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Diary

The World Cup went to America and I went along

Our intrepid, if airport-weary, correspondent goes down the east coast of the USA and to points south

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
02-Jul-2024
A runner by the reservoir in Central Park, New York,

Remember to go counterclockwise: the running path by the reservoir in Central Park, New York  •  Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

May 31
Must start with a confession. We Indians have a habit of trying to guess where people are from - from how they speak, how they dress, their facial features, their builds, how they behave. It's not a good habit. Half a day in New York City and you'll stop doing it. See too many different ethnicities to bother. Truly a great city with room for everyone.
June 1
Wake up before the rats of downtown Brooklyn have gone back into the gutters. Have to leave at 6am to beat the traffic to Long Island. Takes just 40 minutes to Nassau County International Cricket Stadium if you leave before 7. At least two hours if you leave after.
The stadium, a temporary modular structure, looks beautiful. Plastic portaloos cleverly made to look like they have wooden floors and wooden doors. Having got there well before India and Bangladesh, who will be playing a warm-up match, watch AKC Fastest Dogs USA on the telly.
AKC stands for American Kennel Club. The dogs don't all run at the same time. Each one chases a rag that is being pulled away from them, and their speed is recorded. Coco, with the body of a hound and a woolly coat, asserts herself and refuses to follow the command. Smokey, a wee little Pekingese, deserves a participation certificate because it can't run at all but follows the rag with great commitment. Blackie, the quickest, has run at 34.4mph.
India warm up by winning easily, premiering Rishabh Pant at No. 3.
June 2
This law firm has more money to buy visibility in New York than the World Cup. Seen their ads on multiple subway trains already.
June 3
The NYPD and NCPD (Nassau County Police Department) tick every stereotype of American police officers in movies and shows. Firstly, they have deployed every kind of police official at a ground people are struggling to get to: traffic police, police in blue, police in khaki, police in cowboy hats, police on horses, police with sniffer dogs, snipers. Bazookas at what isn't even a knife fight.
Seems the first part of their training is to look intimidating. Ask for directions and they make sure their bodycam is trained at you. Brace for a "keep your hands where I can see 'em", but most of them are polite.
Leave a friend's accreditation with a cop only in order to be able to strike up a conversation with one, and thus call a cop "Officer". Item knocked off the US checklist.
South Africa make light work of Sri Lanka, who are put up in a hotel far away in downtown Brooklyn, a hotel even I can afford. They need to leave before 7 o'clock themselves, so they have to eat breakfast at the ground. Spent the previous night in a Florida airport because of a flight delay.
June 4
Next item off the US checklist: a run around the reservoir in Central Park, one of the world's most popular running destinations. Stunning views of the city skyline. Still not used to the driving on the right and every other corresponding difference in the US. Get a strange look or three for running clockwise when most are going counterclockwise. Then again, most people don't make eye contact, let alone stare. Everyone in a world of their own. So may worlds in one city.
June 5
Next up on checklist: celebrity house-spotting. Walk past the apartment building in which Ricky Gervais lives. Barbizon 63 on 63rd Street on the Upper East Side was previously a hotel for women. After World War I, when women started joining the workforce in greater numbers, housing was unaffordable and hotels were not keen on housing single women after dark, fearing they were prostitutes. Barbizon 63 came up as a women-only hotel, offering them a pool, a gym, a library, soundproof music rooms, and no entry for men on the guest floors. Writer Sylvia Plath and actor Grace Kelly among famous guests. The title of Paulina Bren's book on the hotel calls it "The hotel that set women free".
June 6
People of New York, why do you eat on the move? In the train, while driving, while walking. And the amount of plastic used to do so.
Don't get me started on the food waste. Caterers at the ground throw away huge amounts of food every day because apparently the law doesn't allow them to take it to soup kitchens. A lot of it is thrown away as India take only 26.2 overs to beat Ireland. One of the most wasteful places in the world. Especially with its fixation with turning every public place into the inside of a refrigerator through air-conditioning. The formula for a "good" temperature in office spaces was worked out in the 1960s, based on an estimate of the metabolic activity of a 40-year-old male weighing 155 pounds.
June 7
Love how Americans give directions. "You wanna go straight and take the second left." Or, "I would go straight and take the second left." Thankfully, the practice facility for the World Cup is near a Long Island Rail Road station. This is where India train before their match against Pakistan. Don't have to ask too many directions. Get a "We don't do that here" when asking where to tap the ticket on the way out.
June 8
New York City to Long Island seems like a journey in time. There are actual humans selling tickets, actual humans checking them on the train, and the suburban residents are predominantly white, with huge US flags in their front yards. New York City has restaurants where you just order and pay - tip included - on touchscreens, pick a table number from among the tokens available and punch it in, sit down, and have your food brought out to you.
The mechanisation can create problems. Tap in to a subway station at one point, immediately exit, and then try to go back, realising I was on the right track after all, and discover the turnstile won't let me in because the card has just been used. Presumably being done to avoid multiple people travelling on one card. Jump the turnstile to tick another item off the US checklist.
June 9
India beat Pakistan again, this time through a promotion for Axar Patel and an innings from Mohammad Rizwan that neither kills off the chase nor takes the game deep.
Late in the night in Brooklyn, see steam rise from the road. Another checklist item. It apparently comes from the hot Con Edison pipes underground that send steam to the many buildings that are still powered by steam. Now I wish to see a fire hydrant get knocked down and release a fountain of water.
June 10
U2 are Irish but forever to me it has seemed their songs have a deep connection with the US. Not just the ones that are directly about the country - "New York", "Hands That Built America", the album The Joshua Tree, etc - but even the ones that aren't. Play U2 on shuffle all the time when in New York. Discover Bono wrote "Silver and Gold", which also appears on an album by Artists United Against Apartheid, in a hotel room in New York City. It is a song about a man in a shanty town in southern Johannesburg, a man ready to take up arms against his white oppressors. He is disenchanted with world leaders who do not support Bishop Tutu's demand for economic sanctions against white South Africa.
Think of South Africa now, and how they are failing to meet transformation requirements in their cricket team. The ghosts of apartheid live on. Today they beat Bangladesh in a thriller.
June 11
Canada stretch Pakistan but don't have enough seam depth to take advantage of the conditions in New York. It's a team full of Punjabis from India and Pakistan who helped each other in Canada. Like Karim Sana, who convinced Pargat Singh to take up cricket again. A lesser-known fact: Arshdeep Singh was almost packed off to Canada for a better life but asked his parents for one more year to try to make it in cricket. In that year he made the India Under-19 side. Canada could possibly have beaten Pakistan today had Arshdeep's parents not given him that one year.
June 12
Reminded of home in Goa when I hear the word "patrao" on the streets of New York. It literally means "boss" in Portuguese, but is also loosely used to address anyone with respect. You might call the driver of your car patrao, if you know he speaks Portuguese. Don't need to know Portuguese to be called patrao or "ma-ray" (used to address a boy) in Goa.
Spend last day in New York on a Seinfeld pilgrimage. Tom's Restaurant at 2880 Broadway - shots of its exterior were used as Monk's Café in the show. Discover Suzanne Vega was inspired by this restaurant to write "Tom's Diner" well before Seinfeld. It's basically a song about nothing. The address for the apartment building in the show has also become famous: 129 West 81st Street. Hilarious reviews on Google Maps.
Spend the evening at a speakeasy. Another checklist item.
June 13
All flights to Florida delayed massively as the state has been receiving record rainfall. Run into commentators Wasim Akram, Harbhajan Singh, Dinesh Karthik, L Balaji and Navjot Sidhu all waiting. Like me, all were told of the delay when already on their way to the airport. Poor Wasim stayed at the airport all day yesterday and returned to the city when his flight failed to take off. Karthik is still jet-lagged, having arrived only yesterday.
Speak Punjabi to three of them. It's like getting my fill after not having spoken the language for a while. As a Pakistani friend over in India once wrote to me: "When are you meeting me? Speaking Urdu/Hindi for so long has made my tongue crooked."
June 14
Poor Wasim is on duty early in the morning after two days of travel misadventures. However, he has not much work to do. The match between Ireland and USA cannot be played because of a wet outfield. This ground, owned by Broward County, needs repairs to its drainage system, and only has enough covers for the square. The ground staff try their best to get the game going, but a late downpour at around 2pm puts paid to it. This result knocks Pakistan out of the tournament, and sends USA into the Super Eight.
June 15
Little rain since the last downpour yesterday but we still can't get Canada vs India on. Embarrassing development for a World Cup. Discover that yesterday the Super Sopper ran out of fuel. And then, when fuel was brought, it broke down. Not that it made a big difference either way. Too much damage had been done by the rain.
June 16
Most unexpected source for a wrestling spoiler: a cab driver from Puerto Rico. Start telling him how his compatriot Damian Priest is the WWE champion. "And he beat Drew McIntyre in Glasgow." Oh well.
June 17
Miami airport less stressful than JFK, which is peak American capitalism. Create panic with too few security-check counters, resulting in huge queues, and prey on those who fear they will miss their flight by getting them to buy up to a priority security check.
Wasim has flying problems again. Takes off for Antigua but the flight has to come back because of bad weather in Antigua. Poor Wasim.
June 18
First thing about Barbados: whistling frogs. It is the soundtrack of Barbados. All through the night they whistle. Sugarcane juice machines in India have a bell attached to them. The frogs sound exactly like those bells.
June 19
Barbados feels like coming home. Same driving on the left, same candy-coloured houses like in Goa, same narrow roads, same relaxed attitude, same weather. Just cleaner. Way cleaner. Can see the bottom of the sea. No wonder Rihanna can dip a mango in the sea and eat it.
June 20
Get a look from security at Kensington Oval when they pat me down. Drenched with sweat, having walked from Rockley. They are shocked I have walked about six kilometres. Am later told Ian Bishop used to finish a whole day of cricket and then jog back to Rockley. Man confirms it. "It is a nice jog, but I don't know about the walk."
June 21
Finally feels like a World Cup. Night match, home crowd, a stadium right in the middle of the city. Surreal to be in the presence of David Rudder himself, performing "Rally Round the West Indies". Goosebumps. West Indies do enough against USA to make their last match against South Africa a direct knockout.
During the match, the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, walks into the press box and goes straight to the press scorer, Suzanne Belle. Just catching up with her senior from school. One boss lady to another. "She looked after me in school," says Mottley, who has been instrumental in abolishing the country's constitutional monarchy. Her 39-minute speech at the United Nations in 2019 on climate change and its effects on Barbados is often spoken about. Under her, Barbados targets to produce all its electricity with renewable resources by 2030.
June 22
Just up the road from Kensington Oval on Westbury New Road is where Rihanna used to live. A beautiful small green house, nicely kept. Poor neighbours don't even wait to be asked; they see new people and just point them to the house. Rihanna is also featured on National Heroes Square in Bridgetown.
June 23
Spot the delightfully named Lime Tree Bar on the way to watch England demolish USA and punch their ticket to the semi-final despite having lost two matches. South Africa, unbeaten so far, have to win nine out of nine in all to win the title. That's what happens when you play a largely inconsequential first round. Earlier formats were better, when you carried forward points from matches played against the teams that advanced from your group.
June 24
Barbados has to be the loveliest airport I have been to. Check-in counters right by the entrance. No air-conditioning. Just great ventilation and sea breeze. No upper floors. No need for coaches to get to the aircraft. Just walk everywhere.
June 25
Port-of-Spain is like a bustling Indian city. Going there from Barbados is like going from a Goan village to Dehradun. The hills give it that feel. The pilgrimage here is to walk around and through the Queen's Park Savannah to get to the historic Queen's Park Oval - which is not being used in this World Cup. The word is, the private owners of this club are snooty and don't want to upgrade to keep up with the times. A bit like how the Cricket Club of India was, forcing the development of the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay. The Wankhede was a few hundred metres north of the CCI; the Brian Lara Cricket Academy is so far away, it might well be the Pune ground.
Queen's Park Oval shows signs of wear and disrepair, especially the posters of legends on the walls outside. Walk into a bar nearby and the first words I overhear are "Malcolm Marshall". The stories of cricket craziness in the West Indies must be true.
June 26
No time to sample the doubles or the mangoes of Trinidad. Have to leave at 2pm to beat the traffic to get to the Brian Lara Academy early. Spend the rest of the afternoon talking about doubles instead. And mangoes. Julie is the consensus favourite. Starch is supposed to be sweet. Suzi is on the sourer side. Most interesting name: Donkey Stone mango, because it is huge. The mango talk lasts longer than the semi-final, where South Africa brush aside Afghanistan on a brutish pitch with uneven bounce and seam movement.
June 27
The ICC is kind enough to take me on their charter along with the South Africa team, match officials, commentators and ICC officials. The two commercial flights between Trinidad and Barbados between the semi-final and the final were all booked out practically as soon as the schedule was announced. Just South Africa's luck that, after having spent the night at the airport in Florida along with Sri Lanka, they now have to spend the whole day in the Port-of-Spain airport because someone has crashed a small aircraft in Barbados, and it is stuck right in the middle of the runway. All operations at the Barbados airport are shut for six hours. Any frustration I feel is offset by putting myself in the South Africa players' shoes: they will be playing the match of their lives in less than two days, and are stranded in an airport.
June 28
Having reached Barbados only at midnight, India decide not to train before the final. Their brains trust comes to check the pitch, though. Rohit Sharma makes sure they get the same dressing room they had earlier. He has missed out on winning many titles not because of lack of quality but because of the nature of knockout matches. This sport makes people obsessive. They start following their own peculiar rituals to keep the cricketing gods happy.
June 29
India finally win the title thanks to some high-quality bowling in the death overs, some reverse to help them, and some ordinary decision-making by South Africa, who need just 30 off 30 at one point. Rohit's release of emotions is spontaneous and joyful. He is feeling so much joy, he spreads it everywhere. He brings the trophy to the press conference, and then calls the media aside if they want to take a photo with the trophy or him, or both.
June 30
One last travel nightmare with all flights out of Barbados on July 1 and July 2 getting cancelled because what started a tropical storm has intensified into a Category 4 hurricane. This is the earliest in the year there has been a hurricane in these parts. There are worse places to be stranded in.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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