Thursday, March 7, 2013

Undiscovered Paradise in Andaman Islands

Neil Island
After a long hiatus, it is finally time to make a new beginning. I had resolved to make one in early 2011 but that one petered out in the afterglow of India’s World Cup win, hopefully this one will last for longer.

I had the opportunity to travel to Andaman Islands and came away spell bound. Beautiful turquoise water, soft silvery sand with the certainty of finding your own little piece of paradise for those so inclined. When one talks of Andaman as a tourist destination, Port Blair with its Cellular Jail (Kaala-Paani) and Havelock for its picture perfect beaches comes to mind instantly. My discovery for the trip was Neil Island. Accessible by government ferry from Port Blair and Havelock, Neil Island is your undiscovered piece of paradise.

Easily accessible corals
Fringed by corals with exciting diving and snorkeling opportunities, there is even a PADI certified Dive Center based at Neil, the waters lapping on Neil’s silvery sand during the low tide are calm to the point of giving the impression of being in a pool. There is typically not a soul in sight at its beaches even during the high season when I visited. Bicycles for hire are easily available letting you explore the island at your own pace. Just imagine the possibility of finding your own patch of the perfect beach over and over again for everyday of your holiday, which is the essence of Neil Island. If an entire holiday of seclusion doesn’t sound too appetizing, Neil Island can be visited as a 1 night trip or even as a day trip from Havelock, which is something that we ended up doing.
Probably the reason for Neil Island’s obscurity is the fact that there are only a few basic hotels and guest houses available, quite a few of which are booked solid with international backpackers spending months at Neil. That changed this year with the setting up of Sea Shell’s premium A/C tented accommodation at very affordable rates at Neil.

Bharatpur Beach seen on the way to the jetty

Fishing Boats at Bharatpur Beach

With the team on the landing jetty
My other discovery on this trip was the sea plane connecting Port Blair to Havelock. The flights depart from a corner of the airport at Port Blair twice a day and make the journey to Havelock in 20 odd minutes. The landing at Havelock is in the sea and the passengers disembark on a small jetty in the middle of the bay from which they are then transferred to the main island jetty by a small boat. The journey gives you an aerial view of coral fringed beaches and the view of Havelock’s famous Radha Nagar beach is especially fetching.
Radha Nagar beach at Havelock seen from the sea plane
The one-way flight costs Rs. 4100 for tourists but tickets are not bookable online and can either be bought at the airport or from a local travel agent. The sea plane is a government provided service and tickets for locals cost a subsidized amount of Rs 600. It is mostly possible to buy the tickets a day prior to travel but do keep in mind that the sea plane is a 9 seater limiting the number of available seats to 18 daily. The experience of landing at sea and the bird’s eye view of the beaches fringed by corals makes this an experience worth its price. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

A fairytale ending and sometimes dreams do come true!

The winning feeling
Dreams do indeed come true. When they do they have the ability to make grown men cry and break into a jig at the same time. To use a cliché, this was a dream shared by more than a billion Indians. It probably meant more to the millions of my generation who weren’t born or were too young to remember the triumph of 1983.
 I started following cricket from the late 80s and the early 90s and grew up on a diet of humiliating away-losses and close games frittered away. I saw India gift away games to Henry Olonga in the 1999 World Cup, to Saqlain Mushtaq in the 1997 test vs Pakistan in Chennai, to West Indies in Barbados in 1997, to any damn Pakistani bowler in any match in Sharjah. The only consolation used to be watching Sachin Tendulkar play dazzling knocks and fight lone battles for the country in defeat.

Then along came Saurav Ganguly and John Wright. We still lost from winning positions but the frequency of those abject collapses reduced and we started winning more often than we lost, in a lot of cases from seemingly hopeless positions. Whether it was the Eden Gardens test of 2001 vs Australia, the chase of 325 at Lord’s in 2002 or the Adelaide test vs. Australia in 2003, we found heroes for the occasion and more often than not Sachin just played bit parts in these memorable victories. Still we continued to switch off our TVs or walk out of the stadia when he got out, not recognizing the change that our team was going through.

On 2nd April 2011 that change came to a full circle. Chasing 275 in a World Cup final we lost Sehwag and Sachin with just 31 on the board. The crowd went hush and you could literally see the defeat in most people’s eyes. It didn’t help that a large chunk of the crowd was made up of 30 year olds like me and older. All the old fears came rushing back. 225 was the highest score chased under lights at the Wankhede, 241 was the highest ever chased in a World Cup Final, no team with a centurion had lost a World Cup final. We knew all that but probably Gautam Gambhir didn’t. Neither did Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni or Yuvraj Singh. Even if they did, it didn’t seem to matter. History is there to be made, not to get bogged down by. Slowly but surely as Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli built the inning, the belief in the crowd came back. The dream was still alive.

MS Dhoni, in the company of Gautam Gambhir, took us close and finished it off appropriately with Yuvraj Singh, the Man of the tournament, on the other end. The six and THAT twirl (External link: Open in new window) of the bat has signalled the start of the era of uber cool and mentally tough Team India.

