It’s my seventh World Cup as a journalist, but the level of excitement is still no less. Throughout the showpiece, I will be crisscrossing the length and breadth of England to catch the action live for Gulf News readers and bring the sights and sounds around the event with videos, social media - all the works. Follow my daily World Cup Diary here.
Wednesday, June 26
French Open champion Barty pops up at Lord’s
London: The disappointment among England fans after their team crashed to their third defeat seemed to have shattered them. Many came out of the Lord’s ground and sat down on the street for some time, unable to take in the loss.
With only a few Australians in the stadium, there wasn’t the usual celebrations by fans of the winning team. It was nothing but a gloomy, silent walk to the St John’s Wood tube station to take my train back to Manchester.
Rain has stopped affecting matches in England but after this defeat, England is in deep waters. England’s former cricketers, who had hailed them till before the World Cup, have now begun to hit back at them. Former England captain Michael Vaughan did a near Shoaib Akhtar, who had called Pakistan skipper Safaraz Ahmad as brainless but in a decent manner, saying that England has had a brain freeze.
The media lounge is an interesting meeting place. One gets to interact with different sections of the media while the commentators gather there for their breakfast, lunch and tea. It gives an opportunity to catch up with the greats of the game - many of whom I have followed over the years.
To the thrill of everyone on Tuesday, Sachin Tendulkar walked in and suddenly I found myself positioned between Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. A kind television reporter quickly clicked a picture and gave me - saying that rarely does one get the opportunity to be standing between two great cricket legends, one who broke all records and one who is the current holder of all records in world cricket.
After interacting with media for a while, Tendulkar tweeted a picture posing with Gavaskar, saying: “Feels good to be at a place where a dream started 36 years ago on this very day, at the very ground, with a person (Gavaskar) whom I emulated and considered my idol.”
Meanwhile, comments on England like ‘Team is fragile - so handle with care’ are doing the rounds now. Many subcontinent fans are upset that Ben Stokes kicked his bat after he got yorked by Mitchell Starc. This is because in the sub-continent, anything that is used to earn your living is always treated with respect and revered.
Australian tennis star and reigning French Open champion Ashleigh Barty was at Lord’s to cheer for her country. In 2014, she had switched from tennis to play cricket as she wanted to get the feel of playing a team sport before returning to tennis again. Cricket Australia immediately put out a picture of her with Australian skipper Aaron Finch. After winning the French Open, she had thanked cricket for getting the chance to play in the women’s Big Bash cricket event.
At Manchester, West Indies are gearing up with a hope to shock the Indians. Among them is West Indies pacer Sheldon Cottrell, who has a unique way of celebration after taking a wicket. He salutes at the dismissed batsman like an army officer giving marching orders.
All ardent Virat Kohli fans believe that if the Indian captain gets into form, Cottrell may be forced to pray looking skywards in the end. Though fans also enjoy watching Gayle in full form, the Indian fans want Gayle to fail here.
Tuesday, June 25
Sunny days are here again at Lord’s
London: It is back to Lord’s again after a day’s gap and it turned out to be a unique experience. On Sunday, it was the Pakistan-South Africa match and the Pakistan fans showed their solidarity with the team by cheering for their team all the way from St John’s Wood tube station to the Lord’s stadium.
Fans had carried things like small trumpets and drums, or rather anything and everything that could make noise, including a steel plate and spoon, into the ground.
Tuesday was a totally different experience when I came out of the St John’s Wood station as the England and Australians fans were quietly walking to the stadium like disciplined school children. After reporting matches of the sub-continent teams, it seemed to me like these fans were walking towards a place of worship than for a World Cup match. However, for cricket lovers, Lord’s is their place of worship, as it is known as the ‘Home of Cricket.’
To be present at the Lord’s on June 25, where 36 years back on this historic day in 1983 India had lifted the World Cup, was nostalgic. It took me a trip down memory lane, and from the modern media box, I kept staring at the balcony from where Kapil Dev had received the World Cup. That victory changed the history of the World Cup and showed the way to sub-continent teams that they too can aspire to win the prestigious trophy.
Further joy awaited me as I was fortunate to have breakfast in the media lounge with none other than the legendary Sunil Gavaskar, who was a part of ‘Kapil’s Devils.’ While enjoying the burger and hot croissant with him, one of the famous pictures of Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath walking on a tight boundary rope just before the first Test of the 1979 series at Edgbaston flashed through my mind.
In 15 days on July 10, Gavaskar will be celebrating his 70th birthday, and earlier in the year on February 12, Viswanath had turned 70. Gavaskar is aware that I have been reporting Pakistan’s World Cup matches and commented on the criticism levelled on Haris Sohail’s innings against South Africa that he was puffing and panting after his half-century. “Everyone puffs and pants while running between the wickets these days since everyone now needs to run very quick for their runs,” he noted.
I have always observed that the behaviour of fans at the Lord’s is very different from the other venues. They clap for every good ball or every good shot only after the action is completed, unlike other places where fans cheer the bowler all the way till the batsman plays the ball or if the batsman plays a good shot then the cheers never end even after the next ball is bowled.
Since Steve Smith and David Warner were booed at in some centres, Australian skipper Aaron Finch ‘warned’ the crowd that they could boo them again at their team’s peril as the pair have the tendency to respond to boos with big scores!
Monday, June 24
Lording it up with hat-trick hero Jalal-ud-Din
Imran Tahir deserves a running ovation in his last match
London: After watching Mohammad Shami’s hat-trick in Southampton and writing about Shami all the way while travelling to London by train from Southampton, I couldn’t believe my luck when at the Lord’s Cricket Ground I was allotted a seat next to former Pakistan pacer Jalal-ud-Din. He was the first man to take a hat-trick in One Day Internationals and is now a columnist for Pakistan newspaper Dawn.
Jalal has often visited the UAE, and had once given away prizes for coach Shahzad Altaf’s Young Talents Cricket Academy during the Ramadan cricket tournament in Ajman. He recalled that I had once interviewed him in the UAE. At a time when everyone is glorifying those who have taken a hat-trick, very few know that he is the man who did it first in 1982 against Australia at the Niaz Stadium in Hyderabad.
Jalal, who is now 60, took the wickets of Rodney Marsh, Bruce Yardley and Geoff Lawson. He revealed that he got to play in that match since Imran Khan was unfit, and he then went on to play in six Tests and eight one-dayers.
Yuvraj Singh has ended all speculations that he may play in the Pakistan Super League in UAE when he announced that he had actually sought permission from the Indian cricket board to play in the Global T20 tournament that is set to begin from July 25. UAE opener Chirag Suri, who is here to watch the World Cup, has been selected to play in Singh’s team, Toronto Nationals. Suri, after managing to take a selfie with Brian Lara here, said he is delighted that he will be with Singh, Kieron Pollard and Brendon McCullum, who are also in same the team, for a few days in Canada.
There are a number of billboards outside many railway stations that have the England cricketers saying ‘Express Yourself’. At the entrance of Southampton Central was the a picture of Johnny Bairstow. At a time when England team is a little low following the loss to Sri Lanka, it is important that their players express themselves on the field and lift the morale of their disappointed fans. With the sun coming out to play over the past few days, my travel through the green country side was very refreshing. It wiped away the tiredness of waking early to catch the train.
After arriving at Lord’s, I was treated to a cup of hot cappuccino that had the symbol of love created on the creamy top layer. England’s famous strawberries and cream were part of the mini-bites.
As soon as I entered the press box, I met with the legendary pacer Waqar Younis. He noted that if Pakistan win over South Africa, they would be able to regain their lost confidence. I was seated with all the journalists from Pakistan in one row, and it felt like we are all back in the UAE reporting on the Pakistan Super League.
It was Pakistan’s day on Sunday at Lord’s, and a volunteer pointed out that was why Pakistan-born Imran Tahir too sparkled for South Africa. Tahir is known to celebrate his wickets sprinting across the field. Since he is playing his last World Cup, he should be allowed to run all the way out of the field in his last match. He deserves a running ovation rather than a standing one for his remarkable spirit at the age of 40, and as the oldest player of the tournament.
Sunday, June 23
‘Checking’ into the Lord’s, with luggage in tow
London: Whenever I enter the Lord’s cricket ground, I am always in awe of this place. Memories of some of the great matches held here come flooding back to my mind. In the 1999 World Cup, the first match of that edition was held here and even now I can feel the excitement of reporting that match between Sri Lanka and England from the old press box of this venue.
When I find myself sitting on the benches of that Press box from where some of the legendary cricket writers produced their stories, some of those that I’ve only read in books, I consider myself lucky to be there. Twenty years have passed since that match, and I have been fortunate to report many more matches from this historic venue over the years - now from the new-look media centre.
Since the India-Afghanistan match was held in Southampton and I need to move to Manchester next, I had no option but to carry my luggage all the way to Lord’s. Thanks to the International Cricket Council (ICC), they permitted me to enter the stadium with my suitcase, like I was checking into a hotel.
