August 23, 2012

Floating through NYC with Anil Kumble

“Your wish has been granted,” were the words I heard over the phone on Saturday night

“Your wish has been granted,” were the words I heard over the phone on Saturday night. I had been told earlier in the week I might get an opportunity to interview Anil Kumble on Sunday at New York’s India Day Parade. Less than 24 hours away, the confirmation came through. But it didn’t stop there. No, that was just the beginning. After getting a 20-minute sit-down with the former captain of India, I was going to ride on the parade float with him right down Madison Avenue.

The next morning I was sitting in a hotel conference room with the leg-spinning icon. After a fairly relaxed chat we climbed into an SUV with tinted windows, me and two others in the back and Kumble in front of us. As we rolled along toward the parade route, we passed more and more Indians, some twirling mini tricolor flags, others just meandering along listening to music or chewing gum, completely oblivious to who was inside the car driving past them.

When we got to the drop-off point a couple of blocks away from the float, two bodyguards casually started to escort us along. No one really seemed to notice the man being shepherded down the sidewalk until we got about a block and a half away. I had been trailing about 20-30 feet behind Kumble. Two guys in their 20s walked past him without batting an eye but by the time they reached me they stopped to ponder for a few moments before turning to each other, “Wait… Oh my God! That was Kumble!”

Somehow, some way, Kumble managed to reach the float undisturbed before climbing aboard on the corner of East 38th and Madison. Only then did the first wave of people start to envelop the front of the float where he was perched on the balcony. A sea of hands emerged all reaching out to their hero. Hats, programs, shirts, flags, receipts… even tissues and napkins. Anything they could get their hands on was pushed forward in the hope that Kumble might autograph it. The rest did their best to capture the moment on camera phones as a dholi drummed away in the background on the sidewalk.

Then the ICC World Twenty20 trophy was taken out of its case by Tim Anderson, the ICC Global Development Manager, who doubles as the trophy’s guardian, and handed over to Kumble for him to pose for some photos. I had asked for Kumble to back up towards the edge of the balcony… a little more… a little more… so I could get a perfectly framed shot of him with the trophy when all of a sudden the float jolted and the big man nearly toppled over. The car that was going to be tugging the float along finally began to pull us forward. “Holy bleep!” I thought. “I almost became known as the guy who indirectly caused great bodily harm to India’s most prolific wicket-taker.” Crisis averted. Phew.

Now that we were on our way, the crowds lining the sidewalks started to exercise their lungs. For every scream for “Anil!” there were two more for “Jumbo!” The marching band playing in front of us created some separation from the lead float with the parade’s Grand Marshall, the Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan.

The crowds were animated throughout the route, but just as feisty were the different TV channels all jostling to get near or climb onto our float in order to get a few precious sound bytes from Kumble for their broadcasts being beamed back to India. One hostess nearly fell off our float in the struggle to climb on board without ruining her dress before getting some assistance from a few chivalrous gentlemen. A few minutes later, all TV media got booted from our float because they were taking up too much space.

Sometime around the middle of the parade route, a particularly eager swarm of cameramen charged to get in front of the float. After getting their snaps in, they couldn’t help but reach up to try and shake Kumble’s hand before being shooed away by security and police officers. One stumbled away in disbelief upon witnessing an Indian cricketing god in the flesh. “YOU!” he shouted, “YOU ARE THE ROCK STAR!”

Soon enough, the rest of the floats made their way towards the Review Stand. The only other way you were guaranteed to get up there without a struggle was if you were a beauty pageant winner like Miss India USA or Miss Teen India New York. Even if you had a VIP pass, it was like a battle royale to get through the security gates before reaching the stage. When the floats passed the Review Stand, the sponsors on board made sure to shout a tribute with extra gusto to the star attractions, or better yet, break out a song and dance routine to show their love. Probably the best effort of the day belonged to a group of bhangra dancers representing Jus Punjabi.

Before I left for the day, I made my way to the front of the Review Stand one more time when there was a lull in between floats with no other cameramen around to elbow me out of the way. I wanted to get a shot of Kumble and Saif with the ICC World Twenty20 trophy. As I approached the front, a cop tried to stand in my way and block me from getting to where I needed to be. Then Kumble motioned for the cop to stop and said, “No. No. He’s okay.”

Ahhh… validation from Kumble. That made the day worthwhile.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey