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Ghalib, AP Dhillon, and the sweet sounds of cricket at the World Cup

Our correspondent takes in some culture while also dealing with airport sagas (including not getting recognised by Javagal Srinath)

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Feed my desire: the India-Pakistan World Cup game watched on a mobile phone in a vegetable market in Delhi  •  Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Feed my desire: the India-Pakistan World Cup game watched on a mobile phone in a vegetable market in Delhi  •  Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

October 3
Heard/overheard in Ahmedabad:
"Gujaratis are rich, they don't need credit."
- A waiter (who hails from Udaipur) while dusting off a credit card machine not used for years
"Education is great, but it is greater to be able to employ educated people and tell them what to do."
- A taxi driver, referencing self-made tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani while talking socio-economic issues
"How can one get a licence to buy alcohol?"
- A British couple at the luggage carousel at the airport.
October 4
A day before the World Cup, it doesn't feel like one is about to start at all. Billboards, events, discounts on televisions, advertisement campaigns, all very lukewarm. The ICC flies in eight other captains - England and New Zealand are already here - on chartered planes to drum up some excitement. Ravi Shastri asks Babar Azam about the biryani in Hyderabad, where Pakistan have been camping. Babar gives him an inscrutable look. "We have been asked this hundreds of times," he says.
October 5
Happy World Cup Day. Things seen in Ahmedabad today:
  • Sweet old couple riding a scooter, one in a sidecar
  • Schoolkids packed into a van, giggling at people from the rear window
  • Garba classes and billboards for garba events, which start on October 15
  • Gujarat Titans flags being sold outside the Motera ground
  • A Gujarat Cricket Association employee in the media lounge standing up instinctively when he sees Jay Shah on TV, and remaining like that as long as the camera keeps showing his boss
October 6
Passengers aboard the Ahmedabad-Delhi flight realise how tall Javagal Srinath really is when they see him struggle in his economy seat. Now a match referee, Srinath oversaw the World Cup opener, and is on his way to the Delhi matches along with umpire Sharfuddoula Saikat. Srinath then has to take the coach from the aircraft to the terminal, leaving people a lot of time to approach him for selfies. Polite, smiling and posing for photographs. Same polite smile when I say hello. Realise he is in auto-pilot polite mode when he says to me, "Nice to meet you." Either that or my face is so unremarkable and common that he doesn't remember me. Can't blame him either way.
October 7
Looks like dystopia, feels like the BCCI keeping its promise of free drinking water at the grounds. Feroz Shah Kotla seems to also have kept its promise of clean toilets for women.
South Africa keep their promise of big hitting , crossing 400 against Sri Lanka. There's big hitting from Kusal Mendis too, as he threatens to break the record for the fastest century in a World Cup match, set earlier in the day by Aiden Markram. Eventually, though, both the record and the total are safe.
October 8
Oh Delhi, why do you have to be so lovely yet so unlivable? Eat at Kake di Hatti and Giani di Hatti past Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi, then walk to Mirza Ghalib's old house in Gali Qasim Jaan. The intoxicating smell of blackboard tree flowers all around. Sit there and wonder, "Humne mana rahe Dilli mein / saans lenge kya?" Granted Delhi is great to live in, but what will we breathe?
Yesterday was the first day in a while that the air quality slipped into the "poor" category. Good planning to get done with the Delhi games while it is still only poor. Except, there is one match in November, between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - two teams who have suffered in the Delhi air previously as well.
October 9
Credit cards with corporate deals can get you into fancy hotels, but after that you are on your own. And on your own, you can't pay their laundry rates, which are often higher than the cost of the clothes to be laundered. The Dhobi Ghat in Delhi is located right between the bungalow of a member of parliament and an apartment complex called MP Awas, housing other, probably less important, MPs.
I ask Arjun, the man who did my laundry for Rs 25 per item, about the barbed wire on top of the already high walls of MPs Awas. He says this is a recent development after a young woman from Dhobi Ghat died by suicide in the building last year. Yes, let's not address the economic inequality that tends to lead to such incidents; let's reinforce it with more barbed wire.