Since I decided to follow India for the World Cup, I had dreamt about the winning moment multiple times. Each time there had been tears but surprisingly on Saturday night it was pure unadulterated joy. I was jumping up and down, shrieking “India.. India” and high fiving complete strangers once the six was hit. Till they showed, on the big screen at the ground, a smiling Sachin run onto the field. A roar went up and I could feel the first few tears stream down my cheeks.

After the victory lap with SRT on his shoulder, Virat Kohli put it aptly when he said “Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders.” Looking at all the pictures of Sachin enjoying the win, it is clear what this win meant to him, but it is also apt that Sachin himself played a bit part in the final. By winning this match as a team, by showing the steel that they did, MS Dhoni and his team ensured that from now on there would not be any more Indian cricket fans, including those from my generation, who would switch off their TV sets or walk out from stadiums when an individual gets out.

Indian National Anthem
Dhoni hits the winning six
Sachin Tendulkar's lap on Kohli's shoulder
The day had started with another early morning flight from Delhi. I was quite apprehensive about my back holding up for the entire day where I would have to take a 2 hour flight, another hour in the taxi before queuing up for entry into the stadium and then 8 hours of jumping up and down from my seat hoping to celebrate an Indian victory. Turns out the pain killers and the muscle relaxants worked like a charm and not only was I able to do all that but was able to follow it up with another 4 hours of partying with friends late into the night.
I had sprained my back the previous Sunday and had been bed-ridden and immobile for the rest of the week. I was gutted about having to give up my tickets for the Semi-Final and there was no way in the world I was missing the final for anything.

My friend Sudhir with Merv Hughes
I reached the stadium at around 12noon and was only able to get into the stadium by 1:45pm. Everyone in the queue though was good natured and surprisingly there was absolutely no pushing and shoving. I was also surprised to find Merv Hughes in the queue behind us. Merv was leading a contingent of around 20 odd Aussies who were travelling around India watching the knock out phase of the tournament. The entire group had travelled to both the semi-finals in Colombo and Mohali so that they could be sure of watching the Australia semi-final but for a change had ended up being disappointed. Not many people recognized Merv but there was a literal stampede as Gilchrist was escorted past us into the stadium.
Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai
The Wankhede was completely rebuilt for this tournament and the designers have done an excellent job. The design is very modern and spectator friendly as there are absolutely no pillars in the top tiers. There are a few pillars in the lower tiers but the design is such that there is hardly any obstruction of view for the spectators (DDCA please take note!!). The stands rise steeply over the ground and the stadium gives the impression of being larger than the quoted capacity of 33,000. The media stand enclosed by glass looked amazing till the high humidity in the evening coupled with the air conditioning inside fogged up the glass completely. For the last 15-20 overs of the match, two men were permanently positioned hanging in mid air to keep clearing up the glass from the outside.
Surprisingly for Mumbai, the food and drink situation was as bad as all other venues. There was no proper food other than samosas and sandwiches which also ran out within the first 15 overs of India’s batting. The same was the case with the soft drinks, all that remained after 8pm was the free water provided by the organizers.

Observing the celebrations first-hand
The atmosphere inside the stadium was somewhat flat for a World Cup final but to an extent I would put that down to being spoilt by the fantastic atmosphere in Ahmedabad and the nerves that all of us in the crowd were also feeling. In spite of the enormity of the occasion, Jayawardene was given a standing ovation when he reached his century. I have heard many people comment about the fact that Indian crowds don’t applaud the opposition. It has been my personal experience at all the games that opposition centuries and good performances have been always applauded by one and all with standing ovations. Even Ricky Ponting was given a standing ovation after his century in Ahmedabad even though he is clearly not popular with Indian crowds and booed throughout the game.

The contrast between the “shout yourself hoarse” cheering that accompanies an Indian 50 or 100 against the English style applause for opposition good performances probably gives the impression that Indian crowds don’t appreciate opposition performances. Probably if we in India tone down our cheering for India the contrast won’t be as obvious but I for one don’t see that happening in the near future.

During the innings break most people thought Lanka had got too many but were quietly optimistic about India’s ability to chase down the target. The stadium was eerily quiet after Sachin’s dismissal but the noise and the belief gradually built up during the Gambhir and Kohli partnership. Singles and doubles were cheered raucously and when Dhoni started hitting Murali for boundaries the crescendo built up. The crowd exploded with THAT six and the party began in true earnest. Not one person left the stadium till the presentation and victory laps were completed. Some 20 odd spectators actually jumped over the fences into the playing area and were chased around by the police. One spectator raced down to the pitch and bent down to kiss the turf, only that he had mistaken one of the practice wickets for the main pitch, not that it mattered to him.

The roads outside the stadium were jammed and we took the train to Bandra before meeting up with friends to celebrate long into the night. Wearing my India t-shirt, with the flag and painted face I was stopped by numerous people on the road for pictures.
The happy ending made the journey that started on 19th February in Dhaka all the more worthwhile. Along with Johannesburg in 2007, I have now seen India win two World Cups in 4 years and am completely hooked to this experience. While I make my plans for the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka next year and the next Cricket World Cup in Australia-New Zealand in 2015, I would like to put on record the fact that given the right perks, I am open to offers from the BCCI for being India’s official lucky mascot at ICC events :)

The World Cup maybe over but I will try and make sense of my experiences at stadiums across the country starting with a post on the good, the bad and the ugly of this entire campaign next week.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The 12th man effect in Motera

For any Indian cricket fan, watching a home World Cup knock out game involving India has to be a part of the bucket list. The fanaticism and ability of an Indian crowd to make noise is something that can’t be described in words but needs to be experienced. I have heard all these stories about how intimidating it is for Premier League teams to play in front of the Kop at Liverpool, or for European Champions League teams to play in front of fanatical supporters in Turkey at Galatasaray or Fenerbache. To be present in Ahmedabad on Thursday was to truly understand the phenomenon of home support and how it can intimidate opposition and lift up the home team. 

