Two halves of a thriller

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From a high-end microbrewery to a railway station eatery, Avtar Singh continues his rake’s progress through World Cup audiences

Avtar at Q’Ba, Delhi
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

WHAT BETTER way to spend a Sunday afternoon, said a pot-bellied bravo in a shirt sporting the logo of a computer peripherals company, high upon a bar stool in Gurgaon. What better way than to drink beer and watch Tendulkar bash the Brits? Graeme Swann, off-spinner, wiseguy and video diarist, watched India’s own pocket Hercules launch his offerings into Bengaluru’s delirious stands. The residents of south India’s original cyber enclave were delighted to have the World Cup roll into town. Their north Indian equivalents, in their weekend casuals, chugged their micro-brews and inhaled bar snacks and celebrated no less joyously as Tendulkar’s knock lit up the screens. Deft touches were applauded, boundaries cheered, and when he reached 50, the roars were orgasmic.

The World Cup of cricket’s 2011 edition finally seemed to have started.

A week behind schedule, perhaps, and it’s not easy to ignore the small matter of Viru and Virat getting complementary tons against Bangladesh. But this was clearly different. There was a buzz in Howzatt that wasn’t just from the establishment’s lightly bubbling offerings: its many patrons were here for the thrill of combat between perceived sporting equals. They’d also come to see Tendulkar and company take the pants off the visitors, and even though Sehwag went early, hopes were high. Gautam Gambhir knocked it about and got a 50 and the bar went ballistic. He left and Yuvraj Singh walked in. A short ball from a passing medium pacer was despatched to the square leg fence and another sage leant over to tell me how fast bowling wasn’t his weakness. Sachin started opening up and the chanting started. Outside, in a sort of anteroom, a large screen was set up for the overflow from the bar. I heard the cheers that greeted his century inside the restroom. Inside the bar, it was bedlam. And then, naturally, people started to leave. The trickle turned to a flood when he got out and we left as well. Like most people there, we had an agenda, and its fulfilment had sated us.

Sachin started opening up and the chanting started. I heard the cheers that greeted his century inside the restroom. Inside the bar, it was bedlam

On the way back to Delhi, there was the radio. All India Radio’s (AIR) incredibly bad commentary was matched by its pathetic production. Advertising breaks post-wickets went on too long. As Indian wickets fell in clumps, listeners were baldly informed that another wicket had fallen during the break. At which point the advertising started again. Weirdly, bad music started playing and commentary was lost on more than one occasion. Indian broadcasting’s tradition of competitive inanity was strictly adhered to on the other channels. One female jockey begged for divine intercession (evidently 300 plus runs is indefensible with the Indian team’s poor tools), while another set of RJS — male, this time — took calls on listeners’ superstitions and traded banter on which one was most likely to work. None of them, was the answer, as India’s implosion was complete one ball short of the full 50 overs.

The two-faced nature of our sports fans was on display at Aqua in the Park. A super poolside venue, a huge screen and lovely weather should have guaranteed a full house. But it would seem that India’s bowlers aren’t as big a draw as its batsmen. A few desultory claps could be heard from the occasional cabana that actually had inhabitants.

Around the corner in Connaught Place, empty parking lots outside its many bars told their own story. “Where are the fans,” I asked one attendant. “At home,” he laughed, “Who wants to pay to watch the English kill our bowlers?” Inside Q’Ba, tomb-like silence greeted Strauss’ compilation of one of the finest centuries of this or any Cup. Ian Bell and he knocked off the runs with a sangfroid that was in complete contrast to the heat being displayed by our ageing troops. Families out for dinner ignored the cricket. A few tourists watched the game in a wondering sort of way. A waiter shook his head as he passed me. “What can you expect from our bowlers,” he muttered. Wickets, outfields and rules of play that conspire to make bowlers look like idiots are the ingredients of a crossnational tragedy, of course, but there was no consoling him. An English victory was assured, we all agreed, and left.

Back home, the television relayed the same sad news. In the stands in Bengaluru, the belligerence of a few hours past was now replaced with silence. Outside in the market, there wasn’t a peep. One hardy soul sat vigil by his old-fashioned transistor radio, the first I’d seen all day. And then, suddenly, Zaheer Khan took two wickets in two balls, and equally wondrously, AIR managed to report both. Suddenly people appeared to stand about the man with the radio.

Howzatt, Galaxy Hotel, Gurgaon

THROUGH A hole in a urine-soaked wall lies the Nizamuddin railway station. The Comesum eatery, a round-the-clock beacon to the hungry, travelling or merely awake, was doing brisk business to a backbeat of nondescript television. But up a flight of stairs, they were showing the game. The picture was grainy, but the families and singles and few couples upstairs were glued to the action. Harbhajan removed Prior and suddenly India’s bowlers had a fan-following again. “I told you he was the one,” shouted a young man at a table. Our tables were filling up, and the trickle of waiters and busboys had grown to a flood. The floor manager hopped nervously from one leg to another.

Then Piyush Chawla got belted for two sixes and silence returned. Then he got his man and we were all screaming again. I remembered why I became a sports fan and have remained one in the face of marketing, asinine commentary and the blithe refusal of our sports bodies to recognise that many of us don’t care about the spectacle, that for us it’s about the game. Munaf Patel’s last over was merely the icing on the cake.

We streamed out, a few of us perplexed — how can you have a ‘draw’ in a one-dayer — some of us chortling — it’s not a T-20, idiot, how can you have a bowl-out — and some frankly relieved. The waiters disappeared to their chores, the travellers to their trains, the eaters to their meals. I passed the man with the radio. He raised an eyebrow at me, his tongue between his teeth, then slowly exhaled. We both smiled.

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

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