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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: David Maczkowiack
  Photo: Ranjan Chari

India: A Gentlemen’s Game  
By Suchi Rudra-Vasquez

Leaping into the room with a shriek, an enormous Indian flag fluttering from his shoulders like a cape, face boldly painted orange, white and green, the cricket-crazed man laughed like a thrilled warrior, brandishing a toy light saber at a Pakistani friend standing nearby. The India-Pakistan match is, I found out later, more of a civil war than a game. Luckily, that night's India match is only against Zimbabwe.

I have just arrived in Bombay in time to properly experience the World Cup cricket tournament. To clarify the mystery of the sport, I do my homework. I examine matches on television and pester friends with questions about the innards of this game that is markedly absent from American athletic arenas and sports channels.

“It's a gentleman's game,” everyone tells me, “nothing like your baseball.”  But there is a bat and ball, I insist, sharing my sharp observations. Yes, they agree, but that is where the similarity stops. And the more I watch the elegantly costumed players handling the ball without a glove, contrasting with the raucous fans in the stadiums and on the streets, the more I’m not sure what to make of it.

Before the World Cup tournament begins in South Africa, teams prepare with exhibition games. India plays the West Indies in Bombay’s largest cricket stadium. The heat is scorching in the open-air stands, and my water bottle has just been confiscated at the gate; the stage is set for my first live, eight-hour cricket match.

The match is part of a five-day “test series” where only a handful of batsmen perform on a given day. But luckily today one of those batsmen, is the “world's greatest”: Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar is one of Bombay's beloved sons, raised on the wide and dusty cricket grounds of the city's Shivaji Park. When the legend recently turned 30-years-old, one of the city's most widely read afternoon newspapers, “Mid Day”, dedicated an entire 25-page spread of articles, anecdotes and photographs of Tendulkar.

Bollywood film stars may be revered as gods and goddesses in the eyes of India's one billion spectators, but when World Cup Cricket fever arrives, even the stars are sucked into the outpouring of blue-themed music videos, movies and ads sweetly sidling up to the eleven athletic gods that Indians currently acknowledge.

For the first four hours of the match, I amuse myself with visits to the concession stand for popsicles and juice boxes.  The heat dims my interest. The surrounding masses chant wildly, and occasionally taunt the bowler of the “Windies” team. I have trouble engaging. Popsicles offered no solace; I force myself to sit and scrutinize the scoreboard every few minutes to verify if what I think is happening on the field is actually happening. I distract my friend from the match, asking him to fill me in with the latest play by play. When the second Indian batsman finally gets out, a loud roar erupts across the stadium.

At first I think everyone is just irked by a fallen wicket, and I feign disappointment. But my friend grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me: “Tendulkar's batting!”

I find myself clapping vigorously, jumping up and down. So this is what it feels like to be in the presence of someone who is making history, someone who can inspire a sense of oneness among all who watch him—even those who have very little idea what is going on.

My one live match experience is just the beginning of it all. Before the Indian team leaves for the World Cup in South Africa, Bombay has already decked itself out in Indian team jerseys, caps, and blue-colored Pepsi bottles. Every eatery, from street vendor's stalls to four-star restaurants, have obtained television sets or at the very least a radio.
People schedule their lives around the matches, especially when India is playing. When Team India plays, shops are either empty or closed.


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