To sit right behind the bowler’s arm and see the famous pavilion from where captains like Clive Lloyd and Kapil Dev received the World Cup trophies many years ago is a special feeling. Who will lift the World Cup on July 14 from that pavilion this time is anybody’s guess.
On the way to the Lord’s, three Pakistan fans sat dangerously on the wall of a hospital. As I walked away taking their picture, a South African supporter remarked: “Even if they fall, they fall into the hospital and hence there is no danger!”
The scenes in Southampton after the India-Afghanistan match were extremely heartening. Indian fans were seen consoling their Afghanistan counterparts who were on the edge of their seats hoping to witness history. They had screamed all day - hoping that their team would do the impossible.
In the end, the whole stadium stood up and applauded the Afghanistan team for their courageous performance. When Mohammad Nabi fell after a fighting knock, he received a standing ovation from the Indian fans. After the match, an Indian fan remarked: “Afghans are bhai’s (brothers) to us. They are nice people and they cook lovely food.” The joke around after Mohammad Shami’s hat-trick is that Afghanistan restaurants in London have stopped making ‘Shammi Kebab,’ a popular meat dish among them.
Afghanistan players spend most of their time in UAE and train at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and hence, they have many friends in Dubai. Cricket enthusiast Shyam Bhatia, who once sent cricket kits to Afghanistan 10 years ago, received a letter thanking him by saying: “Our boys have played with guns, now they will play with cricket bats.”
Many believe that cricketers are paving the way for peace in their country with most youngsters focusing on cricket. Aman Haider, a Dubai based poet who is a close friend of Mohammad Nabi, tweeted: “You live in the heart of every Indian. There is no win or loss between us.”
Saturday, June 22
Malinga adds another feather to his popular wig
Southampton: England fans are in gloom after their team, touted as favourites, crashed to their second defeat of the World Cup to Sri Lanka.
Following the defeat, many journalists in the Press box felt that if a sub-continent team was to host the World Cup and their team lost like the way England did, it could have been a national disaster.
England had earlier lost to Pakistan, too, and now — to Sri Lanka. If England lose to India as well, then the message will be loud and clear that only countries where the majority of the people love the game and are mad about this sport, can go on to win big matches.
Local newspapers have given predominance to soccer even when the World Cup is on, and this has irritated sub-continent journalists who had gone on to remark that such secondary treatment to the game is a snub for the World Cup.
It is a fact that the stadiums are full mainly due to fans from the sub-continent who outnumber other fans, including host England. Interestingly, even before the World Cup has ended, England players were making comments on winning the Ashes!
Pakistan fans are having the last laugh as they were called the most ‘unpredictable team’ and now England seems to be another favourite to take that title. Lasith Malinga’s spell will further boost the sale of wigs that copy his hairstyle and they are also sold in venues where Sri Lanka does not have a match. His performance at the age of 35 is indeed another feather to his ‘wig.’
Once India’s legendary batsman Sachin Tendular was asked during a talk show on how he negotiates the dangerous Malinga yorkers. He had jokingly replied: “I tell them don’t look at his hair but look at the ball.”
After Malinga emerged as the hero, the discussion was on whether the curls on his hair are real or fake. On Friday, England players found his deliveries as mysterious as his hair. Despite his age, neither has his hair greyed nor have his deliveries lost the pace. He will continue to remain the ‘master of the round-arm fling deliveries’.
It is not all work and no play for journalists this Friday. At the Hampshire Bowl, the India-Afghanistan pre-match press conference was held at their indoor cricket facility. Since there were a bat, ball and stumps, many journalists decided to practice like the two teams. With no pads and the quick surface, many were hit on their leg but their enthusiasm to emulate the teams kept them going.
Incidentally, the ICC has organsied a cricket match for the media on July 7 in Manchester, two days before the first semi-final. This match will be played between journalists from England and the Rest of the World.
Afghanistan fans came to Hampshire Bowl ground cheering all the way despite knowing that it would be tough for their team to beat India.
Almost every fan had their face painted with their country’s flag. When I reminded journalists that Afghanistan was my ‘home team,’ only then did they realise that Sharjah is considered Afghanistan’s home ground and that the UAE is the venue for their home international matches.
Friday, June 21
Dhoni’s guiding hand is like that of Amit Shah for India cricket team
Prime ministers following cricket boosts the game and players
Southampton: Isn’t it remarkable for cricket that even national leaders around the world are now following the performance of their country in the World Cup? It is well known that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is not only following the fortunes of his team but also offering them advice. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has tweeted on Shikhar Dhawan’s injury saying that the “pitch will miss him”.
When cricket is the most popular game in subcontinent countries, it is now important for leaders of the countries to keep a tab on events around the game. Thus a sporting tweet goes a long way. One can well imagine the pressure on every India player when the whole country is focused on their performance. For many in the team, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is like the BJP’s Amit Shah, who schemed Modi’s return to power. Dhoni was seen bowling to some batsmen to help them improve their technique. In fact, after his playing days, Dhoni is likely to be regularly visiting his Cricket Academy he has set up in Dubai. Most Team India players look up to him not only as a guide, but also for a morale boost.
When the whole country’s focus is on the team, it is no wonder they toil hard under the watchful eyes of coach Ravi Shastri and the trainers. To remain as fit as possible, they work out every part of their body through arm, leg and shoulder strengthening exercises before sharpening their skills.
Watching them work so hard and the pain they endure, one tends to feel bad for them when they are criticised heavily after a failure. They train to take catches in this chilly weather when even lifting your luggage hurts the palm. Hand-warmers are used by all, but it still hurts when the catches are hit hard and when they train for slip catches. The good part about it is that they make sure they laugh and enjoy the process. Rohit Sharma was seen cracking jokes whenever he missed throwing the ball to a single stump.
Some of the budding cricketers training at the Rose Bowl were thrilled when Indian skipper Virat Kohli, Hardik Pandya and Lokesh Rahul conducted a short clinic for them on request from the ICC. The Bowl, home for the Hampshire County team, shows great respect for cricketers, cricket commentators, and writers. That tradition of admiring and adoring great players was displayed by the children when they mixed with Kohli. They were thrilled to listen to him and be close to him.
Right in front of the press conference room there is a pictorial tribute to John Arlott, the legendary commentator who was known as the ‘Voice of English cricket.’ Gordon Ross, a journalist who was associate editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, lauds Arlott saying: “John Arlott’s writing is an embellishment of the game of cricket with a style indelibly established in character.”
One also spots on the wall a list of Hampshire cricketers who became Wisden Cricketers of the year from 1900, the last being Kevin Pietersen. The value attributed to Wisden Almanack made me feel proud that as writer I too got the opportunity to contribute to this historic book this year.
At venues where cricket is revered, it feels like the game spontaneously blossoms to it full beauty.
Thursday, June 20
On the rails to Southampton as 'Men in blue' keep in trim
UAE the topic of discussion among journalists once again
Southampton: Be it a cricketer, reporter or an official, all are on the road during the World Cup. Since trains are a convenient way to get around the UK, one can also say that most of them are on the rails. Unlike the 2015 World Cup in Australia, here one does not have to fly for long hours to reach the next venue. The race from one venue to another in about three or four days and living out of suitcase seems to make time fly as fast as South African pacer Kagiso Rabada’s delivery.
After a cricketer plays a brilliant knock in a match, he is sometimes given a title by writers as well as fans. Kane Williamson, after his stupendous match-winning unbeaten century against South Africa, is being addressed as King Kane. When England skipper Eoin Morgan hit his aggressive century, he was called Superman. However, whether West Indies Chris Gayle plays a breezy knock or goes for a duck, he will remain the Universe Boss for everyone.
Is it a coincidence that teams that do not have players with such titles are not doing well? There was a time when Pakistan and Sri Lanka had players with nicknames such as Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi for Pakistan and Sanath ‘Matara Marauder’ Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka. The absence of players with such fear-evoking monikers is showing in their performances too.
Some teams have performed so badly that headlines like ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Fear is the Key’ are being given by newspapers back home. Afghanistan team players who got involved in a restaurant brawl are now being criticised for showing their aggressive traits off the field rather than in it.
Once again the UAE became the topic of discussion among journalists as soon as news came out that the BCCI has turned down Afghanistan Cricket Board’s request to host their T20 league in India. Many wanted to know whether the league would go back to Sharjah again. Similarly, when news that Yuvraj Singh, who had recently retired from cricket, had sought permission from the BCCI to play in a league abroad, many thought that Yuvraj may have requested to play in the PSL next year, which is also likely to be held in UAE.
At Southampton, when the Indian players came out for practice, many onlookers spotted that Hardik Pandya, leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, captain Virat Kohli, and wicketkeeper MS Dhoni had all had a haircut. Comments went around that Kohli was groomed as his wife, Bollywood star Anushka Sharma, arrived ahead of India’s match against Afghanistan.
