There can’t be many worse prospects for the authorities at this World Cup than the thought of a security ‘incident’, a breach or embarrassment of almost any kind. Never mind fully-fledged terrorists, the tournament hosts are so tense and fragile that a pick-pocket would have good reason to fear for his life should he inadvertently attempt to ply his trade on a player.
Not that that is likely in the state of Gujarat where matches are being played at the 55-seater Sardar Patel Stadium but the teams are being kept under lock and key in an extremely comfortable but much less spacious five-star hotel. Given a choice of prisons, this one would beat anything with metal bars on the windows but then we didn’t come to the World Cup to be confined anywhere.
Conditions may vary a lot between the three host countries but not as much as they vary between states in this most federal of nations. Whereas South Africa’s players were hiring tuk-tuks for an outing to a market in Bangalore, Zimbabwe’s and Australia’s were being refused any sort of exit from the hotel in Ahmedabad unless it involved an armed escort – something which requires the permission and subsequent approval of at least five hotel staff and police officers.
For the Zimbabweans, however, the claustrophobic hospitality of the Gujarati security forces (they really are genuinely friendly) is only hardly half the problem. Gujarat is rightly proud of its status as the home state of Mahatma Ghandi and, in deference to the great man, remains a ‘dry’ state which prides itself on a culinary reputation for the best vegetarian cuisine in the country, if not the world.
Finding a vegetarian in Zimbabwe is hard enough, but a vegetarian teetotaller is rarer than a steak-eating Indian. Talking of which, one of the Zimbabwean squad, on being offered a vegetarian curry on the aeroplane on the way to Ahmedabad, offered the following response: “I don’t eat vegetarian, it’s against my…it’s against what I do. Where’s the steak?” He will be able to enjoy a beer in every other state in due course, but steak in the land of the holy cow will be much harder.
It is possible to escape, but it takes perseverance. One of India’s finest and longest-serving journalists suggested we “catch up for old time’s sake” in Ahmedabad. Having a clear recollection of how much he had enjoyed Cape wines on the Friendship Tour 20 years ago, it was a peculiar thought that we might share a couple of bottles of filtered water with a vegetable roghan josh. But if my legendary old friend was inviting, I wasn’t going to refuse. Perhaps the clue came when he responded “room 404, my hotel” to my question “which restaurant?”
He greeted me and two colleagues with the offer of a glass of White Mischief and sprite. “You can’t be fussy in this state,” he said with that old, familiar twinkle in his eye. “It’s not one of your sauvignon blancs, but if you close your eyes and use your imagination we can relive those days when we first met!” He didn’t say it, but we both knew he was referring to the old (hilarious in retrospect) generalisations we had about Indians and South Africans.
Delicious starters were ordered from room service and, eventually, a couple of curries which were shared with naan bread. What a night.
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