June 30 – Football in the air and some early drama
There’s still three hours before I land in Manchester and I’ve just stumbled upon a gold mine. Well, it was sitting right in front of me all this while, I just finally decided to open my eyes. The fantastic Emirates airlines and its magnificent A380 have an option for live TV, which means I can catch the big Argentina-France Round of 16 clash. And boy, what a game to watch from 40,000 feet above the ground.
A while after France’s dazzling performance, I’ve landed in Manchester in anticipation of a lengthy exit process. But that’s not the case. Between filling out a form, walking through the immigration queue, picking up my luggage and heading out for a taxi, only 15 minutes have gone by. I’ve walked out to bright sunlight at 7:40 PM (more on that later) and jumped aboard the taxi of one Mr. Raza, a German international with roots in Pakistan. Around five miles and a deep conversation about – surprise, surprise – India and Pakistan, I’ve realised my passport is missing.
A U-turn is made. In the next two hours, I returned to the airport, frantically scanned the area near the exit gates for good 15 minutes, requested a person behind a pre-paid taxi counter to survey his CCTV footage and got laughed at, hyperventilated for a bit, before the help desk inside came to my rescue.
A few phone calls have done the trick. Passport is found, the day is saved, after 100-odd minutes of hell. I summon another cab, but there’s not much conversation this time. Instead, I spend the 30-minute ride making sure I don’t let the passport bag out of sight.
July 1 – Sunshine and RCB?
The Indian team is here in Manchester. And they’ve made their way to Old Trafford for the first nets session ahead of a massive tour. But, hey, there’s no sign of gloves and jumpers and the nagging threat of having to rush indoors because of a downpour. The sun is shining bright on Manchester, it’s 30 degrees Celsius and the ‘touring’ party is being made to feel right at home. There’s some friendly ribbing, water and Gatorade being splashed around and, in general, a very settled mood already. Did I mention they seem to be feeling right at home?
The session goes on for a couple hours, before the conversation veers to the football World Cup. More than 4000 kilometers away from Kazan, French youngster Kylian Mbappe’s impact has has had an impact on the Indian captain. “Neymar nahi tikega iske saamne [Neymar won’t stand a chance],” he quips, thinking of a possible semifinal showdown. MS Dhoni is still talking of Angel di Maria’s blinder that set up the seven-goal frenzy.
A late-evening hunt for some vegetarian food led our cameraman and me to an ‘Indian’ restaurant close by. Sohail, a chatty gentleman who attended to us, was from across the border in Gujranwala and identified the city of Bangalore with “Arey jahan Virat Kohli ki team hai” [Oh, where Virat Kohli’s team is from?].
July 2 – Jet lag, and ‘you alright?’
Three days in I have realised that I haven’t quite grasped the idea of jet lag. I’ve gone as far as to tell our UK correspondent Vithushan that I am just one sleep away from aligning myself to UK time – an assessment as wrong as it can be. The concept of sunlight staying on till as late as 10:00 PM local time is also very difficult to wrap my head around. By 15 minutes past 10 PM my systems is involuntarily shutting down, and then coming back on as early as 4 AM.
I’ve been walking around Manchester – because it’s the best thing you could do in this beautifully-connected city – and Subway-hopping in search of more vegetarian food, and everywhere, I’ve been welcomed with the expression ‘You alright?’. Like a naive cricket team in a World Cup, my curiosity piqued early, and I wonder if something is actually wrong with my face. I even checked a couple of times and returned none the wiser.
Rob, our UK man, then swoops in with some education – hands me course in England for dummies. He says that’s how a lot of locals greet people here – an alternative ‘how are you?’, if you will. Duly noted, to avoid any further embarrassment.
Inside the stadium, India have begun practice, and James Anderson – yes him! – has walked in. The local media recognise him from the press box and wonder what he’s doing here. One of them quips ‘Let’s get him to bowl to Virat Kohli in the nets’ and chuckles. That’ll be some sight, wouldn’t it? Anderson bowling to a version of Kohli that’s most definitely better than his 2014 self. Alas, there’s almost a month to go to find out for sure.
July 3 – The Buttler-Kohli selling point and an anxious press box
I reach the stadium on the morning of the match and spot two life-size posters – both unmissable and intriguing. In the lead up to the series, you’d expect the blown up photos of the two captains to take up the most visible spots in the front of the main stadium structure. The folks at Lancashire instead have a picture of their hero – Jos Buttler – on one side and India captain Virat Kohli on the other. That’s a great marketing strategy, but wonder what Eoin Morgan thinks of it.
Free time before the game has opened up a chance for me to be a tourist. What do I do? Head to the National football stadium, of course. I keep glancing at my watch to ensure I am not completely lost in what feels like the Disneyland for football fans.
Hours later when I return to the stadium, I sense the spirit of football still lurking around. Old Trafford has made a ‘giant’ arrangement for screening England’s knockout game against Colombia, set to begin an hour and a half into the T20I.
England have scored but the match is still cagey. Most eyes in the press box are on the one TV in the middle that has the footy on. I turn to Rob and ask a gut-wrenching question: ‘Would you rather have England go out normally or lose penalties?’ He sighs, shakes his head and then picks the former. Wise choice if you’re an England fan, or a person who has been let down by all the hope far too many times – which essentially is the same thing.
The nervous energy in the press box is at its peak post the press conference. But nobody is transcribing. India have walked all over England in the series opener but cricket’s already on the backburner. The sheer emotions in play is a sight to behold. And then it tips over completely with the final kick of the ball. It’s the loudest the press box has been all day. There are hugs and high-fives and expletives – to convey the excitement – flying around. This has to be my liveliest press box experience ever.
Over to Cardiff.
July 4 – Breathtaking Cardiff and the English breakfast
Cardiff in one word is breathtaking. And that can never be overstated.
The teams haven’t arrived and there’s no media interaction today so the stadium remains shut. For the first time on tour, I get the chance to try out something local. My breakfast plate has a couple of eggs, two tomatoes, a lot of baked beans, and some orange juice. I spend the rest of the day walking around near the hotel, inquiring about bus routes.
July 5 – A glass shatter and an English visitor
England start early on a day out from the important game. Jos Buttler shakes things up on a sweltering morning by whacking a Moeen Ali delivery in the nets and shattering the glass at the National Cricket Centre. Signs are ominous for England to hit back, even if the country is still hungover from the football team’s victory against Colombia.
Kuldeep Yadav is the central figure of all the questions and narratives ahead of the second game, and England too have acknowledged the ability. They’ve summoned Merlyn – a bowling machine that can bowl any sort of delivery – to untangle the mess that England batsmen got themselves into in Manchester. They also have spin consultant Saqlain Mushtaq in their midst. A counter is well and truly brewing.
July 6 – Indians, Indians everywhere
Match day in Cardiff has brought hordes of Indian fans. They’ve got their India jerseys on, they’ve packed in a meal and spend the time before the game with some celebratory bhangra. Cameramen find a reason to shoot again.
But they won’t dance away the night. England pull back through a fantastic bowling show in a stadium with long square fences and a tinge of green on the pitch. Alex Hales shows composure, and India lose theirs. The combined forces of Merlyn and Saqlain have kept Kuldeep wicketless, and a Bristol decider is born.
Morgan is happy and cheerful today.
July 7 – It’s really coming home?
It’s another no media day and I’ve reached the beautiful city centre in Bristol where our cameraman is busy taking video shots of everything he sees. I take a walk in the hope of finding any trace of support for cricket. No luck. Only hours before, Sweden had been swatted aside, giving Englishmen a reason to believe, a reason to dream and a reason to sing a song out of context.
‘Football’s coming home’ is catchy for sure, but turns out it is a song from 12 years ago about England getting to host a big event for the first time since the 1966 World Cup. Such technicalities aside, it’s a fantastic way to celebrate and dream. The moment is theirs.
July 8 – Dr. Grace makes an appearance
The Brightside Ground at Bristol is a throwback to simpler times. There are no towering concrete structure at either straight ends of the pitch. Like with Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, the old-world charm just cannot escape your eyes. The walls inside are adorned with pictures of Gloucestershire heroes. Alex Gidman, Mike Smith, Craig Spearman, Jon Lewis and Hamish Marshall all welcome you in, and a fantastic action shot of Dr. WG Grace – who bought this ground in 1889 #Funfact – greets you on a right turn towards the stands.
Once again, as far as I can see, there are only Indian fans, who get their money’s worth. India pull off their third highest T20I run-chase thanks to a Rohit Sharma century, and the first series has come to an end. Hardik Pandya is all smiles and chuckles in the press conference, Eoin Morgan a bit morose. Eitherway, it’s been a very good series – a perfect curtain raiser for the two far more important formats in the current context.
July 9 – Running around
Majority of this moving Monday is being spent lugging suitcases around at multiple railway stations. The one at Bristol throws up a funny situation where several trains are getting cancelled. The weather’s still fine – delightful even – but in a bizarre turn of events, there’s a driver shortage, causing all the cancellations.
It makes me laugh, but an elderly woman sitting beside me isn’t quite pleased. ‘This is just another one of those excuses’ she says while furiously waging her finger… at particularly no one. ‘They’ve had a look at their list and decided, right then, we’ll give them this lie today’ and she laughs. British humour, I’ve heard, is an acquired taste, but I laugh along anyway.
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