In India, it is almost impossible to meet cricketers on the streets or in a restaurant or for that matter, during a cricket match. Active cricketers are all out of reach for the common fan. Even the former cricketers are out of reach, most definitely at a stadium, and you have to be lucky or be at some corporate marketing event or cricket academy stuff that you could meet ex-cricketers and have a chat.
I am positive that would be the situation in Pakistan as well as Bangladesh. I have it’s slightly better and players are a bit more accessible in Sri Lanka. Basically, the more passionate/mental the fans are about cricket, the more distant the stars are.
While watching a Test match at Wankhede, my first one there, in 2011, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. If you have watched international matches in India, I am sure you have noticed it too. The fans with their faces pressed against the metallic barriers move like moths to the flame as and when the fielder (when India is fielding) closest to the boundary rope moves. They try desperately hard to get the attention of the player with hooting and hollering, and if they get as much as a wave or a thumbs up, they are deliriously happy.
The story of Sachin Tendulkar wearing wigs and masquerades to get out in public, and he only venturing out late at night to have a drive have all been heard many times over. But It is not just the Indian cricketers that face this issue in India. There was a story of Kumar Sangakkara, when he was over in India for the IPL, going out shopping with his wife only to realize that a crowd of nearly thousand people had assembled outside the store, and he had to call his franchise security people to come and extricate him from the situation.
So it all comes as a shock to the system when you are in countries like England, New Zealand, or in the Caribbean (and to some extent in Australia) where players (Current and Former) could easily move around. The first time I was in Antigua during the 2007 World Cup I was with a group of friends when we spotted Sir Viv Richards nonchalantly walking around the stadium (named after him) and no one was mobbing. The group of us – all Indians – were initially hesitant to approach him but it was inevitable that we would. And so we did. He was nice to us and had a quick chat before he carried on walking, with that swagger, as if he owned the island.
During the first day of the Ashes here in Cardiff, I was out for a smoke when I noticed the 2005 Ashes hero Simon Jones having a chat with a few guys. Initially I thought they were his mates, because he is from Wales and lives around here. Later on I realized it was just a couple of fans that saw him and struck up a conversation. There were a lot of other fans that saw him talking to these guys but didn’t interrupt them even though they would have like to talk to him, and even have a beer with him. He was telling them stories from his injury-curtailed England career and some funny stories of banters with the crowds etc. I just could not imagine such a thing happening in India. Think of say, Ajit Agarkar, mingling with the crowd on the concourse around Wankhede stadium and talking about the time the Australian crowd got on him during the 1999-00 series down under. No chance.
Later in the day, I interviewed Jones for the Couch Talk podcast and as I was walking back to the pressbox, I saw Steve Harmison, another Ashes hero, entertaining the punters with stories. I just smiled to myself to see that the common fan gets to talk about such a landmark sporting event with the person that lived it. Imagine catching up to Laxman outside the Eden Gardens and listening to him straight-pulling McGrath in 2001.
In Cardiff, the two broadcasters (SKY and Channel Nine) have set up their shops on opposite sides of the ground. So for commentators that work for both of these, like David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd, they have to constantly be moving from one studio set to the other, which means, they have to be walking through the crowd on the concourses. Usually the people do not bother them, do not mob them for pictures and autographs, but if an occasional punter makes a request, these guys quite graciously accommodate the requests.
After all, more than the games themselves, it is these chance opportunities to meet your sporting heroes that leave a lasting impact on your love for the game. Long may that continue.