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Heroes at home, not in air
- Chill greets team on plane and cheer on ground

In 1996, I made my Test debut but this time it was tougher and
so, more satisfying

— Sourav Ganguly
in Calcutta

Jan. 8: There have been instances of commanders being compelled to caution passengers that “constant movement” towards the business class to mob Indian cricketers would more than just inconvenience them and the cabin crew.

Yesterday, the commander of the South African Airways’ eight-and-a-half hour flight from Johannesburg to Mumbai didn’t have to bother.

Everybody (90 per cent were either Indians or of Indian origin) on that Airbus 340-200 service was aware of the presence of Rahul Dravid’s men, but hardly anybody rushed for autographs on the nearly 7,000-km flight. Equally unusually, few took out camera-equipped phones.

That, of course, changed once Team India landed around 12.15 am. If the co-passengers on the flight, upset by yet another defeat (the last being in the final Test, at Newlands) had been cold, the janata at Sahar International Airport was in a forgiving mood.

Out came the camera phones, boarding passes, scraps of paper….

The baggage handlers, though, weren’t forgiving. Indeed, Dravid’s kit bag hadn’t surfaced till 1.30. Virender Sehwag, vice-captain till recently, was worse off — there was no sign of his checked-in baggage. In the same boat was Munaf Patel, who’d been on an all-expenses-paid holiday.

The trio left for a board-arranged hotel after an assurance from the airline’s ground staff that the “needful” would be done “immediately”. Whatever that meant.

Before leaving, Sehwag (under pressure to keep his place) vowed he would spend time out in the middle in the forthcoming Delhi versus Haryana Ranji match. “Koshish wahi rahegi.… I’m aware of the importance of time at the wicket,” he told The Telegraph.

Returning to the flight, the mood was best summed up by a Windhoek-based Indian surgeon, Dr Manoj Kamre: “Many, many Indians are doing excellently in southern Africa, but these cricketers only bring shame.… They’ve never won any series in South Africa.… And, why didn’t (Harbhajan Singh) Bhajji play at Newlands'”

That riddle may never get solved entirely. Coach Greg Chappell’s comments in Cape Town notwithstanding, the last has probably not been heard on that bizarre omission.

Apparently, within the team itself, there’s also “huge disappointment” that Sachin Tendulkar was brought on at Newlands when the South Africans were less than four boundary hits away from winning the Test series. For good reasons, nobody will speak on record.

Dr Kamre, however, had nice things to say about Sreesanth. Other passengers shared his sentiments. In fact, on seeing Kochi’s favourite son disembark, one made sure everybody heard his “Shabhash.… Keep it up India’s Andre Nel.”

Nel is widely regarded as the South African with an attitude. Sreesanth is right up there himself and there’s dismay he didn’t get the Man of the Series award.

Talking exclusively, he said: “I suppose I would’ve got it (instead of Shaun Pollock) had I got wickets in the second innings at Newlands.” He couldn’t add to the 18 victims collected over the previous five Test innings.

If Sreesanth stays the “find”, Sourav Ganguly is going to be remembered as the comeback hero. The countdown to his returning in the ODIs as well has begun.

On returning to the city this morning, Sourav remarked he was “hopeful” of not just featuring in the forthcoming series against the West Indies and Sri Lanka, but the World Cup, too.

Footnote: Vice-captain V.V.S. Laxman was the first to get a connection out of Mumbai. He took the 3.15 am Jet Airways flight, wanting to reach Hyderabad as early as possible to be with wife Sailaja and their first child, a son, born on New Year’s Day. “We haven't decided on the name yet,” he informed.

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