World Cup tour diary: A stroll through the scene of Dravid and Ganguly’s epic run-fest
A day before the game, the skies are filled with dark clouds and the pitch covered. (Image courtesy: Aditya Bhattacharya)

TAUNTON: For the English, the cricket ground in Taunton, above anything else, will remain home to the Somerset Cricket County Club, one of 18 first-class county clubs within the domestic cricket structure of England. In the past, it has been represented by some of the all-time greats. Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Joel Garner among many others. Recently, the club landed the One-Day Cup beating Hampshire in the final. It was only the eighth trophy in their history, first since winning the Twenty20 in 2005 and their first at Lord’s since 2001.

But for all the visiting Indians, the Somerset Cricket stadium will always be a venue filled with memories. Memories of their younger self. Indian cricket buffs. For, it was at this very venue, 20 years ago, that two of Indian cricket’s most iconic figures, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, who were still finding their feet at the international level, produced a run-fest and left behind a slew of records in their wake.

Let’s rewind the clock by 20 years. The World Cup had come to England, 16 years after India lifted it at the iconic Lord’s. India had lost to South Africa and Zimbabwe, and were coming off a handsome win against Kenya. Up next were the reigning, defending champions Sri Lanka. To sustain the momentum was crucial. Arjuna Ranatunga’s decision to bowl seemed justified when Chaminda Vaas took out S Ramesh’s off-stump. India 6 for 1.

But the discipline shown by their pacers began waning, and for a man considered a misfit in ODIs during his early career days, Dravid aggressively went after the bowling, supported by Ganguly, who gained complete dominance not too long after. 45 overs later, the partnership was a gobsmacking 318, the first-ever 300-run partnership in ODIs, with Dravid scoring 145, Ganguly 183, and India 373/6. Scintillating stuff.

It was an early morning in Delhi, at my aunt’s. It wasn’t as hot as it now is, but the window coolers were pretty much operational by then. Grandfather wants to watch World Cup, I, not so much. We strike a deal. 10 minutes cricket, another 10 Cartoon Network. 3 PM was usually time for the Centurions. That day however, CN premiered The Jetsons at which I was pretty miffed. The old man requested me to give him company watching the cricket. Started off reluctantly, I found myself glued to how big the two gentlemen could hit the ball. By the time they had finished, I had watched by first cricket match, and Indian cricket had gained another romantic.

May 26, 1999 witnessed Ganguly and Dravid put up the first 300-run partnership in ODIs.

20 years later, Taunton is nothing like it was back then. Besides being the home ground of Somerset, it is also the headquarters of the England women’s cricket team. The ground has its own floodlights, the first ones of their kind in the northern hemisphere. They’re LED lights, as a result of which the venue is hosting its first ODI since May 26, 1999, a day-night World Cup tie between New Zealand and Afghanistan. To be at the spot of history I witnessed in a 16 by 16 BPL television set was unreal.

The media box is right opposite the Ian Botham stand, over which Ganguly had twice deposited Muttiah Muralitharan into the River Tone. It was the first thing I crossed on my way to the venue. Back in ’99, the match was much-anticipated. 6500 tickets had sold out around Christmas. There isn’t much of a difference in 2019. It’s running houseful, the ticket in charge of the stadium tells me.

But here’s a bummer. A day before the game, it’s raining. The frustrating start-stop type. Like Bristol, where the match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan was washed out due to rain, it has rained the entire day in Taunton too, raising the possibility of what could be two washouts in two days. The good thing as per the groundsmen is that they’ve got the surface and a vast portion of the ground covered and their drainage system is one of the best across all stadiums in England.

The River Tone, where Sourav Ganguly made two balls disappear during his thuggery (Image courtesy: Aditya Bhattacharya)

History has it that during that game in ’99, a young Jos Buttler was in the stands and had his pen stolen by Aravinda de Silva after he moved fielding position having been asked for an autograph. Turns out there was another kid in the crowd that day, but who managed to have an experience much more pleasant than Buttler, receiving an autograph from Dravid himself at the end of the match.

Spencer Bishop is into his 10th season with Somerset CC, as its media manager and has literally spent his entire life in Somerset. Last year, Spencer had his fanboy moment meeting Dravid at the very ground he had his first encounter with the man. India A were playing the West Indies A in the second unofficial Test, when Spencer had his little moment.

“People still talk about it. It was on a world-stage and it was a huge score. The two of them put on a world-class show,” he tells me. I was actually privileged to see him with India A last year, to get to talk to him about it. It was great seeing he had fond memories of the place and it was nice of him that he remembered the ground. He discussed how he batted, how the innings unfolded, also in terms of the World Cup as a whole. He was great to me. He was an absolute gem.”

For Spencer, the thrill of knowing that international cricket was returning to the venue which he’s seen undergo such tremendous transformation was uncontrollable.

“It was unbelievable. We were inundated with people wanting tickets and it was tough because it was sold out within days,” Spencer says. “It’s such a privilege and an honour to be involved in the celebration of cricket on this scale. We’ve not had a proper men’s ODI here since 1999. We were lucky enough to have a T20I between South Africa and England in 2017.

“We’ve been fortunate to have lots of women’s internationals here, which is fantastic. We were part of the women’s World Cup which was fantastic to be involved in. We’re all so excited for Saturday; it’s as if people have forgotten there are two more games after this. Hopefully it’ll be a great match tomorrow.”

On Saturday, two people associated in varying capacities with media, for very different reasons, would sit and watch the game unfold at Taunton. For Spencer, it would be a feather in his cap like no other, one-day international cricket being played at “his” venue after two long decades. For me, life would have come full circle, to this time be present at the venue that hosted “my” first cricket match.