The Idian team’s departure on January 29, 2003 for South Africa from Mumbai was chaotic, a hundred things were on but nobody knew what was happening. That morning, the clothing was handed out and, as expected, blazers did not fit, trousers were too tight and tracksuit sizes wildly wrong. Later, the team rushed off for dope tests that took too long because each player was required to produce a urine sample of an acceptable volume. This, with some, proved daunting, despite liberal quantities of liquids being consumed.
This delay impacted other engagements. Sehwag failed to keep the 6pm deadline for the team photo but the others smiled brightly into cameras despite being harassed by an army of photographers. Ultimately, after much screaming and jostling, the moment was captured for posterity.
After this, the captain headed for the press conference, held in a large hall normally used for wedding receptions. Sourav answered questions calmly but almost lost his cool when a young (and aggressive) female journo wanted him to assess all 14 teams. He responded with remarkable restraint: ‘What paper do you work for?’
Equally tricky was the suggestion from sponsors Sahara that the players visit the Sidhi Vinayak temple. When others objected, pointing to Mumbai’s traffic, and questioned the wisdom of a secular team making a religious gesture, the idea was shot down.
After much scrambling, the players (minus Sachin, who had to be collected on the way) climbed into the team bus half-hour behind the 10.45pm deadline. It was a silent send-off from the Taj but as the bus turned the corner past the Gateway of India, escorted by police outriders on motorcycles with shrieking horns, an enthusiastic group cheered loudly .The bus halted briefly near the airport, Sachin jumped out of a blue BMW to occupy his place, the first seat on the left, next to the exit.
Inside the airport, formalities were completed swiftly, passports stamped and the players escorted into the VIP lounge, where coach Wright huddled over his laptop to prepare the team’s training programme.
Eventually, past midnight, when boarding cards were handed out, weary players picked up their ipods and black leather BCCI bags and trooped into the business class of South African Airways flight 277 to Jo’burg. The ties came off, the blazers handed over to airhostesses — it was time to sleep.
(The writer, the Indian team’s media manager for the 2003 World Cup, will take us back to those unforgettable two months, to the humour and the heartbreak within the dressing room and outside, the good, the bad and the ugly parts of India’s remarkable road to the final. This is Part I of a series).