| Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag in Mumbai. (AFP)
On board AI 5224 to Mumbai: It must have been an oversight, but captain Dharam Pal Singh Dhillon, who piloted Air India’s special (747) flight from Johannesburg to Mumbai, forgot to welcome Sourav Ganguly’s Team India on board.
However, the 300-odd passengers more than made up, on Monday night: They applauded the 11 players who decided to fly economy class in order to reach home on Tuesday morning, instead of late Wednesday. Despite Sachin Tendulkar’s presence, the clapping was louder when Sourav entered the aircraft.
Pleased with the reception, Sourav smiled — for the first time after the Australians unleashed mayhem at The Wanderers.
Though the team was to fly out on Wednesday morning, the Virender Sehwags initiated a move to leave on Monday night itself, aboard the special flight. As the first/business class seats weren’t available, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Jagmohan Dalmiya sought the players’ consent to travelling economy before giving his own okay.
Except the short-haul flights, the players don’t fly economy.
Sehwag, one understands, promptly began contacting teammates who were either shopping or sightseeing. A head count was quickly taken and 11 agreed to a hurried departure. Only vice-captain Rahul Dravid, Jawagal Srinath, Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh chose to stay back. Dalmiya took the same flight.
“Look, after two months, we just wanted to get home.... It didn’t matter whether or not we got business class seats,” Sourav told The Telegraph, echoing a common sentiment. The team’s presence apart, it was quite a VIP flight: Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Sahib Singh Verma, Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath....
While Sachin and Sourav were initially most sought after during the eight-hour flight, top-notch singer Abhijeet took centrestage late into the night.
It began with him praising Vishy and ended with the former India captain (now an Elite Panel Match Referee) requesting “ek-do gaane.”
The “ek-do gaane” became dus-barah as just about everybody cornered Abhijeet and kept asking for “one more”. Eventually, he obliged for over an hour — rendering both his own numbers and some of Kishore Kumar’s greatest hits (Zindagi ka Safar, for example).
First the welcome, then Abhijeet’s brilliant solo performance.... It made many forget Sunday’s disappointment. In fact, the reception was rousing on arrival at the Sahar International Airport, too.
Meanwhile, the March 29 fund-raiser for the Lata Mangeshkar-promoted hospital in Pune will be the players’ first post-World Cup commitment. Led by Sourav, an Indian XI will face the Arjuna Ranatunga-captained Sri Lankan XI.
The day-night match, at the Wankhede, will be preceded by a felicitation of Team India (over lunch) by the Mumbai Cricket Association, the Cricket Club of India and the corporate sector.
Former BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur, instrumental in initiating the felicitation, remarked: “Eight wins in succession.... The boys played like champions, even if they didn’t return as one.... They’ve got to be feted.” Few should argue with that.