Pakistan in India 2004-05 March 2, 2005

Warm-up or freeze-down?

Mohammad Sami: crowd-pleaser © Getty Images

The venue for Pakistan's tour match against an Indian Board President's XI is a nameless wonder. After four years in existence, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) ground still hasn't been christened. As one of their members quipped in jest: "The baby has started walking after 25-odd first-class games, but it has yet to be named."

But the baby's got good looks as well. A small and glittering green plate of a ground has a perfect snow-capped background in the form of the Dauladhar hill-range. These white-carpeted mountains add to the serenity of the venue, as do the blazer-clad-men with their traditional Himachal bushairi caps, who were busy getting ready for the party.

It's been a fraught preparation. From the moment Dharamsala was announced as the venue for the tour game, it has been the centre of the wrong sort of attraction. First, there were the visitors who complained about the altitude problems (Dharamsala is some 1317 metres above sea level). Then, fearing snowfall, which just ended a week prior to the start of the match, people were asking if it was a "warm-up game" or a "freeze-down affair".

No sooner had the snow disappeared from the ground than the Lama Drama began. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who has a summer palace in Dharamsala, had been invited to inaugurate the game. But the Pakistan Cricket Board, apparently, didn't want to ruffle feathers with China, a nation that doesn't recognize a free Tibet and, incidentally, some pundits think could become the next cricketing superpower.

However, the drama was ended by the man himself, who dissociated himself from any further controversy by deciding not to attend the match; instead his blessings went to the thousands who flocked to his palace for his more-popular teachings, and the governor of the state was instead pencilled in as the chief guest.

The pulse of the place, by itself, is steady and calm. Normally if a small place like Dharamsala is hosting a match of international stature, all streets would be painted red. The only paint conspicuous to the roving eye was the white colour of the snow. But people do know the game is happening. Over a plate of thugpa (popular Tibetan meal) two monks, taking a break from their lessons, were heard saying: "Mohammad Kaif, captain ..." the rest was in Tibetan.

Near the ground the frenzy is highly vocal. Just behind the practice nets is the hostel of the Sports Authority of India, which houses a batch of 80 girls, who are training in various sports. As the Pakistanis arrived fresh, early on Wednesday morning, the girls went mad, shouting their favorite player's name. The biggest and the loudest cheers went to ... Afridi, no. Inzy, no way. Razzaq. Nah.

"Sami, Sami, Sami..." went the chant as the man with a boyish face and straight and long black hair went about his routines. When Mohammad Sami didn't respond the girls almost pleaded, "Saaaammmmiii, please, yaahaan [Sami, please look this way]." Then they were heard wishing: "Happy Birthday". A quick flick through the player profiles showed that two players - Shahid Afridi (March 1) and Inzamam-ul-Haq (March 3) had reasons to celebrate this week.

The girls said they were offering belated wishes to Afridi. They clearly do know their cricket ... or at least, their cricketers. An obvious question came to mind: which team do they support? Surprisingly, their verdict was split. Either way, they had earned their free passes.