Friday, May 9, 2008

But is it cricket?

If cricket’s your thing, look away now. No, I mean it. This is only going to annoy you. Go and make yourself a cheese doorstep, and get a beer. Watch Scrubs for a bit, go on.

So. IPL match, Mr Roland says, do I want to go? If you’re still here, I’m assuming you don’t know – or indeed, care - that this is Indian Premier League cricket. As it happens, I don’t want to go, I’d rather watch the shoe-shine man shine shoes for three hours. In all my life, I’ve only seen one notable over of cricket, when Gary Sobers hit six sixes, about three centuries ago, and I thought things were looking up. There’s been little follow-through, as far as I know. I say yes, anyway, in the interests of sociability, but I’m not deeply hopeful.

Monu’s a big cricket-wallah. “One team, twenty over,” he explains. “All match, forty over.” I tell him off, because even I know there aren’t three teams, and I can cope with the maths. He only laughs. The whole match will last “three and four hour,” so I offer to look after the car for him, while he spectates, but it’s not to be. Rear offside tyre pops, within tooting distance of D Y Patil Stadium, Navi Mumbai, so we abandon our lovely boy, in a dead car, in seven lanes of honking traffic. As soon as we touch tarmac, we’re sucked, helplessly, into the slipstream of cricketing aficionados, like salmon going to spawn.

Street artists offer to paint my face with tiny flags, orange, green and white, but I’m already conspicuous enough in my select female pasty-face subset. At the D Y Patil Marg Entry gate, there are six channels for men, and one for Ladies. I have to surrender my bottle of water, but the contraband banana in my bag escapes notice. Twenty seconds later, we buy more water at the drinks stand.

I feel I have the rudiments of cricket instilled, after endless Sundays of Hot Rice at Tatton Park – the ball’s your enemy, your only weapon’s the bat, the bowler’s merciless, and everyone out there’s against you. My real cricket experience, to date, comprises a half-day at Trent Bridge, last summer, England v India. “So, what’s a wicket?” I ask, as we find our seats. “Graham, I think you’d better sit next to Caroline,” says Tricia. In our quest for a bacon baguette, we meet David Gower, going the other way. I can’t work Graham’s smarty-pants binoculars. India’s already won, before we slap on the Factor 25. What more do I need to know?

So, here I am. Seat 33 D, South A Bay, Level 3. The cheer-leaders – a controversial innovation – strive to out-wiggle each other. The local ones, fettered in lycra, have nothing but their arms and feet on show, with racy tinsel at the hips. The imported ones – Eastern European - are in shorts and cropped tops. I’m sure cheer-leaders in America go to church in less, but in India, it creates reams of expostulating footage in the press, about family values and disrespecting women. Then again, you can be arrested here, for kissing on the street.

This is the Mumbai Indians’ home turf, and their supporters aren’t shy. I tell Kamal – event organiser - that I feel sorry for the Rajasthan Royals, with just a brave smattering of followers, with their tailed turbans and drums. He laughs. Rajasthan have five consecutive wins under their belt, and are Top Dogs. Mumbai win the toss, and let Rajasthan bat first.

The stadium seats fifty-five thousand. It’s a sell-out. The row in front of us - ten seats, eleven Indians - all sport turquoise “10 – Tendulkar” shirts. Mr T - I call him Sachin -is their star batsman. He’s injured, but his followers don’t care whether he’s playing or not, he’s only got to poke his nose onto the display-screens, for the crowd to boil with joy. He’s offering a personal gift, to the fan who catches Mumbai Indians’ first six. I’m jockeying for position, myself...

Play begins. A hail of paper aeroplanes from the tier above douses the light, for a moment. I think Rajasthan are playing their mascot, but it turns out to be Swapnil Asnodka, who’s the best and bravest of them all. When the first of the Royals is caught out, the entire stadium’s on its feet, roaring. The fielders mass ecstatically for a group hug. Cricket's more like football, than I had realised. What happened to the Stiff Upper Lip?

This whole new breed of cricket incites a new style of play. The tendency, with a 20s match, I’m reliably informed, is to “twonk it one.” (I instantly adopt this as my favourite verb, at least until Christmas, so long as it’s not rude.)
What’s Hindi for Mexican wave? It goes anti-clockwise, ten times. Can you believe, Hindi for “Whoaaa!” is “Whoaaa!” The waves and the paper planes proliferate, when play is dull, but as soon as someone twonks a six, all flights are cancelled.

Rajasthan are all out for 103, and haven’t even used up all their overs. It’s not going to be too tricky, to whup that. There’s talk of tactical play, as the Tendulkar fans buy MacDonalds burgers from the vendor, inching his way down the aisle. At some point, the gates have been opened to Joe Public, and every step and gangway’s crammed with non-paying guests. Fire regulations, I think, fleetingly, but dismiss the thought. Our tickets cost IRs 1000 each, as much as Monu earns in a week. By now, tyre fixed, he’s sitting on a stair, somewhere the other side of the stadium. Fire regulations don’t come into it. If you’ve seen an Indian train, dripping passengers, you wouldn’t think to notice the packed stadium.

Rajasthan captain, Shane Warne, whacks out a Mumbai Indian with his first ball. The row in front is silent and still, flags lowered. It’s not just a game, then. The play’s half-hearted, despite promise of twonks. Tellingly, the moat’s fetlock-deep in paper-planes.

After 27 overs, I say, “So, there’s a bowler at each end, then?” Mr Roland looks at me, incredulity flitting across his face, just in front of tolerant amusement. We only ever had one bowler, in Hot Rice. Now I think about it, with the runs and everything, it’s only logical...

Mumbai Indians grind away the score in singles, and win on a wide, with a whimper not a bang. Even so, the fifty-six thousand people, heading for the exit, are euphoric. Against all the odds, it’s an amazing night. I might take cricket up, after all. Graham, please note.