August 7, 2008

Jamie Alter on India in Sri Lanka 2008

The travelling soldier

Jamie Alter
Abhishek Thakur watches cricket from he top of the Galle Fort, Sri Lanka v India, August 2, 2008
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Abhishek Sudhir was born in 1986, the year India won a Test series in England. Twenty-one years later, when they broke a drought with a draw at The Oval, thereby securing a memorable 1-0 series win, Abhishek was there, and savoured the moment.

It was his first Test outside Bangalore.

"It wasn't cheap," he says, "but it was definitely worth it ... a good way to start. I had always dreamed of watching a series in England."

Abhishek has been watching live cricket since 1992, from the time Vinod Kambli 'brownwashed' England. That's when he caught the bug and it's been a passionate last 17 years, but one moment started a memorable journey.

After watching Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sreesanth salvage a draw in the first Test between India and England at Lord's last summer, on television with his father in Bangalore, Abhishek decided he had to go back to England for the rest of the series. The next morning he walked straight into the airlines office and bought himself a ticket back to London, cutting short his vacation in India by two-and-a-half months.

"My mom was disappointed about that, but she understood that I just needed to do that," he says. He landed in Birmingham a couple days later and hopped onto a train to Trent Bridge and didn't miss a ball of that gripping Test.

Abhishek has been in the UK for the last three years. He finished studies at the University of Birmingham and hopes to secure a law degree from the University College London in September 2009. He balances studies with part-time jobs, including selling food at kiosks during football matches and working at nightclubs, but has been financially supported by his family. They have been fully supportive of his fanatical following of the Indian team.

He stays and travels cheap when touring, to minimise his costs. "Some of the places I stay at go from bad to worse, but it's got to be done. You put up with small things for the bigger joys. I'm bloody lucky, and I need to cherish such moments. I'm getting to do what I love."

Some people like to go to resorts, others hiking, many more to the beaches, but for Abhishek there's no better vacation than following India. "A cricket match is an experience," he says. "You have to get there early and leave late. You live every ball, you live the conditions."

Abhishek is not a part of the Bharat or Swamy Armies, and is quick to emphasise that he doesn't want to be Percy Abeysekera or a 'Chacha Cricket' from Pakistan. "I had a couple drinks with Percy," he says. "That was fun. But I'm my own man."

Strong words from a 22-year-old. But so much of what he has experienced has shaped him. On his first day in England, he walked into Northfield, outside Birmingham, and had a piece of chicken thrown at him. "A baptism by fire," he says with a smile, "and then to see Zaheer Khan get a five-for was brilliant. That was my own jellybean incident."

Abhishek paid ₤85 on day four of The Oval Test, sitting in the Bedser Stand. "If you've got to pay that much you're pretty well off. There was this Indian fan, a lady, who was criticising Rahul Dravid's decision not to enforce the follow-on. Being a Bangalore boy myself, I turned around and told her 'We haven't won a series in England since 1986, I've waited all my life to see this happen, so what if Dravid doesn't enforce the follow-on? Twenty years from now no one's going to remember Dravid's decision. This is the new India.'"

Abhishek recalls fantastic scenes after the game. "I patted each one of the players on the back as they walked up the stairs, and I even got a hand on the series trophy when Dravid held it up in celebration," he says. "I'd come too far, I just had to do it. There were only a few thousand Indians in the ground but it was jam packed. There was Bollywood music blaring everywhere. We took it to the road then, when the players came out to their bus. Police had tried to block off the whole road but we Indian fans had to get to the players. A few Punjabis had dhols and we all danced the night away."

Vinod Kambli was the fastest Indian to 1000 runs. Where is he now? 1993
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Going to Australia became his next goal, and he flew into Melbourne on Christmas Day, not having slept for 40 hours. He shared a room with five Indians from Chennai, in St Kilda. The Boxing Day Test at the MCG was brilliant despite India's big loss, he says, but the feeling of being part of 70,000 fans – 20,000 of them boisterous Indians – was something he will never forget. "I've been to Old Trafford [the football stadium], Wembley, Lords's and a few Arsenal and Barcelona games, but walking into the MCG was something else. India won an Olympic Gold in hockey there in the fifties, thanks to Dhyan Chand ... and barefoot."

Abhishek's face flashed across the big screen when Anil Kumble snapped a century opening stand, but it wasn't the last. He got into a couple of good-natured fights with Australian fans, but has no bad feelings. Abhishek also met a childhood hero, Merv Hughes, on whom he modelled his bowling action, and that's when it hit him: he was in Australia.

He didn't make the epic Perth Test, but was there in Sydney for that controversial match, which sapped every emotion out of him. He even slipped in with the media and sat around till 3am, when the players emerged from their hearing with the match referee. He even got a few scenes in an upcoming Hindi film, Victory, which was shot at the SCG. He has even been interviewed by Channel Nine's Simon O'Donnell. He has countless numbers of pictures from Australia, which he will keep for life.

Here in Sri Lanka, he is the only Indian fan at all the Tests. In Galle, India's national flag went missing and Abhishek offered his to the team. It was a proud moment seeing his flag, made from khaadi and purchased in Bangalore, flying from the Indian team's dressing room.

Abhishek is also a qualified Level 1 umpire for Under-15 matches in England, having successfully passed his test, and stood in a Derbyshire v Warwickshire match before flying off for this series. "You never know, one day one of those kids you gave out could become an England star," he says.

Abhishek wants to focus on his career, but has already bought tickets for the second World Twenty20, to be held in England later this year, and plans to do so for the Ashes too. "I'm a bit of a novice," he says, "but I will always make time for cricket."

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jamie Alter
Senior sub-editor While teachers in high school droned on about Fukuyama and communism, young Jamie's mind tended to wander to Old Trafford and the MCG. Subsequently, having spent six years in the States - studying Political Science, then working for an insurance company - and having failed miserably at winning any cricket converts, he moved back to India. No such problem in Bangalore, where he can endlessly pontificate on a chinaman who turned it around with a flipper, and why Ricky Ponting is such a good hooker. These days he divides his time between playing office cricket and constant replenishments at one of the city's many pubs.

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