I'm amazed at New Zealand's punctuality. My email for a letter of invitation reached Cricket New Zealand at 5.01pm on a Friday evening, so I needed to wait till the Monday morning to receive it. At 9.01am, there it was. It strikes me immediately upon landing in Auckland too. As I make my way out of a ten-hour flight from Singapore, not knowing which hour of the day or night it is, I'm told by a local security staffer that my immigration will be completed in two minutes and ten seconds. "Really? How do you estimate that when there are 20 people ahead of me?" I ask. "If you work here as long as I've done, you'll know too. Welcome to New Zealand," he smiles. At two minute and eight seconds, my passport has been stamped. I'm finally in New Zealand.
I can't sleep till about 7am, so I decide it's pointless to toss and turn anymore, have breakfast and and take an early-morning stroll, a guided tour of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and then climb One Tree Hill. That's 18,500 steps done for the day and it's just a little after noon. If this can't put me to sleep, nothing will. Sure enough, it does.
I have a morning bus to Whangarei, and this is the first time I feel I'm in sync with local time. Apparently not. I sleep through the scenic two-hour drive. I arrive in the town of 60,000 to a warm welcome from my host, who takes time off work to pick me up and ensure I'm comfortable and well set. I have a media colleague and the host's three-year-old Jack Russell for company. Pop out at 5pm to buy an adapter. The central business district looks deserted. I don't find one.
I wake up early and make a quick trip to Whangarei Falls. The steps the local administration has taken towards preserving the 500-year old trees impress me. We're asked to apply anti-fungal spray on our shoes before we enter the forest. We trek for about 40 minutes and arrive at the falls, which are simply majestic.
Later in the day, it's my first sight of a cricket ground in New Zealand in the flesh, and it's magnificent. Pakistan and Afghanistan are training at Cobham Oval. Pakistan's manager, Nadeem Khan, is kind enough to facilitate a couple of interviews. The face is familiar, but I can't seem to remember if he has played for Pakistan. We discuss the PSL, first-class cricket, and how Pakistan have prepared for this tournament. The discussion then veers towards cricket back in the day and Sachin Tendulkar.
"I don't know what else I did, but I at least had him run-out at Eden Gardens," he says.
"Yeah, I was the fielder who threw the ball from deep midwicket."
I google under the pretext of checking my phone for a message. Sure enough, he did. He also played the Chennai Test, which Pakistan famously won. I take pride in knowing every minute detail of every Test match India played from 1996 (at least till India and Sri Lanka decided they'd play so much that we may as well count those games as domestic cricket). This hurt.
In the evening, New Zealand Cricket gives the U-19 teams a taste of the local culture. An intense Maori welcome ceremony, called a Powhiri, is performed in the community courtyard.
It's time to get back on the road, first to Auckland and then onwards to Mount Maunganui. The cab driver who drops me to the bus stop is a Pakistani named Sail Khan. He freelances for an Urdu journal back home and is even accredited to cover the New-Zealand Pakistan series. "Oh, Cricinfo. I use your app. It's my great pleasure to meet you." The ice is broken. "I always invite Indian journalists home for a cup of tea. You must too," he insists. He asks for my email and number.
I get to Mount Maunganui just in time for the first ball of New Zealand v West Indies.
When I collect my accreditation, I find there's a mismatch between my name and photograph. I've been accredited as a member of a cricket team, and the picture is of Karun Nair, the one of him raising the bat after scoring his triple.
"Is he a famous Indian cricketer?" the lady printing out the cards asks me.
"Not really, but he's more famous than I am."
I want to take a picture, but by then she has deleted it and printed a new card with the correct details.
I bump into Sourav Ganguly as he walks up to the temporary commentary box. We share "getting over jet-lag" tips and talk about Indian food and future cricket stars.
It's India-Australia. That means Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell are all in the house. Not a bad line-up. It's also the game where Kamlesh Nagarkoti clocks 146kph on the speed gun. Shivam Mavi isn't too far behind. The Aussies are rattled. Never before have I seen two Indian fast bowlers being talked up for their speed. Ian Bishop, also here on commentary, is also impressed.
I have a couple of interviews lined up, so I station myself in the lobby of the team hotel. See Rahul Dravid and Co as they head out for a stroll. I finish the interviews but have another one lined up four hours later. Public transport in Mount Manganui is quite a challenge and I'm in no mood to walk. I park myself on a couch and order a coffee. As Dravid walks back in, he asks if I'm staying in the hotel.
Later in the evening we walk to dinner with a couple of the Indian players trailing us. There's familiarity now, so they're no longer looking at us with hawk eyes. Kamlesh Nagarkoti even suggests a couple of vegetarian restaurants. As we walk back, I run into Dravid and his assistant coaches again, who stop over at the restaurant we are in for ice cream. The town is built around a hill, so even if you happen to go in two different directions, you'll bump into each other soon enough. We say hello for the third time in three hours.
India make short work of Papua New Guinea. The match is over in two hours, which means all my writing can be finished well before people back in India have their lunch.
The evening is spent strolling the streets in search of local food, before returning to wrap up a couple of feature pieces and crash.
It's noon when I'm up. All the walking has regulated my sleep cycle. I rush to the ground, only to realise I've left my accreditation back at the bed and breakfast. I rush there and back. By the time I settle in, my laptop auto-updates its operating system. When I'm finally set up, there's a bizarre obstructing-the-field dismissal.
I stroll towards the grass banks to watch some cricket. It's amazing how people can bring their own chairs, bed rolls, tents, and set up shop with beer and popcorn. I get chatting with Mark, a security person, who has a tough time dealing with a drunk who threatens to run out onto the field. He can't walk straight, but finally blurts: "Not today. I'm giving you a rest. I'll come back with my Nikes."
I ask Mark what has been the most challenging part of his job at the tournament. Even before I complete my question, he says. "Oh, man. Keeping out the Indian fans from that cricketer."
"Yeah, I can't remember his name but they tell me he played for some 20 years. Is he that famous?"
"Yes, he's Rahul Dravid."
Out of curiosity, I ask if he's ever heard of Tendulkar. "Nah, mate. Sorry. I only know Tim Southee, because they kept blaring out his name on the loudspeaker a thousand times a couple of weeks ago. I'm a rugby person, mate."
It pours all morning, but I'm eager to explore Tauranga. I sample Japanese vegetarian sushi for the first time and I'm mindblown at the variety. After lunch, two journalist friends and I decide to climb the Mount. I've spent big money to enjoy aerial views of Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. But this tops all that. I gaze at the city for a good 20 minutes before I walk down and head straight to the team hotel for interviews with India's Abhishek Sharma and Shubman Gill. That's followed by a chat with Zimbabwe's coach Stephen Mangongo. India's team room is right next to where we decide to meet, with curtains acting as a partition between us and them. Dravid politely asks if we can sit in the lobby instead. Did he think we'd eavesdrop? Hmm. He has a good laugh as we agree and walk away. "I would've done it in Hindi had you stayed Oh, wait, you guys would've understood that too."
As I walk to the stadium for India v Zimbabwe, I see a few young boys and girls playing basketball. There are nine courts, and each one is engaged. The kids' athleticism amazes me. There are also eight netball courts, a football ground, a rugby field, and a hockey centre. I'd noticed all this before, but it stands out today because of a signboard that says: "These are kids, it's just a game, the coaches are volunteers, the umpires are humans and this is not the ANZ Netball Championship."