Six inches of concrete
The concept of spectator sport has changed in the last three decades. And it has happened through a definitional change of the term "spectator". Once, the patrons of the sport were those who walked through the turnstiles and watched the matches at the ground. Today, the spectators who matter are the television audiences. The fans who flock to the ground are more a part of a grand TV production, there for the atmospherics, than the primary customer of the game. But real cricket lovers, you would imagine, still watch a match from the ground when they can - there's nothing like being there in the flesh.
But how is it for the flesh? About 20 hours before the game, I walk into the stand at long-off on the press-box end. It is monstrously suffocating. The ground is seen through three fences: a ground-level steel fence that goes up to about head height; another makeshift steel one hangs down from the rafters above; barbed wiring covers the space in between.
The seating arrangement straddles worlds: there are six-inch-high concrete steps for the spectators to park themselves on, and when I do just that, I do not know whether I am sitting or squatting. I can spread my legs, but my hamstrings already feel uneasy, and my gluteous wants me out of here.
The problems of a Monday game
Outside, I catch police chief AN Roy being given a tour of the security facilities by a horde of pot-bellied sycophantic cops, all of whom look like they could do with some fitness training from Greg King. I join the group; because of the press pass around my neck and the haughty demeanour I cultivate for just such occasions, nobody questions what I am doing there. I stride behind Roy as he checks out the bandobast, eavesdropping intently. Two television cameras - one of them a mere digi-hi-8 - follow us around.
"Sir, these are the first three entrances to the stands," one of his subordinates tells him, "they are called A, B and C."
"Good," says Roy. "And the next three?"
"Sir, D, E and F. But all of them won't be open." The men then go into a complicated explanation of the logistics of security at each gate, and Roy issues instructions from time to time. Then we stop in front of a passage that leads to an outside gate. The gate itself is locked and rusty, the lane leading from it to inside the stadium is littered with leaves and assorted debris - no pleasant promenade, this.
"What is this," asks Roy. "Will this be in use?"
"Sir, it's gate No. 6," says a crony. "We will be using it, sir."
"Then get it cleaned up," barks Roy.
There is a pause. Then, the crony says, "Sir, it's a Sunday." Roy contemplates that for a while, decides there is no point arguing, and walks on.
Our grand traditions
As we continue our rounds, an earnest-looking young man in plain clothes approaches Roy, leans forward as if he is going to wipe his nose on Roy's shoulder, and whispers something. Roy thrusts his chest out, nods, and marches off to a corner. A cameraman appears with a digi-hi-8 camcorder and, as Roy faces him stiffly, starts shooting.
Our earnest friend, who turns out to be a reporter of, as his microphone holder informs me, C-News Pune, introduces Roy to his viewers. Then Roy launches into a monologue in Marathi, as I immediately understand why this guy is at the top of his profession in the city, and the rest of the cops are merely sheep - none of them can possibly hold their breath as long as him.
In a non-stop sequence of perfectly enunciated syllables, Roy talks about how glorious Pune city is proud to host such a prestigious match, how the game will be peaceful and enjoyable, and how the credit for that should go to the police, who are sparing no effort to make sure that everything goes off well. As he says this, some of the policemen hanging around suck in their bellies.
The reporter then asks Roy about a report in the newspapers which said that traffic around the stadium will not be allowed, and long stretches of road will be sealed off. How will people get to the ground, he asks.
"Tradition," announces Roy. "Puneites have a great tradition of walking, and they will live up to their traditions by walking to the ground. We are proud of our culture." I cast a glance at the cameraman besides me, who is clearly appreciative of this explanation. His middle finger is violently pressing the zoom button on his camcorder, and a sticker above it says 700x. Some policemen exhale.
I corner Roy a while after that and ask him about how the security arrangements work.
"We have 1700 policemen in this stadium," he says, "and reserves." I compliment him on the fencing in the stands, and he smiles proudly. "So now that the spectators are completely cut off from the field," I ask him, "will you allow them to carry water inside?"
"Of course not," he says, aghast at the idea.
The wonders of biotechnology
I am wandering along the outer periphery of the stands, and at one point, the path dovetails into an adjacent hall called Ganesh Kala Krida Manch. There is much noise coming from inside, of somebody speaking loudly in Marathi, and scattered applause. Policemen stand somnolently at the entrance, not even glancing at me as I stride in.
There is a stage with a long table on it, with six chairs, two bouquets on the table, one lectern at the corner of the stage, one young man at the lectern, with a large screen besides him in which is an image of what looks like eight ripe mangoes with the subtitle "Arthur-Fir Seeds". I wonder what I am doing here, and decide to leave; then the man at the podium asks, "Why did India lose to Australia yesterday?"
I am intrigued. I want the answer to this.
"Because we did not have 11 Sachin Tendulkars," the man says. That is a masterful explanation, and my mouth falls open. "We have only one Sachin Tendulkar, but in future, thanks to the wonders of biotechnology, all this will change. Let me tell you how."
He pauses for effect. "Imagine you have some seeds. Some are good seeds, some are bad seeds, and some are superstar seeds. All farmers want only superstar seeds, but that has not been possible - until now. Today, thanks to biotechnology, we can make sure that every single seed is a superstar seed, and the farmer shall have a bumper harvest every time. And that is why, that is why ..." - he pauses again for effect - "... why India will one day have not one, not 11, not 11,000, not 11 lakh [million], but 11 crore [10 million] Sachin Tendulkars."
This magnificent non-sequitur fills me with joy. It does not strike me then that other countries could possibly have 11 crore left-arm spinners, or 11 crore Asoka de Silvas. The young man continues: "And do you know why we need 11 crore Sachin Tendulkars?" Hushed silence in the hall. And then he reveals the purpose of it all. "Because India has nine-and-a-half lakh banana plantations."
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.