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Politics can wait, play is on

Feb. 19: When a prominent — and overweight — member of the Left brigade in Parliament went missing this afternoon in the post-lunch session, his comrades knew where to find him: in front of a television set, swallowing with his eyes each ball, as it were, as India took on Zimbabwe.

Here was a communist, finally one like a fish among the sea of people, doing his mite and keeping vigil as the country held its collective breath in the hope that a victory over Zimbabwe will — as in 1983 — break the jinx and put India back in winning way.

Cricket featuring India has always been top of the charts. But Wednesday was still different. A continuous run of losses (barring the pyrrhic victory over Holland) was frustrating the Indian spectator so much that in Calcutta, they took out Sourav Ganguly’s funeral and in Kanpur, they blackened Mohammed Kaif’s house. Finally, when Sachin Tendulkar, in an unprecedented appeal to his countrymen yesterday, vowed to fight till the last ball, India decided to give itself another chance.

The fever in Calcutta was not unusual. But Delhi also ground to a halt — so did many cities and towns across the country this afternoon.

In the ministry of external affairs, where the publicity department is quicker on its toes than a leaden-footed Dinesh Mongia, the spokesman made it clear that the customary briefing will depend on how India was faring. There was no briefing.

In the ministry of defence, joint secretaries huddled in the chamber of a colleague ostensibly poring over files to expedite procurement before the financial year ends, but it was the television set that hijacked their eyeballs.

In Parliament’s central hall, MPs did the unbelievable: they decided they will not watch themselves on television, and channel surfed to Set Max and Doordarshan to watch the game. MPs discussed what Sourav Ganguly’s brother, Snehashish, had written in a Bengali newspaper indignantly.

Cricket was a show-stopper elsewhere, too. In Bihar, some movie halls yanked off films and screened the match. When some of the halls could not pack any more patrons, microphones began relaying commentary to the crowd waiting outside.

In Chennai, two giant screens popped up on the Marina beach — the customary venue for political spectacles — and beamed the match live.

The game stimulated the marketing instincts in some. If an Indian batsman hit a six when you bought a pan or cigarette at Samir Panwalla’s kiosk in Ahmedabad, you would have got a pan or cigarette free.

In Mumbai, it helped that it was an official holiday on the occasion of Shivaji’s birthday.

Traffic snarls sprang up in two spots in Lucknow where a corporate group put up giant screens.

Over a dozen policemen guarded Kaif’s Allahabad house, the walls of which were blackened by “cricket fans” after Saturday’s drubbing. “The house walls have been re-painted and we have decided to provide security cover to the family till the World Cup is over,” senior superintendent of police Vijay Kumar said.

Television industry executives said the India-South Africa encounter during the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka last year probably got the highest-ever viewership in the subcontinent. The ratings for today’s viewership will be put out by the TAM peoplemeter system only next week, but the evidence on hand is it could pip previous records.

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