Letter from… Toronto
Dear Cricket Monthly,
Ticketbastard is what we called them. Vermin renowned for pilfering meaty percentages of the price of tickets they sold as "convenience charges". But their thieving ways were a hazy afterthought as I sprinted up a bustling thoroughfare in downtown Toronto one morning in 1996 to get tickets to the first Sahara Friendship Cup. I had always stuck to a principled stand that Indo-Pakistani "friendship" beamed in from neutral venues was an abomination (possibly it was to do with the trauma inflicted by Javed Miandad in 1986) - principles you couldn't sniff a trace of as I arrived breathless at the deserted ticket outlet. Convenience charge be damned, I could have kissed the Ticketbastard lady when she handed over a sheaf of tickets for the upcoming five matches. I stood in a daze staring at them. Could she ever comprehend what it meant?
Bangalore, 1979: Midnight was tranquil outside the stadium. We sat huddled alongside thousands, our backs up against the concrete walls ringing the KSCA. We were a nervous and giddy teenaged bunch who had successfully begged our mothers into permitting us to be there. Mothers who would have been relieved to see us amid decorous Bangaloreans who enthralled us with stories of legendary Pakistani cricketers and matches past. It was a magical night. At dawn we were bleary-eyed and unkempt; then around 9am, people were on their feet craning their necks, jabbering first in hushed voices, soon in shouts. Reports from the front lines were relayed back in staccato bursts; tempers, like the temperature, escalated by the minute. Not long after, our mothers' worst nightmare came true: a stampede. Soon we were hurtling down footpaths, clueless about where the current was dragging us. I ran breathlessly, desperate and disoriented by the jostling mob. Until I found myself standing crestfallen at the intersection of Queens and Cubbon roads, looking upon a sea of wild-eyed heads pulsating in waves. As they strained to reach the ticket counters, the police embarked on the time-tested Indian crowd-control method: the merciless swinging of lathis. I rode the bus back home, battered, glum and inconsolable.
My father has never watched an India-Pakistan cricket match in the flesh. He was so close
Seventeen years later, in downtown Toronto, the tickets were an exorcism of the Bangalore ghost.
The year 1999 dawned hopeful for India-Pakistan cricket with the glorious Test match in Chennai. I had other reasons to perk up. My parents confirmed their visit to Toronto that year and September was in the bullseye of their plans. September by then meant the Sahara Cup, a tournament I had grown to cherish. The atmosphere was infectious and subways were crammed with raucous cricket fans, mystifying many locals. The ground was so disarmingly intimate that you could trade banter with the players. Venkatesh Prasad, irritated at my advice on bowling tactics for a rampaging Shahid Afridi, at one point chirped: "Haudu, nimminda kalithukollakke Toronto thanaka bande." ("Yes, I came all the way to Toronto to be educated by you.") On another occasion I found myself giving Geoffrey Boycott precise directions to a golf course as he checked if his cabbie was trying to rip him off.
Since 1979 I had been eaten by guilt. I did eventually watch that India-Pakistan Test in Bangalore, you know. Post-stampede, my father worked tirelessly with me in my quest to wring a ticket out of a Samaritan. But in my desperation to soak up Imran and Vishy, I hadn't mustered up the decency to offer up my seat to my father for even a day. Here was a shot at redemption. We'd saunter into that very Ticketmaster outlet and traipse out with tickets. Ride the subway together to the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club.
Then came May - and the Kargil war.
Cosy at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club
Cosy at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club © AFP
There is an enduring image from that summer, as the World Cup played out in England: jackboots on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, having negotiated a ceasefire for the day, hunkering down in bunkers, posing for cameras as they watched Prasad nab a fifer at Old Trafford. That was when it sank in. There would be no subway rides to the cricket with my father. No Shoaib v Dravid either.
All the summer brought was news of incursions, artillery fire and air raids up in the mountains of Kashmir. Along with that, the spectrum of emotions that came with every India-Pakistan mess - dismay, despondency, despair, disgust. And this time, acute disappointment. September came and there was no "friendship" left to beam back from Toronto. All that remained was a shoehorn job, as a willing West Indies filled in to play India, then Pakistan.
I sat with my father that September, watching Brian Lara and Courtney Walsh play India. What in other circumstances would have been special rang hollow. To this day it stings that it wasn't Inzamam and Youhana. The jackboots had won.
My father has never watched an India-Pakistan cricket match in the flesh. He was so close.
F**k your war
Cause I'm fat and in love
And no bombs are falling on me for sure
But I'm scared to death
That I'm living a life not worth dying for
Yours, still in acute disappointment…
Song lyrics from: "Red Dress" from the album Dear Science by TV on The Radio, Interscope Records, 2008
Sriram Dayanand is a writer based in Canada
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