Memories of Eden Gardens

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In 1987, they had come in great numbers for something as earth-shaking as a World Cup matchup between Zimbabwe and New Zealand match, shouting “Ali Shah Hai Hai” with a seriousness that bordered on the bizarre.

They did because it didn’t matter who was playing.

In 1976, with India at the door of a crushing defeat against England, 50, 000 Kolkatans had thronged the stadium to watch Bishen Singh Bedi bat.

They did because it didn’t matter who was winning.

Because the crowd always turned up at the Eden.

Not any more. Now even the glorious prospect of Sehwag and Gambhir batting cannot get the Kolkatan to the ground. So what if it was a weekday? So what if the opposition was weak? When had that ever mattered? International cricket. Yes that’s all the city had cared for.

Once upon a time.

I don’t know why Kolkata has abandoned the Eden. Maybe it’s because people are finally fed-up of the bloody-headed hubris of the CAB that has consistently shown the middle-finger to audience amenities for decades. Maybe it is because that in 2011, it is no longer as easy to sign the register and take a “casual” leave. Maybe there is just too much cricket. Maybe the people want to stay at home and appreciate the subtle nuances of Arun Lal’s commentary.

Whatever be the reason, the sight of empty stands in Kolkata is strangely dissonant, like not being able to recognize one’s own face in the mirror. Because for a generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s,  a ticket to the Eden had always been priceless, like that second cylinder of gas or that hour of power during Chitrahar. Seeing seats empty in such numbers is thus as puzzling as finding gold lying on the streets and yet people walking right by.

The first time I went to the Eden was 1983. I remember the exact date: December 10. West Indies, the reigning champions of the world, were playing the newly crowned One Day World Champions India in a six-test series, which had so far been as much as a mismatch as a Mohammed Ali vs A K Hangal heavyweight fight. But that had been expected. What had not been was the dramatic punch-counterpunch between Sunil Gavaskar and the West Indies pace battery. In the first Test at Kanpur, there had been a first-ball duck. It had followed a even more shocking dismissal in the second innings. Sunny’s bat had flown spectacularly out of his hand while defending against Marshall, something that the eternally dramatic local Bengali newspapers had dubbed as Arjun dropping the Gandeeva bow. His time was up, they had said. In the second test played at New Delhi, a visibly furious Sunny launched a most amazing go-for-broke counerattack, scoring a sub-run-a-ball century against West Indies, a savagely brutish assault which included powerful swivel hooks, razor precise cover drives and even oh-my-God-is-that-Gavaskar cross-bat swipes. “I am going to enjoy my game from now on,” Gavaskar had famously said after the match, in which he had equalled Sir Don’s record to become the joint highest century-scorer in the game’s history. The critics were not convinced. Delhi, they said, was the last desperate death-throe of a fish that had been landed. In Ahmedabad, on a minefield of a pitch, he rubbed the nose of his detractors into the ground with a top-drawer innings of controlled aggression, giving not even one chance before getting dismissed in the 90s and that too because of a moron moving behind the side-screen. In Mumbai he came out swinging but it did not work, being dismissed for twelve off six balls. And so the series had come to Kolkata with the whole nation waiting for Sunil Gavaskar to score his 30th, go past Don Bradman and become the man with the most number of Test centuries to his name.

I suppose the world seems larger through the eyes of an eight-year-old. But I suppose even if I had been older, Eden Gardens would be as overwhelming to the senses, an oval of the deepest and lushest green, hemmed in all sides by a hundred thousand screaming fans,the smell of peanuts, the feel of the winter sun, and the tightening of the stomach clamped vice-like by the shared expectations of millions.

And there he was walking out. A short man in a funny skull cap and floppy hat with a brisk, slightly rolling gait. The crowd roared. “Baba he will do it today”, I said, absolutely sure. It had to be in Kolkata that history would be made. It had to be.

He took guard. Malcolm Marshall measured his run-up. And ran in thump-a-thump. The slips went down. The stadium sat silent, holding its collecting breath. A crimson blur hurtled from one end to the other and before I could understand anything, Dujon was appealing, Gavaskar was tucking the bat in and turning around. The umpire had his finger raised. The West Indians were all high-fiving and running towards the bowler. The murmur of disappointment drew blood like a cloud of sharpened needles.

There would be no spectacular assault, no stinging cover drives, no thirtieth, at least not today.  Tears were drawn back.

