Thursday, June 9, 2016

Caught on the same flight as Matthew Hayden and Virat Kohli

I was mentally prepared for one of the longer days of my life when I left my hotel in Raipur on May 23, 2016. I was scheduled to take a flight back to Bangalore, go home, pack, and take another flight that same evening to Delhi for the Indian Premier League play-offs. What I didn’t anticipate by a mile though, was the kind of experience that three-hour flight to Bangalore was about to provide.

When entering the airport, I pointed out to my friend that the Royal Challengers Bangalore’s manager was loitering around, to which he said, “Oh, shit! They might be travelling around the same time, which means, there’ll be chaos; I’m glad we came early.” I didn’t realise the weight of that statement unless much later.

We were in the check-in queue when Matthew Hayden walked into the airport. We waved at each other and he joined us the queue. Of course, on spotting him, the airline authorities summoned him to a separate line to speed-up his check-in formalities. We acquired our boarding passes and Hayden suggested we get some coffee at the restaurant/café on the first floor. We were passing security when one of the personnel asked his colleague “Who is that?’…to which the reply came, “Matthew Hayden, Australian cricketer.” The other guy retorted instantly, “What’s he doing here again? He was here just two days ago!” (All of this exchange in Hindi.)

Of course, on the way from the check-in queue to the restaurant, at least 15 people stopped him and asked him for a picture – all of which he was kind enough to oblige to at 8 a.m.! Stationing ourselves in a corner, we sat chatting about life, work and many random things before a contingent of security workforces walked towards us. It didn’t take me long to spot Virat Kohli, Shane Watson, AB de Villiers and a number of RCB players following them to the coffee shop.

Kohli and Watson came up to Hayden and exchanged pleasantries. Hayden introduced us briefly before the pair joined our table. Soon they were having a conversation that I wasn’t paying attention to because the sudden hustle and bustle around the airport was distracting.(What I did notice though, was that Kohli insisted and stressed on a no-sugar coffee, which is essentially what I need to start doing at some point, but haven't yet!)

Passengers who were groggily waiting to board the aircraft were suddenly interested in the middling coffee shop that they snubbed completely at the start. (I can make that assessment as it was empty when we walked in.) Children, who wanted pictures with their favourite stars, were haggling with the security guards. People clicked pictures from afar, while the waiters at the café, who were evidently thrilled to be on that morning shift, were out and about with their phones being oscillated as they tried to seek the apt position for seflies to catch the cricketers in the background.

Soon, it was time to board. The cricketers were of course, made to board first with the team occupying all of the middle rows. My friend and I were slotted different seats on the same row, so we thought we would ask someone if they could just switch seats to the other side. Obviously, the guy I asked refused, given that Kohli and de Villiers were seated in the row after. Not that it would make much of a difference to him, as RCB’s security guy was sitting alongside them with Chris Gayle, Watson and Chris Jordan to his right.  The security guy, however, overhead my request and was extremely kind to offer me his vacant seat in the next row, which was the one beside my friend. All settled in, we fell asleep within minutes, given that we were working until about 3:30 am the previous night and were up by 6 a.m. for our early flight.

Just as the plane landed, a passenger who was about to get off at Hyderabad, turned on his phone and made a sly attempt at taking a selfie with Kohli and AB in the background. What he didn’t realise, however, was that the seats were elevated enough to prevent that. Gradually, the angle was raised and obviously it wasn’t hard for the cricketers to spot it. Figuring out that this was just the start as the plane was coming to a halt, they put their heads down in the pretext of typing shoe laces, digging something out of their bags and such. The persistence of that passenger, though, was laudable, who at one point had his phone at a 90-degree angle – right above his head – before the security guy had to intervene and request him to stop.

If passengers thought it was their lucky day and they could meet their cricketing heroes, they were outrageously disappointed as no pictures or autographs were given – irrespective of age. That didn’t stop anyone from trying their luck, but in vain.

A young girl of around 22 or so, was quite in shock when she was refused an autograph when we landed in Bangalore, which was apparent, as she asked the security guy, “Are you serious?! I can’t get an autograph?” He flatly said, “No ma’am, please go on, you’re blocking the way.” She was so pissed off that she stormed off, but her fan-girl-self waited on the jet bridge as she was turned down again. All of the fanfare was predominantly for Kohli, and rightly so, given his exemplar IPL. 

But all of that was nothing compared to how the packed-to-the-brim airport went crazy when they found the team walk out. Dozens ran alongside the security guards to get a glimpse of their favourite stars. Few left their baggage belts and lined up to take videos, while others tried getting as many selfies in that moment as they could.

While we were waiting at our belt for our luggage, Hayden joined us and whilst he was showing me pictures of his backyard and his kids taking to cricket, a young chap walked up to us and asked him, “You’re Hayden, right?”, to which the reply came “no”, as he went back to our conversation as though there was no interruption. That chap burst out laughing and said, “I knew it was you. Can I have a selfie?” The heights of selfies was, however, when we were leaving the airport and a man was running alongside Hayden to get one and was finding it hard to fit him in the same frame. Hayden then took his phone, clicked one himself and handed the phone back. That would have easily been about 50 pictures or so in the span of about four hours.

It felt quite strange to witness all of that from such hands-on quarters. On one hand, whilst it is quite a privilege to be in a profession where you see, interact with them cricketers quite often, somewhere, it loses its sheen to the extent where the typical fan in you is quashed in a bid to be professional. Also coupled with the fact that you might, sometimes, just start taking it for granted. However, on the other hand, it is not hard to relate to the craze and enthusiasm of a typical admirer, as that was possibly, every single one of us a decade or two ago. 

It was brought to my notice earlier in the year when my cousin drove me to the airport and MS Dhoni got off from a Jaguar right ahead of us. Whilst it didn't even hit me enough to make note, my cousin went crazy exclaiming, "Hey, Dhoni! What a start to my year, that I got to see MS Dhoni while dropping you off!"  

When I was a massive supporter of Matthew Hayden back in the day, little did I imagine or know I would sit at a coffee table with him discussing life, our families or cricket a few years hence. But now, it's in a different capacity where your work is what has you connected. 

At some level that day, my respect for cricketers and how they handle fame went up a tad bit, with what I saw in the case of Hayden at least. It must be hard to oblige to requests patiently, smile and politely indulge in pleasantries irrespective of what you might be going through internally. I can’t tell how I’d react if I was in a similar situation, which is why they say, not everybody can handle fame. Yes, sure, it’s a privilege for them to be revered in the way they are at some level, but that said, it’s not easy being them either.