ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: The history, the culture, people and a madness called cricket

My world cup journey spans over two decades and five continents. There are innumerable memories, each one vivid.  Here are some vignettes

ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 PICTURES: RS Gopan

2003 South Africa

In the beautiful land of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi

My first World Cup as a reporter. South Africa it was. Rainbow nation — colourful, picturesque, contrasting, of conflicting emotions, stark contrasts and immeasurable natural beauty. There was just so much to take in both in terms of cricket and the country itself. Sourav Ganguly-led Men in Blue did not enter as title contenders, but their following was legendary. So yes, bags were packed, itinerary decided, accommodation, bookings done courtesy a very helpful South African Cricket Board which had pulled out all the stops to present the tournament as the best organised ever. Most importantly, precautions  were noted related to personal safety and security. 

The flight to Cape Town from Mumbai was fun if you could call it that. It had , mostly an entire Indian media team and was quite a big number — over 80 plus on the same flight along with illustrious commentators. It didn’t feel like a regular cricket series covering party, this was definitely something else. All the hounds were out ready to hunt!  

In Cape Town for a couple of days, the Table Mountains beckoned. A taxi ride upto the Cable Car station and then another five-minute ride  and I was on top of the Table Mountains, literally. Awestruck, simply taking in the postcard-perfect view of Cape Town, Table Bay and the infamous Robben Island to the north, and the Atlantic sea to the west and south.  The contrast couldn’t have been more striking: the beauty of Cape Country and the darkness of the Robben Island which kept Nelson Mandela locked away from the rest of the world. 

The sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic washed away the sadness. Indeed, it brought all sorts of emotions to the fore. From that vantage point, it made you forget everything,  even what lay ahead in cricket. 

Team India had moved on from a stuttering start and was on track to do something special. The buzz around it was growing.  

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The Men in Blue had a match in Paarl. The wine country is also the third oldest European settlement in Western Cape province, 60km  northeast of Cape Town. 

My bed and breakfast turned out to be a sprawling villa in the middle of a vineyard! Having arrived late in the evening, I woke up to bright sunshine and fine weather. I drew the curtains back to find the magnificent French windows opening into grape bearing wines. 

How could you not go to these splendid wine-tasting parlours. Spicy red and crispy white wines beckoned. Indeed, we were spoilt for choice. 

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Interestingly, India’s matches were in places with an Indian connect. From one Mahatma to the other, the Men in Blue and its juggernaut came to Pietermaritzburg. But first, the funniest bit: The India-Namibia match was played on a ground which had a tree inside the boundary ropes. An oak tree dating back to 1888! 

According to local rules, if the ball touches any part of the tree it is considered a boundary. There’s more. In the customary press interaction on pre-match training day, Team India put up its pace spearhead Javagal Srinath to take the questions. One question left him stumped: You are a software engineer and have solutions for most problems. What  are your plans for the tree?” 

Taken aback for a second, Srinath’s response was classic:  “I am yet to find a solution.” And he  looked at the entire press clan as if it had gone nuts! 

When you are visiting this city, a visit to the station where Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off the train for riding first class in 1893 is a must, especially for every Indian. This is where Satyagraha was born. We were all taken on a short trip from the station in the very train which played a defining role in India’s history of independence.

2007

The Caribbean Calypso

Port of Spain, Trinidad. The plane landed on a narrow strip surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. The breakers turned purple on hitting the shore. Was this heaven on earth? This was the land of Raasta, Roti, Jerk Chicken and Lord Realtor of the Sunny Gavaskar Calypso fame. This is the island where Indian cricket turned a new page. This was the ground which was as sacred to Indian cricket as any Test ground back home. 

But India’s World Cup campaign was overshadowed by cricketing strife at various levels. Greg Chappell, India’s chief coach, had issues with some senior players. There was an uneasy calm in the Indian team which played in the shadow of the Chappell Vs Ganguly controversy. 

Before the Indian campaign could take off in the Caribbean, news of strife in another team broke out. This was worse: Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer was found dead on the bathroom floor in his hotel room, a day after Pakistan was knocked out of the World Cup.  

A cricket story suddenly turned into a crime story. From writing about the impending India Vs Bangladesh match, we were chasing an alleged murder mystery/crime story which took place in Jamaica. 

ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: PICTURES: RS Gopan

Hourly news developments, calling multiple sources in Trinidad, Jamaica, India and Pakistan... nary a word was written or spoken about cricket over the next few days. As World Cup 2007 became more about Woolmer’s death, filing a comprehensive ‘crime story’ in place of a cricketing one became quite a challenge. 

