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Cricket in Thurber country

By Nikhil Moro in Columbus, Ohio
February 20, 2003 12:32 IST
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What's Columbus -- Midwestern America's conservative education hub and hearth of legendary cartoonist James Thurber -- got to do with cricket?  Surprisingly much.  The city, home to the famous Ohio State University, is a hotbed of cricketing excitement thanks to the World Cup, even as it digs itself out of some 18 inches of snow deposited by the severest ice storm in four decades.

"There is only one thing gloomier than the weather nowadays -- the mood of the Indian students," squints Prashant Nikam, shrugging off the snow on his fleece. He is, of course, referring to the Indian team's flucutating form. Prashant, a doctoral researcher in pharmacy management, is one of those responsible for the famous channels -- 81, 82 and 83 -- bringing the World Cup alive on the university's cable television network.

Ohio State's sprawling, snow-blanketed 1,700 acres give it a special status as America's largest university campus.  Other than as a Big Ten research university, it is best recognized as home of the Buckeyes, the swashbuckling footballers who snatched the national championship in a January thriller.

Cricket in America is no more a novelty, after immigrants from South Asia and the United Kingdom formed an estimated 200 cricket clubs in dozens of cities from California right across the continental United States. "Thanks to them, the American people are getting curious about this skillful, majestic game. I hope this curiosity will lead to interest. Nowadays, my American friends and I discuss cricket in the dorms, in the residence halls, in restaurants -- everywhere!" says Prashant.

The World Cup matches at Ohio State are watched by an estimated 1500 students, some of them crowding into special "dish homes" around campus, even as the snow pelts away outside. Night-outs in front of television sets, laptops gleaming as research-weary eyes dart from the TV screen to the monitor, excited analyses of the pitch and the swing are part of the animated conversations. Discussion about footwork and beamers is in -- complaints about research pressure and the job market are out.  As Srinivasan Ramarajan, a graduate student in electrical engineering gushes, "It is just like being in India!"

"They say that you can take a man out of India but you just cannot take India out of a man. For me, India is cricket," declares Karthikeyan Thyagaraja, a recent graduate of industrial engineering as he bounds off over a mountain of snow towards his friend Arun Sridhar's "dish home," to consume the India-Zimbabwe tie.

"This town is reverberating with a sound unfamiliar in midwestern America's conservative football-crazy milieu - the sound of excited cricket commentary. This is exciting!" exclaims Amol Joshi, a bio-technology scholar visiting from Chicago.

Jamie Lambert, marketing manager of the university's telecommunications department had to purchase permission from DISH Network, which has exclusive World Cup telecast rights in the United States, for $3000. Contributions flowed in from Ohio State's Office of International Education, the telecommunications department, Council of Graduate Students, Indian Students Association, Pakistan Students Association, Indian American Association, Hindu Students Council, Jones Tower Council, Morrill Tower Hall Council, Lincoln Tower Hall Council. Besides, some 60 students -- chiefly Indian, Trinidadian and Pakistani -- contributed $60 each.  The goal was to provide cricket coverage for free to all Ohio State students, at three large television lounges -- the Jones and Morrill housing towers and Royer activity center -- other than individual homes.

Prashant names the students whose "tireless efforts" led to the World Cup telecast as Neil Waller, Sreenivas Chakravarthy, Badal Joshi, Romin Iqbal, Saurabh Sood, Gaurav Sharma, Parag Gupta, Salmani Syed, Rahul Gupta, Kanish Sanghavi and Gaurav Sharma.

"The World Cup's 54 matches and 14 countries make it a great diversity event. People are learning about different cultures, starting with the African culture visible intermittently during the matches," points out Rajeev Shah, a 210-lb graduate student who claims to love cricket even more than food.

The World Cup is being promoted as a "harmless late night activity" -- which means a lot in the generally sexually charged atmosphere of a university campus.  Most matches begin at 3 a.m. (Eastern time), but nobody is complaining.  In Jones Tower, during the India-Australia match, students dressed in India's tricolor, waved Indian flags as they cheered, in one American cricket-convert's words, "the star batsman who failed," Sachin Tendulkar.  A rare event in an American dorm, for sure.

Nevertheless, there are a few for whom the World Cup does not raise the temperature. One of them is Abhijeet Konduskar, India's 2002 national champion in rifle shooting (prone), who is now an undergraduate in chemical engineering at Ohio State. "What's the ado all about," wonders Abhijeet.

On the bilateral front, the World Cup has given Indian and Pakistani students reason to laugh and cry together (at least until March 1, when India and Pakistan face off!) So is cricket the catalyst that will finally bring the feuding governments of India and Pakistan together? As Thurber, the legendary New Yorker aphorist and perhaps the most famous graduate of Ohio State University's journalism school, said, "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."

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Nikhil Moro in Columbus, Ohio