July 23, 2013

The fan who became a pressman

A lifelong fan crosses over to the neutral side and quite enjoys the experience (while stifling his cheers)

Whether it's sitting in the press box or playing on the streets, you never really stop loving the game © Getty Images

I am not sure exactly when I was introduced to cricket. I don't remember the first time I picked up a cricket bat or a ball. The game was just always there. All I can remember from my childhood are the many hours we spent in our backyard, using a giant stone that we used to wash clothes on as the wicket, a Sunny Tonny bat, and a cork ball that my oldest brother would chuck down while sitting on a concrete parapet.

Surely cricket must be in my blood, like for millions before me and after me. The company of brothers - of varying skill levels who played regularly in weekend games and tournaments - and the Philips shortwave radio ensured cricket was a constant presence in my growing up.

I became a fan when I saw, without really understanding, the joy and pride with which my brothers strutted around in the summer of 1983. I was six.

It seemed that the only reason for waking up back then was cricket - playing it and watching it, especially India and their line-up of fine gentlemen in flannels. Living and dying with the fortunes of the Indian team - it was mostly dying in the '90s, but nevertheless it was a rollercoaster ride that I enjoyed thoroughly. Of course, the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar when I had just turned 13 provided another spectacular reason to root for India. It is a love affair that is still going strong.

Geography and an infant internet kept me away from cricket for a few years, but inevitably I was drawn back to it. Now, in the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of covering international cricket as a media person.

Everyone gets into sport because they love it - playing, watching, and talking about it. Some of those go on to write about it for a living. Is that the greatest thing in the world or what? To get paid to watch cricket. Where do I sign up?

Ironically, once you do become part of the media, and you are among the very people you adored and watched on TV, you are expected to behave as if you had never been a fan. It's a tough act. I spend most of my time following cricket as a fan of the sport, the teams, and the players, and only a miniscule amount being a media guy. It is hard to suppress the natural bubbling-over of the emotions.

At a recent press conference, I was seated a few feet away from MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli, asking them questions. Darren Sammy parked himself in a chair next to mine as I spoke to him for a feature. Mahela Jayawardene politely asked if I could wait an additional two minutes before I interviewed him. I was the only media person talking to Chris Gayle in the middle of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium for ten minutes after his comeback to Test cricket.

Getting past the awe is a process. It needs you to mature as a cricket fan. It requires counsel.

I was lucky that I was already doing a podcast series that had allowed me to interview some cricketers and some widely known cricket journalists and writers. I had already faced the pitfalls of newbies on the beat, of being star-struck, from behind the safety of my microphone. I still vividly remember the flutters when I first learnt that I was going to be able to interview Wasim Akram, and then actually going through with it, despite sweaty palms and parched throat.

It was also helpful that I had slowly weaned myself away from being obsessed with one team or a player, and was now able to enjoy cricket for what it is, a sport - nothing more, nothing less. It's a beautiful thing and a big relief to be able to dissociate oneself from loyalties and to dispassionately observe a teams' vicissitudes.

Before I went on my first assignment, I spoke to a few experienced cricket reporters. We discussed knowing boundaries, the do's and don'ts once I had a media pass around my neck, acceptable behaviour in the press box (for example, don't ever cheer), dress code (no team colours), how to approach a player for an interview (only through the media manager!), and more. Basically, if you have to think twice about doing something, don't do it.

When Dhoni launched Shaminda Eranga straight towards the media centre at Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad, the white speck rapidly taking shape and furiously sailing over, the ferocity of the hit could be felt through the glass windows. In my mind, the first reaction was, "Holy shit!" but I quickly composed myself and looked down at my laptop to record the instant for the match report. As Dhoni completed the heist, I missed the reactions from his team-mates and the fans; I had to pack my stuff to trek across the ground for the press conference. As a fan, it would have been a tremendous moment to savour, but with a lanyard attached to a card saying "Media" around my neck, I had a job to do.

For a long time I spouted all the one-eyed pontifications that come with being a fan. "We are the absolute best." "We are the absolute worst." "The world is against us." Now I revel in my new perspective. Seeing the forest for the trees as an unbiased observer allows you to enjoy the game. There is a reason you started playing it - because you loved the sport and not any particular team. I continue to play cricket when time and my disapproving body permit me. It allows me to understand the struggles of players and keeps cynicism at bay.

Every single day I was in the Caribbean, covering the tri-nation series, I spent many hours at the stadium, despite the tropical tourist brochures and whether it was a match day or not. Who knows when I may get another opportunity to be so close to cricketing history and excellence? To be able to walk along the 22-yard strip at Sabina Park and recreate the masterclass from Rahul Dravid in 2006. To wander around Queen's Park Oval and imagine the raucous crowd as Curtly Ambrose mowed down England for 46 all out.

I may be a long way from the washing-stone wicket in the backyard, but cricket has again become the reason for waking up. The beaches and the blue waters can wait.