And the game was only a ball old.

Soon the procession started.  Gaekwad’s bat was still moving up towards a full backlift when a Marshall express delivery passed under it and sent his off-stump cartwheeling.  Mohinder Amarnath, the hero of a few months ago but now in the midst of a unexplained slump of form, came wrapped in sweaters as if he was running a fever, pottered around like a man with a death sentence, till a slower ball from Marshall brought him out of misery. It seemed like India would be knocked over for below a hundred-and-fifty, when Kapil Dev, then the favorite son of Bengal, took over together with India’s very own Jeniffer Lopez, apple-bottomed Roger Binny (whom the Hindi commentator for some reason called Rogers Binny). What I remember most about Kapil’s batting, besides the crisp square cutting and full arc of the bat-follow-through, was how, among all the Indian batsmen, he was the only one who could physically stand up to the demonic pace-attack, in sharp contrast to the rest of the specialist batsmen who seemed to be almost physically cowed by the way Marshall and co were zipping the ball about.

This ability to see beyond what the camera shows you is what I have always felt is the greatest thing about watching the game at the ground. Home has comfort, action replays, multiple camera angles and no overpriced food and water. But what you see there is not reality, merely its projection on a screen.

At the ground, you define the reality (sometimes the Kolkata crowd takes this too seriously like it did in the World Cup semi-final) with the physical presence of the players, their body language, providing a dimension that is totally missing at home. Which is why after so many years, the most vivid images in my mind are of Michael Holding gliding over the turf like a breeze from Hell. Malcolm Marshall, steaming in like a perfectly-tuned engine. Clive Llyod, stooped forward, professorially pensive. Vivian Richards, standing in the slips, arms crossed, chewing gum, lost in his marvellousness. And Kapil Dev, chin-up, brave and brash, heroically rebellious  in his uniquely rustic way.

It was in the shadow of the biggest controversy of the times that I returned to Eden the following year, a controversy that involved Kapil Dev. In the second test against England in Delhi, Kapil Dev, with India facing defeat, had executed an agricultural Devil-may-care hoik that had landed in the hands of the fielder in the deep. Rumors were that all was not well between him and Gavaskar who had taken over the captaincy from him. It all came to a head as Kapil was dropped for the third Test at Kolkata, ostensibly for his insubordination. Posters went all around Eden “No Kapil No Test.” Rage swelled in the streets. Like the city’s, my sympathies were solely with Kapil.  A year before, against West Indies in the second innings at Eden, it was Sunil Gavaskar who, with the match to be saved, had gotten into a four-hitting contest with Michael Holding and thrown away his wicket with a shot as egregiously reckless as one could hope to see. Only then nothing had happened to him because Kapil had been the captain. But now, with the tables turned,…

I did not see much action at Eden though. Just three overs, if I recall because the rest of the day was rained out. There was just one shot that I remember in the middle of the gloomy grey disappointment, a lazy flick through square-leg by this stick-thin guy who was making his debut. Some guy called Mohammed Azharuddin. A man who was to make Eden his happiest hunting ground for years to come.

The last time I went to Eden (I would go once again in 2010 for an IPL game but that’s not really cricket) was 1993, again on the first day of the Test. India had come back from a disastrous tour of South Africa and the country was baying for the head of Azharuddin, whose technical shortcomings against raw pace on bouncy pitches had once again been exposed. I remember the scattered booing as Azhar came to bat and took guard. The first ball he faced was a casual flick, which took the leading edge and dropped right in front of cover. The man sitting next to me, opined, in that expert tone Bengalis so love to use “Five balls. That’s all he is going to last. If he does last more, you can name a dog after me.”

The problem was that I could never take that man up on his bet. Because Azhar did last five balls. And a few more. He did start out tentative, scratching around, some edges flew here and there, the timing  a bit off. Then in familiar surroundings, against a rather weak England attack and on a pitch which held none of the terrors of Durban, he went crazy. Ape-shit crazy.

Of course when Azhar, at his best, went crazy, he was not a caveman swinging his club brutally at everything that came his way. He was like a surgeon turned serial-killer as he sliced the English attack to ribbons wielding his bat like a razor-sharp scalpel.