October 10
An afternoon in Lajpat Nagar, home to a number of Afghan refugees in India who have built themselves restaurants, stores selling nuts (or as we in India call them, dry fruits), and pharmacies with names in Persian script. Watch with nervous amusement as a Pashtun Afghan fights a Tajik Afghan outside a restaurant. Nervous because they are big dudes this close to going bareknuckle at each other, amusement because they are cursing each other in Hindi. Side note: some of the Afghan players ate here last night.
Like the Afghans have adopted Lajpat Nagar, the predominantly Punjabi population has adopted them. They have even renamed ashak, an Afghan dumpling, as dal-momo. It is no surprise they have welcomed the Afghans because most of these Punjabi colonies in Delhi were built for and, in the process by, refugees after 1947. Who will understand their pain better?
None of the other teams at the World Cup, for sure. Afghanistan has been rocked by two deadly earthquakes, but theirs is the only team wearing black armbands.
October 11
Heard/overheard in Delhi:
"Customs se nikala hai." [I've got it out of customs]
- A seller in Sarojini Market, offering AirPods Pros for as little as Rs 1000.
He says there are times when packages are not retrieved because duty is not paid in time, and his network manages to get those unclaimed goods for dirt cheap. As I start to move away, suspicious, he says he doesn't approach everyone, "I saw your B&W headphones so I thought you have the right taste." Well played, bro, but I am not biting.
"Tera dukh nyara se ke?" [Are your problems unique?]
- A Haryanvi cop outside Feroz Shah Kotla to a man already drunk in the afternoon.
October 12
Have been told my flight to Ahmedabad has been cancelled for "operational reasons". The conspiracy theorist in me believes one operational reason could be that the Indian team booked it and turned it into a charter - well after I bought my ticket way back in July. The airline's customer care neither confirms nor denies this.
Aboard my new late-evening flight is Zaka Ashraf, the PCB chief, one of a handful of Pakistanis outside their team bubble in India right now. Commentators Waqar Younis and Ramiz Raja, statistician Mazher Arshad, and super fan Bashir Chacha are the others.
October 13
Day before India vs Pakistan. A reporter looking for fervour starts asking Rohit Sharma a question by saying they have seen tears in his eyes during the national anthems. Rohit fact-checks him. "You have seen me in tears," he counters, with his typical incredulous expression.
That's a full toss put away, but Rohit is also bowled a wobble-seam ball at a good length just outside off: "This is like the biggest rivalry in sports, India versus Pakistan. You're playing in Narendra Modi Stadium and you're playing to a predominantly Indian cricket fan base. At what point does home advantage actually become a disadvantage?" The answer is a sweet cover drive on the up: the crowd support can never be a disadvantage, the expectations are a gift, not a curse.
October 14
Mohammed Siraj starts bowling cross-seam pretty early. Then Jasprit Bumrah comes back to seemingly seam the ball away just a smidge to bowl Shadab Khan as India roll over Pakistan for an easy win, which makes it 8-0 for them in World Cups. Only Waqar thinks it is reverse swing - but with the shine contrary to the orientation for regular reverse. Bumrah later confirms it indeed was reverse, and that India saw a dry square and were onto it from ball one. Game recognises game.
October 15
All the quick-moving normal queues at the airport entrance lead to a DigiYatra counter, where a facial recognition system let you get in without having your ticket and ID card checked by a security official. Don't feel comfortable sharing data? Take the long queue, and we have also reduced the number of entry points for you.
At any rate, my flight has been delayed indefinitely because the incoming aircraft had to go back because of "technical issues". Take that, you suckers who shared your data to get in early. And please take your time, airline. I'm in no hurry to board an aircraft that aborted a flight because of technical issues.
October 16
If Liverpool were a club representing an Indian city, they would drop the "alone" from YNWA.
