Posts Tagged ‘Rotary Students’

Cricket: India versus Sri Lanka: Bigger than the Super Bowl (and a lot of other things, too)

June 27, 2011

You think the Super Bowl is a big event?

At least half of the 300 million people in the USA tune in for the country’s biggest sporting event each year. There’s a two-week buildup to the championship game of America’s most popular sport; there’s no escaping the conversations in the days before the game. It’s the crown jewel of American sporting events. Everyone knows about it. And it happens every year.

But the spectacle is exclusively American. Unlike premier events in other major sports – such as basketball’s NBA Finals or tennis’ U.S. Open – no one but North Americans know or care about it. Half of the people who watch the Super Bowl would admit they only do so for its famous commercials and the halftime show. There’s a difference, see, between an event everyone knows about and one everyone cares about.

In India, not only does everyone know about the Cricket World Cup, everyone cares.

The only single-sport event that compares to the Cricket World Cup is soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In fact, the international football tournament eclipses cricket in both number of viewers and countries in which the tournament is relevant.

But there is no other country in the world with as many people that care about one particular sport as India.

And on 2 April, India was in the final of the sport’s premier event. In Mumbai.

This was certainly going to be a home game.

———

It’s an eight-hour match, but I planned to keep my eyes fixated on every ball bowled. My host family had recently bought a new HD TV, and everyone in the household, including me, was engrossed in the action.

Sri Lanka wins the opening coin toss and opts to bat first. Early on, things look good for India, and they keep Sri Lanka’s total low. But Sri Lanka picks up their strike rate towards the end of their innings, and as Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene finishes Sri Lanka’s innings with a stoic “6”, winning looks like it will be a difficult task for India.

Throughout the match, Franzi and Anaïs text me, asking for explanations of what’s going on. Neither is a cricket fan. That means something. When non-sports fans are so invested in the outcome of a match, there must be something significant about its result. Cricket is on almost everyday in India, but this is not an ordinary match. Everyone is watching – even the foreigners who know nothing of yorkers, dot balls and cover drives.

This game matters.

India’s innings begins. The team’s two opening batsmen – Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, two of the world’s best cricketers – are out within the first few overs. It’s like if the Packers had lost both Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver five minutes into the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Like the Spanish football team losing David Villa and Andrés Iniesta five minutes into the second half of the World Cup final.

Sri Lanka’s blond-dreadlocked fast bowler – Lasith Malinga – is responsible for Tendulkar’s wicket. I inform Franzi, but she’s already heard. “I really dislike this crazy hair mob guy for that!” she tells me.

For a good hour or so, an India win looks improbable. 1.2 billion people are stunned. For now, everything depends on Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, and whether they can amass the rest of the 260-some runs required to win. As the overs pass, the required rate begins to increase ominously. Kohli performs well, but then his wicket is the third to be taken.

MS Dhoni enters as Kohli’s replacement.

At that moment, the game changes.

Dhoni is the face most synonymous with Indian cricket, the face you’re most likely to see in advertisements across the country. The wicket-keeper and captain, he is arguably the most important player on the field. Cricket’s team captains are like baseball’s extinct breed of player-managers, the ones held most responsible for their team’s performance. Dhoni has made some questionable decisions in the tournament so far, but he’s led India this far. Now he has the chance to lead his team to the round of one.

He’s given himself that chance.

See, Dhoni has put himself in early. Yuvraj Singh, who would later be named MVP of the tournament, is listed ahead of Dhoni in the order, but the captain wants to be on the field with the game on the line. It’s a legal move in cricket, and a bold one.

Dhoni proceeds to lead his team to the finish line.

First with Gambhir as his partner, then with Singh, the captain plays the best innings of his life in the most important game of his life. India’s required run rate – the best measure of the feasibility of India’s win – decreases. That’s good. Soon it’s on par with the completed run rate. And then India needs just a run to win with seven balls remaining. Dhoni’s on strike.

Dhoni hits the ball high in the Mumbai air. The fans anticipate the result long before the ball lands about 12 rows deep. An entire country rises together.

Six runs. India wins the World Cup.