The Ahmedabad crowd, surprisingly, was the most knowledgeable and vocal crowd among all the venues that I have visited following India in this world cup. Whether that was a factor of the intensity of the occasion - a World Cup knock out, or the opposition is a matter for debate but it truly provided a worthy stage for the mother of all battles so far in this World Cup. Ponting got a taste of his own medicine as the strategy to target the key opposition was played out by the crowd on him, starting from the practice session to the post match conference. I personally have not been a fan of Ponting since this happpend at Sydney in 2008 (external link: Open in new window). I wholeheartedly participated in the chants of “Ponting Sucks” “Ponting Cheater” and the booing that greeted him during the practice session, when he walked on to bat and during the post match presentation. In spite of the obvious targeting, the crowd stood up as one to applaud when Ponting reached a well deserved battling century.

If I thought the crowd was loud during the Australian inning, the intensity was raised up by several notches as India came in to bat. Sachin’s 2 fours off Tait was probably the first event on the cricket field that was ever recorded on the richter scale and near the end of the game quite a few tremors epicentered in Motera would have been felt. It wasn’t just the primal longing for fours and sixes, the crowd displayed its astute reading of the game by lustily cheering for the singles and doubles run by Kohli and Gambhir during their partnership. Chants of “we want sixer” only went up when the game was thought to be secure with less than 15 runs required to win.
I don’t think I can describe in words the frenzied atmosphere inside the stadium during the Raina and Yuvraj stand when Tait and Brett Lee were being hit out of the attack and I won’t even try. Below is an assortment of video clips during the game that I think do some justice to describe the atmosphere for those who were not present.
National Anthem time - Electric

Crowd chants

Chants of India.. India as Kreza bowls

Last 6 runs scored by Yuvi to win India the match

Rewinding to the previous evening I was almost on the verge of giving away my match ticket. I came to know at about 5pm that an important meeting had been scheduled at 11am on the day of the match and I needed to be in attendance. Having already taken a few really long vacations in the last 12 months to indulge in my passion for travelling, I did not want to push my luck by asking to be excused from the meeting for going to watch a cricket match. Just around the time I was supposed to meet my colleagues to give them the ticket I received a call from my manager asking me if I had booked tickets to go watch the match. When I told him that I was just about to cancel my flight tickets, he instantaneously asked me to go ahead with my plan and not worry about the meeting. His exact words were to the tune of “Meetings will keep on happening, it is the things in life we are passionate about that give us the maximum pleasure  so don’t even think about cancelling your plan to watch the game.” In the last 12 months or so I have been lucky enough to tick off quite a few items from my bucket list, which would not have been possible with the support and understanding of a few people at work. In case those people are reading this, you know who you are, thank you very much for everything. A lot of my friends are surprised by the time I am able to devote to my passion to travel and frequently ask me about how I am able to manage it, it is having understanding managers like them who make working a pleasure.

The day of the game started with an early morning flight from Delhi, that had only a few travelling supporters unlike the other flights I have taken on the day of the game. The journey from my hotel to the stadium turned into a crawl about 4km from the stadium and I walked the last 3 kms. While entering the stadium I came to know that mobiles were banned inside the stadiums and I was not allowed to enter by the police. I eventually managed to smuggle my phone under my cap after queueing again. My other colleagues were not so lucky and had to go out of the stadium to deposit their phones at a shop (external link: Open in new window) that did roaring business charging them Rs 200 per phone. I wonder if Mukesh Ambani, Narendra Modi or the other VIPs who attended the game were subjected to the same rules. Somehow I think not, it is just the average paying fan who is subjected to all sorts of contrived inconveniences to have the pleasure of paying and watching his team in action. Ironically event sponsors rubbed salt on these open wounds inside the stadium by asking the spectators to switch on their Bluetooth to get exciting video clips of the match or to sms their entries to win goodies.

In spite of all these inconveniences, Motera was the first stadium without an empty seat to be seen when the match started. I was again lucky to escape the heat as I got seats in the shade (no seat numbers again!!) with a great view away from the pillars. There was just one digital screen inside the stadium, unlike all the other stadiums where there have been at least 2 such screens. My view of the screen was also obstructed by a pillar neatly bisecting the screen down the center vertically into 2. For all practical purposes the screen was useless for those in our stand and we kept track of the scores from the manual scorecard.

Watching the game from the stadium allows you to clearly see some of the plans being hatched by bowlers and captains to dismiss batsmen. Shane Watson had started well and was hitting Bhajji in the arc between square leg and long on. He was hitting with the spin and essentially with a straight bat. Dhoni moved his square leg straighter and left an inviting gap behind square on the leg side for Watson to hit. When I saw that happen, I predicted to all those around me, more in hope than expectation, that Watson would get out LBW sweeping in Bhajji’s next over, trying to hit the ball in that gap. As it turns out I did not have to wait till Bhajji’s next over as Dhoni reintroduced Ashwin into the attack. Watson tried to aim a sweep, the ball missed the bat and the pad and cannoned into the stumps. From then on I was recognized as the knowledgeable sage, every word I said was treated as gospel by those around me

The food and drink story at the stadium was just like all other stadia with both running out by the 15th over of India’s inning. I had not had anything to eat since leaving from my hotel at 11am and once the match ended I decided to go to the Marriott where the team was staying for a late night dinner and also hoped to catch a glimpse of the team. Turns out, 30,000 other people had the same idea as the entire city lined the streets from the stadium to the hotel hoping to just catch a glimpse of the victorious team in the team bus. Once I reached the hotel, there were another 5,000-6,000 people clustered around the hotel entrance. I was told that the restaurant had been closed for the night when I tried to enter through security. I wonder the madness that would descend upon Mumbai on the 2nd of April if India were to actually win the World Cup.

For that to happen we have to take care of Pakistan up next and I am thoroughly confused about whether I should be making the journey to Mohali. Having followed India during the 90s when we lost numerous matches from winning positions, I am an eternal cricket pessimist. I thought Australia had made 30 runs too many and the feeling that we were going to lose made its way into the pit of my stomach and I almost turned into a manic depressive during the last 10 overs of Australia’s batting and most of India’s chase. It was only once less than 10 runs were needed that I relaxed and was able to savour the win. Throw a match vs Pakistan into this mix and these emotions would only get exaggerated. There is a group of my friends planning to travel to Mohali on Wednesday and I will make a decision over the weekend on whether to join them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A flat anthem and Operation Food Odyssey in Chennai

A convincing win in Chennai that left all questions unanswered. The middle and lower order still collapsed and the Indian bowlers were still toothless for 75% of the time that they bowled. In spite of which we ended up winning fairly convincingly by 80 runs. The mood inside the stadium changed from delirium after Yuvraj’s 100 to disbelief at India’s collapse to abject disappointment for the first 30 overs and back to delirium at the Windies collapse. While packing for my trip to Patagonia last year the guide books warned about going prepared for 4 seasons on a single day, I wonder if it is time that such a disclaimer is put outside stadiums where the Indian team is playing for the fans to be prepared for all kinds of emotions on a single day. For all the talk of impending doom India continues to be one of 5 teams in the tournament that have lost just 1 match, another example of how this World Cup is as close as they come.

Chepauk under lights, a sight to behold
I was really looking forward to seeing the stadium in Chennai but was apprehensive of the hot and sticky weather that I would face. As it turns out I should not have worried on either account. The refurbished stadium in Chennai is undoubtedly the stadium with the maximum character from among all the stadiums that I have seen in India. It has been beautifully designed and is a sight to behold under floodlights. Unlike the other concrete bowl style stadiums that we have in India, Chepauk has large gaps between stands which allows the sea breeze to cross-ventilate the stadium and makes sitting in the shaded area of the stadium an extremely pleasant experience. The entire stadium was nicely white washed and painted from the inside and the toilets were tiled and kept clean by an army of cleaners throughout the day. Kudos to those in charge for a job well done.

The entry into the stadium took us just 10 minutes but Chepauk still ended up short of the perfect spectator experience due to the kind of seats and food available for the spectators. Our stand was among the two that did not have bucket seats, it was back to trying to find 2 seats in a stand full of unnumbered plastic chairs. Within the first 15 overs of the Indian innings, spectators unable to find a seat were standing at the back of the stand and were seated in the aisles. While the look of the stadium is a stand out with Adelaide type canopies, the old pavilion stand has been left as-is and stands out as an anachronism with its concrete-bowl look and wide pillars amidst the beautifully redesigned stadium. I hope that the TNCA can convert the old pavilion stand and seating in the 2 unfinished stands to make Chepauk an absolute world-class venue for cricket in India.

The food and drink scene also left a lot to be desired, whether it was in terms of availability or choice. For the lower A, B and C tiers (approx 12000 people) there were 3 outlets for drinks and 1 outlet for food. 2 of the 3 outlets vending drinks ran out of Pepsi by the 20th over of the Indian inning and all soft drinks by the evening mid inning break. The only outlet that had drinks available till the end was besieged by thirsty spectators pretty much throughout and at least 20 minutes of jostling and pushing was required before you could buy water or a soft-drink. To be fair to the organizers lots of taps with free water had been provided but the slightly yellowish color when viewed in a glass meant that we remained thirsty for the 2nd half of the match. To top it all just curd rice and upma was available for dinner which also pretty much ran out by the 20th over of the West Indies inning. I managed to somehow finish my bowl of Upma while my friend opted to wait till we got back to our hotel for some food. Lest this is misconstrued as the whining of a North Indian not understanding the South Indian palate, I was happy to note similar thoughts from the local who wrote for the Fan Following section at Cricinfo for this match :) (external link, open in new window)

I had heard all these stories about how Hindi speakers are ignored in Chennai but experienced it first hand when asking for drinks and snacks at the counters. In spite of standing in front of the vendor asking for my Pepsi for over 15 minutes I was completely ignored till I literally forced my Rs 50 note in his hands. My friend with whom I had travelled from Delhi had lived in Chennai for a year and taking tips from him I realised that Hindi spoken with an anna and Tamilian accent at least managed comprehension from the person who were addressing, whether it was the auto wallah, the food vendor or the waiter in the restaurant. I was also quite surprised by the fact that not one person actually sang the national anthem before the match. There was a fair bit of lip synching that would have done Britney Spears proud but the goose bumps that come from a stadium reverberating with passion during the “Jaya He Jaya he…” were completely missing during the national anthem.

To digress a little from this particular match, has anyone else noticed how the Umpiring howlers have gone down substantially during this tournament. While UDRS has played its part, it still does not explain the fact that umpires are getting the big decisions right by themselves. The UDRS in most cases (see last part of linked article) (external link open in new window) is being used for marginal LBW decisions that would probably have been ignored previously and even then has a success rate of just about 20%. Keeping aside Asoka de Silva, who has always been a horrendous umpire, I can just think of a few instances like the Ponting caught behind where the UDRS has been used to overturn a truly bad decision. Have the umpiring standards suddenly improved or do the umpires now realise that they have little chance of getting away with a bad decision. I believe the UDRS has led the umpires to concentrate harder to avoid mistakes but at some level it has probably eliminated ‘deliberate’ mistakes due to reasons of bias or more controversially match-fixing. It just strikes me as odd that there seem to have been no publicised cases of umpires being approached by match-fixers. Isn’t a comparatively lower earning umpire with the power to call a no ball or give a batsman out a more logical target for match-fixers?

While you spend some time to chew on that thought, I am preparing myself for the Thursday morning flight to Ahmedabad and the QF against the Aussies. The Aussies no longer hold any terrors and a low slow turner is all we need for a meeting with Pakistan in the semis. What a treat that will be and not to mention the perfect setting for Sachin to get his 100th ton. I also learned today that I got second time lucky with the finals ballot and would definitely be attending the final in Mumbai. The stars seem to be aligning for the perfect ending..

PS: Wanted to upload some pictures and videos but my phone memory is acting up, will try and do that once i get the memory card working.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The end of a “non-losing” streak and other superstition

Flags of participating nations outside the Nagpur airport
The day started badly with my name not appearing in the list of people who could buy Semi-Final and Final tickets through the official ICC ballot and ended badly with India losing in the last over. This was my 7th match watching India play in a World Cup (across formats) and the first time that I witnessed defeat. There was the tied game vs. England in Bangalore, which is why I term the streak as a “non-losing” streak rather than a winning one but that had felt like a victory given the position we were in just before the batting power play. On my way out of the stadium after the match I felt no different from the way I felt after Durban, Johannesburg, Dhaka, Bangalore or Delhi. Is this a sign of the fact that I am now mature and understand that in the larger scheme of thing it is just a game or the fact that this was not a knock-out blow and India will live to fight another day?

I currently subscribe to a friends theory about the format of this tournament. According to him this is a tournament of two halves, with practice matches played over a month to acclimatize and the tournament actually being just a knock out series of 7 matches. I tend of agree with him now that I analyse the underwhelming response to the defeat against a key competitor which has left India somewhat exposed in order to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Lucky charms

This defeat may also have broken my cricketing superstition. I wanted to buy the new India jersey when it came out a few months ago but had rationalized thinking that the lucky combination of my old jersey that I bought before leaving for South Africa at the start of my “non-losing” streak and the flag that I bought outside the stadium in Durban before the first match of this streak (India vs England) were my lucky charms and consistent companions through the streak. I think the first item on the to do list when I get to Delhi is to buy the new jersey but I am still not very sure if I should give up on my lucky charms after just one defeat.
The cricket played by India was top notch for 85% of the game. We batted well for the first 40 overs, bowled and fielded well with even Nehra diving and stopping some runs in the final few overs. The game was lost by the batsmen in the last 10 overs of the Indian innings and could have still been won had it not been for the dropped catches by Yuvraj and Gambhir. A lot of people were blaming Dhoni for giving the last over to Nehra and not Harbhajan Sign but I am sure we would have been asking for Nehra to have bowled the over had Bhajji been hit for the runs. Dhoni’s gut instincts have worked more often than not (think back to Joginder Sharma and the final over of the T20 World Cup) and I can’t think of anyone outside the team who could have made a difference.

The stadium in Nagpur is a fabulous place to watch a game of cricket. It is designed much better than the other stadiums that I have been to, and while they do have pillars as part of the stadium design, they are not as obstructive as the ones in Delhi and Bangalore. I had great seats in the shades at a slight angle to the pitch with fabulous view of the entire ground for just Rs 300. Best of all, seats were numbered and everyone followed them to the letter. I wonder why this is something not implemented in other cricket grounds in India?