October 18
The real test of spectator-friendliness of this World Cup has arrived: Pune. One of the great Indian cities, with arguably the most inconvenient ground, situated halfway to Mumbai, with no public transport to get there and the horrible traffic of an IT hub to negotiate. Once you get there, one half of the stadium - including the media and broadcasters - have to use just the one toilet, which results in longer queues than at the non-DigiYatra entry points at airports. Women? No toilets. They get a Portaloo only on match days.
One day out from India vs Bangladesh, the first match in Pune this World Cup, nothing seems to have changed. But, hey, there are enough open spaces around for choppers to land should any VIPs choose to attend.
October 20
Bleary-eyed at 3am, hours after the perfect game for India - low score to chase, quick start, Virat Kohli century - walk through several snaking passages to end up at DigiYatra counters repeatedly. At each two or three volunteers try to convince you to register. If Ahmedabad was coercion, this is salesmanship more aggressive than in Sarojini Market. Eventually find a security official who lets me through.
Inside: longer security-check queues for those not opting for DigiYatra. On the other side of this: home, and a small mid-tournament break.
October 25
Get driven from Amritsar to Dharamsala. The music of AP Dhillon and Shubh are my icebreakers with Bunty, the taxi driver. Update myself with latest rumours in Punjab politics, some unprintable stories behind the murder of Sidhu Moose Wala, and introduce Bunty to some Pakistani Punjabi music. More ghastly road-widening as we approach the hills. Sights of hills freshly cut into - vertically, like cake slices - to make way for roads.
Think of all the devastating landslides, flash floods and land subsidence in recent times, and am convinced that humans are the proverbial scorpions on the frog's back. Oh the irony of using an animal fable to describe destructive human nature.
Sight my first hoarding of Anurag Thakur, current Union minister for sports and a former Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association president, in Nurpur, about 70km from Dharamsala.
October 26
It's not just Thakur on the hoardings. His brother and IPL chief, Arun Dhumal, is there too. The Himachal Pradesh chief minister, who happens to be their political rival, has managed some ambush marketing with a few hoardings of his own.
They are all welcoming cricket fans and teams to Dharamasala. It is one of the great cricket venues, but the strikes against it are accumulating. A Test against Australia had to be moved out last year because of a bad outfield. Players are avoiding diving there this World Cup because the outfield is still not up to the mark. Fans have also started reporting on the deplorable state of the toilets during this World Cup.
The BCCI promised a lot in the lead-up to the World Cup, but the fans in the stands still don't seem to be a part of their bottom line.
October 27
Late night in Dharamkot, which is a few kilometres north of McLeodganj, where most tourists tend to concentrate. A traffic jam on the way back, at the end of which is a stampede-like scene outside McLo, the oldest restaurant and bar in Dharamsala, where the Australian team likes to spend at least an evening whenever they are here. Surely it is not them having a night out hours before they play New Zealand?
It turns out the mob is after Aaron Finch and his commentary colleagues. Finch has either underestimated his popularity in India or forgotten he is retired and that there is no police detail to clear roads and a floor of the restaurant for him. We have to wait for a hassled-looking Finch to get out of the way so that we can get in. Now I know how Travis Head must have felt last year.
October 28
One of the most pleasant walks to a cricket ground on a pre-winter morning. The sun is out, the air is clean, the dhabas around the stadium are bustling. Parathas being made by the tens, tea is flowing non-stop, and the eateries have to double up as cloak rooms because the stadium won't let people take bags in. Thankfully they are not being opportunistic about it - though not happy about having to look after loads of bags, they are not charging people a fee for it.
We walk past the police grounds (which serve as a car park for match day), the district correctional facility, colleges and schools, and past 1HP Girls Battalion NCC Training Centre. To get to the stadium's media entry point, you have to walk through the main district college. See happy young faces, playing volleyball, basketball, chess, cricket. Friends, lovers, loafers, actual scholars, all getting what must be their first taste of sanctioned freedom in life. No uniforms, no one to tell them off if they choose to miss a class and loiter instead.
