A Cricket Treat for Diwali Worth Waiting a Generation For!

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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The general take was, “They can’t be serious! Its Diwali night! Who in their right mind is going to show up for a cricket game?” But the promoters may have had the last call on this after all as Minute Maid Park downtown had about 12,000 people in the bleachers on Wednesday, November 11, by this reporter’s account. The numbers from the national organizers, Leverage Promotions, put it over 27,000, while they counted 56,000 in New York’s Citi Field on Saturday, November 7 and 20,600 in Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles on November 14.

According to widespread reports, the high-priced tickets were going two-for-one a couple of days before the match and then were being given away on the day of the match. That certainly may have contributed to the large turnout on a night most would have been chided, but forgiven, for leaving the home on Diwali for a “once in a lifetime” experience of seeing 28 of the world’s best former cricket players on a field together in a professional stadium in the US.

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The two teams – the Blasters led by legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar and the Warriors led by equally renowned bowler Australian Shane Warne – came to New York on November 2 and held a first matchup in Citi Field where the Warriors (141-1) beat the Blasters (140-8). Then they swung through Houston arriving late Monday, November 9 and held a short news conference at the J.W. Marriott hotel downtown to a swarm of local desi news media.

The next day they held a camp at Minute Maid Park for local area cricket clubs, coaching kids on techniques and hitting a few balls as admiring parents looked on. That evening there was an invitation only Gala at the Marriott and a hundred or so people plus some press were able to rub shoulders with the players. The Houston Chronicle featured a couple of news stories and there was a general buzz among the desi media as excitement built up.

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The night of the Cricket All Stars Twenty20 match at Minute Maid Park, the crowd was slow in building up before the 8pm start time, as people slowly filtered in after a full work day. The Jumbotron featured close up interviews of Tendulkar and Shane but the audio link was difficult to follow, especially with the crowd which cheered loudly as they were being panned on local TV. The Press Box was full of media and there was a press conference thirty minutes after the match.

The excitement was palpable as the crowd roared at sightings of their favorite players; a few brought in signs of the one that proclaimed “We Trust In Sachin” with God scratched out and replaced with Sachin. Thirty minutes after the match started, the crowd had doubled. Someone had brought in a dhol and every time a sixer was hit by either side, he let out a long drumbeat while the famous stadium train blew its whistle and round down the short track. The control room kept up with electronic cowboys lassoing steers on the Jumbotron and flashing cue cards for cheers and on the stats of the runs, overs and players. For those who didn’t know much about cricket, they caught on fast.

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The Blasters won the coin toss and elected to field first; but the Warriors batted impressively with rounds of fours and sixers running off to a 262 for five score before the final over.  Michael Vaughan and Matthew Hayden started off, batting 51 runs together in the opening six overs before Vaughan was out with leg before wicket for 30 by fellow Englishman Graeme Swann. After 32 runs, Hayden was bowled out by former Australian team-mate Glenn McGrath. Jacques Kallis quickly added on 45 while Ricky Ponting batted in 41 from just 16 balls. Kumar Sangakkara, who just retired this past August, was in fine form with 6 sixes to add 70 from just 30 balls.

On the other hand, the Blasters looked positively tame as they lugged along to lose by 57 runs. They fell behind from the start as Tendulkar batted first (to a huge cheer from the crowd), though he could only muster 33 from 20 balls. Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly, Brian Lara and Jayawardene were not to score more than 20 each and Shaun Pollock was the top scorer with 55 for 22 balls at seven. The final score was 205 for 8 after 20 overs, in the Blasters second loss of the three-city match up. At the consolation match in Los Angeles, the Warriors with 224 for 6 once again trounced the Blasters’ score of 219 for 8.

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After the Cricket All Star series ended, both Tendulkar and Warne were elated by the response and promised to be back for more exhibition games with more legends of the sport, eager to see if America is ready to take to cricket like it has with soccer. This was the idea that prompted them to hold this initial series across the US and they hope to carry the momentum forward.