IT’S AROUND 8.30 on Monday night, and a bunch of English cricketers have walked out of the Trident Hotel. They are decked in casuals. Skipper Eoin Morgan is there and so are Joe Root, Jos Buttler and a couple of others. It’s busy hour in Nariman Point, with the Marine Drive promenade burgeoning with the usual mix of romance-seekers and fitness buffs. But even as the who’s who of the England team stand there ripe for the taking — in terms of being hounded for photographs and autographs — nobody bothers.
Two hours earlier, we are at the Intercontinental Hotel — hardly a kilometre away — and there’s an audible buzz not just in the foyer but also in the compact entrance. There are people crowding on the divider outside the hotel too. News has arrived that Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy and a few of the other West Indian cricketers are arriving here for an event. Dwayne Bravo is already there, launching his World Cup anthem titled ‘Champion’. The West Indian team is said to have a dance-off. And even the security guards can’t help but crane their necks to peep into every vehicle that enters the hotel with the hope they might catch Gayle or Sammy stepping out. This is but an isolated example of their fame. It’s no secret that the boys from the Caribbean would have created a similar flutter wherever they went in India.
The extreme contrast in the fanfare — or the complete lack of it in England’s case — for the two teams was very evident as they went through the routines on the eve of their opening World T20 clash at the Wankhede Stadium a day later too. England’s practice session — conveniently scheduled for the morning session — hardly turned many heads while nobody present at the ground for the afternoon session could help but stop doing whatever they were and be transfixed by Gayle & Co smashing the ball into the far corners of the Wankhede. Or in the larger-than-life left-hander’s case, even the sight of him ambling around and breaking out ever so often into his customary high-pitched giggle.
Gayle was always a much-vaunted star in India. There used to be chants of ‘Chris Gaylllle, Chris Gayle’ in true Mumbai style even when he played a stirring role in his team’s entry into the Champions Trophy final in 2006. But for many others from Sammy to Bravo and even Andre Russell the popularity has largely come from their exploits in the IPL. To their credit, they’ve made the most of their incessant exposure to the impressionable Indian cricket fan, who has in turn embraced them with unbridled fanaticism.
Unfortunately for the English, the IPL has always remained a distant El Dorado, and their forced abstinence from the razzle-dazzle has kept them at an arm-chair length from all the adoration bestowed upon their ilk in this cricket-obsessed nation. In a way though it also has to do with the distinct approaches of the two teams in the shortest format, historically anyway. And while the West Indies have established themselves as the unabashed entertainers on the T20 stage, England have at least in the past struggled to break away their inherent shackles and approach it with the devil-may-care attitude.
Despite being former world champions themselves like their opponents, England have always gone in against the West Indies in this format as mere challengers — understandably so considering the 8-4 edge that Sammy & Co hold over them.
But it’s slightly different this time around. They’re like two teams meeting each other at the crossroads. The World T20 is in many ways the culmination of what has been a uniquely successful West Indies team under Sammy — despite coming in an era where back-office tribulations have dominated their cricket and their stocks in ODIs and Tests have continued to plummet with the same rapidity — in a format that has brought them together and allowed them to express their natural flamboyance on and off the field.
On the other side of the coin you have an England outfit brimming with youthful energy and looking all set to embark on a bold and brash new era.
The absence of Sunil Narine will be a blow as it compromises the mystery as well as the miserly element with the ball. But West Indies will still hold the edge with explosive firepower spread ominously across the batting-order but for once, Morgan and his team have the personnel to match them.
It’s unlikely that in two months’ time Buttler at least — who will be part of Mumbai Indians in IPL 9 — will be standing on Marine Drive on a weekday evening without being mobbed. As far as England go, this tournament is not only about showing the world that they have indeed shed the inhibitions of yore, but also about creating their own identity and showing the IPL the elusive flavour it’s been missing.