First-time IPL host Kanpur giggles in excitement
"One request. I want to meet that gora, chitta wala player."
The plea is uttered while pointing eagerly in the direction of South Africa and Kolkata Knight Riders fast bowler Morne Morkel. It comes from Shristi Bhatia, a college student in Kanpur who, late on Wednesday afternoon, has found her way into the stands at Green Park. On Thursday, the ground will host the first ever IPL match in Kanpur - and Uttar Pradesh. Bhatia does not know who Morkel is - not even his name - but for her it does not matter. "I don't know [who he is]. He is so cute," she says, with the expectant eyes of a fan more inclined towards entertainment than cricket.
Bhatia had come to the ground with her younger brother and some friends to photograph and record players from both Knight Riders and Gujarat Lions. Lions had picked Kanpur as their second home venue, after Rajkot, for their last two group matches - against Knight Riders on May 19 and Mumbai Indians two days after that.
Bhatia squealed as she asked Uttar Pradesh and Knight Riders fast bowler Ankit Rajpoot for a selfie. Asked if she knew who the player was, she responded plainly: "No." Then why was she all giggly and excited to take the picture, which had left even Rajpoot blushing for a moment?
"Because he is a celebrity, no? People are very much excited. Tomorrow you will see lines snaking from as far as Navi Market. Even during the last international match in Kanpur, people who had tickets could not come inside because the crowds had thronged outside in large numbers."
Bhatia was never confident that the IPL would one day arrive in Kanpur but Rajeev Shukla, the IPL chairman and Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association secretary, lobbied hard and eventually managed to get two Lions matches. There were doubts about whether Green Park had appropriate floodlights for the two evening matches but, by the looks of it, the four light towers are well equipped, maybe even slightly too bright. An official from one of the franchises did point out that the lights were too bright in some spots in the outfield, but it would not be a matter of grave concern.
Kanpur now joins the growing list of second-tier cities that have been put on the IPL map, like Rajkot and Raipur. For most players it might just be another stop on the never-ending grind, but for about half a dozen players from Lions and Knight Riders, the IPL in Uttar Pradesh is a special occasion. It is like a homecoming for Lions players Suresh Raina, Praveen Kumar, Umang Sharma, Eklavya Dwivedi and Akshdeep Nath, and Knight Riders' Piyush Chawla, Rajpoot and Kuldeep Yadav.
"IPL is one of the biggest platforms for youngsters and also for people like me who are trying to make a comeback. With the tournament coming here for the first time ever in nine years, it is a big thing for us," Chawla said. According to him, the IPL provides opportunities for young net bowlers, too, as they can interact with international players, something Chawla said he found beneficial more than a decade ago. "A lot of kids who have come to bowl in the nets can see quality cricket and will get the motivation as well. They are bowling to big stars from around the world and they are putting in more than 100%."
Chawla was once that kid, bowling in the nets when Pakistan came to play an ODI in Kanpur, a game in which Shahid Afridi blasted a record century. "I was really happy to see all the big stars who I had seen on the TV," Chawla said. "And suddenly I got a chance to bowl to Sachin paaji, Viru [Sehwag] bhai, Dada [Ganguly], bowling alongside Anil [Kumble] bhai - obviously it was a big thing for me."
Another former net bowler who is now rubbing shoulders with some of the best is Rajpoot. The strapping Uttar Pradesh fast bowler was a ball boy for the third Test of the 2008 series against South Africa. It was MS Dhoni's first Test win as India captain. "I remember sitting with Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel, and today I think look how far I have come that I am sharing the dressing room with Morkel now. It feels really good," Rajpoot said.
According to senior Uttar Pradesh and Lions fast bowler Praveen, the Kanpur fans will be both "natkhat" [mischievous] and fun-loving. For years they have waited for the IPL's bandwagon to arrive in town. They had seen it on the TV, read and heard about it in the media, and heard friends and relatives go gaga over it. Now there is a chance for Bhatia and other fans in Uttar Pradesh to tell their own stories.
"We have played in Kanpur from Under-16 days and now we are going to play the IPL here for the first time," Praveen said. "The fans have been thirsting for it for a long time. So we are also very excited."
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo