TEST eve, Marina Beach, Chennai, 5.20pm: The kid’s name was Themeem, he was a science student and, at sunset on match eve, we were standing on the beach, eyeing each other off, loading our guns.
What had happened was this. I had been walking amid the plastic trinkets and glass swans and food stalls of Marina Beach promenade when Themeem approached. Marina Beach, second-longest in world, he had said, and then tried to sell me a green rubber bird, which, when squeezed, screeched like a dying cat. I stood silently as he rattled through some numbers and the bird’s reason for being (10 rupees, very good sir, very fun), before I could finally convince him I wasn’t a buyer.
But then we started talking cricket (by which I mean we stood there randomly saying cricketers’ names) and Themeem was transformed from salesman to supporter. “India will win!” he shouted, squawking his bird in my face. “India will win!”
“No, Australia will win,” I countered, reaching across and giving his bird a squawk of my own. Australia is No.1.
By now, a small crowd was around us, cheering Themeem on. “India the best!” he repeated, and then dramatically: “Australia against India! We shoot to see which team is better!”
For a moment, I had no idea what he was talking about, but was then relieved to see he was pointing to a masonite board a few stalls along – neatly adorned with dancing, multicolored balloons. In front of the board, a father was using one hand to direct a pellet gun in their general direction while, with the other, he was helping his two-year-old daughter with the vagaries of the trigger.
“A shoot-off?” I asked Themeem. But before he could answer, I was being pushed forward by about a dozen excited Indians, including one on a horse.
5.40pm: It was a long, slow walk back along that boulevard of broken toys. The shooting match was a draw at two balloons each (I swear I was put off by the woman standing behind the board selling icing sugar applicators), but I lost the tiebreaker competition that we had on the grip-strength tester further down the beach. I had argued that we hadn’t needed a tiebreaker, that the two-all scoreline was a sign that the Test would be a draw (or even a tie, as in 1986), but Themeem insisted Chennai was a result wicket, that we should do the strength tester, and that I should pay.
With the pressure on, I lunged into my double-handed squeeze with a clumsy forward motion, a bit like a Ponting charge on a turning wicket, and managed just 480 pounds. Themeem, who’d built himself up carrying sacks full of green rubber birds, had no trouble with 490. The crowd went berserk. “India! India!” they chanted.
Themeem was so happy that he gave me a rubber bird. “It is free for you, mister. So you can remember India’s win always.”
Day 1, net practice, 5.30pm: Australia was 4/326 at stumps on day one, but if you asked the net bowlers, there was still hope for India.
“I got Mr Gilchrist out twice, once lbw, once caught,” said Vignesh, a right-arm fast bowler with the Tamil Nadu under-19s. “I also got him out lbw,” piped up Kishori, who plays grade cricket in Chennai.
We were sitting in a largish circle in the middle of the stadium, relaxing after the net session, and basically everyone in the vicinity was claiming to have taken the Australian vice-captain’s wicket.
“How do you know he was lbw? There was no umpire,” I said to Kishori.
“Oh come on, back leg, in-swinger to left-hander, pitched in line,” he replied indignantly. “And Mr Gilchrist nodded to me – he knew that I had him.”
Even allowing for the fact that some of the caught dismissals seemed to extend the backyard concept of automatic eighth slip, it was still a worry. Batsmen who average more than 55 in Tests should surely not be worried by under-19 attacks. What was worse, the group was also boasting the scalps of Warne, Ponting, Miller and Gillespie.
“Have any of you dismissed Sachin?” I asked.
They all laughed and let out a long, collective “nooo”.
“But surely you’ve hit him on the pads or he’s edged the ball into the back net or something.”
Vignesh was the one who spoke. “You should come tomorrow to see his feet move. Then you will understand why nobody here has yet got out Mr Tendulkar.”
Practice nets, Day 2, Chepauk Stadium, 4.55pm: A few months ago, a friend of mine saw Steve Waugh on a staircase at Southbank, and before he could think or breathe or protect his dignity, he’d let out a surprised, “You’re great, Steve.”
On the advice of the net bowlers, on Monday I did stay after play to watch Tendulkar at practice, and even snapped some photos as he walked back to the pavilion. To summarise the experience, it went something like this: click; humiliating half-jog past a small, fast-walking man; hit ground; focus; click, up again, jog again; crouch this time; click – repeated for as many times as it took for him to leave the arena and me to back awkwardly over the boundary rope. It was so much a part of Tendulkar’s everyday life that he neither spoke nor made eye contact.
For my part, I didn’t speak either and, even now, there’s a “you’re great, Sachin” stuck some place at the back of my throat, dying to get out.
Day 5 of Test, Kennet Lane, 5.15: A wise autorickshaw driver once wrote: “I think, therefore I think I’ll blow my horn.” The tragic story of my trip to the stadium on the final morning of the Test was watching our driver Murgan show us his horn wouldn’t honk. Not only that, but it wouldn’t quack, screech, belch or play a small Spanish tune. It is broken, he explained, huffing air out of a forlorn blue sac. Fortunately, I was still one rubber bird to the better, and was only too happy to hand it over. “Thank you,” he said giving it a happy squawk. “After I fix my horn, I will give it to my daughter.”
Day 5, Chepauk Stadium, 4.05pm: In Chennai, the police uniform is white, so the overwhelming impression of the Indian team’s lap of honor was that a couple of hundred people were taking it. Everywhere, people rose to their feet and cheered for a side that in Test cricket terms had pulled off the miracle of the century.
“It is Laxman who did it,” said Ravi, a computer engineer who was sitting beside me. In ancient mythology, Laxman is the brother of Ram, the brother of a god.
There was, of course, also Harbhajan Singh’s record-breaking 32-wicket series (the next most successful Indian bowler was Tendulkar with three), but Ravi was more taken with the epic Hindu literature.
“Laxman always followed his older brother Ram,” Ravi said, which made me worry what sort of trouble the Aussies would be in if Ram was somehow plucked from the heavens to open the batting. Ram at the top of the order, Laxman following, Tendulkar at four.
As for the Australians, in the heat they had bowled with courage and belief and almost pulled off a miracle of their own. “In Australia, McGrath and Gillespie will always be remembered for how they bowled today,” I said.
The crowd cheered the Aussies off to the five-day-old beat of plastic water bottles whacking against seats. “In India, they will always be remembered too,” said Ravi.
Marina Beach, 5.20pm: I walked along the beach, as I had after every day’s play, enjoying the interplay of waves and galloping horses and about 50 kids trying to sell me peacock feather fans. Themeem was there too, wandering around with his sack of birds. When he saw me he flexed his muscles. “India! India!” he chanted.
Then he grabbed my arm, led me back to the “Test Your Power With Two Hands!” sign and gave me a twenty-pound shellacking. “Next series, India win again!” he laughed.
I breathed in the smell of the salt air (with just that hint of decomposing fish) and considered the wonders of the past few weeks.