The Sahara Cup used to be a sort of homecoming. When I landed in Montreal 20 years ago, I was resigned to not watching or playing cricket for a fair while, but unexpected aid was on its way.
The gopher interface cricinfo.cse.ogi.edu was slow, but thank heavens for it. And for rec.sport.cricket. I would get up early every morning and religiously type up a shortened version of the BBC World Service Sports Roundup for the newsgroup. For many graduate students from cricketing countries, rec.sport.cricket in those days was a second home. Then along came Internet Relay Chat and the #cricket and #crickettalk channels. Efnet, and later undernet servers, crashed under the heavy cricket load, especially when India played. All of us would merrily leave one severely stretched server, try multiple others and rejoin in groups, like schoolkids looking for a better playground.
Meanwhile, I discovered Montreal had cricket leagues, and surprisingly, inter-university cricket tournaments. Once, as a prelude to our summer of cricket, we called for a university cricket club meeting in the campus newsletter and were rendered speechless when a girl showed up for the meeting with her collection of crickets.
In September of 1996, to add to the cricket exotica, came the Sahara Cup.
A cousin and I drove to a military airfield in Toronto on the morning of the fourth match, from where special coaches ran to the ground. It was the most amazing sight. What seemed like thousands of Indians and Pakistanis were milling about the airfield. It sounds silly now, but my hair stood on end and life suddenly had a new meaning. I remember spotting a license plate that proudly said BHARAT. Everyone was grinning from side to side. The bus driver, who was Canadian, had a curious, confused smile playing about his lips.
The game was fairly one-sided, as India subsided to 161, chasing 259. Ijaz Ahmed made 90, Sachin Tendulkar was caught at short extra cover off Wasim Akram (the first of a few similar dismissals), and Rahul Dravid's wonderful 25 included 15 off a Waqar Younis over that was topped off by a swivelling, hooked six. But Pakistan were way too strong in the end.
In '97, our trip was more organised: a friend and I got press passes from Cricinfo (www.cricket.org then). We were were thrilled to bits, as you can imagine.
The Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club ground in North York seemed to be right out of a postcard. It held about 5000, probably the right size for a Canadian cricket stadium. The day of the first match, it became a true cultural melting pot. Every Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, West Indian (and a few Australians and Englishmen) across the country seemed to converge on the ground. People had driven in from across the border as well.
The Indian bowling had a new look to it. Javagal Srinath was recuperating, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble were rested. The pasting in Sri Lanka had taken its toll. Debasis Mohanty had bowled decently in Sri Lanka and was persisted with. Abey Kuruvilla was the senior partner in the new new-ball combine. Mohanty troubled everyone with his huge swing, Kuruvilla was steady as ever.
The press box contained a motley crowd. There was G Vishwanath of the Hindu, and a sports correspondent from Aaj Tak. The Hindu's photographer, VV Krishnan, was always on the move, leaving prints out to dry in the wind when he was not taking photographs.
There were some, like the Toronto Star correspondent, clearly new to the game. He kept asking us the score and reported live at regular intervals. When someone got out, his face registered some concern. The next day, the Star had a picture of Ganguly with a caption that claimed he was Jadeja.
My friend and I were taking the stairs back up to the precariously placed press box once, when we saw Dravid come down. We asked him for an interview, saying we were from Cricinfo. He smiled a polite smile and said he would have to ask for permission. He said he checked the site often (remember this was back in '97). He was clearly someone you could easily spend an evening with, chatting on topics even outside of cricket.
What seemed like thousands of Indians and Pakistanis were milling about the airfield. It sounds silly now, but my hair stood on end and life suddenly had a new meaning. I remember spotting a license plate that proudly said BHARAT. Everyone was grinning from side to side
India won the first match with time to spare, and except for one brief, silken flurry from Saleem Malik, never looked like losing. Someone in the crowd asked, "Malik kahan gaye?" when he didn't come out to field in the second match. Another voice replied, "Budda so raha hain." A bit of heckling, but generally good-spirited.
