Sweating buckets, raining sixes: a fan watches India in Florida
The Florida humidity hits you the minute you get off the plane. To someone like myself, who grew up in Mumbai, it brings nostalgia, but that buzz wears off in five minutes, by when I'm already sweating from crevices you aren't supposed to sweat from - let alone at 9pm. By the time my Uber shows up, not only am I grateful for the concept of air conditioning, I'm also hugely appreciative of cricketers who have to endure the heat while putting on a show for my entertainment.
My driver is a second-generation Puerto Rican. "Cricket?" he asks with a mix of curiosity and amusement that is indicative of the general perception of the sport in this country. Let's just say we have a long way to go before cricket is mentioned in the same breath as even soccer, which, by the way, doesn't make the top three either.
I'm concerned about the weather. One moment it's balmy and a gentle Florida breeze is blowing and the next, there's a howling gale and the street is glistening from a persistent rain. But then, just as quickly as the rain arrives, it dissipates and all is well with the world again. I sleep that night feeling optimistic.
Waiting in the hotel lobby the next day for a bus to the stadium, I fall into conversation with a group of fellow cricket enthusiasts from various parts of the US, also headed to the game. We reminisce about pre-Covid times and our last live cricket match. Of course, the Gabba comes up. We all hope Virat Kohli finds form soon. The kinship is immediate.
We drive away from the coast into the South Florida hinterlands. Central Broward Park, in a quiet suburb of Fort Lauderdale, hosts club cricket most of the year, but it's certainly not a venue you'd associate with international cricket and bona fide superstars of the sort we are going to watch there.
As I walk towards the entrance to the stadium, I spot a smattering of maroon shirts in a sea of blue, roughly equivalent to the relative population of the two regions. The ground is about three-quarters full when I get in. I see a range of India jerseys on show, dating all the way from the 1999 ODI World Cup to the latest edition, with several knockoffs thrown in for good measure.
As the players emerge from the pavilion, crowds line up next to the fence, calling out their names and taking pictures. While hero-worship of cricketers in India is not uncommon, the extent of it here highlights the scarcity of cricket in the US, and also makes you realise how hard it must be to be an Indian cricketer. To their credit, even youngsters like Arshdeep Singh and Ravi Bishnoi are able to deal with the attention with grace and humour.
After the toss there is a huge cheer when we find out India will be batting first. From my vantage point, the boundaries look small - about 20 yards in from where they could potentially be. I don't mind it one bit. Low-scoring thrillers are all well and good, but when I watch a live T20 match for the first time ever, there is a bloodlust in me that can only be satiated by huge sixes.
Between the toss and the first ball, as the players warm up, I see a unique drill that probably wasn't the norm in the pre-T20 era. Shreyas Iyer, one of the substitutes for this match, is standing close to the boundary. Someone is hitting high balls to him from close to the pitch. Iyer tries to keep his balance as he catches them at the edge of the boundary. One time he overbalances but throws the ball back into play before stepping outside the boundary and then casually jumping back in to catch it. Practice makes perfect, as they say.
The DJ springs into action, reminding me of the NBA and MLB games I've watched in the US. The crowd seems to be having a great time, dancing to a mix of old and new favourites, including bhangra, the latest Bollywood dance numbers, and the good old "Chak de India", which seems to have become a de facto anthem at Indian sporting events. Watching the cheerleaders dance to these unfamiliar tunes makes me think about how this very American phenomenon has made it to T20Is in the US via the IPL.
The crowd goes wild when Rohit Sharma and Suryakumar Yadav start the innings off with a flurry of sixes. As good as Rohit's sixes are, Suryakumar's innovation is something else.
After a middle period that feels a bit slow, even for a T20, the decibel levels reach a crescendo when Axar Patel finishes the innings off with a few lusty blows to cheers of "Bapu" from the predominantly Gujarati-speaking crowd - who are slightly disappointed their favourite sons, Harshal Patel and Hardik Pandya, are not playing this match.
After a mad dash for lunch and restrooms, the crowd is stunned into silence by a strong West Indies start - until Avesh Khan snags a couple of wickets. The next bit is classic West Indies T20 batting: several big hits accompanied by a steady stream of wickets, much to the delight of the partisan crowd. That said, I find myself somewhat disappointed when Nicholas Pooran gets out. It's incredible just how far he's able to hit the ball for someone his size.
Towards the end, the atmosphere turns celebratory as a West Indies win becomes increasingly unlikely. The DJs, who have till now turned the music off before each delivery is bowled, play the IPL bugle even as Arshdeep runs in to bowl his special yorkers at the lower order.
On the way back to the hotel, attention turns to Sunday's weather and it does not look good. Before coming to Florida, I'd have been satisfied watching one full match, but now I'm starting to get greedy.
I wake up to a pleasant surprise: not only has it not rained all night, like it was supposed to, it may end up not raining at all. It's more sparse in the lobby than it was the day before. I suspect most folks didn't expect today's match to be played and are catching up on their sleep. I remember overhearing some second-generation Indian kids complaining to their parents the day before about how they weren't quite looking forward to watching yet another game. Apparently even watching matches back to back can be tiring, let alone playing them.
The upside is that getting into the stadium is a breeze compared to the previous day, but I still can't say I'm fully prepared for the speakers blaring bhangra at full blast at 9:30am. The crowd lets out a huge cheer when Hardik walks out for the toss. We see Ishan Kishan and Iyer getting drills from batting coach Vikram Rathour, an indication that we may be able to see both players in action.
The crowd builds up as Iyer and Deepak Hooda put on a fine partnership. Then there is a bizarre stoppage, for lightning of all things. The announcer proclaims the area to be the "lightning capital of the USA" and it certainly looks like they have protocols in place. The people in the uncovered stands are ordered to go find shady spots to stand in. After a few minutes, play resumes, India chalk up another impressive score, despite West Indies clawing their way back somewhat towards the back end of the innings.
The match stops being a contest after Axar runs through the top order and Kuldeep Yadav traps Pooran lbw, though Shimron Hetmeyer offers some resistance. Bishnoi and Kuldeep are a treat to watch in tandem, reminding me of the heady days of KulCha.
By the time the match is done and dusted, it's a full-fledged party in the stands. Arshdeep runs over to our section for a few selfies and autographs and a couple of official-looking types make the rounds, thanking us for being a great crowd and inform us that there will be a few matches in Florida during the 2024 T20 World Cup, which is to be hosted in the Caribbean. Dare we hope that over time, there are a few more cricketing outposts across the US? With 4.2 million people of Indian origin (that's 80% of the entire population of New Zealand), they are certainly deserved.
I exchange numbers with some newly minted friends and leave with my heart full. The last two days have filled a cricket-shaped hole in me, and while I wish the matches were not as one-sided as they turned out to be, I realise that's just being nitpicky. As I lapse into fitful bouts of sleep on my red-eye flight back to California, I find myself humming "Chak de India".