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Oh! Kolkata – when the City of Joy stunned the cricketing world

Oh! Kolkata – when the City of Joy stunned the cricketing world

The Eden Gardens was witness to a fantastic Test match in the winter of 1977 © Getty Images

On January 6, 1977, a near-capacity Eden Gardens crowd turned up just to witness India save an innings defeat. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an enthusiasm displayed by the Calcutta crowd on that day that seems almost incredible today.

It was a one-way affair from the very beginning. Though Bishan Bedi elected to bat on New Year’s Day, Bob Willis moved the ball around prodigiously and bowled India out for 155 on the second morning. Then, with the score at 90 for four, Tony Greig joined Roger Tolchard. Greig was seriously ill, but he overcame his physical weakness and braved the conditions; he knew that batting last on the treacherous track might turn out to be disastrous.

Greig’s 103, lasting for over seven hours, is regarded as one of the finest batting performances against three quality spinners (Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar) on a rapidly-deteriorating Indian track. He was fighting a severe stomach bug and running a high temperature; but he battled it out, grinding it out against the Indian trio – not only scoring runs, but also hanging around long enough to ensure that pitch had worn down enough to assist the English bowlers. Chris Old then scored a rapid-fire 52, and by the fourth morning, England had acquired a lead of 166.

The Indians crumbled again, this time to Derek Underwood. Sunil Gavaskar fell early to his arch nemesis early. After his departure, Underwood bowled magnificently (his figures of 32.5-18-50-3 hardly suggest how exceptional he was on that day), held one end up as the other English bowlers kept on making inroads in the Indian line-up. Greig, stretching himself even more, sent down 10 overs, picking up two crucial wickets. Brijesh Patel was the only one to put up some resistance, and at 97 for seven, it seemed that India would go down by an innings.

Patel defied the English attack, though. Prasanna also held fort with him, and India somehow hung on to reach 145 for seven at stumps, with 21 still left to avert an innings defeat. Obviously, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) expected a feeble turnout on the fifth day.

Calcutta astonished everyone on January 6, 1977. The city is known for its mercurial nature, and for its ability to spring up surprises every now and then. However, this had surpassed all expectations. Not even the biggest Calcutta-lover would have predicted a full house on a Thursday with the home team in a situation this hopeless.

It was an unbelievable sight as Patel and Prasanna took centrestage. There was virtually not a single seat left vacant. Underwood removed Prasanna before a run was scored; but the crowd sat patiently. They had come to see Patel score his fifty; more importantly, they had come to watch India save the innings defeat.

They waited with patience; they cheered as Patel went past a well-deserved half-century. And when Patel and Bedi hung on to see India to 166, the crowd erupted. It seemed as if India had won the Test. The cricket lovers of Calcutta had lived up to their reputation. They may have been carrying meager hopes of a miracle (Headingley was still over four years away); but that was not what had possibly drawn them to the ground on that day. They had merely come to cheer for their team – to witness their heroes defend their country from the ultimate humiliation of an innings defeat.

The result seemed almost irrelevant after that moment of cheer; it did not matter who won or lost. The cricket-crazy spirit of Calcutta had surely emerged the victor that winter morning. It had even forced Greig’s timeless masterpiece in the background: the people had come to watch the sport.

There was no flurry of boundaries or sixes waiting for them that morning, let alone DLF Maximums. There was no glitz, no coloured apparel, no music between overs, no cheerleaders; the cricket played was attritional; the home side was bound to lose.

And yet – yet they turned up by the thousands – filling up the 90,000-strong stadium. They did not care about the result: true, a victory or a draw would have made them happy, but the obvious defeat did not dampen their enthusiasm. They applauded their team and the worthy opposition off the field, and returned home, content with watching a session’s worth of Test cricket.

How things change! In less than a quarter of a century two international matches at the same venue would be interrupted by bottle-throwing incidents; and in the 2011-12 Test against West Indies, the stands were so vacant that Greig – who had seen Eden Gardens at its pomp – was forced to call it a “morgue”.

Cricket doesn’t matter anymore, I guess: the glamour does; and so does winning. Or at least that was what I had felt when I had cheered the three English wickets a few days back on the fifth day in an almost empty Eden Gardens, surrounded by a jubilant Barmy Army. I had waited around for an encore of the 1977 morning, especially on a Sunday. It did not happen.

It will not happen anymore, I suppose.

Brief scores: India 155 (Gundappa Viswanath 35, Anshuman Gaekwad 32; Bob Willis 5 for 27) and 181 (Brijesh Patel 56; Chris Old 3 for 38, Derek Underwood 3 for 50) lost to England 321 (Tony Greig 103, Roger Tolchard 67, Chris Old 52, Derek Randall 37, Dennis Amiss 35; Bishan Bedi 5 for 110, Erapalli Prasanna 4 for 93) and 16 for no loss by 10 wickets.

(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)

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