This diary was being written right next to where the India team is training but a slight drizzle has forced me to run for the cover to protect my laptop. While on one side Bhuvneshwar Kumar is being attended by the Indian team physiotherapist for his hamstring injury by making him run up and down the steps, on the ground Rishabh Pant, who recently joined the team, was seen doing arm strengthening exercises. The way the team warmed up with a football game made one wonder whether these guys would be good enough to carve out a career in football if they never made it as cricketers.
Wednesday, June 19
For Eoin Morgan, UAE’s T-10 league is the best!
Southampton: After Pakistan was asked to score an impossible 136 runs in five overs against India at Old Trafford as per the Duckworth Lewis calculation because of rain, UAE’s T10 League has suddenly become a topic of discussion. Many journalists in the Press Box commented that only players who would have played in the UAE’s T10 League could at least come close to scoring at that impossible rate.
Regular occurrence of the D/L calculation, which has often demanded impossible targets from teams, could lead more cricketers to play in UAE’s T10 League if another World Cup is hosted in a country where there could be a potential threat.
Eoin Morgan, who captains Kerala Knights in the T10 League, drew the attention of many to this UAE-borne tournament on the eve of his match against Afghanistan when asked about his numerous likes on Instagram. To a query on whether he likes the IPL or the Big Bash league, he surprised the questioner by naming UAE’s T10 league!
Is his love for the T10 format which helped him hit that breezy century against Afghanistan? Some of the English dailies have described Morgan as ‘superhuman’ after hitting 17 sixes in his 77-ball knock of 144 and that Duckworth and Lewis can relax with the hope that someday someone would match their impossible calculation which has sunk many teams in the rain.
The top revenue earner during this rain-affected World Cup must surely be the restaurants, since nearly all of them seem to be doing brisk business. There are a number of Indian restaurants all over, but the surprising thing is that not all of them working there are Indians. A journalist committed the mistake of telling the waiter at an Indian restaurant that Bangladesh will be made to feel like a cat and not a ‘Tiger’ (as they are addressed) when they play against India. After listening to the entire conversation, the waiter informed him that he was a Bangladeshi! Most of the waiters in Indian restaurants are from Bangladesh.
In Birmingham, when the New Zealand and South African cricketers peeped out of their dressing room window to look at the skies, a fan remarked that they looked like chickens peeping out to find out whether the sun was out so that they could search for their food. “Please send your rain to some of the places in India where there is a near-drought,” remarked an Indian fan to an English volunteer.
Tuesday, June 18
The great Sarfaraz yawn cover-up theory
The big sleep follows the noise of Old Trafford
Southampton: Cricketers could soon come to the conclusion that yawning without covering their mouth could impact their career. Pakistan skipper Sarfaraz Ahmad has realised that a yawn could end up putting his captaincy in danger since the image of him yawning during Cricket World Cup defeat to India on Sunday, that too while keeping wickets, has gone viral.
Though many angry fans have said that he should head home and get enough sleep, there is also a group who support him. According to them, he was about to sneeze and his critics have converted it into a yawn. However, had he followed the etiquette of covering his mouth while yawning — or sneezing, for that matter — it would have been helpful.
An India-Pakistan match is emotionally draining for most. The pressure and tension affects cricketers, the volunteers, who had a tough time, and journalists too. On the train back from Manchester to London, there were many fans and journalists and most of them were not just yawning, but sleeping. On the journey was Virendra Sehwag with his family and Indian team selector Sarandeep Singh. Sehwag, who had given many bowlers sleepless nights, preferred not to take a nap. A Pakistan journalist wanted to know about Sarandeep, whom they haven’t heard about at all. Very few know that this Amritsar-born cricketer had once hit an unbeaten 39 on a fast Georgetown wicket to help Rahul Dravid complete his century and go on to score 144 runs in 2002. Though he played only three Test matches, he took six wickets in his debut match against Zimbabwe in 2000.
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After listening to hours of screaming fans in Manchester and reaching a quiet Southampton, I feel like my ears have opened up after a block. All matches between subcontinental teams can be very noisy, and in some stadiums even the window panes rattle. A volunteer from England remarked that one day these fans would literally bring the roof of a stadium down. An Indian journalist has found a way to keep away the noise as he always puts on headphones, and many think he works for the television since his ears are always covered. He discovered this method when he was once seated in the overflow area of the press box with the crowd.
Shoaib Akhtar’s scathing attack on the Pakistan players has made his official YouTube channel popular, especially after calling Pakistan skipper Sarfaraz “brainless”. His remarks have proved that Akhtar is brainy enough to ensure good viewership for his channel. The Pakistan team would surely have included watching Akhtar’s channel as one of things they should not be doing during a World Cup because any cricketer who watches it can end up feeling that all his skills have drained off.
Casual comments from fans are always imaginative. After watching Lokesh Rahul and Hardik Pandya’s form, one supporter feels that the only way they can be stopped is by organising another spot on Johar Karan’s ‘Koffee With Karan’ talk show.
Afghanistan’s batting has been so poor in this tournament that a fan said that they have forgotten the basics and that after their next match against the strong Indian batsmen, their bowlers too would forget their basics.
Monday, June 17
Spirit of cricket rides over political differences
Manchester: India and Pakistan fans came to the ground taunting each other. Fans from both countries cheered with fierce enthusiasm for their team right from the start. When India began to dominate proceedings, Pakistan fans were silenced. And when in the end India recorded a crushing victory, many of their fans, though they celebrated the victory, did not go about mocking Pakistan fans.
India had dominated the match throughout, except for the phase when Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman threatened to steer their team to the target. So there wasn’t really any phase that the Pakistan fans could really express their joy and wave their flags. The Bharat Army, the noisy cheerleaders of the India fans, had a huge flag and the faithful made sure that it fluttered throughout the match, while Pakistan had only a few occasions to wave their flags. In the end, when Pakistan were asked to score 136 runs in five overs, it seemed as if even the rain rule was mocking at them.
Shoaib Malik, who has often been the star performer against India, was targeted by the fans following his duck. Some even pointed out that he had wrapped his fingers with tape to avoid feeling the pain while fielding, and was snubbed saying he had four kilos of plaster to every finger and his hands resembled like a boxer.
A Pakistan journalist seated near me remarked: “The bane of Pakistan team is the batsmen’s shot selection and team selection.” Fans were hollering so much during the start that an English volunteer noted: “A screaming competition should be organised for India and Pakistan fans.”
A video of Indian wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s four-year-old daughter and reserve wicketkeeper Rishabh sharing a funny moment with both shouting on the top of their voices has now gone viral.
Rain tried to show its importance time and again and announced that the match was being held at its mercy. However fans were very happy that at least 90 overs could be played. Dubai’s cricket enthusiast Shyam Bhatia, who never misses an India-Pakistan match, was also there. Despite his wife recovering from a knee surgery and on crutches, he flew in with her for the match. “Most of the India-Pakistan matches in the World Cup have been one-sided. I love intense competition but never will ever miss an India-Pakistan match and my best so far has been the 2003 World Cup India-Pakistan match at Centurion where Sachin Tendulkar and Virendra Sehwag went berserk,” said Bhatia.
Most of the Pakistan fans left immediately after their skipper Sarfaraz Ahmad’s wicket fell. “Please remember you have seen many lasts in this match. It will be the last match for Malik, this will be the last time Sarfaraz will lead, last for coach Mickey Arthur and selector Inzamam-ul-Haq,” remarked a Pakistan fan.
While there is huge animosity between the two countries politically and outside the field, on the field there wasn’t any. Pakistan pacer Wahab Riaz slipped and fell on his follow through, and Indian skipper Virat Kohli walked up to him and checked if he was fine. There were many fans who had stitched the India and Pakistan team jersey together and worn them as one. So could we then say that the spirit of cricket overrides all political differences between the two countries?
Sunday, June 16
'Pow' Bhaji and gunpowder fries spice up fans
The first thing almost every cricket fan in Manchester is likely to have done on waking up would be to look at the sky for any sign of clouds. A number of fans are in the same hotel as mine, from where one can get a good view of the Old Trafford ground. Many fans, especially Indian fans, actually came out of the hotel building to see whether the colour of the sky was as blue as the colour of their team’s jersey.
If you have a ticket for an India-Pakistan match, then you can consider yourself a rich man because there are people willing to give you any money to get it. When the ticket sales were opened, they were sold out in minutes and over 700,000 people had applied for them. The seating capacity is only 19,000.
Restaurants here today have opened earlier than usual to cater to the demands from the Indian and Pakistan fans with dishes that cater to their taste. Keeping in mind the likelihood of rain, many fried items were listed on the menu displayed outside. Pav Bhaji, which is popular in both countries, was misspelt as Pow Bhaji. Since cricket is a war without any armed ammunition, was it deliberately misspelt to remind people of the Prisoners of War (POW)? One really does not know. But interestingly, they also had Gunpowder Fries on their menu!
