretches ahead invitingly.

Ajit Sanzgiri lives near San Francisco. Although he works at a boring tech job every day, at heart he wears crossed hand-crafted gun-belts and people call him Gabbar Singh.

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