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.