Pitch fever, pelicans and a pink lady

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While the Boys in Blue trump the Men in Maroon, writer Avtar Singhs Holi takes on a rosier hue in the company of cricketers from the Delhi club circuit

Avtar at Underdoggs Sports Bar and Grill, Delhi
Photo: Garima Jain

FINALLY, IT was official. India was going to the quarterfinals of the World Cup 2011. The fact that Australia lay in wait was of little consequence. Holi had been celebrated in a style most appropriate to this festival — India’s tipsiest — with an early stumble that was corrected, then a freefalling collapse, and a final scorecard that recorded the triumph of the good guys. Well, if you’re Indian.

I had chosen to spend Holi quietly with my family, in the company of a few other friends with young children of their own. Outside, there may have been bhang-fuelled, water-propelled warfare. In our little enclave on the outskirts of Delhi, peace prevailed. The kids frolicked in the lawn, accompanied by the dog. There was a breeze ruffling the flowers and the trees and when the heat got too great, there were pichkaris filled with clear water. There was no television but commentary was available over the phone, and Tendulkar’s dismissal was greeted with a measure of phlegmatic calm that could only have been due to the beers and the warm weather. That Gambhir departed as well was seen as being of little consequence, and by the time Kohli and Yuvraj had consolidated their positions, India looked pretty much impregnable.

It won’t last, we remarked happily. We won’t even last 50 overs.

At home later that afternoon, with the child safely down for his nap and my remote in my lap, it came to me, as it has before with reference to my sporting choices, that it’s no fun being right all the time. Indian wickets were tossed away with a cavalier disdain. Just to prove wrong those who are insisting that it is the malignant effect of the batting powerplay that undoes our majestic line-up, six of our top seven were out even before it had to be taken, in the 46th over. We’ve batted first against all the Test-status teams we’ve played in this World Cup thus far: only once, against Bangladesh, have we lasted the full 50 overs. Clearly, the batting powder isn’t as dry as it should be. That we’d given up 900-plus runs collectively against Bangladesh, England and South Africa was no comfort either.

Over in Vasant Kunj, along its mall stretch, Holi seemed a million miles away. Well-scrubbed and dressed Dilliwalas motored in to browse through the outlets. There wasn’t a coloured mug anywhere, at least not till our photographer arrived, murmuring apologies through the pink cloud that obscured her face. All the stores were open: all of them. My wonder didn’t cease when I arrived at our watering hole. Underdoggs Sports Bar and Grill is a colossal space, well-provided with pool tables and other sporting paraphernalia. We were there for the big televisions, however, and there are a lot of them. The bar’s seriously loud sound system carries the commentary, so every bray of approbation or disgust is loud in your ears. With a beer tower and a couple of snacks, we settled in to watch the West Indian reply.

I was joined by Manoj, Naresh, Himal and Pushpinder, all of whom play regularly for the Pelican Cricket Club in the Delhi circuit. They are passionate and knowledgeable and they made for capital company. The fact that Devon Smith and Kirk Edwards and later Darren Bravo seemed not to be missing Chris Gayle’s company was lost on nobody. Bravo’s elegant batsmanship was admired, Smith’s gutsiness applauded, Ashwin’s late entry into the World Cup deplored. The mystical relationship of Indian captains to their favourites was remarked. Someone may have brought up ‘favouritism’, in Indian cricket in general, in Delhi cricket in particular. It was just as quickly dismissed. “It’s all politics,” allowed one of them. “But you must understand, a questionable performer will only make it in place of another guy whose place is under threat. You can’t leave out a star, a real talent. And what’s true of Delhi is true of India as well.” “So a Tendulkar or a Dravid or a Sehwag will always find his way to the top?” I asked. “Always. Provided there’s place of course. Look at the past 10-12 years: Sehwag had to become an opener to break into the team.”

IT’S A comforting thought, that given a little luck and timing, quality will out in the end. But it also has to be weighed against another reality, that for a young cricketer, it’s easier to make it to the Indian team than to keep that place. There are so many guys in the queue for those scant few slots.

Someone brought up ‘favouritism’ in Indian cricket. It was quickly dismissed. ‘It’s all politics,’ said one of the boys. ‘But you cannot leave out a star, a real talent’

And fast bowling? Why do we struggle on that front? “Because there’s no glamour attached to it,” said Naresh, who practises the art. “Not like in Pakistan. Here, who wants to slog in from a long run-up, day after day, hour after hour? Who is our Imran Khan, that boys want to emulate?”

It’s true, concurred the others. There are maybe two overs of seam-up in a league game these days, and then it’s spin. Coaches tell young boys to bat, and bowl a little off-spin to make up a few selection points. There’s absolutely no incentive to bowl fast. It’s fun talking cricket with guys who love the game and play it. You don’t have to agree with them to enjoy the conversation.

And then the bar exploded: well, not literally. Zaheer Khan took out Smith. The sound system and the energetic patrons, now adding beer to the previously ingested bhang, did the rest. That’s about it, said one of the boys. What, enquired one of the others. You watch, said the first one. The pitch is slowing down. Their own batsmen will take care of the rest.

About an hour later, he was proved right as well. Outside, the streets were quiet. It was almost as if Delhi, relieved now of the burden of watching pointless games, was getting ready for what really matters.

Singh is the former editor of Time Out, Delhi, and author of the novel The Beauty of These Present Things

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