The ICC has always served English breakfast to journalists, but today they included items that catered to the large number of journalists who are here from India and Pakistan. Channa Masala and Paratha was just one among the many. There was also a special mention that all chicken would be Halal. Lunch included Chicken Makhani and Daal tarka. The menu for the big day was displayed during the pre-match press conference and hence a few journalists were heard saying that they would come in earlier than usual since they had been getting only English breakfast at all their hotels.
Black-marketeers looking for potential buyers are like mosquitoes buzzing around your ear. The demand for tickets is so high that even the Indian captain hasn’t been able to help his friends, something that he revealed at the pre-match press conference. “I have been given only a limited number of tickets, and hopefully I will be able to accommodate some family members with it. Hopefully not many more people will ask me for tickets.”
To all his friends who have asked him whether they should come for the match, he is said to have told them: “Ghar me ache ache TV hai, aaram se dekho (you have a nice TV at home; relax and watch on it).
India’s die-hard fans group called Bharat Army does a number of things besides cricket. On the eve of the match they organised a concert in Manchester called ‘Bharat Ke Saath’. Posters inviting every fan was stuck on the walls outside Old Trafford.
Considering the possibility of arguments taking place between fans, the ICC has prominently displayed at the entrance items that are banned from being taken into the ground. These include knives and large flags with protruding poles - those longer than a hand width.
When a tense Kohli could not sleep until 6am
Although Virat Kohli is hailed as one of the finest batsmen in the game today, after failing against Pakistan once, he is said to have had a sleepless night. He has been a part of many tense matches between the two arch rivals, he revealed how tense he was during a Champions Trophy match in 2009.
"Yuvi (Yuvraj Singh) had fractured a finger, and I was literally flown in right away and in two days’ time I was playing against Pakistan at Centurion. I hadn't experienced anything like that before, and I played a very bad shot,. After that I couldn't sleep until six in the morning. I was looking at the ceiling and thinking to myself...this is it...I've been flown in, and now I'm finished. So that was the most tense moment I've experienced,” he revealed.
The Indian captain was then dismissed by Shahid Afridi for 16 in that match and India lost to Pakistan by 54 runs.
Then when he was queried on which was his funniest moment during an India-Pakistan match, he could not explain, but laughed recalling it. “There have been many funny moments over the years. I can't explain the incident clearly, but it happened during the World Cup. In Mohali there was a small incident that I witnessed from the opposition side...but I cant really elaborate it here (laughs). But that was quite funny.”
When prodded further and asked if he could point out the the people involved in it, Kohli said: “It was involving Shahid Afridi and Wahab (Riaz). I was standing with the strikers, and I heard a conversation, which as I said, I can't elaborate here. But its a high pressure game...so that made me laugh is all I can say.”
Saturday, June 15
Abhinandan moustache and India-Pakistan fans’ taunts
Manchester: For the first time in England, I have felt that I have arrived in a city where World Cup is being held. As soon as you come out of the majestic Manchester Piccadilly Railway station, there is a huge billboard welcoming everyone saying: “Manchester, the proud host city of the World Cup.”
World Cup flags flutter on either sides of the street. My taxi driver to the hotel was Naveed Anjum, a Pakistani, who quickly realised that I have come for the India-Pakistan match.
He said that he has been taking Indian and Pakistan fans around the city for the last two days. The sense of excitement around is palpable, something that was missing all these days during the World Cup.
The first person I met as soon as I got out of the train to was Rajshekhar Rao, the ICC Media Manager, who was with a big group of journalists from India.
There were many cricket fans in the train too, almost all of them sporting Team India’s blue jersey. All of them had just one wish... that it should not rain on Sunday.
Outside the railway station is the very touching bronze sculpture of seven blind figures guiding each other and walking together.
It has been built in memory of the 3,000 military veterans who lost their sight during their service in the First World War.
Pakistan fans and journalists had arrived a day earlier, and many were already at the Old Trafford watching them train at the indoor stadium.
Hotels and apartments in and around Old Trafford are filled with fans. Once again, from the window of my apartment, I can see the stadium and it was disappointing to see the rain soaking it on Friday night.
I have always enjoyed listening to talks among Indian and Pakistan fans, be it in the train, hotel or in supermarkets.
An Indian, who sports a moustache similar to India’s famous wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was held captive for 60 hours in Pakistan after his aircraft was shot down in Pakistan, had a tough time explaining to a few people that he had not shaped his moustache for this match but has always had one even before Abhinandan flew into Pakistan.
A visit to the supermarket nearby was as if I was in Dubai since most customers there were either Pakistanis and Indians.
“I have heard of cloud seeding for rain, are there procedures for rain to stop?” a fan was heard asking and having a hearty laugh. It is hard to make out who is an Indian or a Pakistan fan unless they are seen sporting something on them in support of their team.
An Indian fan taunted a Pakistan fan telling him to pray for the blue, which is Team India’s outfit. When he replied in negative, he asked: “Don’t you want a blue sky tomorrow?”
Restaurants here are busy displaying Indian and Pakistan food on the menu board.
A group of journalists while entering a supermarket were stopped by three young Pakistan boys who requested them to visit their supermarket saying they had better prices for cricket fans. “Is it ambush marketing?” asked one of the journalists to the boys.
Some fans have arrived with banners carrying pictures of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan.
Modi, known for his travels around the world, should have made a trip to Old Trafford too since Imran Khan had already played on this ground!
Friday, June 14
Staring at the sky from seat No. 1
Rain puts a dampener on things at Trent Bridge
Nottingham: The patient wait by cricket fans at Trent Bridge hoping that the India-New Zealand match may commence was a display of their intense passion for the game.
By the scheduled start time, most fans were seated as it wasn’t raining. Then began the slight drizzle and a few opted to look for cover.
But most of them sat through the shower staring at the skies for the dark clouds to move away.
It was nice to see the groundsmen, who are otherwise never applauded, being cheered each time they rolled the covers. They rolled them up three times but the rain refused to be sporting.
I was allotted seat No. 1 in the warm press box. This is the first time that I have been allotted the first seat in a press box and I had really wished that I would be able to report the match from there.
To get a feel of what was going on among the fans, I walked out and realised that they were braving the windy and chilly weather hoping for at least a 20-over match.
There were many Indian team supporters from different parts of the world who had come for this match.
Some of them were those who had not been able to manage a ticket for the India-Pakistan match and had then opted to watch this contest instead.
I spotted Anis Sajan, UAE cricket enthusiast and team mentor of Bengal Tigers in the UAE’s T10 tournament with his family at the Derek Randall suite balcony.
“It is a shame that every second game is getting washed out. The World Cup should have been held in July, but they wanted to hold the Ashes then. Is Ashes more important than the World Cup?” he asked.
A similar view was expressed by many others in the stadium. Although these fans will be refunded the ticket money, they stand to lose out on what they have spent on travel and hotel stay here.
Now fans also fear that if the India-Pakistan clash also gets washed out then the charm of the World Cup would be lost. Many from the stands tried to cheer themselves by singing some songs outside the stadium.
Two people played the guitar and a saxophone standing on a spot that was labelled ‘hot spot’. A fan who stood watching them remarked that there was not a single ‘hot spot’ in this cold stadium.
Another fan who danced to the tune of the music being played was heard telling onlookers that it was a ‘rain dance’.
The World Cup standings table is now began circulated with ‘Rain’ as the top team with eight points, followed by New Zealand in second place. New Zealand, known as the ‘Land of Long White Cloud’, found themselves in a Land of Long Dark Clouds that refused to leave the stadium. In the press box, I met Sundar Raman, former Chief Operating Officer of the Indian Premier League, with whom I had once shared a stage during a talk show in Dubai. Recognising me, Raman said: “If only the UAE had more grounds, it would have been the ideal place for a World Cup with hardly any rain threat.”
A journalist standing near me wondered if I could explain to him why the umpires were holding umbrellas over their heads while walking out to inspect the pitch when the rain had subsided. “Do they want to show off their colourful umbrellas or is it that that the organisers knew it would rain and hence had got these World Cup umbrellas made in advance?” he quipped.
Thursday, June 13
Trent Bridge where everything is tweaked to cricket
Nottingham: Trent Bridge ground is one of the most magnificent cricket grounds in England. It has a mix of modern style and tradition attached to it. The facilities are modern but at the same time they have ensured that the rich tradition of the ground, which was opened in 1890, is maintained. Everything in and around the ground is tweaked to cricket.
Even a request to discard the chewing gum into the dust bin is shown as a message board on the walls of the ground with the title ‘sticky wicket’. Even though almost everyone is aware that India play New Zealand here, they have made it a point to display on the board as to who is playing whom and what time will the game start.
