Anyone for cricket?

India v Zimbabwe, Ahmedabad, 5th December 2000

Prior to attending the One Day International cricket match between India and Zimbabwe on 5th December 2000 at the Sardar Patel (Gujarat) Stadium in Ahmedabad, I had only really watched the sport at Headingley. We – myself and two friends with whom I was sharing this particular adventure – had been in India barely three days and the first stop on our round the world jaunt had already bewitched us all.

Ahmedabad Cricket India v Zimbabwe, Dec 2000From the moment we had landed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai at 3am with no hotel booked or real idea of an itinerary, we had been struck by the vibrant, noisy, sense-twisting, nerve-twitching fluid reality of the country which seemed to never stop moving or shaking. The contrasts of Mumbai offer a starkness that is in evidence in few other places we had ever visited, the juxtaposition of shanty town shacks and exclusive luxury tower blocks, the finely garbed elite strolling airily past the broken lives of the poorest citizens. In truth we were somewhat overwhelmed by Mumbai initially and decided to get out of town. “Anyone for cricket?” one of us asked. “Hell yeah!” the other two replied.

So we made our way, thanks to the admirably efficient bus services we encountered, to Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat and where Mahatma Gandhi spent much of his life and from where his famous Salt March commenced. And after orientating ourselves in a city which seemed almost as hectic but altogether more welcoming than Mumbai we made our way to the cricket.

We squeezed into an auto rickshaw which buzzed its way through the streets with a recklessness that made us glad our travel insurance included the repatriation of our mortal remains. We were glad when the throng of people meant we could go no further (despite the best efforts of the driver who seemed almost oblivious to the fact there were real, live people in his path). “We’ll get out here, please,” we ventured a couple of times before a more forceful, “stop!” did the trick. We were still some way from the stadium, and as the mighty river of excited fans swept us towards our first experience of professional cricket in India (we’d already experienced it in the street, but that’s another story) we got the distinct impression this would a different ball game to a quaint Sunday afternoon watching Yorkshire grind out a result.

As we approached the stadium we were conscious that ours were the only white faces in the vicinity and that we were attracting the attention of all and sundry. What began initially with stares became smiles, pats on the back, laughter and enthusiastic bursts of, “hello, how are you?” and “what is your good name?” We made our way through the turnstiles and headed towards the stand to find a decent vantage.

Ahmedabad Cricket
Due to the crowded streets it had taken us longer than expected to get to the ground and the match had already started as we climbed the stairs seeking enough space for three. The crowd were already in good voice and as we reached the upper reaches of the stand, heads turning to follow us as we rose ever higher, the crowd rumbled and then let out an almighty roar. India were batting first and we assumed the Litter Master Sachin Tendulkar had swiped a six, but turning to the play we realized two things in quick succession: 1. it was between overs and the batsmen were idly chatting in the middle, and 2. the crowds were cheering at shouting at us.

It dawned on us that not only we were the only non-Indians on the approach to the ground, but the only other white person we could see in the whole stadium was a Sky Sports cameraman perched high above the crowd in his branded cherry-picker. The back-patting, smiles, pointing fingers and hands thrust into ours and shook enthusiastic grew more intense than it had prior to entry and continued even as we took our seats. I don’t know if they thought we were cricketers (doubtful), or in some way famous (equally doubtful given our rather ramshackle attire), but for those moments we gained an insight into what it might be like to be recognized, even revered by a fair proportion of the crowd in a fairly sizeable stadium.

As we attempted to watch the match (the first time any of us had seen the great Tendulkar in the flesh, albeit from quite a distant), a steady stream of cricket fans approached to say hello, shake our hands and even, bizarrely ask us to sign a couple of autographs, much to our embarrassed humour. We cheered for the home side, much to the delight of those sitting around us, and despite Tendulkar having made just eight runs before being caught by none other than England coach Andy Flower (the greatest Zimbabwean cricketer in history) another playing was playing out of his skin: Sourav Chandidas Ganguly. He was hitting the Zimbabwean attacking all around the ground and his score of 144 from just 152 balls (including eight fours and six sixes) was as good an innings as you could see in a ODI.

Ahmedabad was named Gardabad (the City of Dust) by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the 17th century, and on our day out at the cricket the atmosphere was thick and stuffy, and we were sweating buckets. My friend thought it an opportune moment to bring out his handheld electric fan from his bag, and almost before he felt the first blast of cooling air from the contraption the surrounding crowd members all gathered round wanting to have a go. We were sure they must have seen such a fan before, but perhaps not at a cricket match. Either way, they appeared in awe of it and they wanted a piece of it; and then the gathered group dispersed as if struck, there was a bit of a commotion, we didn’t really know what was happening, and then we saw a portly middle-aged man wielding a four-foot stick like some stricken Jedi surrounded by Stormtroopers.

“Come sit with me,” he yelled to us, as if he was saving ours lives from some baying crowd (rather than literally beating away the friendly group that had been cajoling and befriending us). We hesitated, sure that there had be no need for his casual bout of violence, but he flashed us a big, bright smile, took off his aviator shades and insisted, “‘please, sit with us, there will be no bothers.” Given he was wielding his stick with quite some relish we felt it would be shrewd to accede to his request. Our “saviour” was called Mohamed and – as it turned out – he was a local police chief. “Drink with me,” he suggested, putting his stick on the floor and lifting a five-litre plastic keg of a dark liquid that looked potent. Gujarat is a dry state – prohibition of alcohol has been in place since 1960 – and it even has the death penalty as a possible sentence for those producing and selling “spurious liquor” which is proven to have caused death. But hey, when in Rome!
Ahmedabad Cricket - Mohamed and friend
Mohamed produced four polystyrene cups from a plastic back and handed one to each of us. He poured us each what he called a sample and what I would call a cupful and urged us to drain it in one. Which we did, much to detriment of our mouths and throats and the amusement of those sitting near by, Mohamed himself and the Sky Sports cameraman who had also taken an interest (though thankfully for Mohamed he didn’t point the camera in our direction). A cough, a splutter and something of a head-rush later and Mohamed had lined us up with another round. We never found out exactly what we spent the next couple of hours sipping, but Mohamed described it as “like your Scottish whisky”… but it was like no single malt I’d ever sampled. I would suggest it was more akin to creosote, with just a tinge of lemon curd. No matter, we’re weren’t going to turn it down and suffice to say we got wasted. Before we knew it we were learning then singing God knows what in Gujarati, dancing with the Indian fans and starting a Mexican wave that made it round the whole stadium three times.

As we drank, Mohamed’s protective urge diminished and he didn’t use his stick again, much to our relief. He was even dancing with those he had rapped on the hands just a couple of hours earlier, and they seemed to have forgiven him; after all their side had put in a great performance to win the match by 61 and they’d seen Ganguly play one of his greatest one day innings. But more than the cricket itself I remember the exuberance of the crowd, the fervour of their enthusiastic attempts to befriend us and, of course, getting drunk with a local police chief who was opening flouting the state laws. All in all, quite a day.