“We have nine games coming up in about 21 days, it’s like our tournament begins now.” said Adam Gilchrist, or Adam or Gilli or Captain or Churchy – whatever you choose to call him, to the media at the pre-match press conference for the KKR game. Being a professional cricketer with a bit more experience of biggest stage cricket than me, he is entitled to his opinion. For me though, the start before the start has been a journey into Wonderland, a domino toppling of bucket lists, a series of fortunate events, a fairytale in my adulthood. Take a peep.
Moving with the team
The traffic parts as we glide through congested Indian metros with heavily armed police escorts clearing the way for us. Onlookers first peer curiously and then wave furiously as they recognize familiar faces in team colors inside the air-suspended luxury bus. Some smile back, some wave back and one (that’s me) almost breaks a window or two in the excitement of being looked at as a celebrity.
It gets better at hotels and airports. There are no check-in lines and no waiting for baggage as the team management ensures luggage logistics are taken care of. People ask for autographs, take pictures and yes, even I am an object of attention. While the real stars oblige with smiles and patience, I throw around a little attitude and keep my fans hungry.
Then there is the time when I am in a car with Jason ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie and a pair of fans on a bike follows us desperately trying to get a picture of the great fast bowler. Dizzy narrates a story of another similar incident in India when the bikers were so engrossed in getting their picture that they crashed into a cow. We can laugh about it as human and animal were both unharmed.
Maidaan ke Andar
As the weeks pass I sit in dugouts, walk across grounds, stand beside pitches as they are being readied for the next day’s game, see media centers, visit the best seating areas and generally say an extended hello to some of the best cricket venues in India.
The most humbling feeling for me though, is every time I have the privilege of entering a dressing room – sacred almost in its concept in my head. Usually consisting of a hall designed to provide seating and space with a small area earmarked to serve food and an attached bath cum sauna, each dressing room has its unique feel. My personal favorite is the one at Mohali with comfortable naughtiest boy chairs, tiled slabs to keep kitbags on and pictures of cricketing greats adorning the walls. The dressing room at Hyderabad is massive and has lockers next to the seats as well. At times I think that some dressing rooms are not large enough, till epiphany strikes and I realize that a typical squad that uses the dressing room for a game is smaller than the large IPL squads that move around.
In the 20-20 format a dressing room is perhaps less significant as the team sits in the dugout, but it is still the place where the team assembles after a win or a loss and I have been there at such times. While I cannot break the dressing room code and reveal what is said and what is not, what I can let you in is that neither have defeats crushed our spirits nor have wins led to champagne celebrations. There’s a long way to go for that.
It’s not just that I have some of the best seats in town, even the company I keep while watching a match is a story to tell. At home (PCA Stadium Mohali), I watch the matches perched up in the King’s XI box with the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes putting the whole show together. These matches are seen amidst satisfied comments about packed stands, attention being paid to sponsor ads being displayed properly and genuine passion for the team which is intimate with each member of the staff. The greatest moment there has to be when Paul reaches his hundred and we all go crazy cheering for our friend who we have known as the quiet boy from Mumbai. Col. Arvinder, who marshals the franchise is there as well and over matches I listen to stories behind the selection of each player.
At DY Patil for our opener I sit a row behind Preity Zinta. It’s true, though even I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s not inception. We are four down for nine and yet she smiles and shouts whenever we have anything to half-cheer. I get to see up-close her excitement, inquisitiveness and her belief in the team in spite of an opening-day drubbing. Of course, my position of prominence ensures TV time and seventy-three seconds of fame (yes, I time it, you’d do too if you were on TV) and I receive a flood of phone calls from friends.
The pick of these experiences is the game against the Chargers at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Hyderabad, which I watch sitting next to Jason Gillespie. Jason is our bowling coach and maintains detailed records of each delivery and its outcome and uses it to supplement the data that our Video Analyst Ashish Tuli provides. His focus on the game is complete yet he manages to find time to sign autographs, pose for pictures and have the patience to not strangle a fan who insists on breathing down his neck and analyzing each delivery for him for the better part of the match. I get the first insights into what opponents will be planning for Paul very soon and am also admonished for cheering a wide ball. And when he says well bowled, I nod my head vigorously trying to look cricket intelligent. We win big and it couldn’t have gone better. Jason has since received his correct accreditation and so I can safely say that no-one else will experience what I do in IPL-IV.