India v England, 1st Test, Chennai December 9, 2008

Ring of steel weighs heavy on the teams


A sniper takes up position on the roof of the MA Chidambaram Stadium © Getty Images
 

While being body-searched with a thoroughness that bordered on the discomfiting, one could see beyond the door and into the lobby of the Taj Coromandel. The Indian team had returned an hour earlier after a practice session under leaden skies at Chepauk, and one of the players was standing there talking to a police officer. By the time this writer was finally allowed in - even the stick of sunscreen scrutinised as a potentially lethal object - the chat had become an argument. The player was gesticulating angrily before turning on his heel and walking away. "You could at least have asked me," he said as a parting shot to the officer.

So much has been said and written about the security arrangements for this game and how England were convinced to return and continue the tour. Less has been said about the effect it's having on the home players. Many of them have spent vast tracts of time in Chennai, either for league cricket or as trainees at the MRF Pace Foundation. In less troubled times, it was common for friends to drop by or for the players themselves to go out once training was done for the day. Now, with the security blanket weighing down heavily, the often wrongly diagnosed Cabin Fever may manifest itself.

In days gone by, it was common to see people loiter around the team hotel in search of an autograph or a handshake from the stars. If you have such intentions this time, don't even bother. It takes a couple of minutes just to have the car inspected, and getting past the metal-detector and the frisking expert is another ordeal. Even inside, there's no room to breathe. As soon as I paused, a steward was next to me, asking politely where I needed to go. "It's been like this since the teams arrived," said the book-store owner.

The security is everywhere. The city's police chief says the teams will be protected by 5000 security personnel - including a thousand policemen ringing the Coromandel - in a complex, multi-layered operation from the hotel to the stadium. There are commandos -300 have been deployed - all over, starting at the gate. Hands on the butt of their automatic weapons and eyes watching the road and neighbouring buildings, they stand there as poker-faced as the Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace, even as a light drizzle falls.

The scene at the ground was even more unreal. Pre-match days at the MA Chidambaram Stadium always attracted a decent crowd eager to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Not this time. When the Indians turned up shortly after noon to have a nets session, the silence was punctuated only by the sound of bat on ball and the odd raised voice. No yells or shrieks of encouragement from the stands, and certainly no extempore analysis from the hacks, who had all been banished to a faraway stand.

Those nearest to the players, the nets bowlers and ball boys apart, were several dozen Rapid Action Force commandos standing just beyond the boundary. In their dull-blue camouflage fatigues, the circle of soldiers made for a surreal sight. All of them were facing away from the action, their eyes trained instead on concrete stands and huge piles of plastic chairs that had yet to be arranged properly.

India had a decent workout in intensely humid conditions and, when England arrived soon after two, there was an impromptu press conference in the dining hall of the TNCA clubhouse. Alastair Cook spoke of "getting back to what we know" but everyone present at this famous old venue felt those simpler times may never return. Cricket writers are often guilty of using words like arsenal, fusillade and artillery, but the sooner we can watch a game without a hundred assault rifles scrutinising us, the better it will be for everyone. Impassive commandos included.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo