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