(Excerpted from Out of the Blue, by Aakash Chopra, published by Harper Collins, 2011, Rs 299, with the publisher's permission)
‘Will Tamil Nadu stop Rajasthan’s dream run?’ queried a news headline a few mornings before the big match. Later that day, a friend from Chennai called to thank the Rajasthan boys for defeating Mumbai and paving the way for an inevitable Tamil Nadu victory. During the net sessions too, we found the Tamil Nadu team looking super-confident. The star-studded line-up wore a look of obvious superiority.
Somehow, and to our utter amazement, nobody—not the media, not the fans, not even the fraternity itself—was ready to recognize us as a potential threat. Even after we’d beaten the best in the business and won the last seven games on the trot, on merit. An underdog toiling hard and taking on the world is fun to watch, but to believe it could go the distance and beat the favourites takes quite another leap of faith.
Until a few days ago, while playing Mumbai, and in the midst of all the high-intensity drama, we’d find a moment or two to catch up on the events unfolding a few hundred miles away from Jaipur. At Laali in the city of Rohtak, Haryana. Tamil Nadu was taking on Haryana in their backyard and the winner of that encounter would play the winner of our game. Haryana was the weaker of the two, so it was in our interest that they got the better of Tamil Nadu. The only flipside to this outcome would be that we’d have to travel to Laali, brave the stinging winter chill, and put up with the not-so-hospitable conditions there to play one of the biggest matches of our lives. I still shake my head when I think of my last trip to the town.
It was cricket, of course, that took me to Laali with my then team, Delhi. I remember the team being split into two since there weren’t enough rooms in the hotel to accommodate all of us. Quite apart from the shabby rooms with chipping wall-paint, poor services and lack of basic amenities, there’s this one incident that remains etched in my mind; it became a popular tale over the years. For a bucket of hot water, one had to queue up early in the morning. I remember standing in one such queue, which also had a couple of journalists waiting for their turn. This bucket of hot water was priced at Rs 5, which was generously waived off for some of the cricketers—the ones that the hotel staff recognized, basically the ones who’d played for India. One journalist enquired about this preferential treatment, to which the staff politely answered: ‘Saab, yeh log India ke liye khele hain. Hum inke liye itna toh kar sakte hain.’
The recent overhauling of the domestic calendar has led to the scrapping of matches and a break on at least these two days. Since our match against Mumbai wrapped up on the December 30, it meant a good six days’ break with a stress-free New Year’s Eve to let our hair down. As much as we would’ve loved to, catching a bus, train, or a flight back to our hometowns seemed out of the question. This was the time to keep the momentum going, raise our game, plan, practice and get match-ready, both mentally and physically. A break at this stage, a trip back home, could have slackened the pace, ruined months of labour and spelt doom. We weren’t ready to let anything deter us from our goal now, at least not because of a party or because we needed a bit of rest. Don’t they say ‘rest is for the weary, sleep for the dead’? We were far from feeling either weary or dead. In fact, we were invigorated with a vitality that comes with success.
Anyway, having spent months together in the same space, working in tandem to achieve a shared goal, we’d become a family that was bound by love and respect. It was wonderful to be welcoming the New Year, new hopes and new promises, with this new family. And so it was decided that a small get-together be organized on the lawns of the academy. And like all team efforts, this one too had roles clearly assigned. My wife Aakshi was given the job of organizing the food and the music. Team physiotherapist Amit Tyagi was to pick up the music system from the gym, set it up and make sure it works. Rohit Jhalani, who’s from Jaipur, was asked to grab a few packets of popcorn, peanuts, and gazzak on his way to the academy. The RCA did its bit by footing the bill for the bonfire and the barbeque. The rest of the team was just asked to come and make merry.
We played loud music, enjoyed rounds of sumptuous grilled chicken, mushrooms, cottage cheese and seekh kebabs, and danced well into the night, right up to the wee hours of 2011. It was a rare chance to see people shed their inhibitions, open up and dance like there was no tomorrow.
TN skipper Dinesh Karthik won the toss and, not surprisingly, chose to field first.
The track was exactly as we thought it would be. It had a lot to offer for the fast bowlers and Balaji and co. went past our defences regularly. Vineet and I decided to play as little as possible (leave everything which could be left alone) and play really late whenever we had no option but to play the ball. The ploy worked and, to our utter disbelief, Karthik employed an in-out field in the first session itself. The idea of men patrolling the square boundary with only a couple of slips in place was alien to us, for we knew that the first day was the best time to attack. That’s exactly what we had done through the season so far, on even drier surfaces than this one, and reaped huge rewards. Apparently, Karthik thought that the darkness of the soil had nothing to do with the moisture underneath, and that the grass on top was merely cosmetic. And to make matters worse for him, his bowlers seemed to think so too. Instead of trying to get something out of the track, they just bowled in the right areas, expecting the pitch to do the rest.
Tamil Nadu on the defensive. On the very first day of the semifinals. In the very first session. After only a few overs had been bowled. We certainly weren’t complaining.
Badrinath ran out of partners—and also hope, for yet another season, of lifting the trophy. We wrapped things up nicely with a brilliant direct-hit from the boundary line by Robin Bist. The sheer intensity and focus with which the ball hit the stumps summed up the raw passion we played the game with, and the hunger that eventually won it.
I won’t say Rajasthan was born to win. Not until that day, at least, when we realized that to win, we must, above all, expect to win.
(This is a curtailed version of Chapter 23: Tamil Nadu: The Other Plan)