At noon on February 28, the more enthusiastic cricket lovers of the village of Kollengode, some 20 km from the town of Palakkad in Kerala, will gather at a clearing and congregate before a giant screen erected to showcase one match. India will be playing a World Cup match in Perth, and a Kollengode boy will be proudly strutting his stuff. Ironically, it will not be for his beloved country, but for the United Arab Emirates, against India.
Krishna Chandran Karate - and he is quick to explain he is no lover of martial arts; the name is his mother's family name, pronounced kaa-raa-te - will bat in the top order and bowl medium pace, much like his idol, Jacques Kallis.
At last count, the population of Kollengode was less than 20,000, and barely anyone from the village, known mostly for an Ayurveda centre, had made it even to the dizzy heights of playing for Kerala in the Ranji Trophy, forget about beyond.
"See, it's going to be a big moment for people back home," Krishna Chandran told Wisden India. "For people who saw me playing in my shorts, with a tennis ball, on the streets of Kollengode, it's going to be a big thing to watch me on TV, playing against India, in a World Cup match, at a ground like the WACA."
If the story began on the streets of Kollengode, it progressed more rapidly in Chennai, where Krishna Chandran studied in St John's International school. "At first, I used cricket as an escape, just to get over feeling homesick," says Krishna Chandran. "Then I began to enjoy being good at it and enjoy working on it."
In inter-school tournaments, Krishna Chandran played against Dinesh Karthik. When he moved to Bangalore, he was in the same school as Robin Uthappa, and in college, Stuart Binny was his mate. When Krishna Chandran rose through the ranks in Kerala junior cricket and made it to the Under-19 team, Sreesanth was his room-mate. Today, in a second irony, Sreesanth will be at home, watching on TV as Krishna Chandran plays in the World Cup.
"It was a dream to one day play in the World Cup, but, frankly, I never thought it would happen. Many of my friends had gone on to play at that level, and I did feel left out," he says. "In India you have to be consistent as a first class player for someone to even look at you. But I was never given an opportunity to do that. In that sense, my dream was crushed."
Without a doubt, Krishna Chandran was never really given the opportunity to succeed by his home state. In 2008, he made his debut in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, against a strong Tamil Nadu team that included the likes of R Ashwin, M Vijay and S Badrinath; Krishna Chandran top-scored with 35 at No. 6 as all around him wickets fell and Kerala put on a lowly 91. In the next match, against Andhra, Krishna Chandran did not bat and took 1 for 31 as Kerala posted 317 and still lost. After this, he would never be picked to play a 50-over game for his state again.
Krishna Chandran tried different things to find his way back, moving clubs from Indian Bank to State Bank of Travancore and even chancing his arm with the Railways. When nothing worked, he got a job at a freight forwarding company in Dubai and packed his bags, but could not bring himself to turn his back on cricket.
"I never ever thought of giving up playing cricket," he says. "But, all around me, people were telling me there was no point, that I was not going to get chances, that I didn't have a job, that I was the elder son and that my family needed me to work. Everywhere I went, I had all these negative things being dumped into my mind by everyone. But if I don't play cricket, it's like I'm not able to breathe. I was so addicted to this game that it was my lover, my wife, my everything."
The move to Dubai was not an immediate solution to all problems. For someone who spent his days out on a cricket field, sitting in front of a computer was not easy. It was a struggle to make the adjustment, and many, many errors were committed at work. But, cricket remained in Krishna Chandran's life, through the Fanatics Club, and it was this that got him his current job, as a customer service representative at the cargo wing of Emirates. Krishna Chandran's current boss is Narendra Jadeja, cousin of Ajay, and the son of a former Gujarat Ranji Trophy cricketer. Now, Krishna Chandran gets a bit of extra leeway on the morning after a match. Typically a 50-over match would begin at 5pm and end after 1am, meaning that it was past 2am when he reached home and close to 4am when he hit the sack. On such days, he would be allowed to come in later than the usual 8am.
Not everyone is so fortunate. "It's very difficult for a lot of talented guys from back home. Firstly, if you are a Malayali, people in Dubai think you must be good at football but not cricket. Secondly, when you come from Kerala, you come there to work, not play," he says, feeling for an explanation as to why he was the first Keralite to make it to the UAE national team, despite his compatriots breaking glass ceilings in almost every other profession.
"You might have once been a good cricketer back home, but in Dubai, no one really wants to hear about this. It's about the 42 hours of work you have to put in a week. Among Indians, it is mostly Malayalis who play cricket in the UAE, and yet none had gone on to play for the national team. It's a good feeling that my name will be in the history books as the first one. Hopefully this will open a door for other Malayalis there who want to play cricket as a career."
Krishna Chandran's phone has been buzzing, his parents are being recognised back home, and even in sleepy Nelson, a Malayali lady at a local restaurant couldn't hide her excitement when she met him. "You know what they say, even if you go to the moon there will already be a Malayali there running a tea shop," he says with a warm smile, his diamond-stud earring and thick gold chain making him look more like a piratical West Indian than a hard working Gulf Malayali.
"If I can make my parents proud, that is the biggest thing, beyond even playing in the World Cup. When you are getting recognised and along with that your family is, that is a great feeling."
This feeling will be amplified a thousand times over in Kollengode and Palakkad over the coming days, when locals point excitedly at the television, beaming with pride at one of their own. In a third irony, Krishna Chandran himself was never one to sit in front of the TV. "I did not even watch a complete India match. When Sachin Tendulkar was batting, I would watch, and between every ball, I would run to the puja room to pray that he would not get out, and run back," he says. "I did that through Tendulkar's innings against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup, when he smashed Shoaib Akhtar. When Tendulkar got out, I would switch off the TV and go out to play."
On February 28, Tendulkar will be in a television studio, watching India's match against UAE as an expert. How ironic it would be, if Krishna Chandran was scoring runs, taking wickets and holding catches against his idol's team. Ironic, and poetic, for it will show that sometimes, dreams do come true after all.