There was something deeply liberating about covering the ICC World Twenty20 2012. Having travelled to Sri Lanka too many times to keep count, there was a deep sense of the familiar, from touchdown at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, to stringhoppers and kiri hodi at the breakfast buffet, from the lilting accent of native Sinhala speakers, interspersed with the odd strain of Tamil, to the sheer joy of the papare bands playing in the stands at each ground.
But this tournament felt different, somehow.
At first, I assumed it was the warm hospitality of the locals at Hambantota, a region that is literally developing in front of your eyes. I put it down to the fact that people were trying that much harder to make things work as this was a non-traditional venue. The completely chilled out pace of a cricket ground in the middle of the wilderness might have helped, but that wasn’t it.
When the action moved to Pallekele, the Kandy suburb that boasts a charming cricket ground modeled on Centurion in South Africa, hustle and bustle replaced calm and quiet. With the Super Eights under way, interest levels had gone through the roof. Fans had travelled from far to support their teams, the crowd in press boxes increased exponentially, and nerves began to fray as teams sought to go through to the final four. Every game mattered, and this lent the tournament the edge it had earlier lacked, but this was not what set your reporter free.
Halfway through a match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, which ended in a tie that led to a Lasith Malinga Super Over, a conversation with David Hopps, the veteran English cricket writer, solved the mystery.
Hopps, who spent years being a leading cricket voice at The Guardian newspaper, had recently moved to the Cricinfo website, and was suddenly brought in close contact with the people he was writing for. In a newspaper, you rarely come in contact with your readers, but the immediacy of the internet means that a sharp response is only a feedback form – or a tweet or Facebook comment — away.
Hopps’s experience was much the same as some of us who have paddled in these waters for years: the average reader was so full of nationalistic pride that cricket had long since ceased to exist as merely a sport. The majority of reactions to an article were vitriol – either bashing another team (which leads to internal warfare in the comments section) or wild speculation into the motives of the writer, with theories on why he wrote what he did. And then there were those whose only aim was to complain, either reducing all arguments to explanations of how the IPL had killed the game, blaming India’s financial clout for the decline of the world or just plain venting frustrations with no cogent argument.
It struck me then that what was liberating, was that I was at the World T20, and did not watch a single match involving India, apart from in the comfort of the hotel bar. When I was at the ground, I was free to watch the match without prejudice – I was not compelled to feel disappointed if a particular team lost, outraged if a certain batsman got a rough lbw decision or constrained to hope that the rain did not come till a particular Duckworth-Lewis score had been reached.
Set free thus, I was at liberty to widen my horizons sufficiently to enjoy a Seven7 thrash between South Africa and Sri Lanka. I was in an open enough mindset to take joy in learning that Suranga Lakmal was plucked from relative obscurity in Debrawewa or that Paddy Upton had encouraged South Africa’s players to embrace the fact that they had choked in the past.
I learnt that Dilshan Munaweera was a studious boy who spoke impeccable English and that it was Sanath Jayasuriya who introduced Ajantha Mendis to his future wife Yoshini, at the sidelines of a match.
Had I been covering the Indian team, or even following their fortunes closely like so many fans are compelled to by their sense of nationalism, I would’ve likely been so engrossed in what the team composition was for the next match, or the form of a certain player, that I would have missed the best things about a world tournament – the sheer breadth of experiences on offer, the amazing stories behind the ordinary characters, the role every last piece plays in the bigger picture of this great game.
Strangely, to be free of nationalism did not mean I was forced to watch the game in an aloof manner. It just meant I could be invested in different things at different times. On one day it could be the purity of Nasir Jamshed’s strokeplay and on another, the unwavering smile of Darren Sammy, a man charged with doing a tough job.
When the tournament was done, one thing became crystal clear: there’s plenty wrong with the game today, with the way it is run, with players who cheat, with greedy shysters out to make a buck at any cost. But, if you look at it with the right eyes, it’s easy to see all that’s good about it.