Head, who has Finch out of the way and in the commentary box, and has recovered from his hand injury now, opens the innings with the same freedom, scoring 109 off 67, setting Australia on a path of 388, a total they manage to defend by just five runs.
October 29
On the drive down to Chandigarh, listen to the songs the Australian team were playing on a Bluetooth speaker during their practice. It might give away my age a little but that playlist was a vibe. Here are most of them:
"Stuck In The Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel, "Losing My Religion" by REM, "I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen, "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Down to the Waterline" by Dire Straits, "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young, "Mystify" by INXS, "Mr Jones" by Counting Crows, "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac, "Roxanne" by Sting, "The Pool" by Stephen Sanchez, "Heroes" by David Bowie, "Fields of Gold" by Sting, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds, "All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix.
October 30
Heard/overheard in Kolkata:
"Baap re, kya badka haath hai uska." [What a big hand he has]
- A fan in the stands about Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Eden Gardens lets people watch teams train, a lesson all these modern grounds in the outskirts of cities with their tall locked gates before the match should learn.
"Abhi hum phir se aayenge, aakhri match ke baad." [We'll come back here after the last match]
- Mohammad Rizwan telling his fans he will gift them his pads and gloves after his last game in Kolkata.
Will it also be his last match in the World Cup? Barring miracles, that seems to be the case.
October 31
Back in Pakistan, Inzamam-ul-Haq, the chief selector, has resigned because of a pretty blatant conflict of interest.
In response to an unsubstantiated claim by a former player that the board president is not taking calls from the captain, private WhatsApp chats have been leaked to prove the captain never tried to get in touch with the president.
Afridi starts reversing it with his big left hand, Mohammad Wasim follows suit, and Pakistan keep alive their campaign with a win over Bangladesh. Momentary peace in Pakistan cricket. Bigger storms await, barring miracles.
November 1
Headline in a paper in Kolkata: "Voice-choking cough, fever lay city low, doctors blame sudden dip in night temperatures." The minimum temperature: 24 degrees.
At least the woollen hats, locally known as monkey caps, are not out yet.
November 2
Some lovely street names in Kolkata:
Ho Chi Minh Sarani, which houses the US consulate without a sense of irony
Shakespeare Sarani, the erstwhile Theatre Road, named after the playwright to mark his 400th birth anniversary.
Mirza Ghalib Street, home to budget hotels, used book and record stores, music band T-shirt stores, the West Bengal Fire Brigade Headquarters, and great Dhakai Bengali food.
November 3
Ghalib, the poet, lived in Calcutta for a year and a half when it was the capital of the colonial English empire in India. His house still exists on Ramdulal Street, which is now famous for its mishti shops, including the extra-famous Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, which sells Sandesh like it is bootleg stuff. Ghalib, who lived just around the corner, is supposed to have said, according to the biographical show written and directed by the poet Gulzar, "Bengal lives 100 years in the past as well as 100 years into the future."
November 4
Overheard/heard in Kolkata:
"Look, that's Rassie van der Dussen batting."
- A spectator at the nets, video-calling home and showing them van der Dussen struggle against a left-arm spinner. Note to self: Ravindra Jadeja will bowl first change tomorrow.
"Rohit bhai ke liye aaye hain. Nahi mile toh cricket dekhna hi chhod denge". [I have come here for Rohit. If I don't get to meet him, I will stop watching cricket altogether.]
- Another spectator to a policeman, who is relaying a request to the fans from Virat Kohli to not scream during the nets
November 5
Jadeja takes five after Kohli scores a century on his birthday to go level with Sachin Tendulkar on 49 ODI hundreds as India dispose of their final challengers, South Africa. They have beaten all comers, but there still remains the duality of this format: knockouts to follow a league in which every team has played everyone else. Knockouts are not my problem, though. Time to avoid DigiYatra counters one last time and go home.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo