On Thursday, as rain pelted the city, the Eden Gardens showed once again that the spirit of the Kolkatans is unique. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the chequered history of the passionate and excitable Kolkata crowd who has had a long and eventful association with the game.
Along with the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Eden Gardens is possibly the closest that a cricket stadium comes to the Coliseum of Rome. And accordingly, much too often the excitement that throbs in the crowd spills on to the green, rewinding time back to the era of bloody armoured combatants.
A for Appreciative, B for Bloodthirsty
When Glenn McGrath walked out to bat with India pressing for a remarkable victory after VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had battled logic and history to come back after following on, Tony Greig had exclaimed on television, “It can be hugely unnerving. Thousands of Bengalis bearing down on you, shouting themselves hoarse, waiting for your head to be chopped off.”
An amphitheatre which, especially under the splendour of the flood lights, lives up to its divine name, it is perhaps the most historic of all cricket grounds along with Lord’s and MCG. And in spite of the richer amalgam of tradition and anecdotes that seems to be etched into each square inch of the other two, Eden has an unparalleled dimension –a crowd the like of which can be found nowhere else.
Indeed, with a capacity of nearly 100,000, which has never been officially counted or verified, and each spectator louder and more passionate than his mate in the next seat, it has become a site of pilgrimage for every noble young man to don the flannel for his country – to prove his mettle in front of the vociferous thousands who can be immensely partisan, incorrigibly rowdy, but has never hesitated to applaud each and every landmark of players from around the world.
I have seen men like Darryl Cullinan and Steve Waugh do surprised double takes when awash with amazing applause on reaching their hundreds. Having raised the bat to their dressing rooms on arriving at their milestones, many overwhelmed visiting players have been forced to acknowledge the crowd as well – a crowd they had been fighting all along.
However, even as Eden cheers the achievements of one and all, the public thirst for victory – the most emphatic version of it. They are seldom happier than when the Indian side reduces the opposition to resemble the bloody decapitated gladiators of ancient Rome. Greig was not far from the truth in his remark about a new batsman walking into this sweltering cauldron.
The pressure that builds up for the newcomer is unimaginable, especially in a tight situation. Every step of the Indian bowler is clapped to a crescendo by tens of thousands, a myriad voices join in an appeal for leg before, even from the stands located utterly square of the wicket. And as the finger of the umpire is raised, the rousing, reverberating roar that follows can unnerve any batsman who tentatively reaches for his bat to walk out from the confines of the pavilion, into an arena where a hundred thousand bay for his blood, against the aural backdrop of deafening din. It can be ranked with the biggest challenges one can face on the cricket field.
I have often sat in the stadium wondering whether some of the miraculous results could have been possible but for the crowd that had assembled, the fortunes of the game swinging in unexpected arcs, as the providential space around the ground is bent by the enormous mass appeal.
Would India have managed to defend the low score against South Africa with Sachin Tendulkar bowling that remarkable last over to Allan Donald and Brian McMillan in the Hero Cup semi-final had the match been played on any other ground in the world? Would VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid have managed their first Houdini act, and would Harbhajan Singh have managed to turn things around on the last day of the epic 2001 thriller if the Eden had not egged the team on faithfully even after they followed on?
For pure viewing pleasure, the Eden Gardens is probably not the ideal ground, unless one is lucky enough to grab a seat in the Clubhouse and is blessed with the equanimity of a Zen master. Elsewhere, the spectators’ seat much closer to the ground, there is no wire netting in their line of vision. There is silence during the overs – the rustle of the feet as the bowler runs up, the crisp sound of the willow striking the leather and the ball thudding in to the wicket keeper’s gloves trickle through to the ears. For the connoisseur of the game, Eden is perhaps one of the worst grounds to be in. The seats are often far away to view the ball without squinting. One can forget about hearing anything but bugles, whistles and the crudest swear words.
Yet, the atmosphere, charged and heavy with a hundred thousand expectations, is an experience that has to be indulged in with all senses.
And C for Chaos
Not always has the atmosphere been associated with happy memories. The pent up passion has often broken through the restraint of good senses – always at a premium at the ground – and made its way down the steps, entering the playing area in disgraceful exhibitions.
Riots have disrupted matches more often than one cares to remember. Against West Indies in 1966-67, public dissent ending in a fire caused several of the visiting cricketers to run for their lives, straight to their hotel from the ground. In 1969-70, Bill Lawry’s Australians were on the verge of picking up stumps to defend themselves when the spectators threatened to invade the grounds after a dubious decision.
I remember as a child witnessing in disbelief as Sunil Gavaskar, and even his wife, Marshneil, were disgracefully pelted with fruits by the raucous public, leading the maestro to threaten to boycott the ground – a threat he did carry out in 1986-87.
The bottle-throwing incident of the 1996 World Cup semi-final is one of the darkest chapters of the history of Indian cricket. The spectators, who had come in anticipation of an Indian victory, assumed it completely within their rights to stop the match if the result was otherwise.
The captain of the Indian team during that match, Mohammad Azharuddin, who had been roundly abused during the fracas, refused to raise his bat on reaching his hundred in 1996-97 against South Africa – one of the most brutal innings he has ever played.
In 1998, when Sachin Tendulkar was declared run-out after a collision with Shoaib Akhtar, the crowd reaction was uncontrolled enough to force the authorities to evacuate the stands in order for the Test match to be completed.
When Team India were made to look like the visiting team!
In 2005, in one of the most ignominious and shocking displays of unchecked deification and cult worship, after Sourav Ganguly had been dropped from the side, the 100,000 spectators cheered South Africa to victory in an One-Day International, leading Indian captain Dravid to remark that they had been treated in the same way as Gavaskar.
Right from 1946-47, when the Calcuttans had forced the selectors to reinstate Mushtaq Ali for a ‘Test’ against Australian Services XI, there has been an inclination of the city crowds to try and influence the result by forcing themselves into the game.
The spectators themselves have often suffered from excesses of enthusiasm. Fights and police intervention is always on the cards – although the worst tragedy at Eden befell them during a football match between the local giants Mohun Bagan andEast Bengal in 1980. Sixteen fans perished and hundreds were injured in a stampede during the derby game.
Spirit – of the game or whatever
Crowd problems notwithstanding, the spirit of the stands of this magnificent stadium has always been magnetic. All through the years into the early years of this century, it was the only ground in the country where Test matches and ODIs always witnessed near capacity crowds. With the advent of the T20 tamasha that masquerades as cricket, attendance in the more traditional formats of the game has dwindled. Eden Gardens has been no exception. The curious politics involving the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Jagmohan Dalmiya have not really helped matters either, culminating in the embarrassment of a World Cup match being whisked away due to abysmal preparation.
The spirit, however, may have switched allegiance, but lives on.
As rain pelted down on the city and the Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Delhi Daredevils was delayed interminably, the capacity crowd at the ground waited fervently for some action to take place. Perhaps the weather gods too were swayed by the power of collective prayer and a 12-over-a-side game finally materialised as reward for persistence.
Times have changed, so has the game and whatever peripheral garnishing it carries along with it. The action is now truncated drastically, while the associated sound and fury louder and glossier than ever. It is heartening to see that the indomitable spirit of Eden has managed to shift to the new form and stick to it with the same unwavering ardour that characterises it.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)