Franzi texts me moments later.

“INDIA WON!!! 🙂 I FREAKING LOVE THIS COUNTRY!”

Me too.

———

I’d been rooting for India the whole time. I wanted them to win because they were my team, as much a part of my heart now as the Chicago Cubs have been for years. But I was also keen to see what the aftermath of an Indian victory would look like, and how it would compare to the celebration three days earlier after the Pakistan win.

It’s better.

Less than a minute after Dhoni’s six, I stick my head outside and just listen. The firecrackers are louder and last longer than the ones set off at Diwali. The horns I’m hearing are not car horns – the usual – but air horns squeezed for no reason but celebration. Music is being blared from so many portals I can’t discern a single song. So many people are shouting and screaming in the streets, it sounds a never-ending roar, as if all 33,000 fans in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium had been picked up and dropped blocks from our house.

“IN-DI-AAAA IN-DIA!!!”

My host family is watching the postgame show as intently as they watched the game. Tendulkar is being paraded around the field on his teammates shoulders, the only hole on his impressive cricket resume just having been filled. Players and coaches spray champagne, conduct interviews, and make laps around the field. The trophy is lifted into the air. I look into my host grandparents’ eyes, and they seem to be a little wet.

I go out into the street and watch the party. Standing atop a median on the corner of the intersection, I get a good view of Shankar Nagar square, grateful my height gives me an advantage over the many Indians around me. Normally one of Nagpur’s better-functioning intersections, the square has been absolutely overtaken by humanity. The scene is like the aftermath of the Pakistan win, but somehow more…complete. People aren’t holding back. Men are dancing everywhere to whatever tune is being played – in cars with open windows, standing atop motorcycles, or with both feet jumping on the ground. I pity whatever vehicles need to get through; drivers are bemoaning the fact they didn’t take a shortcut. Saket-dada disappears into the crowd somewhere, and doesn’t return until he calls for me to unlock the door at 2 a.m.

At home, we celebrate with ice cream for the second time in four nights. We watch the news, where news of celebrations similar to those in Nagpur are pouring in. The reporter in Delhi is shouting desperately above the hysterical crowd, which the videographer is having trouble shooting due to the crowd’s inability to stay still. It’s like this all over India. 1.2 billion people are rejoicing. To them, there is no better place in the world to be right now than India. And I have to agree. There is no better place to be.

As I say goodnight to my host dad that evening, I try to find some words to put the day in perspective.

“Once in a lifetime,” I tell him. “That’s all I can say.”

🙂

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

June 23, 2011

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

North Tour: Howrah to Nagpur: Not the end – not yet, anyway

May 30, 2011

I leave India June 8.

Since I published my last entry, I’ve done a substantial amount of writing. I have 22 blog entries in the queue, some of which have been there for some time, and many of those can be split further into several entries. Many are over 1,000 words long. Chances are I won’t publish everything here in the coming days. But I’ll put up plenty of excerpts. Rest assured, I haven’t stopped writing, and I won’t stop for a long, long time.

Enjoy!

———

Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: Friday was supposed to be the last day of the tour.

We were supposed to have left the day before at 8 p.m. We were supposed to have arrived in Nagpur in the mid-afternoon, greeted by searing summer heat. We were supposed to be all alone that evening, sitting at home and feeling sorry for ourselves.

Indian Railways, however, doesn’t always place much importance on prompt train timings. Thus we got, though not quite a day, at least a little more time together.

Even for a tour where nearly half the wakeups were before dawn, 2:30 a.m. seemed a ridiculous time of day for a wakeup call. But you have to do what you have to do when your train leaves at 5 a.m. After stowing my suitcase beneath the seat, I made my bed as quickly as possible.

I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the train even began moving.

I was awoken again at 10:30 for breakfast. Nikolas and I, the two gobblers, ate the leftovers from the other compartments, of which there were plenty.

I was back asleep within half an hour.

