October 6, 2012

Splitting bread five ways

A touring journalist's life isn't one to envy, especially during dinner time

September 23
"Come quickly to the ground if you want to meet Saqlain bhai", Rabeed Imam, the ever-approachable Bangladesh media manager, tells me over the phone. It is a warm morning in Kandy. The lake is shimmering in the sun, and traffic has just started to increase around its shore. I gulp down breakfast and rush to the Asgiriya Stadium. Bangladesh are practising in their blue training colours. A calm, bearded figure is spinning the ball in his fingers and talking to the slow bowlers. He bowls a few deliveries with an action that takes you back many years. Saqlain Mushtaq, all of 35, Bangladesh bowling consultant, has a wisecrack a minute. "Twenty20, go for plenty," he chortles.

First sighting of Tamim Iqbal. Walks with the kind of confidence that screams "I am Tamim, who are you?" Speaks English with a Western sort of accent. Bats confidently against Saqlain in the nets.

First competitive full game of the tournament, between New Zealand and Pakistan. Decent crowd on the Pallekele grass banks for a non-Sri Lanka match.

September 24
There is a small Indian restaurant in Kandy, near the Temple of the Tooth. Frequented by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Run into a couple of men from my hometown, Mumbai. They seem to have relatives all over Pakistan, going by their conversation with a group of fans from the country. They talk about Anarkali Bazaar, the old Lahore market. Inevitably move on to how politicians are responsible for India-Pakistan relations being what they are. "No problem between the people," one of them says.

September 25
Finally feels like a world event is in town. People stream into the Pallekele stadium. Lot of supporters for both Bangladesh and Pakistan. Helps that it is a night game. Doesn't matter to the crowd that it turns out to be one-sided in the end. Feel for Shakib Al Hasan as he watches his side go down after top-scoring in the game and being their most economical bowler. Not the first time that has happened. Won't be the last either, sadly.

It is that rare night when Imran Nazir swings at everything and connects, for 72 off 36. It has been 13 years since he debuted for Pakistan in 1999. "Still feels like it's my debut," he says in the press conference, smiling shyly.

It is after midnight when our car leaves the stadium for Kandy. Spot groups of young fans walking back to the city. Little transport available at this time apart from tuk-tuks that are free to charge just about anything so late. The walk back is close to 15km. They'll do anything for cricket on the subcontinent.

September 26
Just enough time to rush to the Earl's Regency hotel, overlooking the Mahaweli River, to talk to Brendon McCullum about T20 batting. Speaks as calmly as he bats wildly. Makes a lot of sense too.

Think about visiting the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, just outside Kandy, on my way back to Colombo. Driver reminds me about the heat outside the air-conditioned car. Enthusiasm drains immediately.

Stop midway to Colombo to eat. Try a local sweet made with coconut, jaggery and sesame seeds. Should have bought more than one. Down the hills and caught in Colombo evening traffic. Already miss Kandy.

September 27
Back to business at the Premadasa. Four press conferences lined up. Devotional Hindu bhajans playing at the India practice session. Virat Kohli sitting close to the speakers, looking completely out of place with the music. Atmosphere of solitude backed up by cloudy weather. Virender Sehwag asks a group of journalists to stay quiet as he bats.

"Shane Watson is dependable, but we are not over-dependent on him," says George Bailey, the Australia captain, trying to keep his idle middle order motivated.

Dinner at one of the restaurants at the fancy Galadari Hotel. "Last order at 10.45pm," says the waiter. As Indians, we assume that means no new customers are allowed in after that time. In the middle of our dinner we run out of naans and curries. It is a little over 11pm. "Sorry sir," is the only reply we get. Waiter tries to offer a single Arabic naan as consolation, between five of us. "What do we eat it with?" we ask. "Sorry sir."

September 28
First Super Eights double-header evening in Colombo. After the taller Umar has Guldozed South Africa, I get a feel of how hectic the remaining two such nights are going to be. India's national anthem begins playing even as I am about to record Ramiz Raja's views on Pakistan v South Africa. "Jai Hind," Ramiz smiles as he stands up respectfully.

After South Africa let Pakistan escape from 76 for 7, AB de Villiers says if his side gets to the semi-final, there will be no choking. Now, AB, if you had only made the semi-finals…

India ignore the weather forecast and pick three spinners. The rain arrives in due course, the outfield and ball get wet, and MS Dhoni says that is why India bowled rubbish. Against Watson and David Warner, you wonder if it would have made any difference if they hadn't.

The bus ferrying journalists back to their hotels winds through Colombo, which looks even cleaner than usual after the light shower.

September 29
A day before their game against Pakistan, India's practice session consists mostly of a long football game. Sehwag wisely remains goalkeeper as the others run around in the heat at the lovely Colts Cricket Club ground. Imagine a boundary composed almost entirely of large shady trees, broken by an old pavilion where you can lounge in wooden armchairs, put your feet up on the low tables and lazily watch the action. Long-off view.

Run into Sudhir, the India supporter who paints himself with the tricolour and blows conches during games. He is a worried man. "Shankh nahin le jaane diya kal. Ashubh ho gaya [They didn't allow me to take the conch inside the stadium. It was inauspicious]," he says of India's loss to Australia.

September 30
Even on neutral territory, you feel the excitement and pulse of an India-Pakistan game. Every tuk-tuk driver seems to know the two teams are playing. "Big game," they say. The hotel staff too.

At the ground, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans are supporting Pakistan, and hopelessly outnumbering the Indian supporters. You feel the anticipation soar as the national anthems finish and the teams take the field.

Osman Samiuddin, former Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo, is sure Mohammad Hafeez and his side are going to freeze against the Indians. Says the roles have reversed from the '80s and '90s. Which is what happens. An uncharacteristically tame Hafeez sums up Pakistan's night. Later on the bus, an Indian reporter says the Indian media are nuts for asking the Indian captain the wrong questions. Well, of course, you could say that.

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo