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Memories of the majestic Armani Hotel in Dubai zip past my mind. That evening, immaculately orchestrated musical fountains had made for a beautiful backdrop for a rendezvous with friends over some delectable kebabs. Two months later, as I now spend time in a small district called Nadaun in Himachal Pradesh, that awe-inspiring opulence comes back to nudge me, almost mockingly. The background for the cook preparing my basic dal, vegetable and chapatis is an open kitchen with a faint halogen bulb hanging loosely. The menu is painted on the wall and steel pots with a variety of dishes left uncovered for the flies to enjoy a game of peek-a-boo.
Having survived a couple of nights in the best hotel the town could offer, I decided to venture out and look for food - good food. After walking past a couple of dhabas, I settle for "Kamal Da Dhaba", decorated with hordes of fancy lights, an attention-seeking tactic that almost always works. It was reasonably busy, which could be a sign of good food. The chef, wearing a striped T-shirt full of grease stains, had replaced the prim waiters at the Dubai Hotel, while fine china and upholstery had made way for plain steel plates and a dilapidated wooden table. The only thing that could have saved this eatery a bad report card would have been its food.
However, just before the waiter served the chapati, he scratched his head and used the same hand to serve. That was the last straw. I tell you this story in a cricket blog because sometimes, as fans of a sport we love so much, we need to look beyond the gloss and confront the grim.
I can either feel happy or despondent about my current predicament. Happy because anyone who has been a part of first-class cricket in India for over a decade now realises that we have come a long way from the time when we used to stay in dormitories and classrooms when playing various school or university tournaments. Cricket in India has primarily been a winter sport, which makes basic facilities look shoddy. There were never enough mattresses or blankets to keep you warm during the night, and the morning shower was always under a freezing stream of water. The lack of cleanliness of shared lavatories forced most of us to take a dump in the open. The worst part of using these open fields early morning was the pig who would be feeding on your faeces right before you.
If you find reading this repulsive, imagine having gone through it for years. And for someone who has been through this, an hotel room with a private washroom and food on order, however basic that be, should be considered a luxury. However, in Indian sport culture, all this is believed to build character. It is supposed to makes you "rough and tough", to prepare you for challenges on the field. By that logic, America, England, China should never do well in sports.
Then there is the other life an Indian cricketer leads, the addictive kind, when playing international or IPL cricket. These matches are never held in small centres, which means nothing short of five-star facilities for the players. We are served world-class cuisines by the best of chefs. Travel is only by air or on road by air-conditioned deluxe coaches as opposed to rickety tempo travellers or "jeeps" that ferry players twice their seating capacity. The entire world is at your beck and call, unlike how it is in domestic cricket, where you're left to your own devices.
The next time you see a player of stature, one who has played for the country, pick up a niggle during a domestic match played in an obscure centre, just wonder if it is the lack of the facilities that is hurting him. The ones who have not played for the country but are regulars in the IPL share the sentiment, but just a little less strongly. Since they know there is another mountain to climb before they play for the country, they put in the hard yards, albeit grudgingly.
The disparity between both the worlds is huge. It doesn't matter that much to me now. Everyone likes a good life, and I personally think it has some impact on the performance. A good night's sleep is the best way to cool the heels and prepare for the sprint next morning. However, it's the love of the game that keeps me and many other veterans on the circuit going. To us nothing matters but the sound of bat on ball, or click of the edge taken with an outswinger. That can be your only drive. I dread the day I will strap my pads on, put on my helmet, get my gear ready and walk towards the crease one last time. For a true sportsman nothing is as important as being able to pursue this love for as long as he can.
Cricket is a great teacher. It teaches you patience. It teaches you to be immune to things you can't control. It makes you appreciate the little joys and take bitter disappointments in your stride. Love for the game is all I need at this time of life. It makes the heart see what is invisible to the eye.
This is my 16th year of playing Ranji Trophy. Sanjay Bangar, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Sairaj Bahutule have been representing their states for far longer. Year after year, they step on the field with the same enthusiasm as they showed in their first game. Such is the love of the sport.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.