Last Friday five of us went out from the office to have lunch at the Salt Lake City Centre Pizza Hut and ended up sitting at a table next to six players from the IPL Chennai Super Kings cricket team. Stephen Fleming and Suresh Raina were the only two people we recognised at that time though. Morne Morkel joined them after some time with his girlfriend. Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan and their team physio were among the others present. These days a lot of cricketers are staying in Kolkata because of the frequent IPL matches at the Eden Gardens. On 18th November 2003 I had the chance to watch a cricket match at this stadium. I'll narrate that experience here.
I had first mentioned my desire to see an international match at the Eden Gardens to Chirantan, my friend and Senior at college a few days before the India Vs. Australia one day match. Tickets were costly and hard to come by, so we never really considered buying tickets. A couple of days before the match, suddenly he goes, "Oh $#%*! My uncle is member of so-and-so club and he gets free tickets to Eden Gardens. I had forgotten that!" So he called his uncle and got a severe scolding on the phone. Apparently uncle had got Club House tickets (the best seats, where the VIPs sit) and he had given them away to somebody that very day. He however, arranged a couple of ordinary seats for us. Inspired by the fabled fox of the vineyard we said, "Who wants a Club House ticket? There one can't even swear at the players!"
When the big day came, I reached Chirantan's house dressed for the occasion. I was infamous as a good-boy-like dresser in college, meaning a person who wore sober coloured formals most of the time. I didn't want to present that nerdy image to the girls at the stadium, so I wore a strange combination of clothes that I thought looked cool. I wore blue denim pants, with the most colourful shirt that I had. Unfortunately that was a semi-formal checked full shirt, so I rolled up the sleeves and unbuttoned it all the way down the front. Since I was too shy to show my body or even my vest Salman Khan Style, I wore a round necked black T shirt below my shirt. Now this combination made me feel really hot, for the Kolkata sun is still fierce in November. Along with this I wore sneakers and a cap on which I had pasted the large "Intel Inside" sticker from my computer box. I also had some individual wires from inside a LAN cable that I had picked up when the college LAN was being laid. I twisted them as a bracelet and wore them around my wrist since they were saffron, white and green and I was supposed to be an Indian supporter. If you manage to stop laughing after reading about my dress, you can take a look at it here:
Anyway, we set out for the Eden Gardens, planning to have lunch somewhere on the way. As we boarded the Metro, it seemed everyone in Kolkata was travelling towards the stadium. When we reached Esplanade and came out into the sun, we suddenly realised what the size of the crowd was going to be. Huge masses of people were moving around all over the place, walking in the general direction of the Eden Gardens. The 200 metres or so that we had to walk to reach the stadium suddenly looked like a mile, and we realised we had no time to go and have lunch. So we bought half a dozen large guavas, somehow resisted the temptation to have the national flag painted on our cheeks (Rs. 5.00 per cheek) and joined the serpentine queue moving through the security barriers at a snail's pace. There were a large number of policemen all around, and there were mounted police controlling the crowd. Presently we heard a cheer from the people already in the stadium and came to know that the toss was over.
Our ordeal was far from over though. The policeman at the gate was very stern about not allowing any throwable items into the ground. Chirantan and I stared at each other as the realisation hit home that our lunch was about to be confiscated. I promptly buttoned up half my shirt and put as many guavas inside as would go without making me look like a suicide bomber, then each of us took one in our hands and started biting into them in the hope that even the policeman would not be heartless enough to snatch away the half eaten lunch from two hungry souls. However, eventually we managed to carry all of them inside by putting on our saddest expressions and convincing the policeman that we were students, from good homes, and we were coming from far away and had not eaten anything since last night, and we had no intention of wasting guavas by throwing them at the fielders.
Inside, the atmosphere was electric, as already half the capacity was filled. We looked at the seat numbers written on our tickets and snaked our way through the crowd to reach those seats, and then looked at our tickets again. There were some people sitting on our seats. We tried to argue that those were our seats. "We don't care for no seat numbers, sir!" answered one of them, "and we are not budging from here. You may sit wherever you find a place." One couldn't argue with such simple logic. Besides, the seats were filling up at an alarming rate, and even if we won the argument we wouldn't have been able to find a seat. So we scampered down to the nearest visible empty seat (in those days Eden had concrete galleries) and sat down. Soon a group of middle aged gentlemen appeared and demanded that we move from their seats. "We don't care for no seat numbers, sir!" I told them, "and we are not budging from here. You may sit wherever you find a place." He replied that he had been visiting the Eden Gardens for the last three decades and had never heard such nonsense. A bitter argument followed and we explained that we were in the same predicament as them. Ultimately all of us squeezed onto the same bench (a remarkable feat considering the fact that both I and Chirantan occupy about two seats each). The funny thing is, however, those gentlemen were true cricket lovers, and as the match progressed they discussed cricket with us freely as nothing had happened between us.
And as the match progressed, the same boring old story was repeated. Australia were batting, and they were hitting the ball all over the place. The onslaught continued throughout the 50 overs. Local boy Sourav Ganguly was not playing due to an injury. Once he walked outside the boundary and came to our section of the ground, and everyone stood up to get a glimpse. It was quite hot. I and Chirantan munched on one guava after another. The stadium was filled beyond its capacity of 110000 people… there were at least 10000 people extra inside. It made seating a bit difficult, but we enjoyed it very much when a giant ‘Mexican Wave’ started doing the rounds of the stadium. In fact Michael Bevan had to stop the bowler in his run up and wave to the crowd to calm them a little. On the other hand, the lack of action replays was a bit frustrating (the club house, with its TV sets, was not such a bad place after all!). Also, cell phones were not working; the presence of so many users within such a small area had clogged all the networks.
As the sun went lower in the sky, the floodlights were switched on one by one so that the light in the stadium remained constant. After sundown the ground looked like a dreamland… with the four giant floodlights switched on. And since those were the days before the cheerleaders came into cricket, our attention remained fixed on the players all the time, er… I mean most of the time.
The Indian batsmen fell like ninepins once they started batting. It was a sad sight to behold. The Australians’ body language was totally different from the Indians on the field. After each delivery, while the Indians had been walking sluggishly from their positions on the ground, the Australians ran up to the pitch, discussed something and ran back to their positions. I preferred to watch huge insects, almost as large as a man’s fist flying around the floodlights. A flock of kites took turns flying to each of the lights and feasting on these insects. There was a short spurt of good batting by India, but that was the time when I had gone to get some snacks.
When five or six wickets were down, Chirantan and I decided to call it a day. We came out of the stadium. Immediately, two men ran up to us and requested us to give them our tickets so that they could get in somehow and manage to see the rest of the match. We gave them those half-torn tickets (the other halves had been retained by the gate keeper when we had entered). As we moved away we saw those two men argue with the gate keeper that they had been sitting inside since the morning and had just come out for something and they should be let back in.
The ride back was uneventful, and relatively simpler as the main crowd had not come out yet. India lost the match that night, but for both of us it was a memorable experience. Watching a match from one’s home may be much more comfortable, but going to the stadium provides an experience that is quite unmatched by any TV broadcast.