I landed in Colombo on India's Independence Day in 2006, with mixed feelings. A tri-nation cricket series involving India, Sri Lanka and South Africa was in prospect, but the inaugural match slated for the previous day was cancelled following a bomb blast in the heart of Colombo. En route to the Taj Samudra, we drove past the spot where a bomb had caused seven deaths just 24 hours ago.
The security at Taj Samudra was tighter than usual: the Indian and Sri Lankan teams were staying there, attracting a crowd outside the gate.
The next morning, when I was in the pool, the Sri Lankan team trooped in — clearly the team sponsor had forgotten the branding opportunity on swimming trunks. One by one the players plunged in, having a whale of a time.
At breakfast time, the hotel lobby and the coffee shop seemed more like a dressing room in a cricket stadium (no broken TV sets though). Marvan Atapattu, back in the team after an injury break, was playing doting father in the lobby, pushing his little kid's pram. He was also pulling his kitbag, hence sorry, no spare hand for a handshake. The players, coaches and officials trooped in and out of the coffee shop. The first thing I realised was that all of them were taller than they seemed on the small screen. Maybe partially the effect of curved TV screens making them appear broader than they are — and our minds resizing them, by shrinking the breadth, and proportionately the height. There is also the disadvantage of relative height perceptions of individuals, in a group of tall athletes. That didn't apply to umpire Steve Bucknor, taller than the rest of the group that included Greg Chappell. Bucknor was moving more languidly than Bishen Singh Bedi's floaters, every bit the antithesis of Mohammad Kaif.
One morning, I came face to face with Jayasuriya at the coffee shop entrance. Instinctively, impelled by the one-sided familiarity we have with televised faces, I wished him. No response. Instead, he walked along, looking through me, at some distant sightscreen as it were. The hotel executive at the entrance was quick to assuage my presumed hurt, saying it was Jayasuriya's usual style. She meant well and possibly didn't want me to shed my civility on being ignored. I thanked her but knew what I saw was a close-up of being “in the zone.” In his mind, the Matara marauder was already at the crease, figuring out how Shaun Pollock's fingers were gripping the ball.
Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid came in, and they settled down with their plates, facing each other at the large central table. Shortly, a middle-aged man who didn't look like a houseguest entered. Sporting a cross between a smile and a smirk, he reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out his mobile phone as if it were a pistol. He tried out a few angles and finally approached his hapless prey, his mobile held aloft. Leaning on to the table like a billiards player, he thrust the mobile in front of Sachin's face and clicked. Then it was Dravid's turn. These two nice guys would have been happier facing Allan Donald even without their helmets! But, seasoned pros, they handled the attack with a dead bat. They didn't turn away, they neither acknowledged nor smiled, they just nonchalantly carried on as if the instrument of intrusion didn't exist. Bravo, gentlemen! Not wanting to be bracketed with the mobile photographer, I resisted the temptation to pull out my camera and capture the scene.
Outside the coffee shop, autograph hunters were on the prowl. Never mind the kids, there were grown-up women jumping up and down in visible excitement, acting like schoolgirls, hoping to be photographed with the Indian players, courtesy some common acquaintances!
These close encounters over a week gave a good insight into the cricketing ecosystem, which plays out a lot more violently in India. At the bottom of the pyramid are the foot soldiers of the brand, its true shareholders who with their craze make it a multibillion-dollar brand. They are willing to be beaten up when 35,000 of them vie for 6,000 seats, multiplying the prestige value of the remaining 34,000 seats reserved for the upper crust of the pyramid. They watch matches, often skipping meals, risking domestic quarrels, heart attacks and even sudden death. They make India the majority shareholder who can make and then bend cricketing rules and employ international players, who suddenly discovered the best country on this earth.
Much like company managements tolerating shareholder excesses at Annual General Meetings, sports icons are forced to compromise. Collectively, they barter privacy for fan following. Privacy is the price public figures pay for adulation and the big bucks.
(The writer is a Chennai-based communicator. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
At the bottom of the pyramid are the foot soldiers who watch matches, often skipping meals, risking domestic quarrels, heart attacks and even sudden death.