Vantage point

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Diary of Day 1 at Wankhede

6:20 a.m.
Waking up early is always easier when the reason is something aligned with your interests. If you're waking up to study, you always want to keep hitting snooze and steal those extra five minutes. But when the reason is getting good seats in the stadium to watch test cricket, even the concept of snooze is forgotten.

8:15 a.m.
In the local train with friend and temporary roommate Tony. The train is not at all crowded, which is a good sign, since it means lesser crowds jostling to get into the stadium. Two young boys get in at Dadar wearing FC Barcelona jersey. I am puzzled about the motivation behing wearing an FCB tshirt to a cricket test match between India and England

8:40 a.m.
At the Churchgate Railway Station. Tony and I decide to have the traditional Mumbai breakfast of vadapao. We head the the Railway Canteen where the paos are being unloaded. The vada is decent, but the pao is a bit pasty, and much smaller than the average pao. The paos were 'branded'. I speculate that the contracts for the paos were given to a clearly inferior product because of kickbacks and also because the income of those who run the canteen does not depend on maximum customer satisfaction. Whereas for the vadapao-wallah on the street, his daily earnings depend on satisfied customers, and hence his paos are bigger, fresher and fluffier.

8:50 a.m.
Walking towards the Vinoo Mankad Gate, we survey the looooong queue for the day tickets and smile smugly and self-congratulatorily since we had the foresight to book a five-day-pass in advance. The aforementioned FCB-jersey-clad kids are there in a larger and similarly dressed group. Intriguing!

9:00 a.m.
At the Vinoo Mankad Gate, officials of the MCA stop us after cellphones are found on our person. Gruffly mention point no. 6 or 7 or 8 at the back of ticket in tiny font which mentions cellphones as one of the many things not allowed inside. We and a group of people, including some firangs, argue asking what we are supposed to do with the phones now. MCA officials rather rudely tell us they couldn't care less. I get a brainwave and call up Amit, who is in the press box. We ask him if he could bear our burden for the day. The fine gent that he is, he turdges down all the way to the VM Gate to collect our phones and selflessly carries them with him. Thus de-celled, we enter the Vijay Merchant Stand (Lower).

We grab seats in the extra-cover direction and watch the cricketers warm up. Sachin ambles towards the practice pitches near us and starts a mini set session with the help of a local flunkie. Even though it is a flunkie throwing the ball at the length that he is asked to, the sight of watching Sachin middling the ball, which then races away in different directions, brings satisfaction. Yes, watching it live from a few feet away is a different experience.

The North Stands a fair distance away are getting noisier by the minute. After a few customary "Sachin, Sachin!!" and "Pakistan Chor Hai!!" chants to loosen their vocal chords, they turn their attention to the English captain and go "Flintoff is a b*****d!!" and also add "England Sucks!" for good measure. I am impressed. I have never heard chants in the english language at a cricket match in India before.

Dravid and Flintoff walk to the centre for the toss. There is a huge screen in front of us, but no audio. It is clear that Dravid has won the toss, and the crowds celebrate, assured of a weekend of watching India bat. There is stunned silence a few seconds later when the screen informs us that India has chosen to field first. The stadium is abuzz with mini-discussions, not a single one supporting Dravid's wisdom for sure.

I myself am puzled. Though the pitch from this distance doesn't look the usual dusty-cream Wankhede type, it can't be grassy per se. Yes, the groundsmen, wanting to wash off their 2004 sins, may have prepared a harder and a truer pitch, but let's face it. It is Bombay and it is the same pitch. Why field first then? Are we scared of a depleted English attack, a man behind me thinks out aloud. Indeed, was the Indian team scared that Anderson, Hoggard and Flintoff might run through the Indian line-up in the absence of Harmison and Jones?

To add to my irritation at having missed an opportunity to make a test "debut" watching Viru bat, I notice that everyone who is entering the stadium now seems to have a cellphone. Why the hell were we made to give ours up then?

And to compound all this, the guy next to me turns out to be a college student who has come alone and so he assumes Tony and me are his new best friends and starts bombarding us with his opinions. Nothing wrong with that except that his opinions are juvenile, simplistic and often plain stupid. Sample - "India must have chosen to field first because it is a spinning track so we will bowl first and spin them out."

The crowd around us has a fair sprinkling of English supporters. There are many women skimpy clothes. If this sounds good, well it wasn't! Not a single woman is under the age of 50. In fact the older an Englishwoman is, the skimpier her clothes are. I realise that the hue and cry against English exhibitionism at Mohali was more out of the desire to not be subjected to naked ugliness, than out of the whole "Indian culture" funda.

The English team meanwhile is stripping the Indian team of any sense of pride of superiority by negotiating the pace attack(!) with alarming ease(at least Strauss does). That a spinner, Anil Kumble, is introduced into the attack within the first hour is baffling considering that the captain chose 3 seamers and chose to field first. Finally Sreesanth gets the breakthrough dismissing Bell. Until the first wicket fell, any fielder who came to the boundary studiously avoided responding to the crowd. But once the first wicket fell, a warm fuzzy feeling must have ensued since they start smiling waving and even chatting a bit.

Owais Shah has walked in one-down and he faces pacemen with a stance that can be said to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He attacks hHrbhajan with alacrity in the first over, charging down the pitch. Shah exudes self-belief and a determination to capitalise on this chance. As the session draws to close, England are around 60 for the loss of the solitary wicket. Certainly not what Dravid had planned.

12:00 - 3:00
The post lunch session is spent meeting up with Sunil and his wife at the fine Cafe Mondegar. A varied biological selection is consumer, i.e beef, chicken and squid, along with beer. Cafe Mondegar, incidentally has great interiors and its walls are covered with cartoons by Mario Miranda. The SBI ad where a girl is eating mirchis after losing a bet is shot there.

During an extended lunch, we follow the score. Strauss and Shah are milking the bowling with ease. Sunil joins Tony and me in cursing dravid for spoiling what could have been an ideal weekend. Now instead of watching the free-flowing strokeplay of Sehwag, Sachin, Yuvraj et al, we wuld be forced to watch the dour Englishmen.

To ensure that the English batsmen don't out me to sleep when I return to the stadium, I have a large shot of strong black coffee. Tony doesn't, and suffers later, as we shall see.

After bidding Sunil and wife goodbye, we return to the stadium where we are informed that Shah retired hurt and Pietersen has taken his place. Now KP I like! Despite links with South AFrica and England, two of the three powers that make up the troika of boring batting(this being New Zealand), Pietersen is an entertainer. Strauss meanwhile reaches a hundred and celebrates. We applaud.

Strauss and KP step it up a notch for a few overs before a splendid spell from Munaf has both of them struggling. This bloke is nippy and tall. He makes life tough for the Englishmen for a while before he is taken off. Kumble is also bowling a probing line inducing an edge which Dhoni floors, but now the proceedings have slowed down. A while later Harbhajan is introduced into the attack. Tony by now is dozing and is woken up by the commotion when Bhajji dismisses Strauss. This time Dhoni caught it at the second attempt.

Various attempts to generate a Mexican Wave have failed. Sreesanth meanwhile is also bowling a decent spell and is rewarded with success when Pietersen nicks one to the keeper.

Now at the crease are Flintoff and Colingwood. Both play cautiously, though Freddie does clobber Harbhajan into the Sachin tendulkar Stand for a splendid six. Flintoff really has matured as a batsman and very rarely does he gift it away. He makes the Indian bowlers toil. The crowd at Wankhede gives ample proof of their love-hate relationship with him by chanting "Freddie Sucks" and "Flintoff is a b*****d", and following it up with thunderous and genuine applause whenever he plays a good shot. No wonder he stripped his shirt off in confused exulatation four years ago.

The Barmy Army responds with some sing-song chants which no one can make any sense out of. Let us assume they were rather celever too. Atithi devobhav and all.

The day is going from bad to worse. No further wickets fall as England creep along at 3 runs per over, and reach a position from where only a dramatic Mohali-style collapse can see them end up on the losing side. They have made full use of Dravid's gift, and have a great chance of posting a 500-plus score and going all out for an equaliser.

After the end of play, as if the crowds have not had a bad enough day already, the sound system starts blaring with Himesh Reshammiya shrieking 'Aashiq banaaya aapney'. Reshammiya incidentally held for over two weeks the record of the most undeserved award when he was given the Filmfare for his playback singing. The record is now held by Reese Witherspoon for winning the Best Actress Oscar.

We all troop out in a daze...still not quite able to believe that Dravid didn't elect to bat. Though tomorrow is a Sunday, considering the pitch, it is unlikely there will be huge crowds thronging to Wankhede. I will be there though, hoping for a quick collapse.

Rahul Dravid, you owe me a Sehwag double hundred!