Trent Bridge takes its name from the river just to the east of the ground. The story behind the naming of the ground is that one William Clarke acquired a field behind the Trent Bridge Inn in 1838, which his wife used to manage. This inn still exists, and is adjacent to the ground. Being an entrepreneur, Clarke first made it as a pay-to-enter cricket ground. Years later it went on to become the home of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.
The press box is beautifully designed. Anyone who wishes to enter must key in a password for the door to open. It is right above the sightscreen, and hence when bowlers run up to bowl from the press box end, no one is allowed to move. The positioning of the view point shows the respect the ground’s administration has for journalists. This venue also has a Cricket Writers’ Club that was founded in 1946.
There is big board inside the press box that displays names of all those who had held top positions in this club, and it was good to see the names of great cricket writers such as Neville Cardus, EW Swanton, John Woodcock and Christopher Martin-Jenkins among them.
The ground also gives a lot of respect to former cricketers, and that is something special. For example, some waiting areas are named after Richard Hadlee and Gary Sobers.
The total ambience in and around the ground is everything related to cricket, and is surely a model that could be followed by other cricket stadiums around the world. Despite the rains, fans began to arrive way before the gates were opened. In and around the venue are many restaurants named after Indian cities like Bombay and Delhi. A kiosk inside the ground sells vegetarian burgers called the ‘Bombay Bad Boy’. One wondered whether it was named so because the majority of the crowd here are non-vegetarians.
All tickets have been sold out for this match, and while I was walking to the ground I heard people ask whether I was looking to buy a ticket. Despite the rain threat, tickets are being sold on the black market at a very high price. It was interesting to see the innovation of some touts. A man stands holding a placard saying: “I don’t have tickets for this match,” and when you go near him he offers you tickets at a hiked price.
Wednesday, June 12
Indian team unwind by watching Salman Khan flick
Nottingham: Ever since the troll in social media saying ‘Sri Lanka wins the toss and elected to swim first’ was posted, fans are busy coining jokes on the rain that has washed away some important matches of this ICC World Cup. Never before have fans valued the appearance of umpires so much like they did during this tournament when a number of matches have been hit repeatedly by rain.
In Bristol, when the sun appeared briefly and the umpires walked out to inspect the ground, they were cheered all the way and given a standing ovation. They were hoping for the umpires to instruct the ground staff to remove the covers over the pitch for match to begin. Unfortunately that did not happen in all the three matches.
Again in Bristol, the sun appeared so bright after the rains that Wasim Akram had to put on his sunglasses, looking as dashing as ever. The colourful World Cup umbrella that the umpires carry has the Emirates logo printed on it, and it is surely getting great mileage since as umpires are often seen on the ground inspecting the pitch during a rain-hit day.
As soon as the World Cup commenced, many had predicted that most matches would be highscoring to the tune of around 500 runs in an innings. But now the situation is that not a single run is being recorded, clearly revealing the other side of the mighty uncertainty of cricket and the English weather. The chances of a few matches turning into Twenty20 contests are also looming large.
Meanwhile, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s army logo on his gloves had kept many journalists busy since many of them were churning out a number of stories about his gesture. Talk about this incident continued in the Press box, and one of the suggestions in zest was that since Dhoni is so devoted to the army he should be made the Defence Minister of India after his retirement. Since Dhoni was responsible for the Indian team sporting the army’s camouflage cap before, will he now urge the whole team to march onto the field with any other experiment for the match against Pakistan?
Bharat Army is the global supporters group of the Indian cricket team. They are likely to very pleased with the name of their group since their group’s name had the word Army much before Dhoni had shown his support. A look at their website reveals that their values are ‘Loyalty, Passion and Respect.’ Loyalty to be the 12th man/woman whether win, lose or draw; Passion for Team India - home and away and respect all players, teams and fans, both on and off the field.
After the win against Australia, some Team India players took time off to watch the latest Bollywood movie ‘Bharat’. It seems Kedar Jadhav is a Salman Khan fan since he has posted a picture with all those who went for movie on his twitter with senior member Dhoni among them.
Tuesday, June 11
It’s a cold, cold Nottingham as rains refuse to go away
Nottingham: It rained all the way from London to Nottingham on Monday. The taxi driver who drove me to the Victoria Coach station from where I would catch the bus to Nottingham was from Somalia. Strangely, as soon as I entered the car, he greeted me in Hindi.
He kept speaking in Hindi all the way to show off his knowledge of the language that he had picked up from his Indian friend with whom he lives. When he learnt that I live in Dubai, he told me he had come there when he was doing a cargo business.
As we passed the Oval Stadium, he remarked that Indians and Pakistanis are cricket ‘pagal’ (crazy). The bus journey took nearly five hours due to the rain. It also got very chilly and my fingers went numb - making it nearly impossible for me to lift my luggage. That was when I realised that I should have carried a handwarmer like Adam Zampa did during the match against India, and which is now being alleged as an attempt to tamper the ball.
However, whether the temperature at the Oval was so cold that he needed one is debatable, but it would have definitely helped me here. The joke after the Zampa incident is that Australia’s clothing supplier should, from now on, sew up their players’ pant pockets since they have the habit of carrying anything into the ground. A security check of the clothing, as they do before entering a flight, wouldn’t be a bad idea rather than have some of their best players get caught and banned.
My co-passenger on the bus was amused that I was travelling all the way from London to Nottingham in the rain to report cricket. “I don’t like cricket. I enjoy football, and you know, it can even be played in the rain,” he remarked.
The hotel I am staying in Nottingham is very close to the Trent Bridge Stadium and I get a very good view of the ground from my room. I am writing this diary looking at the rain-soaked ground from my room. Despite being soaked in rain, the World Cup flags seem to be still fluttering indicating it is very windy too, and that I would need all my warm clothes to go there.
Some fans here blame the Indian Premier League for the ICC having to schedule the World Cup in June during the rain, and also England who do not want to postpone the dates for the popular Ashes series. An Indian fan at Nottingham announced with confidence that India will beat New Zealand here. According to him, the ‘Black Caps’ as the New Zealand team is known, will have to return with black faces.
The rain has always been a spoiler for South Africa during the World Cup, but this time it seems like all the points that they may collect will be from the rain abandoned matches only. As the rain kept pouring in many venues, people wondered why the bails alone do not fall off. It seems the super glue used to fix the lights on the bails has made it heavy.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan player Mohammad Shahzad’s statement that he has been ruled unfit to play when he claims to be fit to play has become a laughing matter. Many feel that with a bulging stomach he never ever looked fit and all that Afghanistan cricket board did was to confirm it this time!
Monday, June 10
AR Rahman's hit songs boost victory celebrations
The celebrations after India’s impressive win over reigning World Champions Australia was like they have already won the ICC 2019 World Cup! Indian fans left stadium premises only after they were satisfied with celebrating their team’s triumph.
The Oval tube station is just at the entrance of the Oval stadium, so fans who wish to prolong their victory celebration prefer to use the Vauxhall tube station that is about a 15-minute walk from the stadium. The victory celebrations began from the moment Australia’s Glenn Maxwell got out since they know that he can single-handedly win a match.
And the organisers set the mood by playing the song ‘We Will Rock You’ between overs, thereby further exciting fans to go beserk dancing to the tune. When Australian batsman Usman Khawaja was at the crease, a section of the crowd was heard singing the popular sufi song ‘ Khwaja mere khwaja’, composed by Oscar award-winning music director A R Rahman in the hit Bollywood film 'Jodha Akbar'.
Outside the ground, most preferred to march with Rahman’s another hit number ‘Jai Ho’ from the Slumdog Millionaire . “We steamrollered Australia,” screamed a fan loudly, almost into my ears.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly every seat in the stadium was occupied by Indian fans. When I wondered about the absence of Australian fans, I was told that three-fourths of the tickets were bought by the Indians. An English supporter then added that whoever brought the rest must have sold it, also to Indians, for triple the price!
Shikhar Dhawan, the hero of Indian win, has a special connection with Australia since he is married to Melbourne-based Ayesh Mukherjee of British-Bengali origin. Dhawan’s nickname is Gabbar since he can play the role of a villain well. He enjoys twirling his moustache, and at the same time laughs a lot. Once on a flight, I was seated next to Dhawan and Harbhajan Singh, and the number of jokes they cracked and laughed made many passengers turn their heads to find out what was going on. Incidentally, his wife was introduced to Dhawan by Harbhajan. In the 2015 World Cup at the Melbourne ground, Dhawan had cracked 137 against South Africa, which is considered one of the finest knocks in the World Cup.
Very few know that Dhawan’s best comes during big tournaments. He has been India’s top scorer in all three 50-over world tournaments since his debut - in the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy, the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup and the 2017 Champions Trophy. Has he started off well this time too to become the top scorer in this World Cup as well?
