Cricket: What’s more exciting than a World Cup match?

Continued… From 25 February, 2011

17 months ago, when I submitted my application for this exchange, my mom wrote that it would be my dream to go to a country on the verge of hosting a major international sporting event. True. But at the time, we were thinking of a different country, a different event, and a later year. Neither of us had cricket in mind.

Funny how these things work out even better than they’re planned.

The 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup took place in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and Nagpur’s state-of-the-art VCA Stadium played host to four of its matchups. With front row seats under seven dollars a ticket, a visit to one of its matchups was compulsory. No way would this sports writer miss the showcase event for the world’s second-most popular sport – especially when it’s just a rickshaw ride from home.

Three days before the North Tour, Anaïs, Brii, Franzi, Serenity and I travel 20 kilometers south of Nagpur to see Australia take on New Zealand. Jakob is already at the stadium, his driver having taken him in time for the 9:30 a.m. start time. Now the match is halfway over, and we’re walking around the complex looking for tickets. We take a peek at the playing field through a gap in the stands. Half of the seats are empty. That’s good news.

But there’s also some bad news. The men at the ticket counter are refusing to sell us tickets. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a ticket counter. Not that it resembles one. The booth is a 100-meter walk through weeds and dirt from the fence outside the stadium, and I’ve seen outhouses larger and less shabby than this quickly constructed piece of plywood. There’s only two men inside – one is on his phone, and the other is more interested in his lunch than in talking to the five of us.

The match is halfway over, but this is a One Day International, not a college basketball game. ODIs regularly last around eight hours, and there are still four hours or so remaining. “Halftime”, so to speak, has just arrived. Even these four hours would stretch the attention span of the four fans in my company who know nothing of strike rate, yorkers or cover drives, but we’ve gone through a lot to get here. All of us are anxious to get in the stadium.

Franzi plays the pathos card. The man eating lunch waves off our pleas for tickets, giving us a lazy excuse about internet booking. We tell him about our rickshaw accident. We explain we’re exchange students. Some of us try to force out tears. Either he doesn’t understand us, he doesn’t care about us, or (most likely) both. Desperate, we lie, saying we’d flown from abroad for the sole purpose of watching this match.

The man continues to eat his samosas.

There appears to be no other option for buying tickets but this shabby small booth, save the idea of pawning overpriced seats from hawkers outside the stadium. So we don’t relent, and we continue to wrestle with this man’s lunch for his attention. After a ten-minute wait, the samosas have been swallowed and he directs us to the other man in the booth. This man has been on his cell phone since we got there, and he hands it to us as we walk towards the stadium. It seems we’re having a conversation mostly for the sake of talking – the man on the other end of the phone is saying nothing important, conversing with us simply for his own pleasure. But we can’t complain, and so we play along. He has our tickets, after all. After some time, they’re given to us.

As we walk, a great roar arises from the crowd. Hundreds of people are shouting at the top of their lungs, creating that overwhelming combination roar that usually signifies an extraordinary achievement. We can’t even hear ourselves talk. What’s happened? A wicket? A six? Did a New Zealand fielder just make a fantastic diving catch?

No. We’ve just walked past a queue of a couple hundred young Indian men, each wild-eyed and hoarse with the excitement of shouting towards us. The only thing keeping them from running at us is their queue and the uniformed police officers at the front of it.

The five of us walk past the men about four times.

Their reaction is the same each time.

Certainly we’re not the only foreigners in Nagpur for the match. People have come from all around the world to support their teams, and many of them have white skin like us. A macho brown-bearded Australia fan is wearing his country’s flag as a shirt. A group of paunchy old English fans stand idle outside a gate. I even see a foreigner wearing what is unmistakably a Chicago Cubs spring training baseball cap. I doubt anyone else in the stadium recognizes the hat for what it is.

But it’s me and my four Sheila‘s that are attracting the most attention. Or maybe they think the girls are the game’s cheerleaders.

Inside the stadium it’s not much better. We ascend the stairs to our section at field level. We have nice seats, and since the stadium is half empty, there are several seats in the lower rows to choose from. From behind our section, we stand and take in the view. It’s a nice new stadium. There’s a lot to see in front of us – namely, a cricket match.

Then in the span of about five seconds, each head in the section before us swivels backwards.

At least 1,000 eyes are simultaneously locked on us.

I’m dumbfounded. This is a cricket match, not a Miss World pageant. I point at the field and shout. “The foreigners are over there! Those foreigners are famous! Why aren’t you looking at them?” Australia is batting as I speak, and they have one of the best sides in the world.

Apparently the 1,000 accompanying ears to those 1,000 eyes take my question as a rhetorical one, because the attention on us never ceases.

We find seats that allow us to conceal our conspicuity. For a while, anyhow. We choose a patch of empty seats and sit ourselves as far from our paparazzi as possible. But the chairs around us always continue to fill, as the Indians a section or two away never seem satisfied with their original seats for some reason. Every half an hour or so, we move to an empty part of the section in pursuit of peace. But our sought solitude never lasts long.

Once we sit by a fence perpendicular to the field’s boundary. As we focus our attention on the match, dozens of young Indian men slowly gather on the other side, standing and watching us like we’re the purple polar bear exhibit at the zoo. After sitting through this for about twenty minutes, a policeman comes up the aisle to disperse them, brandishing his stick at these men with vigor. Some of the swings he took at the ground were more ferocious than those of the batsmen down on the pitch.

We end up sitting in about five different seats over the course of the match. It’s like a bizarre human version of whack-a-mole. We’re the moles. And the young Indian men around us are trying to whack us.

A TV cameraman on the field spots us while we’re sitting about ten rows back, his camera unabashedly aimed towards us. It’s apparent he wants our fair and lovely skin on television. For once, we actually don’t mind. But whenever the red light is about to turn on, the Indians in the first three rows stand up and block us from his view. This happens several times. The cameraman throws up his hands and shakes his head, exasperated. It seems the Indians in our section want to keep us a secret.

Too late. The secret’s out. Official pictures of us later end up on the internet. Friends of ours tell us we’ve ended up on TV. The world now knows we’ve been to a cricket match.

It’s a shame the match itself wasn’t too exciting, else the fans might have paid more attention to the players on the field than on us. New Zealand batted first, and the low target they set was an easy one for Australia to chase. Without too many exciting plays, we sat in the sun and watched most of the match in anticipation of a relatively easy Australia win. Australia was definitely the Goliath in this matchup. Their squad hadn’t lost a World Cup match since 1999, and they’d won three World Cups in a row.

But India played the 3-time defending champs a month later, and came out on top in a gritty quarterfinal win. A new champion would be crowned this year. Only New Zealand, India, and two other South Asian teams remained.

But most importantly, the win sent India to the semifinals of the Cricket World Cup.

Against Pakistan.

🙂

To be continued

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