Sunday, July 31, 10:43 AM BST
The train had pulled into Birmingham International on time, but I had still cut the window very short. I had only 17 minutes to make the 25 mile journey from the station till Edgbaston, and that, after I had checked into my hotel (another two miles from the station), if I wanted to catch the India women vs Pakistan women Commonwealth Games match in the Cricket T20 discipline.
Luckily, Birmingham – Bham, from now on for affectionate purposes – welcomes me with grey skies and rain. They persist long enough for me to be able to check in to the hotel, figure out the train route, and find a cab to take me to the station. The cab driver asks me what I am here for, and when I tell him, he lets me know that he’s from Pakistan, and turns the music up – Tumse Milke Dil Ka Hai Jo Haal from Main Hoon Na belts out.
This is my first ever multi-sport games and I don’t really know what to expect. I did expect the volunteers to be exceptional (I had seen honorary stewards and volunteers in action at Lord’s and at Wimbledon), but they far exceeded those expectations. Unfailingly polite, tremendously cheerful, and untiringly patient; every encounter made me feel welcome, and included.
I make it to the stadium just as the power play for the shortened game (18 overs a side) is ending, and from there on it’s a breeze for India. I sit with an Englishman and his three-year-old daughter who had brought the most adorable hand drawn banner that just said ‘India India’. She waves it every time Smriti Mandhana goes on the rampage, even as her dad explains to her what a four is, and when is a ball called a wide. The intergenerational passing of the baton is what we are all here for.
Monday, August 1, 12.30 PM BST
Birmingham is a rather interesting city. It has, what Brendan Rodgers might label ‘character’.
The modern history of the city was almost literally forged in the heat of the industrial revolution, which also fed off its innovative streak. Nowhere do those two things cross paths as spectacularly as the University of Birmingham, home to Nobel winning research, and a most amazing Michael Faraday statue. It’s here – at the uni’s hockey centre – I am at today to catch the Indian men’s team in action against England. India blow a 3-0 lead to draw 4-4.
That’s maybe because I didn’t take the field, or at least that is what the gentleman at my hotel who asked me if I was a part of the Indian hockey delegation. It was probably my India team shirt and the blazer with a hockey pin on it that threw him off, but I wasn’t complaining. Because if I can’t overdress, what is even the point?
Tuesday, August 2, 3:00 PM BST
It’s back to the Uni of Bham today for the women’s equivalent of yesterday’s fixture – India v England. I see a huge number of children attending the game. The hockey grassroots are a big deal here as I found out when I attended a game back in 2019 between England and New Zealand. My Twitter friend – an avid hockey player himself – who I attended that game with tells me that it is easy to understand and get involved and has massive potential although it does struggle with a bit of an elitist rap. There is something very heartwarming about it all the same.
The result is terrible for India – a lacklustre performance sees them lose 1-3, and an afternoon drizzle adds to the misery. I am sitting in a section full of England fans, and while the performance of the Indian team riles me up, I have to watch my language because there are so many children around (see above). But I will carry one heartwarming moment with me as consolation. There is a child sitting with his mom in the seat next to me who is lapping all the action up with rapt attention. It is his first time at a live hockey game. He observes that the Indian players replaced the protective gear they put on during the penalty corner, neatly behind the goal, whereas when England were defending a PC they littered them messily over the line. Neither his mum nor me have the heart to tell him that it was because the England PC resulted in a goal and there was no hurry to get back on to the field of play as opposed to the Indian PC that was saved by Maddie Hinch on to the field of play.
Because some idealism is too pure to be polluted with mundane reality.
Maybe that’s how you survive the ordinary world after a crappy day.
Wednesday, August 3, 6:00 PM BST
It is a busy workday so I have not planned to go any events; I am fielding work calls in my little hotel room. But then by the afternoon I am itching to go and feel that sheer joy of having to scramble for a train, of high fiving one of the volunteers, and explaining the back stories of our women’s hockey players, or the women’s cricket team stars to complete strangers who just asked you ‘isn’t the weather nice?’ So, on a whim, I buy tickets to India v Barbados – a virtual quarterfinal in cricket. I step out late evening, and even though the match starts at 6PM, thanks to the endless days of the British summer, we essentially get two innings under the sun.
India cruise to victory in a crunch game, with Renuka Singh Thakur bowling a tremendous spell. When she comes to field at boundary in front of the Eric Hollies stand, I almost want to scream “Well done Renu!!” but feel tongue tied in a fanboy moment after having seen how exquisite she has been on an Edgbaston surface that has offered some movement.
Moments later, Sneh Rana is sent to field there. She is wearing a jumper (it was quite nippy with the time ticking past 8 in the evening) and so we can’t see her shirt number or name. Two elderly English ladies who have been delightfully screaming ‘Come on India!’ and ‘Come on Barbados!’ in turn all evening now want to encourage Sneh. The problem is they have no idea who she is. Their chants begin “COME ON NAMELESS LADY!” but they are obviously not satisfied with that. One of them makes a plea to their row of Indian fans in general – “Does anyone know who she is?” Clearly the casual west midlands Indian origin crowd don’t get around to seeing much women’s cricket. No one responds with a positive identification.
The ladies now direct their chants at Sneh – “HEY LOVELY LADY WHO ARE YOU?” This goes on for a bit and a few laughs later, they ask the entire stand – “Come on there are so many Indian fans here, can no one tell us who she is?” I put my hand up and say I can. I tell them it’s Sneh Rana. They are initially not convinced, but then one of them screams “Hey Sneha!” and Sneh turns back and waves at them. Mystery solved, I guess? I had heard a lot of the rowdy yet infectious energy of the Eric Hollies stand. These two ladies seem to represent it in the best possible light. I am glad I took the call of getting that ticket last moment. Now two more people know who Sneh Rana is.
Anyway, the drudgery of the work calls I fielded in the morning feels light years behind.
Thursday, August 4, 11:30 AM BST
That heady feeling of having left work light years behind lasts less than 10 hours. This Thursday morning I am back to handling work calls and things get critical enough that I have to completely skip my 10AM badminton session at the NEC arena. I am obviously displeased but I have one bright spot to look forward to. I meet a Twitter friend and a fellow Liverpool fan who delights me with a gift of a book that’s titled It’s Not Shit: 50 Things That Delight About Brum. I had already been soaking in the rambunctious yet loveable vibe that the city seemed to project, and bits of the book help put that into context. And at least the day is not a total bust in terms of a brushes with a badminton professional. On the train I meet a Sri Lankan, in her 25th year as a badminton line judge, who tells me a bit of trivia – Shamika Karunaratne’s (the Sri Lankan test cricketer) sibling, Niluka Karunaratne is representing Sri Lanka at the Games.
Friday, August 5, 2.43 PM BST
I am almost yelling at my colleagues. I am begging them to wrap a call up because the mixed doubles match is about to get over at the NEC badminton show court. And we all know what that means – PV Sindhu is about to walk on next. It’s a pre-quarterfinal and given the depth of the field, the Ugandan is not really expected to test the world No 7. I cannot believe that I have suckered myself into having to dial on to a work call *inside* the arena, and that too just as the one player I have come all the way to see is about to strut her stuff. Thankfully we wrap up just in time, and I run back up to the stand as they announce her entry. Sindhu is a bonafide superstar of the game, by both reputation and racquet skills, and the match is an exhibition of just why.
The first time I watched Roger Federer live (it was in Wimbledon in 2019 in a pre quarterfinal match) he handed his opponent the Italian Matteo Berrettini a tennis lesson. I remember being awestruck at how his movement on court looked even more fluid in person – a reminder that we are watching virtual human perfection. With Sindhu I am overcome with a similar feeling watching her cover the court in what barely seems a stride or two. Watching it on 2D on television is mind boggling enough, seeing it in 3D almost destroys your understanding of elementary geometry.
Watching elite sportspersons in the flesh is a privilege, one that I constantly remind myself I have been impossibly fortunate to have on a few occasions. A few bruised egos of the colleagues I told off on the call be damned.
Saturday, August 6, 10.55 AM BST
It’s cricket semifinals day.
I am standing outside in a jam-packed security queue at Edgbaston with a sold out crowd patiently waiting admission for an India vs England clash that promises to be a thriller. I make it to my seat just in time for the first ball. Barely had I settled down that Smriti Mandhana hits a four that sets the tone for her innings and the day. It’s also the day the English Premier League’s new season kicks into gear with a bunch of Saturday games lined up, including Liverpool’s season opener against Fulham. I am absorbed into the cricket, but I keep an eye on the football score as well and eventually even catch the fag end of the game on the steward’s phone. Fulham hold Liverpool to a 2-2 draw, and the worst case scenario the football fan sitting next to me in the stands had envisioned – “England losing the semifinal and Liverpool winning this would be the worst 30 minutes of sport!” – does not quite materialise.
But, for what it’s worth, he can take his posh self back to London, because it’s India that is heading into the CWG Cricket T20 final – one of the only two events I have a medal game ticket for.
Sunday, August 7, 9.07AM BST
I had originally bought the ticket for a bit of a reverse jinx. India women had made it to the hockey semifinal and were facing Australia so I bought the bronze medal game ticket, hoping I waste 22 pounds sterling when India don’t feature in it. Australia however squeeze through with a bit of controversy and I am left with watching India battle for a Commonwealth women’s hockey medal for the first time since 2006. Many of the players in the current side were barely tweens back then and they can etch history, and I could not believe I would be there to witness it!
Well, not if the Midlands rail services had any say in it. I find to my dismay that the trains are delayed badly and at the Birmingham International station we have to get on a 8.54AM train that is packed to the rafters. In typical British understatement the tannoy announcer just says it’s a ‘busy service’. In reality, the coaches are packed cheek by jowl and I am almost resigned to missing the entire bronze medal playoff game (it was scheduled to start at 9AM) as I reluctantly step back after the announcer says he recommends taking the next train that is at 9.16AM. But a steward who’s heading to the athletics arena, and had chatted with me moments ago about what event I was attending, will not have it. He manages to squeeze out enough space near the door and calls out to me to get on. Inside he offers his phone streaming the match on BBC’s iPlayer and as we watch the first quarter wind down, his wife remarks how crowded the train is and how she’s never seen this busy a service in her life. I casually remark that ‘this is what, in Mumbai, we call the off-peak’. The steward laughs for almost literally a minute and then tells me – that’s a good line, I am keeping it.
When a joke of yours lands perfectly, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. But you know what’s better? The almost impeccable weather I found in Birmingham since that spell of rain on the Sunday I arrived. Weather so good it feels like it was scripted by Brummie Jeff Lynne himself. But you know what’s EVEN better than Mr. Blue Sky weather? The inspirational and intrepid Savita Punia leading her immense & skilful hockey team to a famous, well-deserved medal and you getting to watch that in person. I want to commemorate the moment by making a live sketch of the moment’s Savita’s save in the shootout sealed victory only to find my hands trembling from the emotion.
Soon, as the team takes a lap of honour, I am reduced to tears recalling all that this team had to go through to get to this milestone. I have an appointment with another such team in the evening – the Indian women’s cricket team is battling Australia for gold. Sadly, it comes undone for them and the result there is a reality check. The Indian team, however, can take inspiration from the words one of the greatest bands out of Brum and hold on tight to their dreams.
Monday, August 8, 12.05AM BST
I am melancholic as the train pulls into London Euston. Not because India had lost the cricket final by an agonisingly close margin, but because it’s beginning to sink in that I have left behind the bright, blue-hued, infectious spirit as a host city that Birmingham – a city bruised back in the second world war, but one that never lost its spark – had embraced. Like most instances of love, it creeped up on me gradually, through the interactions with the volunteers, or the people in the city, on the train and at the venues, and then suddenly all at once, as I looked back on the sum of how it all made me feel.
“Are you alright, bab?” I found my inner voice asking me.
“Why, yes, I am, I very much am.”
Thank you Bham, you wonderful, wonderful lot.
The author was in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games experience and this was originally published on his blog titled ‘Brum Diaries’. This is a lightly version of the original.
All photos in the article courtesy the author.
Scroll.in’s full coverage of CWG 2022 here.