To be honest, I do not remember much of the game, except for this one sequence that repeats in a loop—–hapless British bowler comes in, Azhar’s wrist comes down and gives a savage twirl, the bat catches a ray of the setting sun, a blinding flash, the sweet sound of perfect timing  and next second, the metallic clank of leather hitting the fence. No one moves. And then 100,000 rises as one, applauding and screaming at the top of their voices, as Azhar stands in the middle like a conductor of an orchestra and, in that manner that was so him, adjusts his collar and strolls out to pat the pitch.

Years have passed. The man has been disgraced, his legacy forever tarnished.  But the image that shall always remain etched in my mind would be of him as he was that day, striding tall like a gladiator that had speared a lion, with every blade of grass bowing to him.

At the Eden.

Where memories, I would like to believe, still live.

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45 thoughts on “Memories of Eden Gardens

  1. First. I feel saddened to see it. I guess its apathy towards the cricket of today, far from its romanticism which you have penned so wonderfully.

  2. Great Bong-Absolutely brilliant, such simple but eloquent memories, i have my 80′s memories of Kotla which I can render after a beer or two…but this is magnificent.

  3. Test cricket is still the real thing!! T-20 (and I hear they are planning even shorter versions!!) just does not cut it.

    and thanks for highlighting Azhar’s supreme artistry – his wristy play has not been bettered !

  4. I recall skipping pre-selection tests (B.Sc. Chemistry) to watch India-South Africa. Cullinan scored a hopeless 150 … but as you said … it didn’t matter who was winning.

    P.S. Pre-selection tests were a huge deal in saving your arse in case your form in the Selection tests (which often were hit or miss) went south.

  5. I remember Azhar against South Africa, after the captaincy was taken away from him. Klusener had the worst day of his life. That was the last test I saw. Azhar will always be a hero to me, regardless of what anyone might say.

  6. Azhar had it in him, to keep us hungry denizens thralled for the entire day, something like the earlier Sachin or a VVS at times. Eden also had that allure, people with water bottles, special comments, some stray ladies enjoying everyone’s unqualified stare…the clubhouse with its chairs, Chunida in the front row! All, over with. People go to work. A city under the spell of money making activity. Louts govern, passes go to cricket clinic guys! What to say! Arun Lal is better!

  7. @ Shila
    I skipped one of Madhyamik test exams (aditional subject) to watch a historical India – South Africa match, when South Africa returned to mainstream cricket.

  8. A correction. The first ball of the Calcutta Test match that got Gavaskar out was bowled by Malcolm Marshall. Not Andy Roberts.

  9. @Arnab,

    I was fortunate enough to watch 2001 Kolkata test at Eden…The only thing I remember is the moment where McGrath fell to Harbhajan…

  10. I was there in the NZL/Zim World Cup match in 87. I have absolutely no recollection of Ali Shah Hai Hai (where did you get that from, Arnab), but I do remember that the giant electronic scoreboard, I think the only one of its kind in India at that time, had conked off and the only way you could keep track of the score was through a small manual scoreboard on the cover boundary which was visible only through Binocs!! Thankfully, the giant scoreboard was rectified before the finals. And BTW, it was Marshall and not Roberts who took the first ball wicket. Dada, facts pe dhyan do – such errors take away the sheen from such a brilliant write-up.

  11. Straight Cut,

    Because I had this contingent of 10 friends from school who went there and told me that was exactly what they were doing, along with people sitting in their stand, when Ali Shah was batting since there was little else going on. And thanks to you and Rahul for pointing out the Roberts mistake.

  12. Oh memories….From Andrew Hudson’s first ball dismissal to Salim Malik’s savage assault to Sachin’s final over and Kumble’s six wickets I have seen them from my dad’s life membership seat at Gate B. My dad’s last experience of Eden was the East Bengal vs Bagan game where 16 supporters lost their lives and my last experience was the World Cup semi-final so Eden only evokes mixed emotions from us. But memories of watching Test cricket at Eden to me is similar to the memories of reading Feluda in a puja barshiki or listening to a Pancham album released during Durga Puja – glorious events of my life that would never come back

  13. @Straight Cut: I was at the New Zealand Zimbabwe match too in 1987 but didn’t quite remember it till I read your comment about the giant electronic score board conking off. We did not have a clue about what was happening because the tiny manual scoreboard was placed far away on the left side of the club house. There was one guy in our stand who would read that scoreboard thru binoculars and shout out the scores to spectators sitting far away. Sometimes we didn’t have a clue about who was bowling but I remember we all had great fun watching the match and didn’t even think of leaving before the game ended.