A few enthusiastic youngsters posed before a World Cup billboard to take pictures, and it looked like as if they were carrying the World Cup on their head. Among the boys was a Dhruv Kanwar Singh, a former student of St Mary’s school, Dubai. He captains the Kingstonian Cricket Club third XI team here, and had managed to get tickets for India’s matches. A few other Indian boys, referring to the next match against New Zealand, shouted “Kiwis, here we come. Run for cover!’
A kiosk inside the Oval ground was selling the famous Gray Nicolls bat. A bat-maker was seen creating his masterpieces, and a few youngsters inspired by India’s batting, were seen checking out the bats.
Sunday, June 9
Indian fans outnumber Australians at The Oval
London: The scenes outside The Oval were unbelievable on Sunday. Indian fans outnumbered the Australians and marched all the way - raising slogans in support of their team. All fans were in for a pleasant surprise when they were welcomed at the entrance of the Oval with a Bollywood dance routine by English women. Many of the Indian fans cheered the dancers. Most were dressed in the Indian team outfit, and some were seen sporting a turban in tricolours.
A three-wheeler autorickshaw was transformed into a temporary kiosk by two English men who were painting flags on fans’ faces.
Which team do you support? This is a question I’ve always been asked and my reply was that I support the team that plays best cricket. Most journalists at the stadium here follow their country’s team, but since I represent the UAE, they wonder which team would I be following in this tournament. And because my response is that I will be going to all those venues that is humanly possible, all they do is laugh!
I have raced from one venue to another during all the seven World Cups that I have reported so far. I always believed that if one can keep away the feeling of ‘having a favourite team’ and just focus on cricket that the players produce, one is not only able to enjoy writing about the game but also savour the beauty of this game.
The Oval ground
As a reporter, walking into venues like the Oval gives goosebumps since this is where cricket has been played from 1845 when a food market was transformed into a cricket ground. A fan is able to enjoy good cricket only if the pitch is created in a manner that it helps produce an even contest that challenges the batsman and bowler alike. No one really bothers about who made that pitch, and it is only criticised when it does not turn in favour of their team’s strength.
The Oval ground has a board that has names of the head groundsman from 1845 put up. It is with so much reverence that a groundsman is appreciated for his hard work, and I believe all grounds around the world should follow this norm. Every match played enters the cricket record books mentioning the exploits of the cricketers, but it is the groundsman who has set the stage for that and he is never mentioned. Having a wall recognising these unsung heroes, and that to on a historic ground, goes a long way.
The World Cup is only 11 days old but there have been upsets, controversies, breath-taking catches and debates between journalists on why some teams have done well and some not. When the tournament began, did anyone ever think that South Africa would reach the brink of being pushed out of the World Cup? It is these uncertanities of the World Cup that glorifies the game too!
Saturday, June 8
Round table with legends on a rainy day in Bristol
Just below the press box, the organisers had placed tables with chairs for refreshments. Sipping hot coffee and enjoying the pastries while sitting with Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Rameez Raja on a table wiped away the gloom that rain had brought into the ground.
Sri Lanka’s legend Kumar Sangakkara too dropped in for a while. Along with the variety of sweets, the ICC also had kept healthy snacks like digestive biscuits and fruits, as well as green tea.
Dessert was the famous ‘strawberries and cream’. When matches between Asian countries are held, the ICC makes sure there is rice served along with a few vegetarian dishes similar to those available in these countries.
All these legends, though retired, looked in great shape. Sangakkara, like AB De Villiers, looked fit enough to offer himself to play for Sri Lanka again if their batting fails.
It was a delight for the crowd when Akram and Waqar stood in the balcony close to each other and waved at the crowd. Having reported many of their matches over the years, I’ve always wondered whether Pakistan will ever produce the likes of these two ever again.
I’ve travelled with them to numerous venues over the years and the warmth with which they greet whenever we meet gives a special feeling. They express their personal views freely since they have the confidence that their private views will never be reported as a ‘scoop.’
However, former Pakistan pacer Shoaib Akhtar is on a spree to antagonise everyone with his blunt statements.
After his tirade on Safaraz Ahmad’s fitness, following which he had to swallow his own words when the Pakistan skipper went on to hit a half century against England, he has now hit out at AB De Villiers for choosing money over his nation and opting to play in T20 leagues instead of the World Cup.
It seems like by the time the World Cup is over, Akhtar will have enough material to write a book on ‘how to make enemies with cricketers.’
The Bristol ground is located in a residential area and the approach road turns into a one way street when cars are parked on one side.
One has to walk a long way to the main street to get a bus or a taxi, and on the way there are many fruit and vegetable shops, and one of them was called Three Wise Monkeys. Was it named to convey the message - speak no evil, hear no evil and eat no evil - and remain healthy?
On arrival at the London’s Paddington station after close to a two hour journey from Bristol, there was an orchestra group performing at the station. Listening to their soothing music wiped away the disappointment of a fully washed-out match and the tiredness of a long journey.
Friday, June 7
In rain soaked Bristol with Waqar and memories of Tendulkar
Bristol: It’s always exciting being with cricket-crazy fans. They come up with some strange observations and their comments are often hilarious. On the train from London’s Paddington station to Bristol, there were a few supporters from Pakistan.
A fellow passenger asked one of them about Pakistan’s chances against Sri Lanka, and he remarked with a smile: “To predict about my unpredictable team is like predicting the English weather correctly in the morning.”
Strangely as the train approached Bristol, it began to rain heavily. The station before Bristol is called Bath Spa and many fans got onboard soaked in the rain. “Looks like this station gives everyone a free bath to live up to its name,” remarked one treveller.
It wasn’t easy to get or a bus or taxi from Bristol station. Many journalists were waiting in the long queue for a cab, and everyone quickly formed groups to share a ride, as most are used to doing in the subcontinent.
The heavy rain kept me away from shooting videos. Close to the gates of the stadium, a group of children cheered for Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A short distance away, some fans decided to play cricket in the parking lot since they were unable to sit on the seats soaked in rainwater.
All leading the cricket journalists from Pakistan, who regularly report their home side’s series in UAE, are here. Legendary pacer Waqar Younis, who is one of the commentators for Ten Sports, came out and sat with us in the press box. He enthralled everyone, especially the Pakistan journalists, with interesting tales from the past.
Bristol is the home to the Gloucestershire county team. A Pakistan fan at the entrance was someone who has watched all the matches played at this venue. When he realised I was from India, he went on to praise Sachin Tendulkar. He told me that he was from Bristol and has witnessed Tendulkar’s two centuries here. Bristol was one of Tendulkar’s favourite grounds, testimony to that is his average of 176 from 352 runs in three innings. It was at this very venue that Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar put on a 237-run unbeaten partnership against Kenya in the 1999 World Cup.
Soon after, another fan turned up, and he had a question for me. “Do you know that in the 1983 World Cup Sir Richard Hadlee destroyed Sri Lanka with a spell of 5-25 on this ground?” When I asked how he managed to remember so much about the ground, he said: “It’s there on the walls on the stadium; I wasn’t even born in 1983. But Pakistan waited for me to be born to win the World Cup in 1992,” he remarked and laughed loudly.
Close by a few fans were singing the age-old nursery rhyme ‘Rain, rain. go away ...’ but with a slight twist saying “... Pakistan wants to play.” It was followed by the famous chorus in Urdu” ‘Jeetegha bhai Jeetega, Pakistan Jeetega (Pakistan will continue to win)”.
Thursday, June 6
Down 3-0, it’s all doom and gloom in South African camp
Southampton: The plight of the South African team after their third successive defeat was shattering. They are all down and out as if going through a nightmare. The team is put up at the Hilton Hotel located in the stadium itself, and their rooms are just behind the press box. One could closely see them all returning to their rooms utterly disappointed.
There were no fans waiting to meet them near their dressing room and very few of them even turned up to watch the match live. After their defeat to India, the team walked through the ground from their dressing room to their rooms, heads down and drooping shoulders. While it is a fact that their team has been hit by injuries, especially their bowlers, the unfortunate part is that their top batsmen are also not performing to their potential.
So low is the team’s morale that their fielding too turned sloppy. When David Miller dropped an easy catch off Rahul Sharma, an English journalist commented: “They are now not only chokers, but catch droppers and losers as well. It’s back to school time for everyone.”
An Indian fan, reacting to a South African pacer calling Indian team captain Virat Kohli as immature in a recent interview, said the World Cup has proved that the whole South African team is immature.
Rahane at the press box
I was surprised to see India’s star batsman Ajinkya Rahane, who is not part of the World Cup team, with me in the lift to the press box. Rahane is playing for the Hampshire County team and was returning from the hotel gym. The unfortunate part is that if one is not part of the team, he cannot go anywhere near the Indian dressing room, although he had been sharing rooms with all of them only recently. Rahane had to introduce himself to get access to the gym, unlike in India, where all doors open for all top cricketers!
