December 11, 2008

It all felt normal again

At the end-of-day press conference, the journalists appeared far more concerned about the significance of the day than the players


Security was tighter than usual, but otherwise it was a sight increasingly familiar at Test match centres in India © Getty Images
 

This match was marked out as one that would transcend cricket. It was meant be to India's Pittsburgh moment, or even something more. Sport was put on pause in the US after 9/11, but made a stirring and emotional comeback only six days later when the New York Mets, whose home stadium was used as a staging ground for aid workers, played a Major League Baseball match at Pittsburgh. The Mets won. Baseball returned to New York City four days later, and the Mets won again.

Many things changed in New York after 9/11, some forever, but sport didn't. And, without doubt, it helped America heal. It provided escape and distraction, and a reason to celebrate. At one level it was inconsequential, but it allowed Americans to express themselves again. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani later said in an HBO documentary that only two things got his mind off 9/11 in the fall of 2001: baseball and his son's football games.

The mood in India, in Mumbai particularly, has been ambivalent. It was inevitable that cricket would return. But how soon? As Mumbai seethed with rage after the attack, one recurring refrain was: "We ought not to forget." The fabled Mumbai spirit that helped the city recover from blast after blast was, at least partly, an illusion, Mumbaikars argued. It was more a compulsion: what else could we do but get on with our lives?

Life has resumed. Trains and buses are spilling out again, the stock market has rallied, and last Friday eight new films were released in Mumbai. So it was right that cricket should make a comeback. India should thank the England team for returning. After such a debilitating event, it is important to feel normal again. And it was equally important for confidence to be restored.

By choosing to return, the England players have attracted extreme reactions. They have been either hailed as courageous and compassionate heroes who chose to stand by India in its hour of grief, or derided as opportunist mercenaries eyeing the BCCI's pot of gold. The first is a bit simplistic and the second cynical in the extreme. The decision should be hailed for what it is: certainly brave, but no braver than India and Sri Lanka going to Pakistan earlier this year for the Asia Cup. More than anything else, though, it was a rational and pragmatic acceptance of reality. The heart of cricket lies in the subcontinent - more specifically, India - and for professional cricketers the job has got dangerous.

 
 
And by choosing to tour, England have set an important reference point. No one, not even the BCCI possibly, would have grudged them had they decided to stay away. But they have not only allowed cricket to recover quickly but have created a roadmap for the future for other Western nations
 

And choosing to tour, England have set an important reference point. No one, not even the BCCI possibly, would have grudged them had they decided to stay away. But they have not only allowed cricket to recover quickly but have created a roadmap for the future for other Western nations. For that, cricket owes England.

But in an odd way it was reassuring that the match felt like any other while watching it at the stadium. Security was tighter than usual - commandos were spotted on the stadium roof, and the ones inside the ground actually kept their eyes on the stands, unlike the policemen on duty otherwise, who usually spend the day watching cricket. Otherwise, it was a sight increasingly familiar at Test match centres in India.

Perhaps it would have been different in Mumbai - in particular south Mumbai, where the Brabourne Stadium is located, about a kilometre from the Taj Mahal hotel, but spectators here didn't pour in to salute the spirit behind this match. There were about 500 in the stands to watch the captains go out for the toss, and the figure had barely doubled when the teams observed two minutes' silence in memory of the Mumbai victims. Vast parts of the 40,000-capacity stadium remained empty through the day and the 7000-odd who did turn up remained largely partisan.

The cricket was gritty, absorbing and competitive, and at the end-of-day press conference, the journalists appeared far more concerned about the significance of the day than the players, who were relieved to be back doing what they most enjoy. Andrew Strauss, the day's centurion, spoke of making the right decision in going ahead with tour but also said that, after all the stress about security, it was quite a relief to get into cricket mode again. Harbhajan Singh, who started the press conference doffing his hat to England for coming back, spent most of it lobbing verbal volleys at their "defensive mindset" and "lack of wicket-taking bowlers."

It all felt normal again.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo