India revel in cricket's return
Paul Rhys reports from Chennai on the impact of the Mumbai attacks on Indian fans.
Last updated: 12 Dec 2008 13:48
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An RAF policeman stands guard by the pitch     [AL JAZEERA]

The first day of a cricket match took place in Chennai, the south Indian city formerly known as Madras, as a visiting England side forgot their security worries in the wake of the Mumbai attacks – and refamiliarised themselves with the worry of beating India.

England captain Kevin Pietersen had already stated that it was time to focus on cricket after two weeks of agonising over whether to return to the country after 171 people were killed by gunmen in the financial capital in November.

And with calls from all corners of the world game for the tourists to stand up and be counted in the wake of the attacks, Al Jazeera travelled to Chennai on Thursday to gauge the feeling in the cricket-mad city.

'Brave Englishmen'

The morning's Deccan Chronicle hailed England’s return with the headline: 'Brave Englishmen follow illustrious footsteps', as columnist R Mohan compared Pietersen with a colonial soldier who conducted brave retreats from then-Madras only to willingly return to the fray time and again.

Brave, yes, and certainly commendable.

But with dozens of India's Rapid Action Force [RAF] patrolling the perimeter with rifles and smoke grenades, backed up by a huge army and police operation in the city, there was little scope for danger.

While the Chidambaram Stadium was by no means full on the first day of this five-day Test, the 50 rupee ($1) benches where the hardcore support congregates were packed.

As well as maintaining a steady stream of shouts, blaring horns and whistles, the crowd in Stand B rushed to the fences whenever Sachin Tendulkar fielded on the boundary – calling out for a wave from the batting legend as the heavily-armed RAF looked on from beyond the wire.

Relaxed fans

Engineering student Navean Ramkumar, 21, took a bus to the stadium and then sat on benches with his friends, soaking up the relaxed yet excitable atmosphere as the teams took to the field.

"There shouldn't have been so much concern from England," he said.

"Terrorism never strikes where it is anticipated, and its main aim is to create panic and havoc.

"They should've known India is a fine country with good security.

"But speaking in human terms we should all be united and I appreciate England for sending a full-strength squad."

Not the real Tendulkar [AL JAZEERA]

Navean said he felt no different from any other match he had attended, adding that the somewhat sparse crowd – not unusual on a working day – was affected more by the impact of Twenty20, a new short form of the game played in hours rather than days.

"This is my homeland. The atmosphere is good," he said.

"Twenty20 may have impacted today's match, but not terrorism.

"India is a cricketing nation, and Test cricket has not lost its charm for us.

"Twenty20 is like rap music, while Test cricket is like jazz.

"Hip hop might be the trend, but jazz never loses its soul."

Things always look better in the light of day, but after the fears of the previous weeks nothing could have seemed further from reality than the prospect of armed killers roaming Chennai.

At lunch, one local journalism student was taking polls on whether this was how people wanted their sport played – with guns separating the players from the fans.

'Barmy Army'

Paul Winslow, 33, who edits the website for England's travelling 'Barmy Army' and has not missed a tour in four years, believes it could not have been any other way.

And he said there was no way he would have missed this trip, whatever shape the England team had taken.

"As long as it was going to go ahead, we were going to be there. They don't call us barmy for nothing," he said.

"Nobody wants to see anything like this (the security presence). But at the same time, as long as you're getting to watch sport, so be it.

"Terrorist attacks happen everywhere around the world.

"After the 7/7 bombings in London, we all got up the next day and got on the tube as normal.

"That's not to belittle it. But the chances of anything happening immediately after a terrorist attack are tiny."

He agreed with the Indian fans that – while solidarity played a part – no one was kidding themselves about the real reason they were in Chennai.

"We have all mentioned defying terrorism but that's not the reason we're here," he said.

"It's because we love cricket.

"The fact we can show solidarity at the same time is good, and it's good for the players to have that support and those friendly faces."

     Chennai cricket fans remember Mumbai          [AL JAZEERA]

Positive atmosphere

Messages texted by fans were displayed on the big screen at the Chidambaram, thanking England, praising the Chennai police – and urging bowler Ishant Sharma to grow his hair long again.

The Barmy Army, while in small numbers, were getting on with their usual banter in the slightly pricier $4 seats as England got off to a decent start.

Former Test player Ravi Shastri had written in the Chronicle that England's bowlers would be more dangerous in the Test matches than the one-dayers last month, when they lost 5-0.

But it was their batsmen who impressed after Pietersen won the toss, with Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook marching to a century partnership, and Strauss going on to make his 13th Test century.

It all fell apart lower down, Pietersen going for a wasteful four as Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh taking two apiece to leave the tourists tottering on 229-5.

But after the horrors of Mumbai, it is reassuring that the pain of a simple trudge back to the pavilion still has its place.

Al Jazeera
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