Sometime around four, I decided the opening and closing of the door next to my bunk would make falling asleep for the fourth time that day impossible. Sadly, our bunks were in four compartments of three different cars, a fact most agreed to be mood-dampening. I made my way between them for a couple hours in search of good conversation, occasionally finding some, but always in a group of five or less. We were 13. Why couldn’t we all stick together on this night, of all nights?

Then it happened.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks, but they were of laughter, not sadness. My face was contorted, but from hilarity, not rage. I don’t even remember what was so funny. But we’d managed to all fit in one compartment, someone had just told a joke, and my smile was in temporary paralysis. It was like being intensely tickled; I was laughing so hard it hurt.

I never wanted this train to stop. We had just an hour until 11 of us got off. Serenity and Olivia would stay on and continue to Jalgaon and Nasik, but for everyone else, Nagpur was our last stop. I knew I still had a day until I’d say goodbye to everyone here but Anaïs, Brii and Franzi for either a month or an indefinite amount of time. But that didn’t make getting off the train any easier.

Nagpur wasn’t as hot as I’d expected. Saket-dada was waiting on his moped to drive me home. I arrived home sometime after midnight, and it was as if nothing had really changed.

But the tour wasn’t over yet. Not really, anyway.

🙂

North Tour: Amritsar, Wagah & Dharamsala: Everytime we touch

April 18, 2011

7 March

DHARAMSALA: It’s past 4 a.m. as I write this, and by the time I finish, the sun could be on its way up. The air temperature is just above freezing in a hotel so cold its water pipes might be frozen. Jordan, Nikokas and I have two large rooms with large beds, large sofas and large chairs. There’s a lot of options for distributing our body space.

But all I want to do is curl into a ball and keep myself warm. This space seems far too generous in light of the living arrangements of the day and night past.

India is known for its crowds. In malls and in train stations. On the streets and in bazaars. In movie theaters and in candy stores. If you can’t see a wall of humanity in an Indian city, it’s probably because you can’t see. And even if you’re blind, it’s impossible not to hear it, smell it, breathe it in or push yourself against it.

Today – rather, yesterday – I experienced three very different kinds of crowds.

Our sightseeing began in the afternoon with a visit to India’s largest Gudhwara (Sikh temple) – Amritsar’s Golden Temple. It’s hard for me to decide what I found more remarkable about the place – the sheer size and grandiosity of it, or the number of people it was able to enclose.

In spite of the elegant architecture, it was probably the latter.

Thousands of pilgrims were herded through a queue two meters wide and two hundred meters long to get to the main temple in the center of the complex. From the back of the line, RK told us getting through would be about a 40-minute trip.

About 20 minutes later, a man told us we’d probably have to wait an additional hour or so.

It took even longer.

I stood with Anaïs, Jordan, Sam and Serenity. Though Nikolas, Kelsey, Amanda and Nisha stood two arms-lengths away, that was much too far to attempt any kind of communication. Sometimes we’d look down and be unable to see the ground. The 32-degree (C) midday heat was bearing down relentlessly, testing our tolerance for each other, our sweat, and our accompanying smells. Every five minutes or so, two guards would lift a wooden barricade at spaced intervals, and the mob would shuffle, shoulder and push its way into each inch of remaining space.

Yet the experience was not an unpleasant one.

I was always surrounded by people I knew. I felt no need to worry about the friendliness of the touches I was receiving. Even were I to have been alone in the crowd, the atmosphere would have been a cordial one; the pilgrims were only there to worship, not plunder, grope or steal. The closeness was reassurance. Getting to the end was the reward. After nearly two hours of standing in line, we got there.

The crowd gathered at Wagah’s India-Pakistan border was a rather different one.

I traveled within a stone’s throw or two of Pakistan yesterday, but before you keel out of whatever you’re sitting in with horror, don’t subject yourself to misinformation. Wagah, on the Punjab border, is a safe place from which to take a look at India’s closest neighbor. Just before sunset, we went to observe the closing of the international border, an elaborate ceremony of pomp, military marches and patriotic songs. Thousands of observers, including a sizeable smattering of tourists, gathered to see soldiers conduct an elaborate ceremony complete with high leg kicks, tri-color flag-waving, and fluffy red hats.

