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May 28, 2002

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Sabina Park sojourn

Aftab Pande

I recently went to Kingston, Jamaica, to watch the final Test. Hereís an account of what it was like.

Day zero at Sabina Park:

I took a cab to Sabina Park to pick up my tickets. On the way the cab driver talked about cricket. He started laughing when I told him India would win. He said he liked Tendulkar but didnít think we had a chance. Said he would love to see the match but it was too expensive for the common man to see cricket anymore and none of the present guys matched up to the earlier teams.

I reached the stadium and found the ticket box. This was the day before the match and I'd expected a huge queue. But it wasn't too long and tickets were still available for all five days. I had anticipated a sell-out and had bought my tickets over the phone almost a month before the match. The line took ages to move on so I started talking to the people in front of me. Most of them had been watching cricket for decades at Sabina Park. Island loyalties run high and the topic of conversation was more about which Jamaican cricketers should be in the team rather than the standard topic of Sachin versus Lara. There was a lot of joking around and everyone was pretty amused at seeing the only Indian supporter in the queue. After buying his ticket one of the Jamaicans pulled out the invoice and read out very seriously, "This is to certify that Mr Larry now owns a piece of land in Sabina Park." He looked around for a response and everyone cracked up.

After picking up my tickets one of them offered me a ride back to the hotel. While driving out I noticed a small open gate and saw the Indian team doing net practice. So I hopped off, hoping to be able to get inside. I walked in carefully expecting a security guard to come and tell me to go away. But there was hardly any security and I walked right up to the nets. Thankfully, I was carrying my camera so I started clicking away like crazy. The entire Indian team was there along with the coach, trainers and reporters. John Wright made sure everyone was busy and made the team go through all kinds of drills. I spotted Tendulkar and walked up close to him. He was busy talking to Dravid and Leipus and seemed to be in a very good mood. I think I must have stood there transfixed for about 10 minutes and he soon became aware of me staring at him and clicking away. The moment Dravid and Leipus went and he was alone I just blurted out "Sachin". He looked up and I asked him if I could get a picture taken with him. He just nodded so I asked one of the photographers around me if he'd take one with my camera. He asked Sachin if it was okay and Sachin just smiled and nodded. The picture came out perfectly with Sachin flashing his visa power smile. I've emailed that picture to everyone of my friends and can't get over how nicely it came out.

Wright called the slips guys for some catching practice. Ratra would throw the ball at Sachin, who would edge it to Dravid, Laxman, Jaffer and Ganguly. So I went and stood behind them and each time they missed the ball I'd pick it up and throw it back. So I can now claim that I've fielded with Sachin batting. After it was over, Laxman turned around and said 'thank you' and waved to me. Being so far away from India must be pretty relaxing for them. On the other end of the ground, Wright was wearing a baseball mitt and made Zaheer, Srinath, Nehra and Harbhajan do some outfielding practise. Zaheer is very athletic and has a strong arm. Bajji is very quick but Srinath and Nehra are pretty embarrassing. Nehra couldnít figure out how many steps to take while throwing while Srinath was just lobbing the ball back. Sachin soon came over after finishing the slips practice and joined in the outfielding drill. Itís evident how much he loves to be involved all the time.

All the players seemed very friendly and relaxed. Sachin is the most enthusiastic and is always busy bowling, batting or talking to Wright. Laxman is pretty laid back and had a lot of friends from the US visiting him and while talking to them he seemed like a college student hanging out with his friends. Dravid is very serious and intense and takes nets very seriously. Ganguly seemed very preoccupied and it's understandable as he's the captain. Srinath is very, very lazy and itís distressing to see your best fast bowler so lackadaisical. The other bowlers seemed pretty tired after nets. Sharandeep and Mongia knew they were passengers and didnít even bother to get their bats to nets knowing they wouldnít get any practice.

Sharandeep was very bitter about being dropped and was hoping to reach in time for the Ttests against Sri Lanka A. Bangar is a very modest and humble guy and kept asking VV Krishnan (the Hindu photographer) to take more pictures of him so that he could take them home. Nehra fooled around with a football and looked very very uncoordinated. Viv Richards had apparently given Harbhajan a bat and he was trying to get some batting practice in a corner with it and a local fast bowler nearly broke his toe. Sharandeep claimed the local guy was much faster than Srinath and Zaheer and had everyone scared. And he wasnít even a club player. If only we could find such fast bowlers and not medium pacers like Dodda Ganesh and Sanjay Bangar.