After despatching the Woolmer murder story to the news desk, it was time to unwind at the beach. Only it wasn’t just any beach. Maracas Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world. A half-hour drive along the North Coast road and you only get panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea. Green-blue crystal clear waters. 

The 2km-long beach offered the chance to sit back, relax, soak in the sun, water and some beer, and have your own one-to-one with the  endless expanse of green-blue in front of you. On the right, overlooking the waters was a lush green rainforest. Manna from heaven, indeed! 

Realty struck hard the next day when India’s hopes were dashed by plucky minnows, Bangladesh. Even today the loss is considered its worst in world cup history. With team India bundled out, the 2007 world cup trip of most of its covering media posse, too, ended abruptly. 

But not before drowning some of the heartbreak by listening to a foot-tapping, energy-zipping performance courtesy a live Steel Band performance! 

2011 

The Cup is where 

the home is!It was the last World Cup for Sachin Tendulkar, the God of cricket. It was also being played at home. As if the pressure of a World Cup is not enough on its own, the pressure of fans’ expectation was palpable. And so the madness started: The Men in Blue, led by talismanic Captain Cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni, looking to lift the Cup for the second time, after 38 years.

The Indian juggernaut rolled its way through the length and breadth of the country, and the Men in Blue reached Mumbai, to play their World Cup final. It was going to be a long, night either way. 

Indeed, it turned out to be a night to remember, forever. 

India won. MS Dhoni lifted the World Cup, Yuvraj Singh —breathless, weak in body but never in spirit — was the man of the tournament. The Cup of Joy was overflowing. Every Indian media person present at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on that night, after wrapping up  their work, did two things. 

One, went and stood outside the Indian dressing room where the party was still on, just taking in their fill of the team who had been crowned world champions. 

And they walked over to the Wankhede wicket to take a picture of themselves on the hallowed turf. 

The celebrations had just begun. Behind the team hotel, The Taj Mahal in Colaba, the party of the Indian fan continued, in various pubs, restaurants and any eating joint which was open way past midnight. 

Inside Gokuls, a famous restaurant behind the team hotel, a group of us finally found a table and food to fill our empty stomachs. Cries of ‘India India’ randomly arose from different corners — hoarse, tired voices — as if the fact that India were, indeed, world champions once again had hit the occupants belatedly. The talk was only about the Cup. 

As we trudged back to our hotel, cars packed with jubilant fans waving the tri-colour zipped past. The Millennium City was known for not sleeping. I am sure nobody slept in Mumbai that night. 

2015

No thunder Down Under! 

Defending champion India’s campaign was very different from the previous ones. Gone was the bonhomie between Team India and the travelling media. While the Men in Blue took on their various opponents on the field, off it, they drew the line with the home media sharply. A bit of us Vs them had started coming through. The culture had changed: The  interactions, if at all, were only those mandated under the protocols of the International Cricket Council.

Team India were coming off 2-0 loss in the Test series against Australia preceding the World Cup. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, then run by N Srinivasan, too, shared a similar disregard for its relations with the media. Both sides were wary of each other. The team reached Perth where it had the longest stay during the competition,  two weeks with a gap of six days between India’s two matches in the city. 

Most training sessions were watched from a distance, followed by some post training interaction with one player or team support staff. Perth City Centre would shut down early- sometimes as early as 6.00pm turning into a ghost town. Clearly, there wasn’t much to do in the evenings as news from the “Indian camp” came down to a trickle. 

And then Virat Kohli lost his cool at a reporter during a training session. The reporter at a loss for being attacked was dumbfounded, as were rest of the media party present 

there. It soon turned out to be a case of mistaken identity on Kohli’s behalf. He was upset at the wrong reporter. Back home the “event” made big news.

Clearly, the already stressed relationship between the two “sides” was ready to snap! Perth was followed by Hamilton, New Zealand. Suddenly, the tour became more colourful, exciting and full of life. New Zealand Cricket and the country’s tourism department turned up the charm full-on — as if it was needed. The people and the country are simply gorgeous. Thus we got a chance to visit Hobbiton— the movie set created for Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy; got a taste of Kiwi wines, and for those looking for even more edgy excitement, a chance to do some skydiving! 

But perhaps the sweetest memory was that of candies in the media box in Hamilton courtesy the local cricket association. Yes, there were loads of them for the reporters- to get a taste of fine NZ confectionary.

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