In December 1983, the great West Indian team was visiting India for a six test cricket series. India had just defeated the West Indies at the cricket world cup and the West Indians were baying for blood. They sure had their revenge; they won the first test at Kanpur, drew the next two at Delhi and Mumbai, won the fourth at Ahmedabad and India suffered an innings defeat at the fifth test at Kolkata or Calcutta as it was called in those days. The last test at Chennai was a draw and so the West Indies wrapped up the series with a 3-0 win.
Cricket was a religion at home
My father was not just a keen observer of the game, but had played all through his school and college days. He was also a member of the Indian Board President’s XI, a first-class cricket team that would play practice matches with international sides that toured India. He had in fact played against the West Indian greats – Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Griffith and Wesley Hall – when they toured India in 1958.
Pa was also a Ranji trophy player and a life time member of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB). This ensured that he not only got invites to every function and match held at the Eden Gardens but also a prime seat in the member stands which of course afforded the best views. Every time there was a match, either in India or abroad, Pa would be hooked to the commentary on All India Radio and later with the advent of television, on the idiot box.
Watching cricket at Eden Gardens was an entirely different experience
Whenever there was a cricket match at Calcutta, Pa would take three days leave – the matches were always over a weekend, so Saturdays and Sundays were leave in any case. He was working at the Dunlop factory at Sahagunj, Hooghly which was an hour’s journey by local train to Calcutta. He would leave by 7 am and return 12 hours later in the evening. So strong was his passion for cricket, that this daily grind didn’t seem tiring for him at all.
Every time he returned, he would tell me about the wonders of Eden Gardens, the magnificent outfield, the huge stands, the imposing stadium, the vociferous crowds and the electrifying atmosphere. I was completely hooked!
When West Indies toured India in 1983 and were to play the fifth test match at Calcutta, it was a foregone conclusion that Pa would be going. So when he told me that I would be accompanying him on the first day (he had managed an extra pass just for that day) I was exhilarated!
A memorable journey to Calcutta
Armed with two free passes, we boarded the local train at Bandel station and an hour later reached Howrah station. My excitement of watching a cricket match ‘live’ for the first time ever, and that too at Eden Gardens soon gave way to trepidation when we got off the train. We were surrounded by hundreds and thousands of people on the platform, all of whom seemed to be in an awful hurry to go ‘somewhere’. I clutched Pa’s hand tight lest I get lost and as we jostled and pushed and got pushed in turn, we somehow managed to reach the exit.
Although it’s been over 30 years since, it is one sight that remains forever etched in my memory. The sight of a huge congregation of people, all seemingly moving in slow motion, in one direction. A horde of people pushed against you and you against those who stood in front of you. Foot by foot, shoulder to shoulder, arms stuck to our sides, we moved forward, not knowing where we were being led to.
What was surprising was that no one raised a voice or objected to this physical shoving – there was no bickering, no arguing. It seemed as though the entire humanity was bound together by one single goal, that of reaching Eden Gardens before the match began.
From station to stadium on a double decker bus
As we exited the station building we found ourselves being propelled into one of the double decker buses waiting neatly lined up outside. Another first for me! We managed to get on to the top deck but unfortunately could not grab hold of a window seat, not even a seat for that matter. We were left standing, clutching on to whatever we could hold on to and since everyone around me was much taller, I could see nothing outside.
After what seemed a very short ride, the bus stopped and the deluge emptied itself on the road. Having dropped its cargo, the bus whisked off. Before I could ask where we were, Pa simply took my hand and marched along with the assembled multitude who seemed to know the exact route to the stadium. Half an hour later, we reached our destination.
Cricket’s answer to the colosseum
I found myself standing outside a huge circular structure – The Eden Gardens – home of Indian cricket. It was huge! Pa checked the board displayed outside which had earmarked all gates and we made our way in. As I walked inside the massive structure, it seemed as though I was stepping into the annals of history. It was after all the oldest cricket stadium in India and at that time, the second largest in the world after the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Established in 1864, it spread across 50 acres and had the capacity to hold over 50,000 people.
As people started taking their seats, the greyish white cement stands seemed to acquire a colour of their own, depending upon what attire the person sitting there wore. The stadium was soon a kaleidoscope of colours – white, red, yellow, brown, green and blue.
Thanks to Pa, I could easily differentiate between a yorker and an off spin. I was also familiar with all the fielding positions and knew the difference between a silly point and a gulley. The budding cricket enthusiast in me knew by heart the entire batting line up of both teams. But seeing everything unfold in front of my eyes was a different ball game all together!
The match began
By 8.45 am every single seat was taken and when the captains of the respective teams walked in to toss, they were greeted with a deafening roar. Fifteen minutes later when the match started, the stadium was deathly quiet. Not a head turned, not a soul shifted in his or her seat, not a murmur, not a sound. Every neck craned forward as the bowler began his run up and bowled to the batsman. It was a yorker! A loud gasp reverberated throughout the stadium, followed by a huge sigh of relief as the batsman managed to save himself from being bowled out.
It wasn’t just about watching the match ‘live’. It was also about the vibe that the place had. It was about the spectators who, with their formidable knowledge, knew how to ‘read’ every ball and dissect every stroke. They even had a take on every fielder’s agility or lack of it.
At the end of every over, the stadium seemed to turn into a bee hive, with a loud buzzing sound of people either moving around or chattering, only to turn into mute statues the moment the next bowler took position. The men in white were accorded supreme respect!
Lords of the subcontinent
Eden gardens can be very intimidating for visiting teams and not just because of its size. It is said that the crowds here act as the 12th player for the Indian team. Steve Waugh, the Australian cricket team captain called Eden Gardens the ‘Lords of the subcontinent’. It truly is deserving of such a title. Many a famous cricketer has played here, many matches were won and many lost. The spirit of Eden Gardens and the people of Calcutta who come to watch every match, year after year lives on.
As for me, I had tasted blood! Ever since, I have not missed a single opportunity to watch cricket at the Eden Gardens, in case I happen to be in Calcutta.