The farewell frenzy hits little Lahli
"Seeti waalon, picche aa jaao (those with whistles, fall back)". Tens of Haryana policemen and women reluctantly dragged their feet back at this order from a senior official. They had been keenly watching Sachin Tendulkar practice in the outdoor nets at the Bansi Lal Stadium in Lahli, but had ventured too close. Some of them had been clicking pictures of Tendulkar on their mobile phones. Before inching their way up towards the nets, they had been lining the bamboo perimeter of the practice area, their backs to the pathway running around the stadium. They easily outnumbered the media personnel, ground staff, administration officials, workers and others fortunate enough to be allowed inside the premises.
Outside stood almost as many policemen, not letting anyone venture close to the main entrance and directing the fortunate ones to a side gate accessed by mud tracks passing through a paddy field. All of those present, whether inside or outside, wanted was a look at the man who will play his first match, for Mumbai against hosts Haryana, after announcing the impending end to his 24-year international career.
Lahli is a village about 15km from the Haryana city of Rohtak, on the road to Bhiwani. Rohtak itself is a two- to three-hour drive from Delhi. Tendulkar's apparent final domestic first-class game has to be the biggest occasion for this venue, surrounded by fields and more fields. The first priority for the Haryana Cricket Association was to find a place where Tendulkar could be put up. There are no five-stars in Rohtak, of course. Will this one be good enough? Or that one? The chief minister's residence maybe? Finally a sprawling state guest house was chosen.
On the morning before the game, Rohtak went about business as usual. Cars jostled with autorickshaws and bikes and tractors and trucks for space on the roads. Markets buzzed with activity. Students thronged the zillion higher educational institutes in the city. The road to Bhiwani cut through lush farmland as it left Rohtak's chaos behind, only to head into a sudden rush of activity outside and inside the Bansi Lal Stadium.
Several vehicles lined the road. Police SUVs, media vans. Enterprising people sold wares in the fields. Radishes, cucumbers, bananas. Parathas too. Those who did not have tickets, free but distributed in advance, asked around for them. Those who did, demanded decent money in return.
A mob surrounded a man, who turned out to be Sudhir Gautam, the India team supporter who paints his face with the tricolour, waves the flag, blows conches, and follows the team as much as he is able to. He was rushed inside, apparently on the instructions of Tendulkar.
Workers rushed to finish a tall, pillared structure that will house some television cameras and crew. The water table in this area is so high, they struggled at the start to find firm ground for the pillars. Which is why it is difficult to prepare a really flat pitch here. No matter how much grass you shave off, it manages to regrow quickly. The playing square was all grass, and without side markers, there was no way to say which part would be the pitch. Of course, hardly anyone was paying attention to the pitch.
"Which one is he?" asked a policeman to another, unable to distinguish Tendulkar from afar. "The one in the blue cap. The one who just tossed the ball in the air. The one who is running in to bowl," said his helpful colleague. "How will you control your own men, who are also fans?" the local superintendent of police was asked. "Well, if they are fans, it will help them control the public, who are also fans," he said. "We know everyone wants to see him, but what we want to tell them is that if you are not able to today, there is always tomorrow. The match is going to be played over four days. What is important is that their disappointment should not turn into anger." The SP knows what he is up against. This is about Tendulkar.
Inside, they continued to watch Tendulkar. They got a good three to four hours of action. They saw him prepare for practice, on the physio's table, fielding, bowling, facing bowlers, facing throw downs, take off his equipment. In between, some talked about the other faces. "Yes, that is Zaheer Khan. That looks like … yeah, that seems to be Abhishek Nayar."
He could make a big one in the match or go first ball. But those locals, including the Haryana policemen, who saw Tendulkar from so close and for so long in the midst of fields will remember this Mumbai nets session for long.