On Sunday afternoon I was lucky enough to fulfil another ‘dream’ I have nurtured since living in India – to watch an Indian Premier League (IPL) match. This epic was between rivals Delhi Daredevils and Mumbai Indians at the Feroz Shah Stadium here in the sunny capital. And what an experience it was.
Delhi and Mumbai fans sit side-by-side as the sun goes down
The journey there couldn’t have been more difficult, the evening no more perfect. I met a friend at the busy-at-the-quietest-of-times Pragati Maidan junction. On match day it was especially hectic: fans streamed from the nearby metro; traffic lights had stopped working, intensifying the stress; hassled traffic policeman looked dazed. We parked the car, took an improbable chawla (cycle rickshaw) ride and worked our way feverishly through the throng (the young man who cycled us was the size of one of my thighs and, given both me and my friend are of ample build let’s say, it was some achievement to get us all up the hill). In short, it would be a miracle to see the start of the match.
And miss it we did, given miracles don’t happen. Now, this could be potentially disastrous for the happiness of hundreds of late fans like us: if a certain permutation of events transpired one of the key reasons for seeing the match could be lost. That reason might be summarised in a single word that means everything to everyone here in India: Sachin. If the Mumbai Indians were to bat first and if legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar opened the innings and if he was out early – in that pocket of time during our absence – then… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. And, luckily, it doesn’t bear writing about either: although Mumbai did bat first and Sachin opened, he went on to get a fifty, meaning there was plenty of time to watch him play.
Sachin batting his way towards a fifty
A word on Sachin: there was a large banner hung from the upper stand that read something like ‘Sachin you are nearly a god to us’. Not a god idly worshipped at distance, once a week praised in a quietly reverential service; but one understood and worshipped noisily and with joy as part of the everyday fabric of Indian sporting life. My friend told me something which I had hitherto suspected but which I could now see played out before me: whatever team you support in the IPL, if you are Indian, you want Sachin to do well. Consequently, fans temporarily switch allegiance to Sachin – not his team as such, although it amounts to more or less the same thing.
Sachin by degrees
You seem to hear more noise when Sachin is present. At times it seems that a series of increasingly significant events in a game elicit progressively voluminous degrees of cheering when the Tendulkar has the bat in hand. The hierarchy of cheering for Sachin is as follows: walking on to the pitch before he’s hit a ball (delirious applause); taking guard before the bowler bowls (reckless abandon); hitting the ball anywhere, including five feet in front of him (unabated eulogising); scoring a run (wild jubilation); hitting a boundary (clamourous exultation); hitting a six (faint-inducing cacophony, comparisons to Bradman); getting out (silence). And so it went that night at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in Delhi, as the sun dropped behind the stand and the moon rose above the stadium lights and all eyes were on the ‘Little Master’ in the crucible of the batting crease.
“Cricket is our religion, Sachin is our god”
We had great views of the game and the many who watched it. Sitting on the top stand, we enjoyed a cool early evening breeze to mitigate the sun’s rays before evening came. Birds swooped and swirled overhead. An abortive Mexican wave turned into general arm waving and cheering. The batter took guard, the bowler ran in. I looked around and drank it all in, as we are often wont to do when we find ourselves somewhere amazing, a place full of life’s intensity, a space and time that we understand intuitively as unforgettable, a moment that we know there and then will stay with us for the rest of our lives. And so I watched, and smiled, smiled and watched.
Viru in action under the lights
A paltry thing like a game result seemed a grubby and trivial concern at a time like this: but it was the cherry on cake when Delhi won, thrashing Mumbai by 9 wickets, with an amazing and unbeaten innings from local player and crowd favourite Virender Sehwag, supported wonderfully by Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardena. The Delhi Daredevils had lost all their previous six matches. I considered myself the lucky charm (above even that of Sir Viv Richards, a giant of the West Indies team, who was enjoying his first game as ‘ambassador’ or ‘advisor’ for the Daredevils) and so thought that I should watch all the games at the Kotla, just in case.
It’s just not cricket
If you’ve got this far and you’re wondering what on earth I’m writing about: it’s cricket.
Or it’s just not cricket, should I say, at least for many: the IPL in particular and T20 in general is so often thought of as the game’s lesser relation, especially in England I’m sorry to say. There, where often anything but test matches are thought of as unappealing sidelines to the main event, the IPL is vilified as too commercial; a threat to the integrity of international teams and their players; unappealing, vulgar even, in its quality as a cricket match; deleterious on its effect on the beloved longer game; the lamentable list goes on. Perhaps it’s just too popular.
My first love for the game lies in international test matches but, just as having a favourite fruit doesn’t preclude me from eating any other, there is room for IPL. It does many things that test cricket doesn’t, something often forgotten when considering the vice versa. Besides, it isn’t going to go away easily. I watched the IPL on tv long before I made it to a match. It was always good but it’s better when being there. Try sitting in the Kotla, with men and women and children cheering their heroes, Delhi fans sitting next to Mumbai fans without a hint of tension, wrapped in the inimitable glory of an Indian summer evening, and telling me you don’t get it.
Like the former President Bush’s human beings and fish, I think that test cricket and IPL can co-exist peacefully.
Photo credit: ‘Cricket is our religion, Sachin is our God’