@Aadya_Wisden 3 minute read
For some, standing for hours in the baking sun to catch a glimpse of a handful of players through shadowy windows would seem pointless. But in India, and in this World Cup, it can be magical, writes Aadya Sharma.
Have you ever stood an hour waiting for a bus you weren’t supposed to board? Unlikely, unless you’re visiting a stadium in India to watch a game of cricket. Then, you’re prone to get sucked into the world of bus-spotting.
For many Indian fans, the experience of watching a game from the stadium starts and ends with the team bus. It’s how the in-stadia feeling becomes real. And when it’s a home World Cup for a team bulldozing through opponents, the fans are bound to be a tad more maniacal in this carnival.
For any India game at any venue, scores of fans flock the perimeter of stadiums hours before the start time and well before entry begins. The die-hards mark their attendance early, unlike the average followers who only amble in when evening descends. Where’s the passion if you’re not at the starting point in the blazing sun, jostling for space as you wait for the barriers to part?
It might sound bizarre, but that’s what the game means to so many in this country. It’s raw love, not delving into the nuance or absorbing the finer aspects. But it’s passion through and through: even a momentary, real-life glimpse of one team member is enough to make a fan’s day. Or week. It’s a privilege: you’ve beaten millions of others to be a part of that moment.
It begins with the arrival of the team bus, the very first chance to see players in the flesh on match day. Even getting to that point is a very serious mission. The wait is a whole process. You need to pick your spot, time your arrival, and elbow out the unknowns around as you lie in wait for the blue wagon to emerge.
The buzz usually starts a couple of hours before play. It’s all haphazard before that, blue shirts zig-zagging outside in Brownian motion, cluelessly finding their respective entry gates, stopping to get their cheeks painted or haggling over the price of a vuvuzela. When the team’s arrival is imminent, the police start to tame the crowd, shaping it to create a passage. It’s not always pretty: there’s scolding and shoving. You might even see a cosh threatening you. Such volumes can’t be easy to manage.
The Ekana Stadium in Lucknow sits below an expressway, adjacent to one of the city’s bigger malls. On match days, vehicles aren’t allowed to exit from the expressway: you need to be dropped off there and descend to the stadium level on foot. There’s a lot of space around. It makes it trickier to cordon off the area to allow the bus entry.
On the day of the India-England game, I decided to be a part of this adventure. By 12pm, you could sense chatter building around the bus’ arrival. “Bus aaya kya?” (Did the bus come already?) was the obvious question. “Kidhar se aayega? (Which side will it come from?) was the next one.
No one really knew the details. The conjecture was great eavesdropping material.
The interest heightens and wanes. Some have a shorter patience barrier and give up. Most stick around, tired and hot, but clinging on.
When the group at the far end finally spots the bus, the cheering begins and the Doppler effect follows. The first wave of cheer is the welcoming siren, and it just passes on thereafter. No one knows each other, but the team effort is solid.
The first cry kickstarts a mad scramble to get the phone out. You can suddenly see a barrage of screens suspended in the air. Most are recording, some have even turned on video calls to make their loved ones a part of it. Data is cheap in India. The occasion is priceless.
There are several false alarms. It’s often a police convoy or a travelling fan bus that emerges, followed by collective sighs. Those inside the vehicles love the second-hand attention, but it isn’t for them.
As the wait increases, rumours start to float around. “Gaadi se ghus gaye honge (they must have sneaked in through cars)” says one. “Pagal hai kya? (You’re mad?)” retorts another.
The India bus usually arrives after the opposition team. The other team thus becomes the curtain-raiser to warm throats and check the camera frame. The cheer starts just as loud, but when the bus comes closer, the realisation strikes that it isn’t what you’ve waited for.
In front of the Wankhede Stadium, the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose road became the hub of commotion ahead of the India-Sri Lanka match. Sea on one side, stadium on the other, and people spilling from both. Traffic needs to keep moving on that stretch, which makes the bus entry even more tricky for the force.
That day, a large stretch of Marine Drive had a streak of blue, kept in place by uniformed women and men. It was remarkably well managed: some of them had their eyes fixed on the floor, specifically ensuring no toes were venturing onto the road. It’s blazing hot, sticky, sweaty, disgusting even. But it’s all leading into that one moment.
You’ll know the bus has arrived before seeing it. You’ll hear it. When the blue bus, branded in World Cup colours emerges from the horizon, you are engulfed in an avalanche of cheers. It’s all so fast and slow at the same time.
As the bus gets closer and the glare clears, you see the faces clearly, one after another. Virat Kohli invariably occupies the front seat on the left, sometimes on his phone, sometimes in his zone. Some of the others look and smile, a few waves, but mostly everyone’s in their space. For each individual on the road, though, it’s a moment not easy to forget.
I can’t take the image of a shrieking fan in Lucknow out of my head, exulting in uncontrolled happiness after the bus had passed us. “Kohli ne dekh liya (Kohli saw me!)”. He couldn’t stop smiling.
It takes seconds for the madness to extinguish. As the last view of the bus disappears behind the gates, everyone’s suddenly out of their trance, pacing around again. Cheeks are being painted again, vuvuzelas are being inspected, cheap knock-offs of the India kit are being tried on. It’s like it never happened. The memory is safely tucked in the phone gallery, or closer to the heart.
A few hours later, the same drill will be repeated, this time to wave the team goodbye.
It might sound all too silly, but that’s what love is.
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