The Windies coolly walked in much later. Unlike the Indians they didnít do any nets. Played around with a football and some of them seemed very, very comfortable dribbling and bouncing the ball on their head. Unlike Nehra, who could barely bounce it once. Lara strolled in later and though I took a picture of him he didnít respond when I asked him if I could pose with him. Holding walked in and looked at the pitch along with Hooper. It was very, very green and Holding had a big smile on his face. Visions of the massacre of the Indian team in 1976 must have come back. Nehra walked by and when Holding talked to him for a couple of minutes, Nehra seemed as thrilled as I was when Sachin obliged me with a picture. Joel Garner was talking to Dillon and seeing all these guys so close was a very surreal experience. Harper gave some of his players catching practisc but that was it. Compared to the Indians it all seemed very unprofessional. Wright has really brought about a big change in the way we practice.

After that I started mingling around with some of the reporters. Vijay Lokapally and V V Krishnan were very friendly and they introduced me to some more of the players and I kept clicking away. Went and had a couple of beers at the Kingston Cricket Club and talked about cricket. They'd been in the Caribbean for almost two months and were pretty keen on getting home. After almost 20 years of covering cricket, going on tours was not too exciting for them. The stadium is fairly rundown, much like the Kotla and is badly in need of a facelift. The dressing rooms are apparently the worst in the world and the toilets stink. But having seen most of my cricket at the Kotla it wasnít a big difference. I went to the Bob Marley museum with some of the reporters after nets got over. It was pretty disappointing but then anything would be after spending the whole day with the Indian team at nets.

Day 1:

Since I was on a very tight budget I decided to take buses everywhere I went. The buses are better than Delhi and not as crowded, so it was pretty easy getting to Sabina Park. They're also a lot of fun as most of the people going to the Test were in a talkative mood and it's interesting listening to Jamaicans talk about cricket. I got there two hours before play began to soak in the atmosphere. The Indians were out practicing early again, going through all kinds of drills. The Windies again walked in later and played some touch football to warm up. The stands filled up pretty quickly and since it was a Saturday there was a pretty large crowd.

When I saw Ganguly being interviewed first I expected him to bat first after winning the toss. It was cloudy but not overcast. I thought it was a very defensive move to bowl first, especially since we donít have bowlers like McGrath or Akram to blast out a side on the opening day. Ganguly made some good bowling changes but it was clear our bowlers werenít bowling well. Zaheer and Nehra were trying too hard while Srinath was just ambling in. Even while fielding, Srinath refused to exert himself and gave away lots of cheap runs. Tendulkarís very sharp while fielding and itís a good move to keep him out of the slips as heís the only fielder in front of the batsman who can do something. Ganguly's a good captain but made too many fielding changes and always made them when the bowler was at the top of his mark. That meant a slow over rate and thatís something which didnít seem to bother the Indians at all. We got defensive too early and I thought Bajji should have been brought on earlier seeing how ineffective our pacers were. But it's easier to say it in hindsight. After the second wicket fell, Ganguly really perked up and made some very good changes and had Das not dropped Hooper we would have been pretty happy with five wickets after the first day. But everyone kept encouraging Das, which was a good sign and all this talk about Ganguly being arrogant and uncaring seemed untrue.

The crowd was in a really good mood especially as both the local boys played well. When Hinds got his century they were ecstatic. They needled me a lot. Especially as I would keep jumping up after each Indian appeal. When Lara gave a sharp chance to Das (it was not out) I jumped up. So a guy behind me shouted: "Somebody call a doctor. This manís having a heart attack."

The people sitting around me were very friendly and talked a lot. But it was really hard to follow their accent. And as the day went on, a lot of beer was consumed and they got very, very vocal. Things quietened down after Lara got out but they all seemed satisfied with the day's score. I was hoping for a good innings from Lara and Hooper -- the two most entertaining batsmen from the Windies. Hinds, Gayle, Sarwan, Chanderpaul were effective but not particulary pretty or exciting to watch. Chanderpaul has to be the most inelegant lefthander I've ever seen. The whole theory of a lefthander's natural elegance fails when Chanderpaul bats. But he is very good against India.

