Eden Gardens during the 5th ODI between England and India, 2011; there was a time when the ground used to be full during irrelevant matches; however, IPL have helped turn the tide © Getty Images
Eden Gardens during the 5th ODI between England and India, 2011; there was a time when the ground used to be full during irrelevant matches; however, IPL have helped turn the tide © Getty Images

I was not there when Eden Gardens was near-full to view a lost cause against Tony Greig’s men; neither was I around when a packed Eden Gardens gave a standing ovation to Asif Iqbal during his final Test. I was too young for both. I was, however, there, when a full Eden Gardens had turned up for the New Zealand-Zimbabwe encounter in World Cup 1987. But somewhere along the line things changed: when West Indies toured India in 2011-12, the empty stands made a disappointed Greig refer to it as a ‘morgue.’ Indeed, things were not the same at the historic ground anymore. READ: IPL, give Ranji Trophy stars a chance!

I mention Eden Gardens here because Kolkata is my hometown, and my adolescence was shaped by watching matches in a stadium filled to the brim. It was disheartening to see crowds receding as time progressed.

It was not very different for other Indian grounds, either. Be it Chinnaswamy or Chepauk, Wankhede or Kotla, people do not turn up in numbers to match what they used to, say, two decades ago.

One can cite several reasons: television and internet provide coverage comprehensive enough to keep people from bothering about flocking to the ground. HD television sets and channels, live streaming on high-speed networks one can access on the move, and increasingly longer office hours have kept people away from grounds. READ: BCCI please don’t be greedy and kill the flavour of IPL

When West Indies and Sri Lanka clashed in ICC World T20 2016 at M Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru, nobody expected a full house. Both sides have been spiralling down the hierarchy of world cricket for some time now.

To be fair, West Indies still have some exceptional talents, but WICB has stood between the team and their success on several occasions. Sri Lanka were more than competitive in ICC tournaments, but things have gone downhill since the retirements of their giants. Things are expected to become even worse after Rangana Herath and Tillakaratne Dilshan, their surviving giants from the earlier generation, hang their boots.

No, no one expected a big turnout; certainly not me.

But they did turn up, and the ground was full. Of course, it had to do with the fact that Chris Gayle, easily the greatest T20 batsman to have walked on the surface of the planet, plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. But despite Gayle’s heroics, were 21 neutral cricketers enough for a full house?

But they did. The WELCOME HOME GAYLE banners were out there (though my personal favourite was GAYLE HIT ME AND MEET ME IN HOSPITAL), but strokes and wickets were applauded with a fervour India seldom demonstrates during home matches. READ: Chris Gayle: 10 moments that showed just why the Jamaican legend is the ‘World Boss’

They cheered whenever Gayle touched the ball, and they chanted “we want Gayle, we want Gayle” when he, having pulled a hamstring, did not walk out to open batting. But they applauded Thisara Perera and Samuel Badree, Andre Fletcher and Jeffrey Vandersay all the way.

Gayle responded, for seldom has even Sabina Park chanted his name with such zeal. He padded up despite his injury, and almost walked out to the ground once Denesh Ramdin got out — till reserve umpire Ian Gould had to hold him back (quite literally!). He still needed to wait for 11 minutes or 2 wickets, whichever was earlier, to go out.

With 12 to score, Russell was dropped by Nuwan Kulasekara at third-man off Dushmantha Chameera. Once again Gayle had to be restrained. It was not his fault. It was not the crowd’s fault either.

This was not their day, but Gayle will pay them back some day, soon.

For some time now, Indian fans had almost forgotten to be neutral at a cricket ground; they seemed to care more about Indian wins and less about the sport itself. An enthusiastic full-to-capacity crowd cheering for a neutral cricketer was a thing of the past in the country. What happened instead was something wonderful.

Of course, this did not come as a surprise. When AB de Villiers collared the Indian attack at Wankhede Stadium, a chant of “A-Bee-Dee” reverberated across the ground.

Thanks to IPL — the marquee T20 event that makes some go haywire and often exasperates old-timers like me — Indian crowds have started to cheer foreign cricketers as well, after what seems like an eternity.

And that is something even I, despite being the snooty puritan that I am, cannot deny.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)