Kindly dont abuse guests rectally, esp at cricket grounds

The food available left a lot to be desired, there is only so many stale and cold samosas, breakpakoras, kachori and dabeli that one can eat in a day. After the euphoria of the seats, the food was a big dampener and I think at the end of the tournament I will do a quantitative measure of the best viewing experience at all the ground that I visited. From the top of my mind some of the parameters that should be used to define the spectator experience would be ease of entry, seats & view, food availability, toilets, availability of transportation to/from stadium, location and atmosphere inside the stadium. In case I might have missed something that you would consider important do leave a comment and let me know. What did put a smile on my face was this notice just before the entry into the stands. I wonder how many spectators in India have “rectally” abused their guests at cricket ground J
In one of my previous posts about the game vs. England, I had been surprised by the travelling support for the Indian team. The surprise was raised a notch at the Delhi airport on Saturday morning. More than half of the people on a full flight were travelling to Nagpur just to watch the match over the weekend. My friend who was on the Indigo flight the previous evening reported a similar number of people on his flight as well. Flights from Mumbai to Nagpur were all sold out and another friend who was making last minute plans to travel could not get flight tickets. What was even more surprising was the number of women including the not so young moms and aunts, accompanying their kids/nieces/nephews, who were willing to take an early morning flight to watch a full game of cricket at the stadium.

It wasn’t just the upwardly mobile on the planes who made this journey; I was seated next to a father-son farmer duo that had travelled from a village close to Pune via a 15 hour bus journey to take in the action live. In any other setting I doubt I would have found any common ground with them but after a few hours of discussing Sehwag’s lack of footwork, Tendulkar’s straight drives, Dhoni’s lucky captaincy, Nehra and Munaf’s shoddy fielding, we were high-fiving each other at the fall of each South African wicket like long lost neighbours. Cricket truly does unite our diverse country and I can’t think of a better way for the country to celebrate together than with the world cup trophy on the 2nd of April.

PS: Any ideas on how to get tickets for the SF & Final are welcome. If you know anyone who has spare tickets please please put in a word for me, i would be more than willing to pay for the "complimentary" tickets as well.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Battle Royale in the stands at Kotla

This post on the game in Delhi is going to be a comparatively shorter one given that I covered the standout moments from a cricketing standpoint for Cricinfo’s Fan Following section. (Click here on the link to read: External Website)

Everyone stand up
From a spectator point of view I would love to ask the DDCA about who approved the design and money they spent to create a “world class stadium” in Delhi. A “world class stadium” where the stands are so badly constructed that 20% of the seats in the East and West stands are obstructed to such an extent that watching the match sitting there is virtually impossible.

First the tiering at the stadium in the East and West stands is completely messed up. While sitting on the seats in those stands the tiers are virtually flat and a person of average height sitting in front of you leads to an obstructed view, which in turn leads to row after row of people standing up because some jokers up front want to dance or click a picture. Given that watching the match is typically anyway a sideshow for the crowd in Delhi as compared to the serious business of heckling (abusing) players and trying to dance their way onto the TV screen, I don’t think too many people mind this but if you are going to the Kotla to actually see the cricket then good luck.


Would you pay for this view?
Second, I refuse to believe that we in India cannot design stadiums without pillars. This was a problem with the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore as well but considering that the new stands at the Kotla were built in the last 3-4 years I can’t believe that they actually approved the design with such major flaws. If Kalmadi & Co could manage to renovate the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which has a far greater seating capacity than the Kotla, without the need for pillars then is it too much to expect the same from Mr Jaitly and the honchos who run DDCA?
I would be the last person to say good things about Delhi Police but had it not been for their personnel in the stands who ensured that people kept to their seats in spite of their penchant to start dancing at the end of each over or even in between balls., I would probably have had to watch the entire match standing up.

Costa Coffee at the stadium, woo hoo

On the brighter side, the DDCA has done a good job with the catering inside the stadium and we had full availability of good quality burgers, biryani and sandwiches till the end of the match. The best bit though was the availability of Costa Coffee which was a perfect accompaniment for the cool evening while enjoying the Sehwag & Sachin show.

Also related to the food was the interesting effect of Delhi police’s rules regarding ban of coins inside the stadiums. This seems to be a rule peculiar to Delhi as the cops in Bangalore or Dhaka did not seem worried about the WMD potential of coins in the hands of spectators. While quite a few people had to “donate” their coins at the entrance, the impact of this on the food and drink situation became apparent when I went to the buy a Pepsi, which was priced at Rs 15. The contractors at the drinks counter did not have Rs 5 change and were giving away packets of Kurkure of the same value. This led to a lot of cribbing among the customers and some verbal fights about not wanting the chips but wanting their money back. It was only later that one of the men manning the counter told me that they did not have change as the police did not allow them to bring Rs 5 coins inside either and that they ran out of 5 rupee notes very quickly.

It surprised me that the various agencies doing the organizing don’t actually “talk” to each other. Knowing that coins would not be allowed inside, Pepsi should have priced their drink at Rs 20 and made more money or if they were feeling generous in terms of giving to the customers then upsized the glass or gave a Kurkure free with each Pepsi (Mr Kurkure Marketing Manager that I know, are you reading this??). I know these are small things but it led to fights that could easily have been avoided.

For those who have been living in the Delhi NCR region for some time, have you wondered who would come out on top if a Haryanvi Jat and a West Delhi aunty were to cross swords. During the match I got the opportunity to find it out first hand.

Disclaimer: If regional stereotyping is something that distresses you then please DON’T read on.

