Bowled over in India? A second innings in the subcontinent
His first disastrous visit to India left Joe Craig vowing never to return. Then he was lured back by the prospect of a game of cricket
Sunday 17 February 2013
Nipple-deep in sewage, my view of India soured. I was not going to be returning. This was 2008 and my honeymoon. We were in Madurai, in the south of the country, where you can lay your hands on any kind of textile or fabric you can imagine, where the Meenakshi Amman temple overshadows everything with its thrusting towers of Pop Art-esque friezes, where elephants are trained to take your rupees in return for "blessings" and where, in August, it is still monsoon season.
We were trapped in the main square, scurrying for cover from the deluge, dashing among chaotic construction work. There are no safety barriers in India. There are no warning signs. An open sewer is an open sewer. Someone had helpfully balanced a concrete block across the abyss but it looked precarious to me. I preferred my chances skipping across what I thought was a puddle. It was not a puddle. It was so much more than a puddle. Suddenly I was Doctor Foster learning harsh lessons about Gloucester. I was up to my middle in piddle.
That night I stood fully clothed in the shower at the Taj resort, wailing about all that was wrong with India: the heat, the mess, the smell (most of which was now pasted to my body), the exploitation of elephants, the dilapidation of even the most garish temples, the aggressive beggars, the gastric infections, the chaos of the streets. My dip in the sewer seemed to sum up my whole trip.
But there was one chink of brightness. Cricket bats. In Chennai I'd stumbled into Pavilion Sports shop, an oasis among the horror. Row upon row of pristine willow made a mockery of the rubble of the rest of the country. Keep your temples and your cynical money-grabbing elephants. At last, here was beauty. So I bought three cricket bats and swore never to go back to India.
Some people seem to love travelling in the developing world. They see beauty everywhere and shrug off discomfort. I've come to realise I'm just not built like that. I'm a brittle, anxious traveller and I should leave the developing world to those who flourish there.
But cricket lured me back.
Last summer, I started playing for the Authors' XI, the revival of the team that once boasted Arthur Conan Doyle, P G Wodehouse, A A Milne. Here was I, inheriting one of those berths in the side. The Jaipur Literary Festival invited us to play a gala match against the Rajasthan Royals. Yes, the Rajasthan Royals. The Indian Premier League side. The very best of the very best. To get the chance to play against them, at their stadium in Jaipur, all I had to do was manage my trepidation and go back to India. Would I come to love the place this time?
I knew this trip would be different. For a start I swapped my wife for more esteemed company: Sebastian Faulks, historians Tom Holland and James Holland, and children's author Anthony McGowan. All heavyweight storytellers, but more importantly, keen cricketers and superb company.
Even better, I didn't have to organise a thing. Laura at the Passepartout bespoke travel company had all the inside knowledge and the fixers on the ground, and she knew this group of writer-cricketer tourists would have a mien for luxury. When luxury, cricket and immaculate organisation combine, the result is seductive.
Instead of plunging straight in against the pros in Jaipur, we started a thousand kilometres to the south, in Mumbai, where Laura had arranged the first two matches in what was now a five-match tour.
Mumbai is a horrible city. Even in January (so much more human than August) the place cloaks you in a patina of sweat and dust. Mumbai is a crumbling concrete hotbox. The worst place for a first impression of India.
It's also a place that crushes together India's disparate worlds: the extreme poverty, the jostling middle class sweating together on the trains, the new money – so much of it, so flash and growing so fast in the hands of so few – and the faded colonial flavour of the old money.
We saw it all. It was a privilege to be granted accommodation at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), a members' club where nobody quite knows who the members are. This was old-world luxury where nothing quite works properly. The air conditioning clunks and splutters so your nightly choice is insufferable heat or maddening noise, but at least in the morning there's a member of staff to tick you off discreetly for wearing shorts in the coffee lounge.
Our opening match was in that old world too. At the Bombay Gymkhana an attendant polished my cricket boots; another handed me a fresh towel that smelled of warm dough, and waiters brought out the drinks. This was the venue for the first-ever England vs India Test in 1932 and the venerable pavilion has seen a lot of cricket. It sits at one end of the vast, parkland lozenge in the centre of the city, on which five or six matches can be happening at once, often physically overlapping. But in India, prettiness must constantly battle ugliness. In this case it was abandoned building works and a kite tearing apart a rat on the outfield. What an omen: come game time, the Authors XI were devoured.
We took on new money next – and lost again. This time it was under floodlights on a ground unburdened by history (yet still dogged by abandoned construction work). In personal cricketing terms this was my high point: I smashed a hundred and we held our heads high in defeat. Celebrating on a millionaire's yacht was cut short only by the combined effects of seasickness and that special India-sickness that churns the bowels. This physical reaction to Indian existence was already threatening to overshadow the luxury and the fun on the pitch when I was dripped on.
Yes, I was dripped on.
It came from the window of an apartment above me as I strode, intrepid, among the sports shops of Mumbai (seeking out my next cricket bat, of course). Only luck saved me from the full load and an enormity on the scale of my sewer-dive in 2008, but nevertheless, I was dripped on. Certain fluids, when misplaced, can easily taint an entire nation for a tourist.
After the drip I really needed Laura to pull out something special and she delivered. We flew to Jodhpur for three nights at the spectacular Raas Hotel. Tucked away in the shadow of the Mehrangarh Fort, the Raas is a courtyard of indulgence. From the privacy of my own roof terrace I could see the waterfall by the hotel spa on one side, the glowing fort on the other. I was also within a gentle lob of a mosque, but somehow the regular calls to prayer through the loudspeakers blended with the soothing atmosphere. It helped that it was now, further north, a few degrees cooler than in Mumbai. What a pleasure, at last, to need a jacket in the evening.
There was really no reason to leave the hotel compound to tackle Jodhpur. The Raas even has its own back gate to the fort so you can avoid tainting your pampered soul in the grimy labyrinth of the city. Of course, we were thumped by the local cricketers, but that was a comforting habit by now.
Our next stepping-stone on the way to Jaipur was a night in the well-appointed tents of Rohet Garh Wilderness Camp, where all is still, white and cool. This was not camping as I knew it: en suite bathrooms, soft furnishings and all-night bar service. Even better, after vintage air-conditioning systems, constant honking of Mumbai traffic and an ardent muezzin, this was the first time there was truly any quiet. At night the only noise is the gossip of whatever's happening in the next tent.
Only cricket could have brought me here and the matting wicket in the middle of the desert was an unforgettable place to play. Drums, dancers and garlands ushered us from the dirt track to the makeshift canvas "pavilion". The boundary thronged with a couple of hundred villagers, who soon delighted in their trouncing of the Authors. The smiles of the Rohet kids held triumph and warmth, a balance reflected wherever we went in India: deep love of cricket (and winning at cricket) weighed against welcoming the visitors.
It's a six-hour drive from Rohet to Jaipur. That's six hours on roads untimely ripped from the earth. Brutal, befuddled roads. Roads that seem almost angry about not being finished or repaired or even, at times, delineated. Six hours of driving more suited to a computer game – a violent one. "Hair-raising" is too comic a notion for such grave near-misses, yet no Indian driver bats an eyelid. So I was bounced into Jaipur clutching my stomach, cursing my bowels and nursing my nerves.
A hot shower on arrival would have helped. Probably. I was not to find out. As a place to stay, Castle Kanota is blessed with heritage (battlements and its own museum) but not reliable hot water. Yet here, for the first time, I found the dilapidation charming. Perhaps I was tired. Perhaps the rooms and grounds were genuinely beautiful, with a touch of Loire chateau.
But I fear we carried that louche spirit into the stadium for the tour's climax. It will come as no surprise that we lost to the Rajasthan Royals, but the result was hardly relevant on a day of frenzied celebration. The Jaipur Literary Festival laid on a red carpet, dancing girls, drummers, commentators, stilt-walkers, a pack of reporters and those ubiquitous, jobbing elephants. The captains rode out for the toss on bejewelled camels. This was cricket as circus. A carnival to launch a festival that held more than 2,000 people agog. Who could even notice the cricketing mismatch?
My personal mismatch is with India herself. This luxury tour gave me champagne on yachts, dinner at penthouses and palaces, glory with bat and ball. But it's a battle in India simply to be. To love it, you have to love that fight. Could I ever love a place where I have to carry Imodium and toilet paper at all times?
Cricket in India, however, is a country all of its own: exhilarating and delightful. I could live in Cricket-India. I'd need to come home after every game for hot showers and quiet nights, but I know that the lure of Cricket-India will be irresistible. I will have to go back, dragging the non-cricketing parts of my being behind me.
Joe Craig (joecraig.co.uk) is the author of the Jimmy Coates action thrillers for children. Jimmy Coates: Blackout is published by HarperCollins on 6 June
Flights from Heathrow to Delhi and Mumbai are operated by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com); Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com); Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; jetairways.com); Kingfisher Airways (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com); and Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com).
Joe Craig travelled with Passepartout (020-7183 1384; passepartout.co.uk) which can offer a week in Rajasthan, staying at some of the hotels mentioned, from £1,630 per person including international and domestic flights, transfers and guiding. Tailor-made cricket tours can also be arranged.
Raas Hotel, Jodhpur (00 91 291 263 6455; raasjodhpur.com). Doubles start at Rs15,000 (£170), including breakfast.
Rohet Garh, Rohet (00 91 291 243 1161; rohetgarh.com). Doubles start at Rs7,000 (£83), room only.
Castle Kanota, Jaipur (hotelnarainniwas.com). Doubles start at Rs8,500 (£101), including breakfast.
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