I do not remember the first time I held a cricket bat or a ball. I do not remember the first time I watched a cricket match on black-and-white television either. But I do have a faint vision about a packed room watching arch-rivals India and Pakistan locking horns in my modest home. Some root for green shirts and some for blue jersey. But as I come of age, I would often find myself watching cricket along with my father . We both are cricket freaks. He keeps on changing channels to look for some cricket action. So do I.
I was not good at playing the gentleman’s game. To be more precise and honest, I didn’t had that knack to play any sport at par with my peers. So my swansong came when whizz- kids are scouted and blooded into national and international teams to represent their respective countries. I have had a long list of cricketers whom I admire for their skills in this gentleman’s game. A.B. de Villers, Wasim Akram, Shahid Afridi, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Dale Steyn, Kane Williamson, Andrew Russel, to name a few. Some have hung up their boots and some still ply their trade. They have a repertoire of talent and we witnessed it on the 22 yards and on different occasions. I always had the wish to be in the stands and see for myself how it is to be in the cricket ground and witness the cricket geniuses doing wonders.
My eureka moment came in the last leg of 2015. To be a bit more precise, in the month of November when I received a call from Noida for admission in a three-month-long special course. In a single swoop, I made all the requisite arrangements for travel: ironing clothes, keeping all the requisite documents in a single file, a haircut to the skin, some cash in a bulging side-pocket. Next morning in the wee hours, I was sitting along with fellow students in a Jammu-bound Tata Sumo which was blaring melodious voice of Rashid Hafiz from its stereo. Among this young lot, a young boy with Caucasian looks was a cut above the rest and caught my attention. I struck a conversation. Driving through the serpentine road through the mountains, we made to Jammu. Here, a sleeper bus commissioned by the company we were going to be in, picked us up. Hours later it came to a screeching halt at the doorsteps of our institution-cum-company.
Glitzy shopping malls, skyscrapers, long lines at the flea market and cool people with fast lifestyles, to name a few, gave me a new outlook of this world. What took my heart really was the Metro. I had developed a sort of fetishism with it. Commuting on it was fun, though it sometimes burnt a hole in my pocket. Metro made Jamia Masjid and Connaught Place just a stone’s throw away from Noida. I remember that most of my Friday prayers were at the Jama Masjid—it always felt like a mini -Kashmir because of the footfall of Kashmiris out there. I travelled and visited many places across Delhi. But I will find some other time to talk about and write of those visits. Here cricket rules the roost.
We were four boys in the room. I was the worshipper of cricket, virtually. Two were movie freaks and had scant inclination towards the game .The third was not interested in either. I was looking for a guy with a cricketing head on his shoulders. A city boy, one day, showed interest to his roommates to watch some cricket action at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium (now renamed as Arun Jaitley Stadium ) where a Test match of the ‘Freedom Series’ was going on. “Can I accompany you,” I interjected. He reply was curt, “If you want to, be ready tomorrow.”
Next day , I was with this guy in a serpentine queue to get tickets for a fourth day of the fourth Test in the Freedom Series. An old couple from Delhi had got their tickets. To their chagrin, their son had also bought tickets for them. We struck a deal. Watching the long queue ahead of us, we were made to pay Rs 150 for each ticket, which is 50 extra. Without much ado, we headed towards the stadium. Entering the iron grilled gate ensued the electronic frisking. Some people in the premises were offering their cheek or two to get them painted with Indian colours. These part-time painters had their hands flecked with different colours while catering to their smiling customers. These activities would often accompany with the patriotic chants of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. Some were selling Indian jerseys, shouting in a tone akin to merchants at a Sunday market, coming up with inventive slogans to attract customers. They also made a gestures at us. We politely turned down and moved ahead. At another iron -wrought gate, after thorough frisking, I ascended the flights of stairs to materialise my dream.
I still remember that first glance around the stadium. It was a beautiful feeling which cannot be clothed in words. South Africa’s two most experienced batsmen, A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla, were on the crease to weather the storm after losing two wickets. The series had not gone down well with the Proteas as they had lost the first two Tests within three days. After declaring their second innings on 267/5 and a mammoth lead of 213 runs, India set a stiff target of 480 runs for South Africa.
On day 4, India had drawn the first blood and sent two Proteas batsmen back into hut. That day AB and Hashim Amla were in a different zone. With a monk’s concentration, Amla kept on leaving delivery after delivery to see off a day without losing any further wickets. De Villiers was following suit. Hashim played 207 balls for his 23 runs while AB blocked 91 balls and eked out 11 runs. The duo took the Proteas to crawling a 72/2 in 72 overs, of which Indian bowlers logged-in 43 maiden overs. Be it the lanky pacer Ishant Sharma, who kept on throwing the bait at the batsmen to play the drive on the offside, or Ashwin trying to beguile the batsmen with his variations to break the partnership. But none of the tricks could outsmart the African duo.
The defensive approach of the batsmen didn’t go down well with the spectators. Intermittently, some would shout out in a chorus, demanding a six or a four from AB. But he would have none of it. Naturally, those who were rooting for India outnumbered African fans by a huge margin. Most African supporters were silently watching the match. On a good shot or a good delivery, they would clap to acknowledge the efforts of the player. A man in yellow overalls would blow a conch shell which was followed by whoops of cheerful delights. Ab elderly man sitting next to me on a fixed plastic chair asserted, “Molvi dheere sae khel raha hai,” (Molvi (referring to Amla ) is playing very slowing) within an earshot of me and my friend. I quipped, “That is what he known for in red ball cricket.” But some of the spectators were also abusing the players, using language bordering on vulgarity.
As proceedings were on, Sunil Gavaskar turned up at the boundary ropes below on my left side. It ensued a deluge of cheers as the crowd serenaded him with “Sunny, Sunny, Sunny.” He kept on walking along the boundary line, waving at the crowd. Once or twice, he came close to the fence to touch hands with a spectator or two. I was witnessing all this from the third tier. Shekhar Dhawan was fielding at deep fine leg. A single glance and hand-waving at the sparse crowd provoked ear-piercing shouting. That is how it is when you are in the cricket stadium, even if it is not packed. That day the Proteas batsmen tired out the Indian bowlers. Most of the morose faces in the stadium would vouch for the steadfastness of the African batsmen who kept the Indian bowlers at bay. We left the stadium with an anticipation about how it would unfold on the last day.
The pockmarked map of that day in my memory is the only souvenir I have of that day—my first day at a cricket stadium.
(The author has a Masters degree in convergent journalism from Central University of Kashmir. Views are personal)