February 21, 2014

When in Dubai

Our correspondent walks deserted streets, loses his way, and watches cricket's next generation go about their business

February 8
At the check-in queue in Bangalore airport an airline official goes around telling people the flight to Dubai is overbooked and asks if we would be kind enough to give up our seats for other passengers desperate to get on the flight, and take the next one. The prospect of making the 90-minute journey home and then back again, or killing time at the airport for nine hours is never very inviting. Not surprisingly, no one budges.

In-flight, the F1 movie Rush and the documentary Hunt v Lauda are playing on different channels. Having already seen the former, and enjoyed every minute of it, I opt for the real footage.

Reach Dubai and catch a shuttle to Abu Dhabi. From Airbus to bus. Check in at 2.45am.

February 9
Wake up to cloudy skies and overnight rain. Did I pack appropriately for the desert? The only other journalist from India covering the World Cup is staying at the same hotel. We decide to explore the area for dinner options. The locality is like a ghost town at 7pm. After walking around junctions and crossing roads, with no restaurant in sight, we concede defeat and hail a cab to the nearest mall. Realise the hotel is actually on the margins of the city and not as central as I had thought.

February 10
The warm-ups begin. Head to distant Zayed Cricket Stadium. The swanky, airport-runway-like roads tempt you to swap places with the cab driver. Note how the landscape around the stadium has transformed since my last visit in 2006, when the stadium was an oasis in the desert. Buildings and upcoming villas on one side of the ground, and the two picturesque nursery grounds by the side.

Zimbabwe are suddenly favourites against a lacklustre Australia. The fathers of Zimbabwe players Malcolm Lake and Kieran Gayle look on nervously, glancing at the scoreboard every few minutes as the equation narrows. At the other ground, South African Bradley Bopp's mum and girlfriend keep an eye on the Namibia game.

A six from a Zimbabwe batsman goes out of the ground and I volunteer to fetch the ball. The fine-leg fielder waits at the edge of the picket fence to collect my throw. Despite running a few yards to gain momentum on the throw, the ball dips and plonks in front of the fence. I sheepishly pick it up again and apologetically hand it to the fielder. Note to self: next time, underarm the throw.

February 12
Scotland and England are playing on different grounds. The father and brother of Ryan Brown from Scotland have taken a vantage point on the grass bank of the main stadium that lets them keep an eye on Scotland's progress while following Bangladesh v England.

The cab rides are largely quiet, unless you make an effort to start a conversation. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, I happen to hail one with a Tamil-speaking driver. He's in his early 20s, from the town of Kanchipuram, and only a few months into his new job. Quit his previous job as a sales assistant in a car showroom. He finds getting behind the wheel more stimulating.

February 13
Catch the bus to Dubai. My co-passenger is a Malayali settled in the UAE, which is often jokingly referred to as the unofficial capital of Kerala. Has no idea that an Under-19 World Cup is on. Reminded that not all Indians breathe cricket.

Get my first taste of the Dubai Metro. Public transport plays such a massive role in shaping the image of a city. Embarrassment at the slow progress of the Bangalore metro is inevitable. Wander around the vast and opulent Mall of the Emirates to grab a bite.

February 14
Opening night. Rather, day. Make my first visit to the Dubai Cricket Stadium, which resembles a giant cake tin. The cab driver, a Pathan, asks what brings me to these parts. I tell him the junior World Cup, and suggest he drop by the next day to catch India v Pakistan. He excitedly asks: "Is Shahid Afridi playing?" Two things can be inferred - Afridi's immense popularity in the Gulf, and secondly, that in some minds he's still a 16-year-old prodigy.

Meanwhile, I'm on a mission to catch another 16-year-old, one who has been making waves in Guyana - Tagenarine Chanderpaul. Shiv Junior walks out to open. He's at the non-striker's end but does not make it in time to the other end, thanks to a brilliant bit of fielding. Run-out without facing a ball. So much for expectations. He's gutted and so are we.

February 15
India v Pakistan. Not surprisingly, more walk through the turnstiles for the marquee match of the competition. The decibel levels are raised a few notches. We head down to the seats just below the media box to get some sound bites. Young cricketers from a local academy are the noisiest, chanting the names of players they have never seen before. Mahesh, originally from Mumbai, has brought his son, Arjun, studying in the seventh grade. Mahesh has been to Sharjah games, but for Arjun it's his first live game in Dubai and he's smiling from ear to ear. A few rows up is a young family of four from Pakistan. Murtaza, the dad, says the turnout "superseded their expectations". For his kids, Esha and Saad, it's their first match of this kind, but nobody can tell if they will ever get to see the senior teams play in the UAE in the near future. Suresh, an engineer in Dubai, wants the ice to thaw quickly. "The hate between the two countries is only at the political level," he says. "We have been living together with Pakistanis. Only on days when India plays Pakistan, we don't talk to each other. Otherwise, we are brothers."

February 16
The crowd would have done well to watch England take on Sri Lanka in a nail-biter. A grand total of two reporters cover the game. The lights in the media box automatically switch off if there's no activity for a few minutes, to conserve power. One has to get up and walk a few paces to grab the attention of the motion sensors. Can get a little annoying, especially when you're fighting deadlines.

February 17
There's a spring in Danny Morrison's step as he walks past. At the Basin Reserve, Brendon McCullum has "done a VVS" on India. Almost. Ask if McCullum should have declared overnight. Morrison says, "No way!" He recalls how Martin Crowe "destroyed the dressing room" after getting out on 299 to the innocuous seam-up of Arjuna Ranatunga.

The India-Scotland game is done and dusted by lunch. Scotland's Chayank Gosain, the left-arm spinner who gave India a scare, introduces us to his family. His parents seem overwhelmed with the attention and happily pose for photos. Scotland may have lost but the mood doesn't indicate they did.

February 18
On the road to Abu Dhabi again. The good thing about watching cricket there is that the three grounds are a stone's throw away from each other. Catch the South Africa-Zimbabwe game and keep an eye on the West Indies-Canada game at the Nursery. The father of Sudeepta Aurka, the Canada opening batsman, is there. Aurka senior, an auditor by profession, is of Bangladeshi origin and has lived in Australia and Saudi Arabia before moving to Canada. Remark that most cricketers of Asian origin playing for other teams are either from India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka but rarely from Bangladesh.

At night I decide to check out a restaurant recommended by a family member, located in busy Hamdan Street. It's a fair distance from my hotel so I decide to ditch the cab for a bus. Get directions to the nearest stop from the receptionist and promptly miss a crucial turn and lose my way. End up walking a fair distance along a main road and it feels rather disconcerting being the only pedestrian around. Retrace my steps and eventually get the bus.

February 19
Tell the Bangladeshi cab driver to watch his team play today, if free. Afghanistan steamroll Namibia to storm into the quarters. Bangladesh collapse and their team's shattered. It shows on their captain Mehedy Hasan's face.

Tempted to visit the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque on my last day in the city but there are stories to file. On my checklist for next time.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo