Never in all my life have a felt safer boarding the steps of an aeroplane than I did as I stepped onto the 50-seater that was to take us from Lucknow to Calcutta for the second Test.
As I followed in the footsteps of the dapper, well muscled man in front of me, with his tightly fitted, designer t-shirt, black trousers and modest gold chain, I turned to look behind me to see if anyone else felt the same.
Hashim Amla was looking at me with a half-smile on his face. Was he thinking the same? There was only one way to find out: “Nothing bad can happen to us,” I said, hoping I wasn’t misreading his smile, “if we’re on a plane in India with Sachin Tendulkar on it.”
Hashim laughed long and loud but the noise of the jets drowned him out and Sachin didn’t hear. Hash had been thinking exactly the same.
Sachin is revered in this country to an extent not quantifiable with words. At least, not in a short column. His life more closely resembles that of a young Emperor in the Lost City than that of a professional sportsman so the opportunity of sharing normal, irreverent conversation with a friend or acquaintance must be relished.
In front of Sachin was Shaun Pollock and the former skipper was in no mood to bow and scrape. Laughing, joking and chatting like best friends, Shaun was teasing and testing the batsmen with cheeky deliveries just outside the off stump but the former Indian skipper was leaving well alone.
“Hey Sachy, I’ve got the solution to all the travel hassles here in India. We’re going to get around it for the next tour,” said Polly. “I’m going to bring Errol Stewart out to fly us around from city to city – you just have to buy the plane. One of these would be nice. Come on, you know you can afford it…”
If Sachin failed to find the quick response we all wish for ten minutes later, he was bailed out by umpire Darrel Harper who, upon seeing Pollock stumble as he made his way down the aisle, retorted: “Mind the front foot, Shaun, you got away with enough in the middle – don’t overstep in here too.”
Both squads numbered 14 but, with seven members of management for the tourists and two for the home side, not to mention five wives and girlfriends, there just eight seats remaining. Four were occupied by SA journalists, two by Ten Sports graphics men, one by a well-fed man in a white safari suit and expensive cologne and the last one by a German businessman who had become so incensed at being thrown off the plane at the last minute that it seemed almost certain he would die instantly in a fit of outrage. He was reinstated with minutes to go leaving selection convenor Omar Henry to travel the ‘long way around’ via Delhi.
Calcutta is a magnificent city – and especially so after a journey that was reminiscent of the ‘old days’ of cricket tours when pressmen and players were all in the same boat – literally! – for weeks at a time and they shared the same experiences without fear or compromise.
If Kanpur was the tap to the bile duct of the country, Calcutta is as cosmopolitan as any city can be; only Bangalore has greater diversity. There is water everywhere, some with lilys growing and ducks swimming and some with dead dogs rotting and moving more like a lava flow of sewerage than a river.
Sometimes Calcutta looks and smells like hell, but just around the corner there will a cafe serving masala tea and cappuccino as good as anything you will ever taste.
The Australians, I’m told, bitched and moaned last month about not playing one of their four Test at Eden Gardens. The reason is simple. They refused to travel to Kanpur. If you’re prepared to accept the worst, you’re entitled to the best. They didn’t and they’re not.
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