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Despair and joy in the season of a lifetime

This summer I had seen it all, happiness and despair, a numbing loneliness, anger and joy, writes Aakash Chopra.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2006 22:20 IST

I came to England in April, a week before the start of my stint with my club, Hem Heath. In the five-odd months since, the world seems to have changed.

When I flew through Frankfurt on my way to Manchester, the whole Europe seemed to be bubbling over with the football World Cup fever. It was a happy world.

Now, as I write these words in Frankfurt on my way back, everyone is boiling over with nervous tension. Security is the buzzword, threats hang heavy in the air and the bonhomie of a few months ago seems a world away.

It’s been a peculiar summer on the field too. My season started with my club winning their first few games without difficulty. But then the rains came down and England witnessed its wettest May in 23 years.

There was little or no cricket over the next few weeks and by the time the sun shone again in June, we had lost momentum.

Within a short fortnight, we found ourselves in the middle of our championship table — a big fall from the top. Personally, I was just glad to be back in office and was kept busy in a series of games, including Twenty20. It was hectic but loads of fun and kept me from getting into a black depression.

Interspersed with the rather successful Twenty20 experience was my first game ever at Lord’s, meeting up with Sachin Tendulkar — recuperating in London after his shoulder operation — and attending a black tie dinner in the Long Room. June was pretty unforgettable.

Then came England's hottest July since 1911 — we were in the midst of a summer of extreme weather conditions. Obviously, cricket suffered. No rain meant the wickets began to crumble and hosepipe bans were introduced in a few counties for the first time. Batting professionals found it very tough but all of us knew the tracks would be no excuse while negotiating deals for the next season.

Meanwhile, my summer of misery continued and the club’s fortunes went into a freefall. One bitter truth sunk in: If you’re an outsider, however close you get to people around you, you’ll remain an outsider when the chips are down. I was in the doghouse.

The whispering began, the complaints weren’t so subdued anymore and there were fights over my worth. Meanwhile, I also had my first experience of racism on field and it wasn’t pleasant.

But July went away and August dawned — the month of charity and benefit matches. I buried my irritation and hurt and went off to play some games, including one for the Dickie Bird Foundation at Scarborough, which was a nice experience.

You have to understand that the life of a club pro at one level is quite cushy — you have the week to yourself for the most, unless you’re not being paid enough and are holding down a job too.

But it can be depressing if you’re alone and if the games (played over weekends) aren’t going well, it can be worrying; it can be hellish if you think your contract might be affected next time around. Most players who play English league cricket come to earn money that will see them through the rest of the year in an era where sports quota jobs are dying painful deaths in India.

I’m doing fine but obviously, next year’s contract was on my mind — as was pride. We slipped from third to fourth and hopes of promotion to the Premier Division were fading. It is a team game but the pro takes the blow. Still, I’m a believer and something inside me kept saying: ‘Every story has a happy ending and if the end isn’t happy, then the story’s not over yet.’

And strangely, faith worked. Even as things started heating up at the club off the field, we started winning on it while the teams ahead of us didn’t. Suddenly, two days before I left for home, on a dark, stormy day, I found myself playing in a ‘perform or perish’ situation, taking on the No. 2 side, Leycett, for a place in the Premier Division. A draw would have seen them through, we needed to win.

Fate was on our side, and suddenly, everyone was simultaneously celebrating and crying. From being the potential villain of the piece, I had delivered the piece de resistance.

I can’t remember how many times I was hugged and kissed. I finished the season on a high, topping the league averages. In the final analysis, this summer was the experience of a lifetime. I had seen it all, happiness and despair, a numbing loneliness, anger and finally, sheer joy. I was homeward bound.

First Published: Sep 24, 2006 01:08 IST