Except in and around the stadium, one finds it hard to believe that you are in a country where a World Cup is being held. Unlike in sub-continent countries where the whole city gets dressed up with World Cup banners, only a few could be seen around here. Due to cost issues, even televisions in the hotels do not show cricket. However, the BBC radio commentary is always available, and once inside the stadium, there is the Dubai based Channel 2 Group’s Cricket Radio that one could choose to listen to.
Former Indian Test star Sanjay Manjrekar even tweeted: “100 TV channels in our hotels in England, but no WC cricket on any of the channels! Strange land this...England.”
Wednesday, June 5
Walk with fans and Eid prayers for Tahir and Amla
Southampton: There is nothing more exciting than walking with cricket fans to the ground. The slogans they raise and their songs can often be very creative.
Many had coined lyrics in praise of Indian captain Virat Kohli - some even addressing him as ‘sexy’. While most of them were Kohli fans, those from South India named Mahendra Singh Dhoni as their favourite, especially those from Chennai. Dhoni captains the Chennai Super Kings team in the Indian Premier League.
The Uber taxi charged me nearly four times the usual fare from the hotel to the stadium for Wednesday’s game. The driver, who was from Kottayam in Kerala, revealed that trips to any place in demand will be costlier. However, if one is willing to be patient, there are other modes of transport to reach the ground that is located on the outskirts of Southampton on the south coast of England.
Trains run regularly from London to Southampton Airport Parkway rail station and so it is easy for fans from different parts of England to reach the venue. There is also a Funnel ferry terminal. Shuttle buses were filled with fans and most of them were seen carrying huge Indian flags.
A British lady was busy painting flags on the cheeks of the fans and most of the fans who alighted from the buses had lined up near her to have their faces painted. Hampshire Bowl is the home to the Hampshire County Cricket Club and was opened only in 2001.
On Monday night, I had met some Indian cricketers at an Indian restaurant and on Tuesday, it was the South African players at another Indian food joint. Since many of the South Africans play in the Indian Premier League regularly, they seem to like Indian food now. When I walked into the Coriander Lounge, another restaurant serving Indian food to order a takeaway, there was a big crowd at one end of the restaurant. Imran Tahir was there with his friends and family and customers were rushing up to him for selfies. Tahir willingly obliged them all.
Tahir had played for Hampshire second XI and made an impression and went on to play for the Hampshire County team. This explains his familiarity with the restaurants here that cater to his team members’ taste.
Tahir and Hashim Amla had attended Eid Prayers at the Southampton mosque before coming for training on Tuesday. Some locals channels flashed the news of both the cricketers being mobbed by worshipers. Pakistan umpire Aleem Dar, who is the reserve umpire for this match, also joined the two cricketers to the mosque.
The entrance to the Press Box at this stadium is through the upscale Hilton Hotel. The South African team stays in this hotel and their rooms are close to the Press Box. Since this hotel is away from the city, the Indian team preferred to stay in a hotel in the city.
There is a huge stand named after the Australian leg spinner Shane Warne on the left of the entrance of the stadium. He had played for Hampshire from 2000 to 2008 and is said to have also played a huge role in transforming this County team into a successful one.
Tuesday, June 4
Chennai Dosa with Indian cricketers in Southampton
Team India coach Ravi Shastri follows a policy of enjoying and playing cricket. While on the ground, he expects everyone to train hard. The team practiced from 9 am on most days and their work out was really intense. After the warm-up, they had a long session of fielding practice taking running catches from various angles, especially running backward. It was evident from the efforts being put in that everyone wanted to give their best. Since the weather was cold, that helped to put in as much effort as they wanted.
Watch: Team India train under the watchful eyes of coach Ravi Shastri
After Pakistan staged a comeback following a huge defeat, the Indian camp knows that South Africa too may try to bounce back from their two defeats to England and Bangladesh. All batsmen did mock running between the wickets before going to bat at the nets since it was meant to sharpen their reflexes and speed. Virat Kohli has shown how his fitness has made him a quick runner between the wickets; so everyone is looking to emulate his fitness and agility. During the training session, media were allowed in the stadium. So journalists got the opportunity to interact with the players. Mahendra Singh Dhoni posed for photographers while Kohli obliged with his autograph on his pictures. Mohammad Shami was particular that photographers give him a copy of the picture they had taken of him.
The Indian team is put up at a hotel not far away from where I stay. So when I came out for dinner, I spotted a few of them on the street. With over a hundred Indian restaurants in Southampton, Team India players preferred these restaurants for dinner.
Chennai Dosa is a popular eating joint in Southampton. A few journalists from India and I decided to have our dinner there. The restaurant boasts of serving authentic South Indian cuisine, including a variety of dosas. While we waited for our food to arrive, suddenly there was a commotion around. Indian cricketers Dinesh Karthik and Vijay Shankar had walked in, and since I was with journalists from some leading dailies in South India, they stopped to shake hands with all of us. And as soon as they sat down to place their order, almost everyone in the restaurant rushed to them for selfies. They patiently obliged each one of them. Also, since both the cricketers were from Chennai and many of those in the restaurant were from this state, they conversed in Tamil.
A teenage girl who managed to get a close selfie with them was so thrilled that she gave a thumbs up sign to everyone in the restaurant while her parents kept urging her to come back and finish her food. Most customers were seen eating with their eyes fixed on the two stars whom they otherwise get to see only on their TV screens. The two then left quickly before 9.45pm, maybe to ensure they do not break the curfew time for returning to their hotel rooms.
Monday, June 3
With the Indian team at Southampton
The Indian team is gearing up for their match against South Africa at Southampton. The team came in as early as 9am and trained hard. After the initial warm up in the cold weather, all of them indulged in fielding practice, especially slip catching.
With the ball moving a lot, a more focus was given for slip catching. All of them also practised running between the wickets before going into the nets.
Watch: Team India train under the watchful eyes of coach Ravi Shastri
Watch: Skipper Virat Kohli leaves after a long net practice
Watch: Mahendra Singh Dhoni comes out to practice
Watch: Star all rounder Hardik Pandya goes out for training
Watch: Dhawan doing running between wickets training with pads on
Watch: Slip catching training in progress
Watch: Mohammad Shami wants his photos taken
Watch: Dhawan obliges a fan
Sunday, June 2
When cricket acts as soothing balm for sorrows back home
Southampton: Sri Lankan fans who came for the Cardiff match were disappointed by the poor show from their team against New Zealand. They had come with drums and guitars, expecting their team to put up a good fight against the Kiwis. Though they could not get enough opportunities to use them during the match, they decided to wipe away their sorrow by beating the drums and playing the guitar outside the stadium after the match. It gave the impression that it was Sri Lankans who had won the match as even many New Zealand fans stood around them and seemed to be enjoying the songs and dance. In fact, a few of them even joined the group.
Since both countries had just experienced terror attacks in their countries, it was pleasant to see cricket act as a soothing balm to their sorrows back home.
Attracting more youngsters to the game can be considered as one of the more successful methods of keeping them away from being lured by the terror groups. The Afghan taxi driver who drove me to the hotel in Southampton was delighted to learn that I was reporting the cricket World Cup. He expressed his joy over Afghanistan’s rise in cricket. “I had left my country when Taliban was taking control. But I am very happy that more and more youngsters in my country want to be cricketers and are idolising players like Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi instead of following the wrong people and taking a dangerous path.”
It is only when one travels to different venues that you realise the big role that cricket plays in bringing people together. While in the stadium they may cheer for their own teams, but they travel and return to their homes together using public transport. The train from Cardiff to Southampton was packed with fans from both countries and it was good to see them all sharing seating space for everyone to travel together. In the Oval, it was interesting to see England and South African fans eat, drink and cheer cricket throughout the match.
While it is no secret that there is a huge rivalry between India and Pakistan, as well as between England and Australia, but personally cricketers have no animosity between them, and many of them are actually friends. It is here that Twenty20 cricket leagues like the Indian Premier League have played a huge role. Almost all players were playing, staying and travelling together for nearly 50 days before the World Cup.
After Sri Lanka and Pakistan were all out for scores around 100, it felt like I was reporting UAE’s popular T10 tournament since the scores were similar to what teams had posted in that tournament. The 10.30 am start for some of the matches has been a boon for many players who had played the sleep-deprived IPL matches where they finished very late. Advertisers are hoping that players post big scores and matches go the full length. Shorter matches have resulted in major loss of revenue for them as air time for their products have nearly got wiped away.
Saturday, June 1
Sarfaraz’s stomach, lovely Cardiff and the ordeal of being a Pakistani fan
The distance that one needs to cover to reach the different World Cup venues is amazing. But what makes it comfortable in England is the well-connected transport network making travel less difficult, but yet one needs to put in the effort to cover the long distances.
I write this diary on the train to Cardiff from Southampton for the New Zealand-Sri Lanka match. I left the hotel at 6am to catch the first train, and the journey through the mist covered countryside is stunning. Sipping hot coffee and munching a hot croissant, watching the beautiful landscape makes one forget the strain of the journey. It was a similar experience while travelling by bus from London to Southampton on Friday. I was so engrossed enjoying the countryside view that I hardly realised it had taken me two and half hours to reach my destination, and that too after having reported till late evening from the Oval ground on Thursday.
