Anonymity is a strange thing.
As the Indian team practised in the nets at the edge of the small Stormont cricket ground, a bunch of amateur footballers practised in a field behind the nets, unconcerned about the proximity of the superstar visitors; people from the club gym stared impassively at them as they worked on the treadmill — they had nowhere else to look; joggers went by without a second glance. Construction workers grimaced and swore as they put up the temporary stands — work before stargazing.
Of spectators, there was no sign.
At his turn at the nets, vice-captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni pulled one, cleared the high net and the ball hit the clubhouse wall — it could well have been a deliberate hit, calculated to end the slumber of the hosts. The team had its first taste of Irish indifference on Thursday and seemed to enjoy every bit of it. Anonymity, much reviled, is not such a bad thing, after all — if you happen to be an Indian cricket player.
The day began bright and sunny; the longest day of the year would end up probably having 18 hours of light, even in the worst of which a World Cup final could be played.
We had another taste of the vagaries of the Irish weather - in peak summer, a cutting wind blew across the stadium, fanned by the generous layering of the trees around. For the Irish, though, it was not a problem. Brian Walsh, the International Cricket Council in-charge for the game’s development in Ireland, roamed around in a thin T-shirt, assuring you that it was a rather pleasant day.
The players, though, energetically went through the warm-up session, laughing and joking, cheering each other on. At a session of high catches, there were a few spectacular takes; one of them ended with Sourav Ganguly catching a beauty, sprinting towards the boundary, his gaze fixed overhead. Sachin Tendulkar, passing by, assured Ganguly that considering the speed he was going at, he had a good chance of cleaving the clubhouse in two.
At one point, Dhoni, in mock disgust over a spilled chance, carried Robin Uthappa off to the nearest bin and displayed every intent of dumping him in; thankfully, he did not. In the background, Philip MCcormick, a man who really works to earn his wages, worked hard at the pitch, rolling it, shaving it.
It was a happy bunch on view, this Indian team. The players looked delighted with the prospect of practice without intrusion - for the record, the media representatives, numbering two, were rather quiet.
Cricket manager Chandu Borde saw the proceedings from a distance. “That’s not my style,” Borde said later. “I’ve gone through all this and I know how things work in the national team.”
Bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad and fielding coach Robin Singh directed the proceedings. The wicket in the middle was rather heavy, for it has been raining daily over several days. The nets pitches were also rather slow.
But Dhoni continued to rain balls, beyond a row of rising stands and into the clubhouse, eliciting cries of “watch it!” from his teammates. The team continued to egg him on — “three to win, MS, three to win!” RP Singh was informed that it was up to him to save the team by taking five wickets.
As they ended practice, the players wasted no time in putting on outer clothing - we had had a spell of sharp sunshine, but now the wind picked up, the blackest clouds threatened to cover the lone blue patch that was letting in the sunshine. The session lasted four hours, and the players looked happy with the results. As they munched food, they also had a look at photos clicked by two agency photographers — “Very helpful, looking at pictures helps,” said Tendulkar.
As the team prepared to pack up, a few Indian fans finally arrived - all three of them. They chatted with a couple of cricketers, got a few autographs, got themselves photographed with Tendulkar and Dhoni. The players are not unhappy to finally draw attention. There is nothing much wrong with being a celebrity, too.