India v Australia, 2nd Test, Chennai, 2nd day October 15, 2004

Illusions of rain and fire

The Chepauk at night is completely different from the one at day

The Chepauk at night - glistening covers

Darkness falls suddenly in Chennai. After the first day's play at the Chepauk - the MA Chidambaram Stadium, actually, but called the Chepauk after the area in which it is located - I begin writing my Verdict in a fairly bright press box. When I finish, barely half an hour later, the lights in the room are on, and it is night outside. That was quick, I say to myself, thank goodness I'm not Twilight, I wouldn't get the time of day here.

And then my eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. It's raining outside! The entire ground is covered by covers, and the steady pitter-patter of a slow drizzle is visible on it. Or is it?

The only downside of being in an air-conditioned press box is that you don't actually get a sense of the weather the cricket is being played in, you have to keep walking out for that. I duly walk out, and it is warm and a little humid and most emphatically not raining. The tarpaulin that the covers are made of merely reflects light in such a way that they seem wet. And when they ripple on the ground, as they do ever so slightly, but constantly, it creates the optical illusion of a steady rain falling on it.

Well, the illusion is not just optical. As I'm walking along the perimeter of the ground later in the evening, I am startled by the sound of sudden rainfall. Of course, I'm in the open and I feel quite dry. I turn around towards the direction of the ground, and I see a further set of covers being dragged onto the field, making the sound of harsh rain. It's ironic - the covers create the illusion, both optical and audio, of the very thing they're supposed to protect against. What next, I wonder? A fire truck that combusts spontaneously?

The Chepauk in the morning - a lonely fire truck

Can inanimate objects possess characteristics like happiness, comfort and solitude? In the morning on the second day, an hour before the game, I walk around the ground and come across a lonely fire truck.

She (for that is what she is, no mere 'it') is parked between stands, at one of the entrances to the ground, a few feet away from the first advertising hoardings. She is painted a red that has seen better days, and while she is clearly old, she has aged with dignity. Her life isn't particularly exciting - she can't even watch the match because she faces the other way - but she is equanimous about it. Like many her age, she is surrounded by men who may not be the kind she dreamt about when she was young, but whom she is used to. She will settle for this. It could be worse.

I speak to a gentleman there who looks after the fire truck. He, too, is old, but willing to oblige. He is surprised at my interest, and he wonders why I ask him how much water she carries. Do I want to drink some, perhaps. "One thousand gallons," he tells me, as if to dissuade me. Even Dean Jones could have done with less in 1986.

The fire truck is not alone in the job she does, as it happens. Every stand, he tells me, has men posted there with fire extinguishers. And there is another fire truck on the other side of the ground. And a fire station a couple of kilometers away. I ask him how much water it would take to douse the fire if the entire stadium caught fire at the same time. "At least one lakh [100,000] gallons," he replies.

There is, of course, not much wood in most of the stands, just a lot of concrete and plastic (the seats). "And we do not allow matches in the ground," he says, losing me for a moment, as I think of all the memorable matches that have taken place here. "No matchbox, no lighter," he continues. But the police have to be extra vigilant on the last day of the match he says, when the risk of miscreants starting a fire is the highest - especially if India is losing.

And if that stand - I point out one across the ground from us - catches fire, what will the fire truck do, I ask? Reach that stand from outside the stadium? No, he replies. It would cut across the field of play itself, and over the pitch if it had to, taking a straight line between it and the affected stand.

It is a delightful image - Virender Sehwag settles down in his stance, Glenn McGrath runs in to bowl, and then She, in one of those rare moments that make life as a fire truck worthwhile, rushes on the field, at the center of a universe on fire.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.