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Bengal went past Railways to reach the semifinal of the Ranji Trophy 2013-14 season. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the day when Eden Gardens was back to its days of yore.
It was supposed to be another lazy Sunday morning. I woke up at eightish to find it drizzling outside; the match cannot start on time, I told myself as I turned over to resume the usual Sunday morning sleep. By the time I was woken up by a call from a friend, it was past 10.30.
I woke up with a start, not only had play started, but Ashoke Dinda had taken out the obdurate Nitin Bhile as well. But Arindam Ghosh — the ex-Bengal cricketer who had taken up a job in Railways and had scored 97 in the first innings – was still there, along with the wicket-keeper Mahesh Rawat (who had scored 119).
These are going to be tough nuts to crack, I thought as I got into the taxi.
Me: Eden Gardens.
Driver: Aaj match hai? (Is there a match today?)
Me: Haan. (Yes)
Driver: Kiske saath? (Against whom?)
Driver: Achchha, to Howrah chalenge? (So is it Howrah that you actually want to go to?)
Me: Nahin, Eden Gardens.
The driver must have thought I was insane, but still dropped me off. I was greeted with a pleasant surprise at the entrance. The ticket-counter was closed: they just issued me a complimentary pass and uttered the words “poysha lagbe na, dhuke jaan, shudhu jitiye phirun” (you don’t need to pay, just get in and come back victorious).
So I rushed in, up the L-block stand. To my surprise the block was almost completely full. Somewhere in the distance, the B-block was almost full as well, and there were also a few men scattered around the other blocks. The BC Roy Clubhouse was full as well.
It seemed surreal, visiting the huge stadium for a Ranji Trophy match after ages: there was no giant screen; the giant screen was closed; both the electronic and manual scoreboards had been taken off; the only thing that told the score was the small board that showed only the runs, wickets, and overs (the sides of which were updated only after an over or a wicket).
Railways were in the 180s when I walked in. They had lost six wickets including were both Ghosh and Rawat. But Karan Sharma and Rongsen Jonathan were both there, and runs came in trickle. Eden Gardens was, however, back to its prime: gone was the “my son has five Dhoni posters” or “this match is fixed” or “doesn’t Rohit Sharma look cute?” audience: these were the people who returned home with sunburned cheeks after watching days of League Cricket in the Kolkata Maidan.
Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Shib Shankar Paul (“Macko” to the locals for his resemblance to Malcolm Marshall) continued bowling to a tight line and length; when Paul, clearly past his prime, at least as a fielder (albeit at only 32), walked a Jonathan on-drive to the boundary, the crowd booed him, but there was an erudite, aged voice reminding L-Block that this used to be the standard of Bengal fielding until very late.
Then Shukla, the favourite son of Eden Gardens, pitched one up to Jonathan; he hit it straight to little Writtick Chatterjee at short mid-wicket, and Eden erupted: it was primal unadulterated joy of celebration; not a single swear-word, no send-off, just an observant person pointing out that Anureet Singh had actually taken stance, before Paul had arrived to celebrate with the huddle.
The score approached 200 amidst a comedy of errors: Sharma pulled one hard off Paul; square-leg leapt up high to get his fingertips to it; but could not hold on. Shukla dropped a sitter off his own bowling the next over; and when Sharma mistimed one to mid-on, Dinda flung himself to the ground but grassed a chance.
Eden booed, but assurances that “Dinda wants the wicket himself, so he did not take the catch” brought smiles to everyone. Then Paul – who had been barracked by the crowd for terrible fielding but had been backed by the crowd as he steamed walked in every time – had Sharma caught by the substitute Arnab Nandi at gully.
The historic ground cheered and applauded, then broke into a hysteric laughter as Paul – slow, sluggish, un-cool “Macko” – broke into a personalised Gangnam Style. Eight down: surely the match could not be lost from here?
But Krishnakant Upadhyay hung on with Anureet as Shukla and Paul probed on over after over. Paul could have well been a County Championship bowler from the 1960s: he ran in slowly, bowled a perfect line and length and got the old ball to drift ever so slightly. Shukla was more aggressive, though he was not a bowler any different.
Taking out a moment, I pondered: the B- or L-blocks are never full during the Tests. What happened, then? Where are all these people – men and women and boys and girls who actually talk excitedly about their Ranji Trophy heroes? Why has the iconic ground – considered by many cricketers of the yesteryear as the best they have played in — been labelled as one with the rowdiest audience ever?
As Shukla and Paul sent down ball after ball to Anureet and Upadhyay, I got my answer: it is not the fans that have moved away from the sport; thanks to the ticket-distribution and ticket-pricing policies of Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), it is the cricket that has moved away from the fans.
With ticket costs down (nil for the day), no one to take away their rightful seats, and cricket of the most unadulterated form in front of the eyes, the dreamy-eyed ten-year olds accompanied by their parents cheering for Paul and Dinda was enough to make any cricket-lover teary-eyed.
As the over-count rolled over to eighty, Shukla summoned the second new ball; Dinda, fresh and fuming, ran in, his black hair-band holding back his arrogant locks back, but was on-driven for four by Anureet (bringing Eden Gardens to her feet). Paul continued at the other end, providing excellent support and preventing the tail-enders to get away.
Dinda, who had been gesturing at the crowd to cheer louder all along, bowled a fast bouncer the next over, forcing Upadhyay to duck. Sourav Sarkar was brought on at the other end, and Upadhyay slogged his second ball straight out of the stadium: unfortunately, he could not clear Subhomoy Das at deep mid-wicket. Nine down!
Poor Ranjit Mali walked out to face Sarkar: he did not stand a chance. Sarkar flattened his off-stump with the first ball. Railways had fallen 48 runs short of their target as the Shukla’s men ran into a dancing huddle of sorts. There were high-fives all around as the crowd (an estimated 5,000 that had been increasing by the minute) laughed and war-danced in ecstasy.
The players did a victory lap, making it a point to stop in front of the B- and L-Blocks to acknowledge the crowd. Led by Shukla, they shouted and laughed and danced and punched the air along with the crowd as they became a part of the crowd themselves. Even Paul, who brought up the rear, was cheered off the field.
If you want really want to see Eden Gardens at her best, visit her during a non-international match. The support is there, as is the madness – but with the knowledge and minus the mindlessness. You might end up being pleasantly surprised.
Bengal 317 (Sudip Chatterjee 96, Wriddhiman Saha 87, Abhimanyu Easwaran 65; Anureet Singh 4 for 88) and 267 (Wriddhiman Saha 81, Laxmi Ratan Shukla 76; Anureet Singh 5 for 72) beat Railways 314 (Mahesh Rawat 119, Arindam Ghosh 97; Ashok Dinda 6 for 105, Shib Sankar Paul 3 for 47) and 222 (Murali Kartik 56, Arindam Ghosh 50, Amit Paunikar 41; Laxmi Ratan Shukla 3 for 45) by 48 runs.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)
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