    @Greatbong: Thanks for a delightfully written article Arnab.

  14. Wonderful memories evoked…I am a big fan of your writing Arnabda, though I am yet to buy your book :p…will be doing it soon…keep writing….I would love to read your take on Sunny Leone, the pornstar from the US of A, turning up in Bigg Boss as a contestant :)

  15. I have so many of those memories. Back in the day you could actualy carry your own food inside, no ? I remember carrying the standard Narendrapur “Eden tiffin box” with : aloor dum & parathas + 1 apple. Yes, they actually served early breakfast packages at RKM Narendrapur if you produced a ticket !!

    Favourite moments :

    5. Azhar carting Klusner all over the park in a loosing cause.
    4. Tendulkar’s last over at the Hero Cup semi-finals.
    3. Kapil’s spell at the Hero cup finals.
    2. Harbhajan hattrick against Aussies.
    1. VVS and Dravid’s stand against the Aussies after following on.

    Havent been there in a looooong time …….

  16. Priceless bits…

    ‘Because for a generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s, a ticket to the Eden had always been priceless, like that second cylinder of gas or that hour of power during Chitrahar.’

    ‘mismatch as a Mohammed Ali vs A K Hangal heavyweight fight.’

    and finally this – ‘Years have passed. The man has been disgraced, his legacy forever tarnished. But the image that shall always remain etched in my mind would be of him as he was that day, striding tall like a gladiator that had speared a lion, with every blade of grass bowing to him.’

    Hats off to your penmanship GB.

  17. on a depressing note: only in india and amongst indians, traitors like azharuddin/sanjay dutt are still glorified. azharuddin has betrayed you and your countrymen and imho his talents should never be admired or even mentioned as it portrays a stance of blatant disregard to his dirty foul play.

    on a brighter note: the following gem is why i have read your blogs over the last few years. they are unfortunately coming in too few a number and too far apart. “then the favorite son of Bengal, took over together with India’s very own Jeniffer Lopez, apple-bottomed Roger Binny (whom the Hindi commentator for some reason called Rogers Binny). “

  18. Arnab,

    You deserve thanks for reminding this generation of heroes of days past at their uncharacteristic best – a punishing Gavaskar and a craftsman like Kapil. For this Chepauk junkie, Eden cricket telecasts were the occasion for spotting non-cricket sporting greats cheering the Indian team. Chuni (OK he was a footer+cricket great), Jaideep, Premjit Lal, the senior Paes, and of course among the top cricket experts of India, ever, the one and only PK Banerjee.

  19. Not a big cricket fan; but man can u write! Love the Jeffrey Archeresque style of prose – a mixture of poignancy laced with subtle humor and sprinkled with liberal satire that is subtext and not in your face kind of treatment….

    The day you write your memoirs, let me know – unspectacular as it may be in terms of events and milestones, it will be a great read for the sheer way in which the words are woven

  20. It’s so surprising and wonderful to find you writing a blog post on the same topic which I wrote in my blog last month, I could not stop myself from posting here.
    Obviously I am from a different era but I had the same feeling during my visits in that hallowed ground.
    Very nicely written.

    Posting my blog link on the same topic here: http://therwindow.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-experience-with-eden-gardens.html

    Hope you will not take any offence.

    Cheers!

  21. Amazingly well written!

    ‘Which is why after so many years, the most vivid images in my mind are of Michael Holding gliding over the turf like a breeze from Hell. Malcolm Marshall, steaming in like a perfectly-tuned engine. Clive Llyod, stooped forward, professorially pensive. Vivian Richards, standing in the slips, arms crossed, chewing gum, lost in his marvellousness. And Kapil Dev, chin-up, brave and brash, heroically rebellious in his uniquely rustic way.’

    and

    ‘the bat catches a ray of the setting sun, a blinding flash, the sweet sound of perfect timing and next second, the metallic clank of leather hitting the fence. No one moves. And then 100,000 rises as one, applauding and screaming at the top of their voices, as Azhar stands in the middle like a conductor of an orchestra and, in that manner that was so him, adjusts his collar and strolls out to pat the pitch.’

    Very impressive!

