ICC World T20: Behind the curtain at Drama-shala

Security at HPCA stadium locks out ICC commentators and journalists even as clouds of doubt intensify over blue-riband match.

Written by Sandip G | Dharamsala | Updated: March 9, 2016 11:29 am
World T20, World T20 updates, World T20 news, World T20 scores, India vs pakistan, India Pakistan, Ind vs Pak, Pak vs Ind, BCCI, Dharamsala, sports news, sports, cricket news, Cricket Cloud of uncertainty continues to loom over India-Pakistan clash at World T20 in Dharamsala despite claims and counter-claims. (Source: AP)

Two days before the much-hyped India-Pakistan fixture, the 14th Dalai Lama will celebrate his 57th year in exile. It was on March 17, 1959 that Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, then aged 23, fled Lhasa, foiling a trap conjured by the insurgent Chinese to detain him. The story goes vaguely like this: A Chinese general invited him to a dance performance at the latter’s military head-quarters. The friendly overture seemed fishy enough, the State Oracle advised him to flee. And so he did, never to return to his homeland. Through the treacherous Karpo Pass, he and his aides safely reached India. An year later, he established the Tibetan government in exile in McCleodganj in upper Dharamsala, hitherto a colonial outpost.

Gradually, more exiled Tibetans sought refugee in their leader’s abode, seeking peace from their troubled homeland. They staunchly maintained the racial purity, though integrating freely with the local pahaadis, a generally peaceful bunch. There was peace all around, a generally prosperous and hardworking folk content with the humble fruit of their labour. Then towards the late 1990s, the winds of tourism came howling uphill through the snaky roads. Then, in 2005 sprung up a cricket stadium, and after years of relative obscurity and struggle for recognition, catalysed by a powerful cricket administrator, it became the cynosure of the country’s cricket circuit. And then they got the grandest match-up of the entire World T20, which looks unlikely to be played here now. Right from the day it was slotted the the high-profile — as high-profile a match as a cricketing outpost like Dharamsala could dream of — India-Pakistan fixture, it became, as tournament director MV Sridhar put it, “the envy of the nation.”

So much envy that perhaps someone cast a wicked eye, and the venue’s tryst-with-cricket destiny moment has been put on hold. You know the much-storied political undercurrent that drove the uncertainty to such a dissipating level – the cause of martyrs in Pathankot the chief minister, a Congressman and a direct rival of BJP’s Anurag Thakur, has suddenly espoused and the subsequent security apprehensions of the Pakistan Cricket Board in sending their team here, fearing protests from their ex-army fraternity.

As it stands now, the PCB have reportedly ruled out playing in Dharamsala after the two-member security panel from Pakistan assessed the security here on Monday. It flies in the face of Sridhar’s claims that they returned seemingly satisfied. It’s not that it would be a logistical nightmare to shift the match to a different venue — as Sridhar said quite a few cities would eagerly lap up the opportunity — but it will hit the city’s systematically acquired profile massively. And not to discount the gutted dreams of the cricket fans here and the moral defeat Thakur will have to concede.

Anxious wait

So Dharamsala will have to wait anxiously and spend peaceless nights. Then, ever since it was allotted the match, it has lost its peace, something which men from diverse backgrounds, from cricket administrators to policemen and volunteers and journalists will agree without second thoughts.

While a scenic hill-station like Dharamsala hosting World Cup matches makes for a pleasant read, and pleasant watch for the spectators, the sheer pressure of hosting a big tournament, and hosting the biggest match of them all, has clearly made life less peaceful for all parties involved. It’s perhaps too presumptuous to say they have messed it up entirely, but there’s enough panic and confusion to suggest that they are quite naive in handling a tournament of this enormity. After all, even the three international matches they have hosted were relatively low-profile. So they seemed quite confused to deal with the situations, logistics and otherwise, in the first place and a scenario made worse by the storm kicked up by the Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. On one hand is their overwhelming desire to make this a memorable event, and on the other is their sheer lack of experience, as one hack put it, “lack of big-match temperament.” The end product is panic and ambiguity.

Their only botheration, now, seems to be the security. They have drawn policemen from most units across the state. Fair enough, given the supposed grouse among the kith and kin of the martyred soldiers and that Pakistan —at least according to the BCCI — are supposed to play here. So you can spot policemen, and it’s mostly them alone you spot, of various ranks and cadres, in various uniforms and wielding weapons from sophisticated revolvers to primitive double-barrels, strutting around stamping their authority, some proudly twirling their moustaches.

So even some of the ICC officials and Sky Sports commentator and former English Test player Robert Key had to endure the flaming forenoon Sun, trying to convince the policemen their right to access the stadium. Every policeman, at a every gate, had a similar response and expression. “Officer ne hame kuch nahin bataya,” they say, blank-faced. The waving of your pass hardly pays. Neither does any amount pleading and sweet-talking. Then apparently, their superior would bark out some instructions and they will ask those assembled to enter through another gate, which is not exactly a stone’s throw from each other and which can by all means called a mini-trek. And when you reach that directed gate, you are, again blank-facedly, informed: “Idhar sain kisiko entry nahin hai sir.” The routine is repeated at least thrice a day, before they manufacture stroke-of-genius excuse-lines like “hamare paas chaabi nahin hain” or “idar sabhi bandh rahta hai.”

By evening, they are also tired and sweaty, waiting for their superiors to relieve them of duties: “Hame do teen shift karna padta hain, chaar-panch din se. Ham kya kare, ham bhi insan hain and thoda rest chahte hain,” cribbed a constable. They pass time chatting around and stealing a cup of tea or coffee from the local vendor, when the superiors are not in vicinity. “First time we were excited when we were called on duty for the World Cup. But now it’s getting tedious,” he added, his face tanned and eyes sunks.

Tempers flare
Another tired constable was leaning onto a roller next to the practice ground, and upon noticing him, his superior shouted: “Maza karle tu; dekho bomb-vomb hai uske neeche!” He sprung back on his feet and was duly dished out the choicest verbals. Sometimes, they even quarrel among themselves over orders. Like for instance, one policeman would say he doesn’t have orders to do something while the other would say the opposite. Soon a third intervenes and separate them.

The situation was perhaps worse on Monday, when the two-member Pakistan security team had arrived to inspect the security arrangements. For four hours, not even the journalists were let into the stadium, let alone the general volunteers, though those inside weren’t ejected. The fuss around the India-Pakistan match seemed so much so that it seemed to ruin the ideally affable atmosphere a cricket match, or that of any sport, carries. And they pass on the baton of blame to each other — the constables would only listen to the head constables, and the latter to inspectors and so and so forth in the hierarchical order. The top cops , in turn, put it in on the HPCA officials, who don’t spare a moment in retorting back. Even the ICC representatives feign helplessness,”I don’t know the local culture and how things work here. So I’m pretty helpless in that regard,” confided an exasperated official.

And all this din and drama for a match that’s still uncertain. Sridhar, though, seemed assured of the venue hosting the match. “I am more than hopeful. Pakistan have played here twice and now they have inspected the venue. They are aware that arrangements are in place. All of us have seen that. Everything is in place and I don’t see why I should have any cause for concern and I’m seeing that the security is the highest level and most cooperative,” he said.

The excessive focus on this fixture has reduced the qualifying matches to a mere sideshow, which nobody is quite bothered about. They don’t even talk about the New Zealand-Australia match either. But seldom would have they practised in such a heavily-guarded environment, when even your casual approaches to a player is intercepted by a weapon-wielding commando, ordering in not-so-polite words to stay off. At least a few of the non-subcontinental sides will be wondering what the fuss is all about. This is fuss made by ambitions grown overboard.

But amidst all these, deep within their hearts even some of the protesters would be wishing that the match eventually stays here. Then Dharamasala can relish their tryst with cricketing destiny, the reputation of its picturesque setting and the capacity to host a big match hassle-free enhanced. The Dalai Lama can celebrate the 59th anniversary of his exile watching the now relatively-friendlier arch-rivals tilt lances from the VIP box. And there shall, finally be some peace.

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