Celebrating the Indian Independence Day at Lord's

Cheteshwar Pujara batted in typical dogged fashion
August 16, 2021

I had been waiting for this day for a long time. The Sunday of a Lord's Test in the summer has always been an exciting fixture to look forward to, and having enjoyed the same for almost all of the last 20 years, I wasn't going to let this one go, especially as it also coincided with India's celebration of its 75th Independence Day.

The other thing I wasn't going to miss was getting to the ground early - more than an hour before the start of the play. In days gone by, it has given me great opportunities to observe how different players gear up for the day, such as VVS Laxman warming up with his headphones on in 2011, or Sachin Tendulkar going to the middle of the ground without a bat in hand and looking around for 15-20 minutes.

The road from St John's Wood station to Lord's was starting to buzz already early in the morning in sight more familiar with Marine Drive rather than Wellington road, as hawkers selling Indian flags greeted us outside the ground.

After several games involving Covid-19 restrictions, guidelines, controls and directives, it finally seemed like a normal Test match day at the home of cricket once again.

Lord's in the interim has gone through a makeover, with added stands and increased capacity - they seem to quite successfully add modern spaces to this ground without compromising on the signature Lord's feel. The new stands built on either side of the press box almost seem to enhance the glorious feel of watching cricket on this hallowed turf.

As I got there, it was nice to run into Michael Holding who was making his way up to the commentary box. A couple of the English batters - Jonny Bairstow and Dom Sibley - were heading to the nets on the Nursery end while the Indian team was warming up on the field with Ravindra Jadeja the only one in the nets. One of the most heartening sights was to see R Ashwin encouraging Shardul Thakur, the man who replaced him in the playing XI at the beginning of this series, as he worked with the physio.

Independence Day is a special day for us Indians. In my mind I was a bit apprehensive that the colonial context would create unwarranted drama in the stands. Luckily, none transpired.

There was a lot of anticipation for the cricket. As a middle-aged Indian fan, you are bred on optimism. So a strong opening stand, some dazzling strokeplay by some of the biggest names in the world, and even perhaps an English wicket or two were all being thought of.

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli sizzled briefly, but the English attack got the better of them, fighting hard through the day as they usually do, before Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane set up a vigil, as they usually do.

The openers got into the act early, with a run coming from the first ball bowled. The crowd got into the act early too, with the first boundary off Sharma's bat. There was a lot of communication between the batters, including alerting each other about fielders in the deep.

Watching cricket over the years in England has taught me never to count the chickens before they hatch, as an hour's play can often completely turn the game. Sure enough, that hour arrived 30 minutes into play.

Rahul's wicket, Sharma's six and then his departure, and Kohli's shots were all greeted with a lot of fervor from the respective supporters.

But Kohli's wicket threatened to take all the fizz away from the day for the Indian fans in the crowd. There were murmurs of "no chance" being heard all around. As Sam Curran rushed to wild cheers from his team-mates, we were bracing for the worst.

The weather kept switching frequently between cloudy and sunny, pretty much like the teams' prospects through the day.

Pujara and Rahane set up camp, and despite the absence of many shots or runs scored, the crowd and certainly the Indian supporters, got totally behind them. The fans cheered milestones based on balls faced for Pujara; he got a standing ovation when he crossed 100 and then 200 balls. His first run was greeted loudly as it came on the 35th ball he faced.

At the lunch interval, as is the case at most of the English grounds, hundreds of kids were invited to come and play with soft bats and balls on the main ground. It's something that must likely stay with them for the rest of their lives, and kindles the love for the sport in them. It is something that other grounds around the world should also look to do.

The Lord's Test was such a contrast to the Hundred - five hours, 400-plus deliveries, 100 runs and no wickets, and yet the stands were buzzing with support, excitement and enthusiasm all day long.

Among the Indian supporters, loud shouts of Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India), Ganapati Bappa Morya (a traditional praise of Lord Ganesha) and the usual Jeetega Bhai Jeetega (India will win) had started early in the morning and kept resonating through the day. There were even frequent renditions of the Indian national anthem. Shouts of "Jimmy Jimmy" were matched with shouts of "Jinxy Jinxy" and "Puji Puji".

The drinks started flowing as the day progressed. Indian support was at its colourful and varied best. Where I was sitting, I could easily hear seven different Indian languages being spoken. Rahane's shots got generous applause, as did Pujara's dancing-down-the track-to-defend plays.

The fight on the field continued, as did the friendly banter between the two sets of supporters through the day. We were sitting close to the media centre, on the ground floor, and from where we were, it was a sheer delight to watch Mark Wood rushing in and often bowling at 90-plus mph, Jimmy Anderson giving a masterclass in skill and stamina, and Moeen Ali spinning the ball beautifully. Pujara and Rahane were standing tall to survive and thrive.

The contrast between the buzz in the stands and the stoic proceedings in the middle was quite something.

England and the English supporters celebrated with their heart at the dismissals of Pujara and Rahane at the back-end of the last session, while the Indian fans cheered loudly the arrivals of Rishabh Pant and Jadeja. The lights were on by now, and Lord's was looking magical.

I have been visiting this ground for the last two decades, and still every visit is special and gives me goosebumps. Today was no different.

The chants turned to the famous and often heard, "Don't take me homeā€¦", and the offering of lights was booed. Of course we all wanted the contest to continue.

It had been that kind of a day - true grit, fight and determination from both sides resulting in a kind of deadlock for long periods, and a free-flowing, good spirited and generally happy crowd supporting those efforts. It's ideally set up for the fifth day - I surely will be back on the ground for it, but I might have a very hard time convincing my 11-year-old son to join me.

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