Even after stumps I stayed back to see the players cool down and do their drills. Saw Vijay Lokapally and he was shaking his head at the decision to bowl first. On the way back, most of the people in the bus were grumbling about Lara. Their accent is very hard to follow and a lot of times I would just nod and smile when they talked to me. I could make Chanderpaul is a big favourite because of his consistency, especially against India. They talk about him like we talk about Dravid.

Day 2:

I reached the stadium about an hour before play. I was hoping for a better performance from our pacers but in spite of getting Hooper we struggled against the tail. 400 was what the crowd wanted and when they passed that they all sat back waiting for India to collapse. Of course, we collapsed and when Tendulkar walked in there was a great deal of excitement in the stands. They love to see him bat but also donít want him to play a long innings. There was a betting pool going around me. Most of them said he wouldnít cross 50. It was a bit painful to see him bat. He was clearly out of form and gave a lot of chances and though he reached 41 he looked like he might get out anytime. When Sanford bowled him the crowd went delirious. The guy in front of me thrust a beer in my hand and then put an arm around me and said, "It's ok, maan"

One of them kept poking me in jest and I felt really disappointed. Normally, when Sachin gets out I know everyone around me is as disappointed. This was a first for me. Seeing the crowd erupt wasnít very uplifting and when Das followed, it looked like we might get bowled out before stumps.

Laxman and Ganguly batted really well. Laxman seemed in complete command and was easily the best Indian batsman on view. And the crowd appreciated his strokeplay and loved his effortless coverdrives. It's something I've never seen in a stadium in India. It's either stunned silence or wild celebrations. The Jamaicans really seem to enjoy their cricket. They donít seem to get as emotional as we do. At stumps, it looked like we might get to 300. Ganguly seemed very fluent and he and Laxman batted really well. I reached home hoping for one of them to reach 100 and India getting close to 350.

Day 3:

Play started early and by now the people around me had become good friends. Like me they would get there at least an hour before play and not miss a single ball. They would even give me their drinks and one of them offered me dinner at his house which I gladly accepted. One of them told me about how Holding used to start his runup from the boundary with his back touching the sightscreen. He maintains the fastest ball heíd ever seen was in 1980 when Holding knocked out Gavaskar's middle stump with the first ball of the second over of the Test. He claimed even Gavaskar was shaking his head when he got out. I suppose it was like THE ball which Donald bowled to Tendulkar in 1996 in the first Test in Durban, when he knocked out his offstump. Gavaskar is almost a demigod in these parts. Each time they talked about him they would say "your great batsman, Gavaskar". Sachin doesnít have the same respect and I doubt if he will. They're scared of him, but heís not Gavaskar.

Ganguly got out early and though the tail tried, the short ball was too much for them. Laxman, on the other hand, seemed completely at ease and had Nehra not been run out we could have cut the lead down to less than 200. Everyone was pretty surprised when Hooper didnít enforce the follow on. A few were happy because after Laxmanís 281 they all had a lot of respect for our batting. But when they lost early wickets everyone was really pissed. One of them almost threw his beer in disgust saying weíve thrown the match away. Zaheer, at that point, was bowling the best spell of pace bowling Iíve ever seen. Okay, agreed in India one rarely saw pace bowlers dominate, but Zaheer was really charging in and bowling very, very fast. The ball was thudding into Ratraís gloves and he had the batting rattled. When he knocked out Laraís offstump I got really pumped. And this time time I felt we had a chance. The crowd was really stunned and everyone made a note of Khan as our dangerous bowler. If only heíd bowled like that in the first innings. A couple of early wickets would have made a huge difference.

I felt we missed a big opportunity when Jacobs was dropped. At that point they would have been 81/6 and considering Zaheerís aggression and their brittle tail we could have had them all out for 120 or so. That would have meant a target of 330 which was very attainable. But we didn't at close of play a lead of 375 with 3 wickets in hand was too much. On the way back everyone seemed confident the match was in the bag.

I went out for dinner with Mr Dobar to his house. He was staying with his cousin up in the mountains which one could see from the George Headley stand. Thatís a completely different part of Jamaica and thatís the kind one sees on television and in brochures. Very different from the grungy and rundown Kingston. Saw some of the highlights on the local cable channel and I must say the television cameraís couldnít capture how brilliant Zaheerís spell was. Itís something Iíll always remember. Heís leftarm, fast and Muslim - the closest weíve come to Akram, who Iíve always believed to be the best fast bowler in recent times. I would say ever but itís unfair to compare cricketers from different eras.

