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A most unpleasant start to the morning. A traffic snarl on the way to New Delhi from Gurgaon puts paid to any hope of getting to the Palam Ground in time for the 9.30 a.m. commencement. Add to that a nagging ache in the back of the head, and ineffective analgesia, and what you have are the ideal makings of a dark day. Every few meters Maria Sharapova’s chiseled features stare invitingly from huge hoardings.
The stunning tennis star was here recently to promote a chain of luxury apartments, dwelling places that would require a salary at least the magnitude of a top-50 player’s. The ground too has little succor to offer. Straight up, an eager fan who has sidled his way up to the boundary rope is taken to task by members of the Air Force police. Soon the conversation descends from pidgin English to unmentionables in the local dialect. Pistols swing menacingly from the cops' hips and I tremble as I sneak my way in through a gap in the cordoning net. Sometimes, a slim profile is a great help.
The pitch at this out-of-the-way venue is steeped in mystery. Through the season, low scores have been the norm here, and Mumbai’s capitulation on the first morning follows that trend. The second day, however, goes against the set pattern. No wickets fall, run-scoring is relatively easier, and the home bowlers struggle to make that last breakthrough that would expose the weak tail.
So much for the bowler-friendly wicket? Apparently not, says a fellow journalist who’s made a living out of covering Services' games. The pitch being used for the semifinal is different from those that were in service in the prior matches, he informs. So, even as a faint haze persists over the ground – and the threat of rain hangs ominously in the air – Ajit Agarkar and Aditya Tare are untroubled all day. Not a bad decision to bat first by Mumbai’s skipper, after all.
There are faint murmurings behind me. I twist myself for a better view – ignoring the ceaseless throb in the head – and see National selectors Roger Binny and Rajinder Singh Hans in animated conversation on the terrace. The two are soon surrounded by a convoy of grovelling scribes, tongues hanging, hands folded, hoping desperately for scraps of information, which are not really forthcoming from the two important men.
Binny and Hans are here to monitor - allegedly - the performance of a key India batsman who has recently called it quits from one format of cricket. On evidence of the first day, that batsman didn’t do too badly, but was overshadowed by the No. 6 and No.8 in his team on the second day. Well, not like those two are ever going to be in reckoning.
It’s been an especially bitter winter in the north. Even at its fag end, the chill appears and disappears like a cellphone signal on a train. The same for the sun. The open spaces inside the Air Force camp – where the Palam ground is located – ensure the dip of a least a few degrees from the main city. And as afternoon gives way to dusk, the bite only deepens.
The gloom is matched by the outlook of the Services’ coach, Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar. “We’ve lost the initiative,” he broods. Services had Mumbai on the mat on the first day, but lost their advantage on the second. “It all depends on how we bat now,” Bhaskar adds, knowing well that it’s going to be all uphill from here for his team in a match plagued by weather interruptions.