The problem with watching cricket games in Delhi is the brash elements that they invite. Whether it is your spoilt South Delhi teenage, the Noida ka bhaiya or the Haryanvi jat, each element comes drunk about his invincibility due to his connections which has already been fuelled by the complimentary tickets that he has gained. Their main objective from the day is to gain attention of the players on the field and the TV cameras by whatever means possible. Once the baseline on the objectives is drawn it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the cricket is a distant sideshow and the time at the cricket ground is spent heckling and abusing players, rival supporters and dancing generally in between every ball and especially after a boundary to get the attention of the cameras.

I was unfortunate to be sitting in the row behind a group of such Haryanvi jats who spent their time abusing Nehra, Chawla, Cooper and the other fielders who fielded at the boundary near us. This was followed by multiple instances of showing the middle fingers to the players when they didn’t respond and to the few Dutch supporters who dared to cheer the few boundaries that their players struck.

I was happily snoozing through the middle of the Dutch innings when I was woken up from my slumber by your typical West Delhi BTM (behenji turned mod) lady, barely into her thirties, bursting out from her tight pair of jeans, flaunting her ample person in a knitted net sleeveless pullover, accessorized with a matching Rado, multiple diamonds all over her person carrying her two sons along. There were 3 empty seats next to me which had been vacated by a group that had had enough of the jumping jats in front of us. The lady occupied the 3 seats and then called over her friend with her 2 kids and the husband. This group of 7 then proceeded to fit themselves in the 3 seats and spread the kids around asking them to adjust with the other spectators.

One of the people asked to adjust so that the kid could sit was the leader of the sprightly jat group who continued to ignore the mother hen and her entire brood. The mother hen could not take it anymore as the kids got rowdier and started bawling their eyes out and got up and asked the leader to adjust a little. Post this request the conversation went something like this:

Jat leader: Auntyji humein match dekhne do, hum idhar se hatne vale na hain” (For those that don’t understand hindi that roughly translates to “Aunty, please let us watch the match. We are not moving from here)

WDBTM (West Delhi Behenji turned Mod): Aunty hogi teri Maa, uthta hai ya doon kaan ke neeche (Go call your mother an aunty, will you get up or should I give you one under your ear)

The Jat leader suddenly realized he had grossly underestimated his adversary and had met his match. With his gang expectedly looking for direction and realizing that this was a fight he could not win he suddenly broke into his most charming smile and went:

Jat leader: Arre didi aap kha ma kha naraaz ho rahi hain, hum to confuse the ki aap ko Didi bulayein ya bhabhiji. Galti se mooh se auntyji nikal gaya. Yahaan zaada jagah nahin hai lekin aap kahti hain to hum adjust kar lenge. (Sister, you are unnecessarily getting angry, we were only confused whether to call you Bhabhiji or Sister and by mistake called you an aunty. There isn’t much place here but since you are asking we will definitely adjust).

The mother hen had clearly won the day.

I now head to Nagpur hoping to watch some cricket as India take on South Africa. Before that though is the small matter of the Semi final and Final ticket ballot. I will come to know tomorrow if I have been lucky to have had my name drawn up from among those who have applied for the semi final and final tickets. In case I don’t and one of your readers has an extra ticket, please please think of me J

Monday, February 28, 2011

What a game!!

What a game!! My emotions went through the entire roller coaster of ecstasy as Sachin Tendulkar made his 98th international hundred and India put in a supreme batting performance, despondency as England for all money looked to be on course to win with overs to spare, hope for a great England collapse always remained at the back of my mind and the sheer delirium of THOSE overs when India almost looked like they pulled off a Houdini. In the end I think the tie was a fair result that left both teams satisfied with the extra point, after having lost all hopes of a win at separate junctures during the game, while at the same time feeling hard done by for not delivering the killer blow that would have landed them full points.
Chinnaswamy Stadium Map
The day had started in complete contrast with a 1km long queue that took us more than an hour to negotiate to get into the stadium from Gate 16. I went for the game with a friend, Advit Sahdev and was lucky that he found a friend in the queue, which we joined midway with him at about 1250pm entering the stadium at about 2pm. I was reading reports of the thousands of people who ended up in the same queue outside gate 16 and ended up missing a significant part of India’s innings. It is with great amusement that I read KSCA spokesperson Sujith Somasundar’s statement regarding the last minute sale of online tickets as being the reason for the delay in entry when it took just me just 10 minute outside the stadium conversing with locals to understand the real reason behind the insane queuing time.

Gate 16 catered to the entire H & G stand with a capacity of over 11,250 spectators as mentioned by Sujith Somasundar. Due to the ongoing work at the Bangalore metro adjoining the stadium the entire area behind the North & East stand, where gates are usually in operation on that side of the stadium, was cordoned off. For the equivalent area catering to stands A,B,C,D,E,P3 and P4 there were 5 gates (Gates 11-15) that I walked past where the queues were obviously much more manageable. Is it too much to expect organizers at the Chinnaswamy to think of these issues and put measures in place to ensure that the paying spectators are not inconvenienced?