Pakistan’s huge defeat to West Indies has shaken the Pakistan fans here. My taxi driver at Southampton happened to be a Pathan from Peshawar. When he realised that I was a journalist reporting the World Cup, he began, “Leave Pakistan alone, don’t bother about them. They've always played this way. We feel happy when they win, but on most occasions, they disappoint us.”
He introduced himself as Bakht Nawab Khan and continued: “I never like to discuss my team with anyone and I never tell anyone that my team will win; but when they win I feel proud.” He answered a call on his phone through the speaker, and I heard him say that he was driving a cricket journalist to Hedge, near Rose Bowl ground. The person on the other side immediately wanted to know how one could get tickets for the Pakistan matches.
The fan following for the Pakistan team is big here, and many journalists have yet not been able to get their passes for Pakistan's matches. A journalist jokingly remarked: “Our getting a seat in the press box is as unpredictable as the Pakistan team.”
A number of jokes on Pakistan are now being shared by everyone here. Fans have coined different adjectives to describe them - some calling them gutless, clueless and hopeless. Former Pakistan pacer Shoaib Akhtar’s hard hitting comment on Pakistan skipper Sarfaraz Ahmad that Sarfaraz’s stomach was sticking out and his face was all puffed when he came out to bat, and that he is the first unfit Pakistan captain, is being supported by many. Safaraz’s stomach did show, but whether that was because he had taken brunch or a heavy breakfast due to the late 10.30am start, one would not know.
The official programme booklet had an interesting piece of information on the state of the Sri Lankan cricket, especially their bowlers. As of April 2019, no Sri Lankan bowler who has made his ODI debut since 2013 had taken 25 wickets, whereas 55 players from other countries who had debuted in 2013 had reached the 25-wicket mark!
Thursday, May 31:
The day England forgot Brexit crisis to enjoy cricket
The first match of the Cricket World Cup 2019 went England's way, and all English fans were only too happy to savour the win and forget all that was happening outside cricket. Though the country is going through a crisis with Prime Minister Theresa May having resigned over the Brexit debacle, this was the day many refused to think about anything but cricket and soak in the joy of a victory for their country.
The home team fans had filled the stadium and it was visual treat to see a packed Oval stadium. They began dancing with joy from the moment England inched towards victory over South Africa.
For the post-match press conference, all journalists were taken by the organisers through the ground. Walking close to the boundary line, I got a spectacular view of the celebrations by England fans. Many simply refused to leave the ground as they wanted to soak in the victory atmosphere as much as possible. It was bright and sunny despite being well past 6 pm.
I wondered what the atmosphere would have been had the result gone in South Africa’s favour. It would have surely turned out to be a gloomy start to the tournament since the home team fans had all come prepared to celebrate England’s win. After watching their reactions and the hopes they carry with them of lifting the World Cup for the first time, it will be shattering for them if they don’t emerge as the champions.
Many believe that English cricket is now at the pink of its health and is set to conquer the world by proving to be the best team. A group of fans could be heard singing “We will win the World Cup and it is here for us to win.”
While walking through the ground, which takes about ten minutes to the press conference room, a journalist asked: “Would it have been easier if the two captains came to the press box rather than over a hundred journalists walk all the way through the crowd to the press conference room?" I was happy for the walk because I would not have been able to soak in the response of the fans otherwise.
Some of the cricket fans here fear that if England, who have been playing good cricket in the last few years, does not win the World Cup this time around, it could lead to a huge dip in the game's popularity in the already soccer-mad country. This was very evident because even though the Cricket World Cup is happening in the country, most of the leading dailies continue to carry soccer stories as their lead sports news.
A disappointed South African fan when asked about the defeat said: “Our team played the match accepting that England was a strong team and we had no chance to win.” Even after the press conference, food stalls in the stadium seemed to continue doing brisk business. A picnic-like atmosphere prevailed all around with fans failing to stop cheering for the home team.
Thursday, May 30:
Cricket World Cup begins amid much fanfare from South Africa and England
London: The walk from Vauxhall Tube station to the famous Oval ground for the opening match of the ICC Cricket World between hosts England and South Africa was enjoyable with volunteers guiding fans all the way and wishing everyone an exciting match.
South Africans made the biggest noise announcing that they will beat the favourites — England. Posters displaying an interesting quote from legendary Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar saying “When people throw stones at you, turn them into milestones” could be seen along with the World Cup logo along the way. An apple with the World Cup emblem was distributed free to every fan. An English fan who was distributing the apple jokingly told Gulf News: “It is only given to the South Africans to poison them.”
Although many fans from the subcontinent, especially India and Pakistan, did not turn up for the match, all food stalls selling Indian food were seen to be doing brisk business. Eating a samosa, a South African fan said: “I enjoy samosas and I love to munch them, just like how my team will chew England today.”
Indian flavours on high demand
A packed stadium watched the action at the Oval. An Australian, who had turned up for the match, remarked: “I have come for this match just to tell my grandchildren that I’d witnessed the opening match of the 2019 Cricket World Cup I also want to see how England play today ... just to gauge our chances of retaining the World Cup.”
The press box at the Oval was packed and my seat was next to the official scorer. He told me: “You have the best seat in the stadium as you can get details from me all the time.”
When leg-spinner Imran Tahir picked the wicket of opener Jonny Bairstow with the second ball of the match and ran all the way towards the crowd spreading his arms, it looked like he could run out of the ground. None of his colleagues were able to reach him for a long time to give him a pat since he had almost reached long-off. So quick was the first wicket to fall that many fans actually missed it.
I asked one attendee whether he was supporting England. “I am Irish but am here to support England skipper Eoin Morgan as he is Irish. I want to see an Irish captain lift the World Cup for England,” he said proudly.
Some of the Indian fans were excited that Virat Kohli was well dressed when he went to meet the Queen on Wednesday evening. In the group picture with all captains, he was seen seated without wearing socks! A fan jokingly remarked: “Kohli seems to have forgotten to pack his socks for the World Cup. Hope he buys a few and pulls them up, and performs well during the matches.”
Watch: Free apples with the World Cup emblem are served for fans
Music band welcoming fans
Fans get ready for opening match
The ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 has commenced from the Oval Cricket Ground. Gulf News takes you on a trip with the fans into the stadium. The excitement to watch the opening match was unprecedented. The fans, making a lot of noise, walked into their seats. Almost everyone carried food on to the ground to watch the action munching and drinking.
The queue to buy World Cup memorabilia
An Indian Sikh man with his friends at the Oval
The volunteers did their best by guiding the fans from the railway station. Long queues for food as well as to enter could be seen. It wasn’t only England and South African fans that turned up but from other cricket playing nations too.
World Cup journey begins: On way to Oval with volunteers guiding all the way
As a cricket fan told Gulf News: “I can tell my grandchildren that I had watched the opening match of the Cricket World Cup 2019.”
Wednesday, May 29:
The Oval all dressed up to usher in the showpiece
Walking into the Oval Cricket Ground also evokes a special feeling - it is like diving into a book on cricket history. In every nook and corner of this stadium, there is a feel of the history of the game and stadium authorities have ensured that the history of this ground is projected well.
There was a long queue to collect my accreditation badge for this World Cup. It was a special moment for me being my seventh World Cup that I will be reporting. When I reached the collection window, the lady at the counter said that my accreditation had already been collected!
It felt similar to those who may have turned up to vote in the election in India and were told that their vote had already been cast. However, the lady quickly solved the problem stating that it was a slip of the eye and then presented me with a lovely World Cup bag that has the World Cup 2019 cap.
Cricketers feel special when they receive their Test cap or the One Day International Cap; the same applies to journalists when they get the souvenir cap. I had carried with me the 2015 World Cup cap that I received in Australia, and it was exciting to have both the caps on and take a selfie.
Today, the Oval looked even more beautiful than before since it has been dressed up for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019’s first match between England and South Africa tomorrow. It was a festive atmosphere in and around the ground. Food trucks kept coming in to position themselves at their allotted places. Though the opening match does not figure India, a truck named 'Goody Gujarati' offering Indian food is among the range of food stalls. Another prominent one will be selling the famous British 'fish and chips'.
On the way to the press conference room is a wall describing the history of the Oval. Among the interesting reads are the one that shows when the first Test match was played here from September 6-8, 1880, between England against Australia, and another one on how the Ashes series began from 1882.
England had lost to Australia in a low scoring match at this venue when a newspaper called The Sporting Times stated that English cricket had died and its body would be cremated, and the Ashes to be taken to Australia. Very soon, a slot indicating that ICC Cricket World Cup 2019’s first match was played here will also find its place on the walls of this historic stadium.