Mania that never dies down

CRICKET FEVER

Sachin Tendulkar

Hens and goats ran to the sides of the road as we ploughed our way through the back lanes. Children played and women sat in doorways gossiping and passing the day — that was until they glimpsed me sitting in the back of the auto-rickshaw and broke-off to stare in amazement. I’m nothing special. It’s just that they’d almost certainly never seen a white face before, sitting in a rickshaw and racing through their neighbourhood.

I had arrived in town a few hours ago and had asked a rickshaw driver if he knew of a gym where I could exercise. He said that he did know of one and that he would take me to it. So ten minutes later we are hurtling down some back lane where, he assures me, there is a gym. Well, experience of India tells me that gyms are rarely situated in back-lane residential areas in the poorer parts of town — at least those that loosely approximate to a gym. As it turns out, on this particular occasion, I am right. I am delivered to his friend’s house where I am taken into a back yard to inspect the ‘gym’ — a pair of antiquated dumbbells, barely heavy enough to tax a six-year-old, a rickety bench made from decaying wood and a pull-up bar attached to a wall. It’s a wasted journey, but I thank the rickshaw driver’s friend for letting me see his equipment and politely tell him that it’s not quite what I am looking for.

We make our way back to the street, wade through chickens and climb back into the rickshaw. The rickshaw driver then tells me he knows of another gym. After having just seen his version of what constitutes a gym, I’m a little weary but agree on letting him take me there.

This time the place is in a more central location, on a main road and actually advertises itself as being a gym on the hoarding above the entrance. Hope at last. I enter and see that the place seems to have the total population of Jhansi crammed into a matchbox of a room. The owner tells me that it is least busy at about six in the morning. Six in the morning! I never knew that such a time of day existed, but if I have to go at six in the morning, then so be it.

So, the next day (yep, at six in the morning), I arrive at the gym, but the place is only fractionally less busy than when I had viewed it the day before — perhaps only half the population of Jhansi this time around instead of the full amount. Six in the morning. Does no one ever sleep in India?

Someone who introduces himself as Krishna stands within an inch of my face while I’m exercising and blurts out that his cousin is working in Coventry in England and his name is Vijay Kumar. I have never visited Coventry and probably never will, but he asks with the type of probing stare that indicates I should definitely know of this random individual who I know nothing about, residing in a place I know little. To help me out a little, he informs me that Vijay Kumar lives in ‘Paradise Street’ and works in the Bay of Bengal restaurant on ‘Warwick Street’. He looks a little downhearted because of my ignorance on the matter.

“Do you like cricket?”, he asks, and I tell him that I do not and find it boring. But that doesn’t stop him from telling me that Nassar Hussein, the former England captain, was born in Madras and then proceeding to reel off the names of the full English, Australian and Indian cricket teams and recent results involving the teams in question. Fascinating to say the least. Why can’t I come from Norway or Germany, countries not traditionally associated with cricket, then I would not be subjected to this cricket ordeal, which I am on a frequent basis. Telling people that I don’t like cricket and have no interest in the game whatsoever never acts as a deterrent.

An hour later I leave and travel back to my hotel in an auto-rickshaw. We wade through an assortment of farmyard animals as the driver takes a short cut through the back lanes, and we pass some boys playing cricket in the street. Back on a main thoroughfare, a huge advertising hoarding shows Sachin Tendulkar beaming and holding a bottle of Pepsi (or should that be Coke?).

A week later, I am lodged in a hotel in Madras and a stone’s throw from Chepauk Stadium where India is playing Australia as part of a test series. The worker who sits behind the cash desk in the local restaurant asks if I am going to watch the game. I tell him, no. I tell him that I don’t like cricket very much, but tell him that Nassar Hussein was born in Madras and I reel off the main stars of the Indian cricket team. He smiles and says “Thanks”. I return to my hotel and turn in for the night. I toss and turn and have trouble going to sleep. I begin to recite the names of the India cricket team, then the Australian. Halfway through the English team I fall asleep.

I guess that in India there is no way to escape from cricket. It’s here, there and everywhere. But for me, I suppose it has its uses. It’s the stuff of dreams.

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