England adjust to India’s ring of steel

For a virtual war zone – the description of Chennai given by Stephen Harmison as he pondered whether to return – it has been pretty calm here. The nearest thing to a terrorist alert was two days ago, when a local policeman at the railway station raised the alarm about a suspect package, but the potential bomb proved to be a figment of the drunken officer’s mind. No bombs, then, and the only thing resembling the sound of gunfire has been the gentle putter-putter of night rain that has fallen on corrugated iron rooftops.

Much has been made of the ‘ring of steel’, the cordon sanitaire that acts as protective swaddling for the players: the 500 troops ring-fencing the ground, the 300 or so in the hotel and the 1,000 within its vicinity. And what troops they are! The Rapid Action Force (RAF), distinctive in their blue uniforms and carrying snub-nosed guns; the Special Action Group (SAG), whose female officers look very fetching in high black boots and khaki tops; and the Quick Reactive Team (QRT), who must be out on manoeuvres, or under cover, because so far they have been NTBS – nowhere to be seen.

There is, of course, more security than normal. To drive into the Taj Coromandel, the splendid residence at which the team is staying, your car will be checked over at the barricades, mirrors will be placed underneath to look for bombs, and you must walk through a metal detector at the front entrance – and another if you want to get on to the fourth floor, where the players are holed up. And, as one India player found to his disgust a couple of nights ago, no unauthorised guests will be allowed.

On the fourth floor, there are a dozen or so armed and serious-looking guards, about whom it is tempting to be wary, until you remember that all Indians like cricket. Me, I’m staying on the fourth floor of the Taj, too, and so it is assumed that somehow I am involved with the team. One guard insists, despite my protestations, that I am the batting coach and we now engage in small talk about technique while I wait for the lift to come. It is not so bad, really. I just hope KP and the boys get some runs, or I’ll be in for a grilling.

The most tempting thing to do in the aftermath of terrorism is to exaggerate the danger and the effects on daily life. After all, if you want to drive into Lord’s the day before a Test match, you have to let the sniffer dogs do their bit there as well. As it happened, I didn’t have my pass on the day I arrived here, but I managed to walk through the gates of the M.A.Chidambaram Stadium and out to the middle without anybody asking to see it. The chief sports writer from the Daily Mirror (and you know it’s a big story when the ‘chiefs’ arrive) got in by showing his FA Cup pass.

Chennai is 825 miles (1,329 km) from Mumbai, more than 12 hours by rail and God knows how long by bus. Language and cultural differences are vast enough to make Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen seem like blood brothers by comparison. Might as well be another country.

There is no sense that Chennai is in mourning. People here have a very matter-of-fact view of life and they are going about their business: earning a crust, cooking meals, playing sport, looking after the kids and generally getting on. Most Indians haven’t got time to dwell and ponder.

Sheila, the bookseller in the Taj, reckons that business is a little slow for the time of year, but Haribabu, who has worked here for 18 years, and now mans the patisserie stall, reports a fine trade in chocolate truffles and black forest gateaux.

Outside, on the Nangambakkam road, the sellers of fruit and dhosa (crêpes) are doing good business, girls from the Sacred Heart High School are hurrying to their lessons, people are chatting and spitting underneath the ‘do not spit’ signs, the drivers of the death-on-three-wheels (tuk-tuks) are winding their way through gaps you don’t think exist, and families ride, helmetless, three or four to a bike. ’Elf and safety wouldn’t like it.

Down at the Marina beach, which runs the length of the city, all manner of activities are taking place. Joggers are braving the afternoon heat and the air quality, which the World Health Organisation reckons is seven times the recommended levels of pollution. Children are flying kites and there are dozens of cricket matches going on. More than 200 people lost their lives during the tsunami at this beach in Chennai, many of them children playing cricket, so they know a bit about getting on with things here. After the tsunami, the beach was washed away but it is back now, wide and sandy, all seven miles (12 km) of it.

At the ground, K.Parsatharathy, the groundsman of 35 years, sits on his roller looking unconcerned that a Test is about to start. He’d have liked to have a bit more time to work on his pitch, but he shrugs and says it will be pretty much like all the others he has prepared here: some pace and bounce early on, with plenty of spin later. His staff, women in bright-coloured saris, sit close by, chatting and waiting for instructions.

Cricketers are practising in the nets, but over in the pavilion there is a bit of a commotion, because Kevin Pietersen and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are about to unveil the series trophy. Before they do, the big cheese from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the sponsor, wants to say a few words and she blathers on about RBS’s wealth management service (as if anybody has got any money left these days), its global portfolio and the important role RBS plays in local communities. You feel like saying, ‘Come on, love, forget the cricket and just lower your mortgage rates.’

Then she’s done and she asks Pietersen and Dhoni to unveil the trophy. All of a sudden there is an almighty scrum, as dozens of cameramen, photographers and journalists surge towards the captains. Reg Dickason, the England security adviser, has seconded his son into action on this trip (and that tells you all you need to know about how the security business is doing very nicely out of this show), and it is his responsibility to guard the England captain. Dickason Jr has a look a sheer panic as he finds himself on the wrong side and he tries to fight his way through the scrum. James Avery, the ECB’s laconic media officer, leans against the wall, smiling. This is India, after all, and chaos is a given.

All this was happening yesterday in Chennai, much like any other day there when Test cricket is on. Cricketers practising, bankers bullshitting, columnists writing, locals getting from home to work and back again in a variety of ways, children playing cricket on the beach and chaos unfolding. That is what happens after the terror. And today, the Test begins. The Times, 11 December 2008