Tea with the President
Roving Reporter by Anand Vasu in Islamabad
March 17, 2004
Everything in Islamabad revolves around the secretariat. Take away one beautiful boulevard – flanked by embassies, high commissions, courts and government buildings – and there's precious little happening in this somnolent city. So, what better way for the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, to pass the day, than to invite the Indian team over for tea?
The players met the president on the day after their match at the Pindi Stadium, just down the road in nearby Rawalpindi. It was a strictly closed-door affair, with no-one other than the Indian team and their support staff invited or allowed. The team left the Marriott Hotel in their impressive motorcade – led by motorcycle riders in pyramid formation, and followed by at least six cars of various sizes forming a protective cordon in front of the team bus. Pakistan's elite force, the Rangers, were on either side, in open top jeeps, carbines at the ready. The way ahead was cleared for almost two kilometres in front. A mirror image of the vehicular configuration capped the bus's rear.
This sort of security is usually granted to the likes of George Bush and Vladimir Putin, not young men who hurl a ball well or hit a ball with unusual skill. But, for a time, the Indian team left behind the world of balls and bats, of tracksuits and spiked shoes, and put on their Indian blazers and ties to make their way to Musharraf's residence at 11am. India scored sartorial points over the Pakistanis, who were casually turned out in T-shirts. Ratnakar Shetty, the manager, presented Musharraf several mementos on behalf of the team, including an autographed bat.
The team was treated to tea and a treatise on cricket from the General. Several cricketers were surprised by how well-informed Musharraf was about the game. When he praised Sachin Tendulkar, and shook his hand, it came as little surprise. After all, there are few people in the world who have not gasped at a shellacking Tendulkar straight-drive. What came later, however, caused a ripple of disbelieving giggles to spread through the camp. Musharraf praised Lakshmipathy Balaji's effort with the bat at Rawalpindi, and suggested that the game was very much in the balance while he was at the crease.
In the afternoon, when several members of the team returned to the Pindi Stadium for optional nets, there was still much mirth about the incident. "Even the Pakistan president is impressed with you," one senior cricketer said to Balaji jocularly. Jokes apart, seven members of the Indian team had a short but focussed work-out. Zaheer Khan bowled from a full run-up. Balaji and Irfan Pathan joined him in the exercise while Murali Kartik provided the spin component. Hemang Badani, Mohammad Kaif, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly batted in two nets on either side of the ground. For once they were allowed to bat without distraction – twenty-odd bored security guards looking idly at their assault rifles and a handful of quote-thirsty journalists were all they had to contend with. No bullets were needed, and no quotes were dished out.
They ran through fielding drills, which Greg King, a former South African domestic 2nd XI player himself, helped out with. Then there were throwdowns from some enthusiastic young cricketers from Rawalpindi. Badani and Laxman kept the ground staff on their toes with some energetic hitting as the sun set on the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Before long a couple of balls had disappeared out of the stadium and the local bowlers were wondering what they had done in previous lives to deserve this sort of treatment. In the nets, out in the middle, it's been just that sort of series, and it does not look like anything is going to change in a hurry.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.