  22. Back in your real elements dada. Wonderful wonderful writing and only you can evoke such beauty, humor and sorrow at the same time. This post is going to go down as one of the best of RTDM imo and I say this as a reader for now almost six years.
    I too was a big fan of Md Azharuddin and was heartbroken when I came to know he was involved in match fixing. But in my growing up years there were only two magicians I absolutely adored Azhar and then Brian Lara. Tendulkar for some reason always fell short or may be I found him a bit too mechanical. And in the last decade Sehwag & Laxman probably ever came close to being that great.

  23. My Favourite eden gardens memory. SA’s tour to India – 1996.

    Azhar retires hurt. Comes back to the following day to bat after an all too familiar collapse. Nightwatchman Anil Kumble keeping him company. What followed was, to borrow your words, was ape-shit madness. A certain debutante bowler gets slaughtered for 5 fours in a single over. The saffer commentator Trevor Quirk quips on TV ‘That young man will leave this ground a lot wiser’. That young man – Lance Klusener.

    And in between all this a man holds a banner in teh stands. ‘Azzu and Eden – Made for each other”

  24. Though I’m about half a decade younger than you at least (you watched your first test the same year I was born), I know where you come from. My earliest memories are of watching a nondescript ’87 World Cup game with my family at the Wankhede. Since then I saw every game – one day matches and at least a day of a test – till 2003 when I missed a one-dayer v/s SL.

    Many reasons why crowds stay away, but it’s a pity all the same.

  25. For knowledge of the game none better than the Chennai crowd, sometimes it feels as if everyone in the ground knows the depth of the situation.. out of context but i still cant fathom the then Calcutta crowd giving a thunderous round of applause for PM IK Gujral, it did go for three minutes and what was he doing there? paying his last respects to Mother Teressa.. so ironic and utter lack of presence of mind I then thought..

    guess the article was a bit dragged by stressing too much on the India Windies tour and the build up to the Eden game… Sunny’s dismissal in first two innings, his Delhi Knock followed by Ahmadabad and Mumbai & finally the anti climax at Eden, seemed a bit too drifting from the memories of Eden title.. and then a little peep into the Kapil Gavaskar Media assumed fall out..

    Coming to the Memories, yes quite a few great games were played at Eden and I agree with the Top five rating given by some poster earlier, the top most being V V S. Guess he is surely more sublime than Azar with respect to his affiliation and quality of knocks played, though being from Hyderabad I liked both of them.. Azhar’s 106 at Adelaide my favorite Knock of his..

    But there were quite a few instances when Cricket lost at Eden Gardens.. Not to mention the 96 World Cup Semi Finals with SriLanka; India Vs Pakistan Asia Test Championship after Sachin’s run out… booing of Team India when Ganguly was dropped from Indian Squad.. Ya Greg was the target but booing India is something no other venue ever had a track of, even overseas..

    So it boils down to the fact that you are there for the team you support mostly in good times especially after tasting some phenomenal results in the last few visits. Something equally atrocious is Mumbai Crowd Sachin Tendulkar when he was going thru a lean phase.. that to my cricketing awareness is the biggest sporting disgrace!

  26. Hi..1st thing 1st..i hav noticed that almost al ur blogs makes me feel good..u hav a way with words..awesome..and if only azhar cared for his reputation,he wld not hav fixed..money blinded him..this is how he wil be remembered mostly…

  27. Pingback: Ways to Save Test Cricket « Sportolysis – The World Sports Blog

  28. Such apt use of words to describe every action, emotion… beautifully written. This has got to be (one of) the most elegantly worded posts so far. At the end of it, what i was marvelling at, was not Azhar’s batting prowess but your grammatical one. Keep writing Dada!!

  29. Brilliant write-up. My one and only memory of Eden (I lived in Calcutta only for 2 years) is the 1999 India-Pak test, where a friend and I had gone after our placements were over. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Dravid, dada and of course Sachin in India’s first innings. Braving the sun,we endured Sadagoppan Ramesh for half a day before we got to see Sachin. For all of one ball. After tea, Shoaib Akhtar produced two successive balls of such speed that one moment Shoaib let loose on the bowling crease, the next moment we only saw Dravid and Sachin walking off with the furniture disturbed. The day was partly saved when we got to see a dada cover drive. At Eden. Of course in India’s second innings, the match took a violent turn when the crowd rioted after Sachin’s run out. I decided to stick to TV viewing by this time but my friend, the brave soul he is, went to the stadium and then came running back to the hostel helter skelter once the stone/bottle throwing started.

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