Searching for civilians in Palam
The Palam A Ground is a bit old-fashioned, one Mumbai man saying it reminded him of an English league venue. It is open on all sides, its proximity to the Delhi's domestic airport means there is no high-rise interference to the weather. Traffic tootles around the ground, Delhi's horn concerto sounding intermittently and aircrafts routinely take off at either end of the wicket. In the morning session, flights of all sizes fly over the single-storey pavilion. In the afternoon, the larger commercial aircrafts take off from the old domestic terminal and soar over the far end of the ground.
On day one, a brass band sounded as the teams warmed-up at the start of play. The Air Force men said it was the army band practicing for the Republic Day parade. On day two, they were not to be heard, they could have headed out to a dress rehearsal in other parts of the city's vast cantonment. The frisky rain and miserable light conditions on Thursday meant there were no aircrafts to be sighted over Palam in the morning, as Ajit Agarkar and Aditya Tare tried to give the Mumbai innings any lift-off in the semi-final.
Palam's open elements are diametrically opposite to the ground's other rules: as it is a part of the Air Force cantonement, it is shut off for civilians. The only manner of civilians allowed inside the compound where Services and Mumbai are playing their Ranji Trophy semi-finals are the players, their support staff, match officials, and journalists. Whenever foreigners turn up at the gates, like South African 'exchange' umpire Adrian Holdstock for this game, the BCCI must get approvals and permissions sorted out in advance. The last time the Indian team trained here, the BCCI had to supply the paperwork, scanned passport copies etc, for all its overseas support staff well in time.
When news filtered out that Services were to play Mumbai in the semi-final in Palam, another unexpected factor had to be taken into account: spectators. Who would all be civilians.
It is the first time that the Air Force personnel at Palam had to get used to the sight of "civilian" spectators, climbing up on one side of the fence that separates the ground and the road. They watched most of the day's play, without anywhere to sit, without access to food or water or toilets, unless they left their vantage spots.
When Tendulkar began his innings on Thursday, in no time, six cars were parked on the outside, its occupants were happy to climb and cling to the fence to watch. When he went past his fifty, he raised his bat towards the dressing room in acknowledgement, the non-civilian spectators seated on the ground around the boundary and then, to the fifty-odd civilians clinging to the fence. To the first two groups, it may have been acknowledgement, to the third, it can fancifully be hoped, admiration and appreciation.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo