A few days after leaving the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ without having stretched my body anymore vigorously than that which is required to plug my camera into the USB port at the back of a computer, I had one of those days that makes it a joy to be where I am and traveling in the manner that I am.
Having cycled a cruisy 50kms, I decided that that would be enough for one day and pulled off the highway and into the peaceful, small town of Paonta Sahib. Little did I know before stopping that it is home to a beautiful Sikh gurdwara that sits right on the Yamuna River. The Sikhs, numbering over 20 million in India, are easily recognised by their long and carefully groomed beards as well as their overbearing turbans that conceal their uncut hair. Most dominant in the Punjab, I had encountered them in most towns I had passed through and found them largely, to be more affluent and better educated than the general Indian population. Whenever I am in need of directions, I always seek out a Sikh due to the increased likelihood that they speak at least a little english.
It was obvious that this unassuming town does not see many tourists and as I approached the temple, unsure of the Sikh attitudes towards outsiders in their places of worship, I could feel the curious eyes move to me. In situations such as these, I usually tentatively follow what everyone else is doing until I am told that I should not be here, should not be doing this or am not allowed to photograph that.
I followed worshippers to the shoe check counter, I followed them to the foot-wash pond and I followed a kind mans advice to cover my head. I followed them through the beautifully decorated, predominantly blue and white main hall, where a small man sat cross-legged beneath a carved marble gazebo with a huge book before him, while a group of three or four stood to the side of the hall shouting into a microphone with all the gusto and vigor of Abbie Hoffman at the Washington Monument in ’68. I followed them to the rear courtyard, which offers great views over the river and sits adjacent to a large, enclosed, concrete area where many devotees were enjoying the gurdwara custom of not allowing its visitors to leave with an empty stomach. Once again, I approached tentatively, but soon had a stainless steel thali thrust upon me by a woman who grabbed it from a stack of hundreds. I sat on the ground in one of the long rows of diners, facing those in the row opposite me. One by one, I was visited by the rice man, the dal man and the pickle man who walked the rows filling whichever section of the partitioned dish looked lean. The water man slopped the contents of his bucket into my drinking bowl and to the chapatti man, I raised both hands, holding my palms upwards so that he could flop the warm, round bread into them from a great height.
As is usually the case with these all-you-can-eat deals, I ate until I could barely stand – always a sign that I am satisfied.
With a belly full of rice, lentils and bread, I retired to the rooftop of my hotel for something sweet. From my vantage point, I had a fine view of the gurdwara and directly in front of it, the Paonta Sahib cricketing field of dreams. In fact, as I scooped the luscious flesh of my fresh mango into my mouth, I saw that there there was a game being played at that very moment by future Tendulkars and Bhajjis and I could think of nothing I wanted more than to join them.
After the mighty Pigs CC had accomplished the outstanding feat of dual-premierships in my absence (some may say because of it), I had been yearning to feel the weight of the willow in my hands. As I strolled across the ground, the eyes ever following, and slotted myself in at midwicket, what I did not realise was that this was no ordinary game of park cric. Despite it being played on a strip of mud with a rock as one set of stumps and a guy in a turban hooning around the park on his scooter in reverse, this was a serious cricket match, to be played with the same intensity as if one were representing their home state in the IPL. Eight players a side, eight overs per innings, four bowlers to bowl two overs each, an impartial umpire adjudicating, sledging in Hindi permitted and encouraged.
Fortunately, the young Sikh fielding at square leg spoke passable english and we chatted, as a group of youngsters gathered around us. I tried to disperse them, explaining that I was never going to take a catch and get a bat with them crowding me, still not realising that I was not even in the game.
Not seeing much action in my area of the park, I soon asked if I could roll the arm over. Despite it meaning the unravelling of their carefully organised game, they instead handed me an almighty chunk of wood.
My time had come and there at the PSCG (Paonta Sahib Cricket Ground) on my international debut, I found some brilliant form. Controlled pull shots, vicious straight drives, elegant cover drives – the pre-teen crowd was going wild. Proclaiming that I was batting “exactly like Andrew Symonds”, there was no satisfying them. Having hit two in a row out of the park, they persisted in their demands, “Six, six, six!” In trying to appease them, all I managed to do was nearly go ass over tit in the mud.
Unfortunately, at the change of innings, I could not back up my batting performance with the ball, as I watched it consistently sail over my fieldsmen’s heads. Needless to say, I was not called upon to bowl my second over.
After we were narrowly defeated, my team mates looked utterly dejected, but I was beaming from ear to ear at an experience that will definitely go down as one of ‘Damo’s Greatest Sporting Moments.’