You had to be there. There’s no other way; no prosaic parenthesis, no assorted prose, no high-definition histrionics, no logical explanation, absolutely nothing that could convey the pulse of a brimming, throbbing, bursting and heaving cricket ground for those who were not there. You just had to be there on Sunday.
For a series that had stuttered in its quest for relevance since the day it was conceptualised, Visakhapatnam proved a pleasant detour. That it was locked 1-1 before the action shifted to this coastal city surely was a clincher, but the beauty of hosting cricket matches in smaller centres can’t be expressed in specifics alone.
Vizagians — as the local bureau of a leading national daily calls the denizens here — are a proud lot. Slyly but earnestly, they let slip a notable ditty, that their city ranked third in this year's Swachh Survekshan, the central government's standings on cleanliness index, a part of the ambitious Swachh Bharat initiative.
The collective pride makes its way to cricket too. The vast stretch of NH 16 that brings cricket to the ground was dotted with a healthy smattering of roadside hawkers, selling the blue Indian jersey, ready to paint the tricolour on anyone who cared. Some had come from as far as Jharkhand, hoping for a busy and profitable day in office.
The locals had endured a 15-month wait for international cricket. And by filling the 25,000-seater ground to capacity well before Rohit Sharma and Thisara Perera walked out for the toss, they did show the wait was long enough.
This correspondent met a doctor who had come to watch the match from Odisha; his first ever international match from the ground. Donning a ‘Dhoni’ jersey, the good doctor clicked selfies with gay abandon, keen to preserve his moment under the Vizag sun for posterity. Another group of Class XII students had made itself comfortable on seats that didn’t belong to them. Before being asked to leave by the rightful occupants, the boys chanted regular bits of advice to Hardik Pandya, who was fielding at the fence.
However, if there was one cricketer who had the fans in raptures all day was MS Dhoni. The former India captain is a cult figure in almost all grounds across the country, but his following in Visakhapatnam is seen to be believed. ‘Dhoni’ t-shirts did brisk business throughout the day, and fans really went berserk when he walked out for warm-ups. The predilection with Dhoni hit fever pitch when his genius behind the stumps sent Upal Tharanga back.
When India batted and Rohit Sharma got out early, fans rooted — more in hope than anticipation — for Dhoni, but it was young Shreyas Iyer who made his way to the middle. His departure led renewed calls for Dhoni, with some hoping for him to finish the game with a trademark six.
The former skipper needed just 102 runs to reach the 10,000 run-mark, becoming only the second wicketkeeper in ODI history to get there. The statistically-minded would have quietly hoped for a rejig in batting order, but the passionate Vizagians chose to chant his name with palpable devotional pining. It didn't matter that Dinesh Karthik walked out to bat, nor did it matter who scored the winning runs or who cantered to a fine century; Visakhapatnam made no pretence of its bias.
One can’t really explain this sheer madness — there’s really no other word for this emotion. On cramped buses and rickety auto-rickshaws, in luxury cars and ramshackle bikes, on weary legs and hired cabs, they poured in from all parts of the city and beyond, to soak in the pandemonium they would create. All they pined for was one look, one cursory glance, one acknowledgement from their hero for a lasting memory. Shikhar Dhawan, Yuzvendra Chahal and Pandya — the boundary riders — did give them temporary high, but it was a piece of Dhoni that they craved for.
The catharsis arrived after a 100-over wait, well after the last ball was bowled and the trophy was held afloat by Rohit. As the young team trooped into the hollowness of the dressing room, the lone figure of Dhoni remained; under the floodlights, in a bubble, greeting match-officials and Andhra Cricket Association (ACA) members. The crowd, that had shouted their throats hoarse, still had enough to summon on last guttural cry.
They chanted his name in unison, loud enough, and surely moving enough to make Dhoni stop in his tracks. As he looked up to stands full of hopeful eyes, tortured souls, waving hands and numbing sound, one can’t but think what went through his mind for that fleeting moment, standing under the glorious refulgence of artificial lights.
It was here, 12 years back when a hitherto unheralded Dhoni turned his career — and Indian cricket — around with a memorable 123-ball 148 against Pakistan. Some of his shots that April afternoon might well have landed in the stands under which he now stood. His machine-gun celebration, perhaps his most emotive one yet on the cricket field, happened on the space that he now occupied.
The long locks of 2005 were gone, the raffish air of careful ruthlessness replaced with chilling aura of remorselessness. Twelve years of grind have taken their toll, but a glittering career and an enviable legacy now stood in its wake. It all started here, with baptism by Pakistani fire. It couldn't have got worse, and in no way could it have gone any better.
Dhoni looked up, brought his arms over his head, and waved in a full 180-degree vision, before consigning himself to the familiar veneer of inscrutability and denial that keeps him untouched from this fawning attention. And just like that, he was gone, his little moment of intimacy with a boisterous mob ending in a blink, leaving the crowd wondering and wanting.
You had to be there, to see Visakhapatnam love MS Dhoni back.