Stand G at the beginning of game
To top it all there was no numbered seating at any of the stands except for the VIP seats. So after the struggle with getting into the stadium, one was faced with the next struggle of locating seats together in a reasonable location where the view was not obstructed by the huge pillars that seem to be a major part of the DNA of Chinnaswamy stadium. We struggled around for another 20 minutes to find decent seats before the police opened the gates between stand G (which was completely empty) and stand H (for which we had tickets, but which was overflowing with spectators). We finally ended up with fantastic seats with a great side on view of proceedings. What did surprise me however were the number of empty seats when the match started. While the spectators making a delayed entry played a part, a large number of seats were still empty for the duration of the game, which I found a little surprising given the entire madness around the sale of tickets of Bangalore that led to the lathi-charge the day tickets went on sale.
Still empty seats with India 16/0
Indian National Anthem - DO NOT MISS, followed by World Cup theme song

The average Indian cricket fan takes all these inconveniences in his stride and continues to throng the stadiums. I had taken the morning 645am flight from Delhi to Bangalore and came across 4-5 diverse groups of people, father/son, 5-6 office colleagues, 3-4 DINKY (Double Income No Kids.. Yet) couples, who were travelling to Bangalore for the match. The number of travelling supporters for the Indian team might actually not be as small as I think it is and I plan to keep my eyes and ears open to check more of this phenomenon in the matches to come.
The fans, BCCI take notice

The fan story that tugged my heart was of this elderly gentleman seated right next to me who had come to watch the game with his nephew. The gentleman was more than 75 years in age, walked with a very slow shuffle but without the aid of a walking stick and was carrying his dentures with him. He lives with his family in the USA but was in India to attend the funeral of a cousin who had passed away and was leaving for the US the day after the match. He wanted to attend the match as he felt this would be his last opportunity to do so in India. He and his nephew had bought tickets in black from outside the stadium, braved the queue, the heat and the struggle to find a seat inside the stadium. They could not find 2 seats together and while the gentleman sat next to us his nephew ended up sitting in the row behind us. Right after Sachin’s century he asked me for my flag and got on his feet to wave the flag while getting his photograph clicked, with the enthusiasm of a 10 year old, to the loudest cheer of the night from the gallery that we were seated in. I hope Sharad Pawar, Ratnakar Shetty and their ilk in the BCCI sometimes get the opportunity to get away from their AC boxes and their pressing engagements of hobnobbing with the glitterati to spend some time with the real fans. Probably spending a day at a game without their AC boxes, catered food and reserved parking, queuing up like mere mortals is what is required to sensitize them to the improvements that are required to make attending a game a family event for the ordinary spectator rather than the ordeal it is currently.

Sachin moves from 95 to 102, century reached at 1:20 
This was my first time watching a match away from centers in the North. I have seen international matches in Delhi, Faridabad and Mohali and the first thing that struck me about the crowd in Bangalore was their fairness. The crowd was decent enough to remain silent during England’s national anthem and applaud when the anthem was completed. In spite of the likeliness of an upset increasing with each passing landmark the crowd was generous in its applause for all landmarks reached by Strauss (including the reasonably insignificant landmark, in the context of the game, for 4000 runs in ODI cricket) and the rest of the batsmen. During the now infamous Bell UDRS review, chants of “Cheating.. Cheating” broke out from all around the stadium. Strauss was about to reach his century in the over or two after the botched review and I was thinking that the crowd might end up booing him, the mighty applause he got for his century put those fears to rest. A word though about the review, no-one in the stadium knew about the 2.5m rule and everyone in the stadium was perplexed about why Bell was called back. It was only after 3-4 overs post the event that I got to know the reason for Bell getting the review in his favour, after speaking to a friend over the phone. A similar event in the knock-out stage vs Pakistan could very well lead to a riot, stadium authorities would do well to take some steps about keeping the spectators informed lest emotions boil over a la Kolkata in 1996.
 A small but boisterous section of the Barmy Army was also sitting in our side of the stands. They were singing quite a few of their patented chants but the “Cheerios Cheerios” chant on the dismissal of every Indian batsman is something that caught the fancy of the locals who made a “See you.. See You” chant of their own to sing after every English dismissal. During THOSE overs of the batting powerplay that changed the game, the chants, singing and dancing took on an almost manic, intoxicated nature with the crowd feeding off the energy of one another to create an atmosphere I have never ever experienced at any sporting event in spite of having been lucky enough to have been present, among others,  when Kumble took all 10 vs Pakistan, when Yuvi hit those 6 sixes or when India won the T20 World Cup.
Crowd chants as Zaheer bowls during the batting powerplay
Video of last ball as the match is tied

DND, Consultant at work
Inspite of the “action every ball” nature of this match and the sometimes frenzied atmosphere, I found time for a few snoozes here and there. It had been a crazy week in which I travelled to Mumbai on Wednesday night for a team offsite returning at almost midnight on Saturday night before waking up at 445am to take the 630am flight to Bangalore. Consecutive nights from Wed to Sat with 4hr, 6hr, 4.5hr, 4.5hr of sleep interspersed with boozy, networking nights at the offsite had taken a toll before I arrived in Bangalore and while that is probably not a valid excuse I guess age is catching up. So the next time a TV camera zooms on a spectator snoozing in the most exciting phase of the match, don’t laugh, he might be a consultant balancing his working lifestyle with the love of following his favourite team in action :) Thankfully, I now get a weekend off to recover (flying all the way back to Bangalore for Ireland didn’t seem worth it) and will be attending India vs Netherland in Delhi on the 9th of March, work permitting.