This happens every day, by the way.

Patriotism abounded on both sides of the border. On India’s side, I recognized several patriotic anthems from the years of independence such as Vande Mataram. The chants seemed to start spontaneously. Like at a college basketball game, half the crowd would holler one word, and the other would recite its complement back. There was no doubting the crowd’s nationalism and the fervor with which they demonstrated it. It was an excited crowd, but not an angry one.

The thing is, Pakistan didn’t look all that different from the country whose soil I was standing on. The distant yells from the grandstands across the border implied Pakistanis sound about the same, too. But 100 meters away was a country with different laws, different ways of life, and a completely different perception to the outside world. There’s a long, sad, story behind the border separating these two countries, and I saw the sun set right over it.

I think I finally understand why Indians and RYE students have such different attitudes towards personal space. In a country of 1.2 billion people, space is limited, and given what’s been fought for it, space has an additional value. In public, personal space can be impossible to find, so it’s flaunted and cherished in private. Go into almost any upper-class living room and you’ll find the furniture spread as widely as possible. The bigger the house, the more space to stretch out. And the homes IYE students stay in tend to give us far more room than we need.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having room to stretch your legs while watching TV. I’m certainly not going to ask our host families to move into smaller homes. But there’s something to be said for closeness. Ask exchange students in Central India what they miss most about their home country’s culture, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it’s physical contact. In India, a handshake is usually as close as it gets, even for long-time-no-sees. Even hugs are traditionally taboo.

Granted, you will often see young men holding hands as they walk the street. At least with their friends, such men are unabashed with physical contact, unafraid to link hands (or even legs). In contrast, you’ll see male/female couples holding hands about as often as you’ll see foreigners, and usually in the same kinds of places.

It’s not exactly Brazil.

We’ve spent a lot of time in cramped quarters lately – in trains, buses and jeeps with little leg- or shoulder-room to spare. But there’s something that’s bearable, even desirable about that discomfort when you’re pressed against the right people. Amidst ourselves, crowdedness isn’t just easy to find, it’s sought after – probably even more than in our home countries. Given the culture into which we’ve been dropped, it’s understandable. Likewise, I can understand when Indians find Western intimacy appalling. With everyday life in India, the humanity is inescapable. Crowds are easy to find.

But when you’re crowded against the right people, it’s a different kind of crowd.

🙂

North Tour: It begins

April 14, 2011

Monday, 28 Feb

NAGPUR TO JAIPUR: It’s 10:47 p.m., and no one on this train is awake but us.

Actually, that’s not true. In Car No. 8 of the Chennai-Jaipur Express, the lights are still on in some compartments. One man is standing idle by an outlet, charging his phone. The Indians in neighboring compartments are covered in blankets and look like they’re sleeping. But every so often someone’s covers will ruffle in a telltale sign of failed sleep. A baby is crying. Someone’s cell phone just rang. A chai-wallah is calling into the silence, his day of sales continuing through the night.

But I think we’re actually the reason everyone is still awake.

Yes, the RYE students’ 26-day tour of North India is underway, and thus far, nothing could be better (save Franzi’s ankle, which has left her on crutches). The internal chemistry – so good during the South Tour and at Christmas – has picked up right where it left off. There was no need for group introductions this time. We’ve been able to jump right into the stories of our two months apart.

Our group is smaller this time. Sebastian and Sabrina have since gone back to their home countries. Aafreen is busy with exams in Yavatmal. Dascha, Jakob and Michelle, for various reasons, are staying back in Nagpur. New to our group is Samantha, a student from the American state of Virginia being hosted in Hyderabad. Having had seven months to get used to each others’ quirks, and more tightly knit than ever, I anticipate we’ll all get along quite well.

For probably the last time this year, I enjoyed nice weather in Nagpur today. While the climates in our homes across various ponds will go from bad to better, that of Nagpur will go from better to worse. But weather is nothing to worry about. In fact, thanks to the people I’ll be spending the next month with, there’s really nothing to worry about.

Will I sleep well tonight? Probably not.

But I could care less. I’m with the right people. All is well.

🙂