The next day, during lunch, we caught up with Sir Garry Sobers in the members' area. Slightly stooping gait, grey hair. He looked like he could still ease a few onto Wilson Avenue. We asked for an interview but he didn't seem impressed with the internet. We didn't have much else to ask him. You're a bit at a loss for words when you see the greatest allrounder ever in person. The only other question I could mumble was an enquiry about his arthritis. He glanced at me, equally at a loss for words, and said, "It's okay."
Ravi Shastri was the next person we spotted. He too (predictably by now) denied us an interview. The internet thing and our amateurish approach weren't combining well. Getting tired of semi-apologetically asking for interviews, we went on to the ground to get a few photos. To our pleasant surprise, we saw Kapil Dev in the special stand next to the press box. We paused for a photograph. Spotting us, he stopped talking, said "photo", and gave us his broad Palmolive smile.
In the second match, there was a short innings from Dravid. Admittedly I was already a biased fan. I wrote excitedly in a later dispatch to Rediff: "There's something about the man that inspires confidence. Neatly ironed shirt, sleeves buttoned down to the wrist, pads clinging to his legs in perfect harmony, not a spot of soot on them. There was a straightish flick off Saqlain, great power generated off the backfoot. A shot lesser batsmen wouldn't have contemplated." Well, perhaps there was a spot of dirt here and there, and I couldn't have really been sure about the neatly ironed part, but the way Dravid went about his cricket, even back then, was brilliant to watch.
After the last game of a series India won comfortably, the press asked Tendulkar why he hadn't bowled Ganguly much before this series. He smiled and said he was his secret weapon. Ganguly smiled self-consciously. Someone asked Tendulkar his opinion on the Australian proposal for split-innings one-dayers. He said he hadn't read about it. Feeling a strange rush of passion, I said from behind the room, "Cricket's a simple game. Its greatness lies in its simplicity. It should never be complicated." I felt not unlike Mahatma Gandhi on the Dandi march. My friend was acutely embarrassed at my sudden babble. Whether the rest of the press contingent were mildly amused, or ticked off, I couldn't tell.
In the third and last Sahara Cup, in 1998, Pakistan dominated India. Tendulkar was absent for most of it amid the Commonwealth Games confusion. Afridi ran amok in the fourth game, Mohammad Zahid looked top class, and the highlight of the tournament for me was his spell to Tendulkar in the fifth game. Tendulkar survived an absolutely torrid over and then hit three forceful fours square of the wicket. I was sitting in the stands near cover at ground level, and the furious pace of Zahid beating Tendulkar in quick succession in one over, and the boundaries that followed in the next, made for thrilling viewing.
A not-so-notable event was a Geoff Boycott non-interview. The tournament media manager had set up an evening interview with Boycott for us. I wasn't entirely sure that the interview had actually been set up, and since I was staying at a friend's place at the other end of town, couldn't make my way back to the ground in time. The next day, I haltingly apologised to Boycott as he made his way to the TV box. I couldn't stop kicking myself for the missed opportunity.
The Sahara Cup was a slightly strange experiment. It had some good games, although most were not very close. The first series was the most closely contested one; the second went, to everyone's surprise, decisively India's way; and in the third, Pakistan were dominant. It was a time when Ganguly and Dravid had just joined Tendulkar in India's otherwise frail middle order. Indian wins in ODIs were mostly Tendulkar-driven, and few and far between. Pakistan, in keeping with their bizarre trend of changing captains at the drop of a hat in the mid-'90s, had three for the three series: Akram, Ramiz Raja and Aamer Sohail. Their bowling kept throwing up exciting new talents like Saqlain and Zahid.
It was doubtlessly thrilling for us Cricinfo volunteers and the North American cricketing faithful, but overall, the tournament has long since become a mere exotic footnote.
Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala