“Arun, your class is that way.”
The bespectacled man, his hands folded, gently but firmly instructed the teenager. “But, sir, it is Dhoniii,” Arun moaned. The man kept quiet. Arun walked away, shaking his head in disappointment. What he did not hear was what the man said a few moments later: “I have said it once. I have done my job. I know it is Dhoni. I don’t mind if he stays back.”
The man is a teacher and Arun is one of the 800-odd students at the Merchant Taylors’ School, which lies on the outskirts of London, in the verdant county of Hertfordshire. The school is a private, boys-only school and a healthy majority of the students come from the Indian subcontinent.
The school is located in a gated 285 acres of luscious green fields, flanked by two beautiful lakes where the boys indulge in sports like rowing. It also plays host to Middlesex County Cricket Club during the summer. Merchant Taylors’ has many ovals and up to 11 matches can be played simultaneously. This piece of information is not being read from the school brochure, but comes from former West Indies opener Gordon Greenidge, who has coached at the school previously.
So, Monday was clearly not just the first day of another week for the students and staff. They had special visitors in the form of the India limited-overs squad, which had picked the school as the venue for their first training session.
At first you would have wondered why the India team management would pick a venue so far out of the city. But it was this exact state of quietude that Virat Kohli, the India captain, and his men would have wanted before commencing their nearly three-month long tour of the UK and Ireland, which starts in Dublin on Wednesday with a T20 and will culminate in a five-Test series with England, which will be wrapped up mid-September.
Kohli and co arrived at the school around midday, solemnly dragging their kits into the quaint dressing room, painted in black and white with a thatched roof. At this point the students were still in their classrooms. But by the time Kohli had walked a fair distance to hit in the nets, the boys were out for recess.
The first whispers Kohli heard of his name came from the playground, where teenagers were happily kicking the football. Soon the murmurs came closer as the students, smartly dressed in their black jacket and dark trousers, queued up in an arc 10 yards from where he was batting.
One youngster, possibly around 12 years old, rushed behind the nets Kohli was in and said loudly, “Oh my God. It’s him. It’s him.” Kohli did not need any introduction. As they shot videos with their phones, the din grew louder, matching the excitement in the air. Boys were running across the expansive greens to catch a glimpse and more of the India players, clear favourites among them. Bothered by the growing levels of excitement, a steward came by and asked the boys to “reduce the volume as that is affecting the batsmen”.
A few moments later, Kohli raised both hands to leave a ball, which proceeded to break his stumps. He would not lift an eyelid. The throng behind him let out a loud sigh. “He would not do that in a match. Don’t worry,” The 12-year-old reassured his friends. He urged them to look at the stillness of Kohli’s stance. “Look at his reflexes. Look at how he stands”
One of the best sights of the day came as Kohli finished batting and started walking towards the main nets where the rest of the India squad was training. Kohli might have felt like a famous golfer walking across the greens to the next hole followed by an exuberant swell of fans chanting his name. He requested just one thing, loudly: don’t touch his bats. He did say he would be back to sign autographs shortly, but by then the boys had been told assertively by one of the school’s PE coaches to “disappear”.
Other than the students, there were other visitors who dropped by to say hello. Former India fast bowler Ashish Nehra, who comes to England in the summers, brought his son; Greenidge walked along the sidelines and greeted the India team management and players. Sunil Subramanian, the India manager, spoke fondly about the dashing West Indies opener’s summer in 1984, when Greenidge hit a double-century on one leg.
Even though this was India’s first training session, and they did work out assiduously, from a distance it seemed like they were having a good picnic. Basking in the toasty weather and clear blue skies. Enjoying the splendour and elegance of the ovals and the surroundings. Soaking up the attention. Being good tourists. Getting ready for the real English summer.