An edited version was published in today's Hindustan Times, HTCafe section, page 23.
As an American, I grew up knowing nothing about cricket. Despite being a former British colony, it’s not a sport we play, or watch, at all. But after traveling to India as a tourist and volunteering at an NGO in Mumbai, I have come to understand why the game is so beloved here, and in so much of the world.
I live in an apartment in Danda, in west Khar, which still feels like the small fishing village it once was, in the middle of the grand and glorious metropolis of Mumbai. My neighbors are all welcoming and friendly, and often offer me tea, inquire as to whether I’ve had sufficient food for the day, and invite me into their homes to watch cricket on television. And although I was starting from scratch, I’ve learned much about the game. I became familiar with players like Sachin and Sehwag and Dhoni, and some of the many, often obscure rules. Of course there are many things that still baffle me. Dot balls? Googly? Popping crease? But I started really enjoying the game, and even I sometimes play with the local children in my neighborhood with their plastic bats and balls. But I had never seen a major cricket game in person, and I knew I would have to sometime before leaving this fine country that I love so much.
So when the IPL took place this Spring, with its exciting 20-20 format, I quickly became a huge fan of my local team, the Mumbai Indians. And when I realized that the semi-finals were going to be played in Navi Mumbai, I knew I had my chance to attend my first ever live cricket match.
Tickets went on sale just a couple days before the game. I heard that they were being sold at a few places throughout the city, so I went to an auto parts store in Bandra to look for them. Of course, by the time I arrived, they were fully sold out. I received a couple curious smiles when I jumped up and down in my frustration at not being able to buy tickets. Who is this crazy foreigner who so wants to attend the semi-finals?
So I looked online, and found someone selling tickets. We talked on the phone and arranged the purchase on the day of the match.
My friend and I decided to take the train to Nerul and catch a rickshaw from there to the stadium. Although somewhat crowded, the train was surely the best way to travel there, and we arrived quickly. Although I have been all around India, from Kashmir to Kerala, I haven’t been out of Mumbai in a couple months, and was struck with how peaceful and green everything became as soon as we crossed the canal into Navi Mumbai.
As we got closer, more and more people around us were heading to the game. We could feel the excitement growing. When we got out at Nerul station, the rickshaws were there ferrying people to the stadium, and my friend and I jumped in one with a third passenger, and got as close as we could, until the point where the police were stopping the vehicles.
We got out and started to walk. All the way, people were selling shirts and caps, and painting people’s faces in the team colors of blue and gold, and the national colors of saffron, white and green. We walked around to gate 5, past long lines of people waiting to get inside. Fortunately, when we got to our gate, there was no line. We went in, and the atmosphere was positively electric. We headed into the stadium, and as we saw the pitch, our view opened up into a great, green, round field, surrounded by stands that were about to hold 50,000 screaming fans. We took our seats in the 10th row of the lower section, and immediately met everyone around us. In general, I find people here to be very friendly, and this crowd was especially so. I pulled my cell phone out to take some photos, and both the students in front of me and the family behind me asked me to take their photos, gave me their email IDs, and asked me to send them the photos later, which of course I did. We chatted with all our neighbors, waved our blue and gold flags around, and enjoyed some drinks and snacks. Everyone was happy to see foreigners there, engaging in the spirit of the game. Watching the game together, as a little community in our section, made the experience even more special.
The game started, and the home team won the toss and elected to bat first. It was amazing how in love with Sachin everyone was. We chanted his name, and screamed like mad every time he batted or appeared on the big screen. When he exited the game early, we were devastated, but we knew the rest of the team could pull us through. And pull through they did, with Tiwari and Rayudu playing a great partnership, and Kieron Pollard of the West Indies bowling and batting brilliantly. The Indians produced many runs in the last few overs, bringing our score to 184 runs, a formidable score indeed.
I walked around during the interval, drank a few cups of cold coffee and iced tea, wandered among the crowd, enjoying all the people and the unique occasion. Even the locals knew we were at a special game.
As the game went on, the sides switched, and while the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) played well, the inevitability of our victory became more and more apparent, and our excitement grew. And when there were only a few balls left, and it was impossible for RBC to catch up, the crowd went even more wild than before.
It was a long journey back, with all 50000 people heading home together, but no one seemed to mind. We caught the last few trains of the night and had to switch trains a couple times, but we travelled with a few others who had been at the game. Everyone seemed thrilled that we Americans had taken the effort to attend, had dressed up in the team colors, and were celebrating with our adopted city.
I know that for many Indians, coming to the West is a dream they work hard at making a reality. For me, the opposite is true. Living in India is a dream come true, and I am enjoying every crazy, beautiful moment.