Day 4:

The crowd was pretty thin on the fourth day. It was a working day and most people wanted to come for the two back-to-back one-dayers. Bajji wrapped the innings fairly quickly and then the crowd got ready for another collapse.

Of course, our openers have never failed to oblige. Every two years we think weíve come up with a proper opening pair but itís been 15 years since Gavaskar retired and we havenít found a decent opening pair. Itís also been 16 years since we won a series abroad. Shows how great Gavaskar was.

When Tendulkar walked into bat Iíd given up hope. I expected him to get out pretty soon and he seemed very shaky again. A couple of edges, beaten outside the off and it didnít look good. Till lunch Dravid seemed much more comfortable.

After lunch, Dravid got out lbw and from my end it didnít look convincing. But his dismissal is what sparked off Sachin, who played a beautiful knock. One shot stands out. The cover drive off Dillon on one knee. The ball (in Shastriís words) went like a tracer bullet. Nobody moved and on the radio I heard Holding call it the shot of the series. It must be. The next ball was pulled through midwicket for 4 and the next one clipped to midwicket to bring up his 50. Dillon seemed a bit shaken after that and was taken off. Even the crowd went silent. But they did applaud his shots and the oldtimers loved it. Theyíd come hoping to see Tendulkar score a big one and werenít disappointed. At tea it looked like we had a chance. The field had spread out and there was only one slip, deep point, deep cover, midoff, midon, deep midwicket, deep squareleg, fine leg and a catching position at short midwicket. It showed his complete dominance and I loved every minute of that session.

I'm a huge Tendulkar fan and one weakness I've noticed is his tendency to get out immediately after a break. The first ball after tea was cleverly guided to the vacant third man area for 4. Pedro Collins was on and heís a very average bowler. No great pace or movement and he didnít seem to trouble any of the batsmen in spite of taking a few wickets. Tendulkarís dismissal was unfortunate. The ball kept low but had he been a bit more cautious he could have blocked it. At that point, he looked to hit every ball for 4 and even his pushes were racing to the fielders. Ganguly had batted very cleverly, giving him the strike and hitting the odd boundary. His dismissal sparked off a collapse and the crowd went delirious. Watching Sachin get bowled for the second time in a row was a big disappointment. He looked set for a big century and I had dreams of him scoring a double hundred and leading us to a world record win.

Once he got out, the Indians seemed to have lost heart. Laxman and Ganguly played really bad shots and at 7 for 230 it was all over. Seeing Harbhajan get out to Chris Gayle was pissing off. The light was bad and Hooper had to take the pace bowlers off. Surely we could have tried to bat out till stumps.

While leaving I noticed one of the shutters to the Indian dressing room was open. The Indians looked really downcast and Ganguly just sat alone with his head covered with a towel. It looked very disheartening. Srinath was finally trying to get some batting practice. I really wonder about his commitment to the team.

Day 5:

It rained a lot the previous night and in fact at 3 at night there was a huge thunderstorm. I stayed awake for a long time hoping it would continue to rain. When I woke up it was drizzling and when I entered the stadium the covers were on. I saw my friends up in the stands and started to do a little jig. They all cracked up at my rain dance but kept saying it wouldnít help.

Play started about 20 minutes later and it was disappointing to see our tail. Srinathís first movement is to square leg and he doesnít seem to care about his wicket at all. Ratra got an unfair decision but he didnít seem too comfortable against the short ball anyway. Zaheer really threw his wicket away and the match got over in 30 minutes. The crowd ran onto the field despite the security and when Chanderpaul got the car there were some great scenes. It started raining and they put on some reggae on the speakers. So everyone started dancing and even some of the players joined in. The whole crowd followed the car and in a way I felt happy the Windies had won. A lot of the Jamaican friends I'd made told me they really needed this break and it had been a long time since they'd won. New Zealand is coming next and they're confident of winning that.

What really pissed me off was that it was evident it was going to rain. It was raining everywhere else on the island and I'm sure they were aware of that. In fact, half-way through the presentation it started to rain and it didnít stop for the next two days. My flight got delayed and had we batted for 20 more minutes we could have saved the match and the series. But the way we threw our wickets away we didn't deserve a draw like that. It was disappointing seeing India lose, having come from so far only to see the match. But it was a great experience watching a Test in Sabina Park and itís something I have to do again. The Aussies are coming next year and I might go and support the Windies and join the crowd in the celebrations if they win.

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