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GLORIES OF A HISTORIC GARDEN

This year happens to be the 150th birth anniversary of Eden Gardens as a cricket venue. Mid-April in the year 1864, the Calcutta Cricket Club moved into the present site, which is today hailed as among the best of grounds in the cricketing world. It would be safe to assume that it happened between April 10 and 25

Earlier the CCC opened its innings at the Maidan, opposite the Raj Bhavan, presumably around 1780. There is a view that the club began its existence in 1792. This is a gross mistake. In 1780 a cricket club did exist in Calcutta. In its issue dated December 16 to 23, 1780, the Bengal Gazette mentions the existence and functioning of a club devoted to cricket. As no Indian had taken to cricket in this part of the country at the time — the first Indian club to play cricket cropped up in Mumbai only in 1850 — it may be possible to regard the club as a meeting-ground for the ruling Britons. The editor of the Bengal Gazette, Hicky, was merely highlighting an event related to the club. He thus established that a cricket club existed in Calcutta in 1780. Initially the CCC played cricket where the Mohammedan Sporting ground is at present, and would also move towards the open land where the Police and Custom grounds now exist.

But the members felt that they needed a more permanent campus and so approached the city’s administrators for this space. The permission came through in 1864. The CCC lost little time and moved in. Since that mid-April day in 1864, the present site of Eden Gardens has seen uninterrupted cricket for 150 years.

In 1864 another cricket club took stance — the Ballygunge Cricket Club — in south Calcutta. This club would primarily cater to those Britons who were lower down in the social order. The Britons in Calcutta never bothered to develop local talent as the Britons had done in Mumbai and Pune. But in the 1880s, a scholar-athlete by the name of Saradaranjan Roy, a professor of mathematics, encouraged his protégés, first in Dhaka and later at Calcutta’s Vidyasagar College, to take up bat and ball in the sun. He formed the first Indian cricket club in the Maidan, the Town Club. This was in 1884. Following his example, other Indians came forward to establish Kumartuli Institute (1885), Aryan Club (1886) and Sporting Union (1896). These institutions did a pioneering job for the cause of cricket in Bengal, particularly Calcutta.

It took time for the Britons to acknowledge the presence of these Indian cricketers. When they did, they were taken aback to find that there were some outstanding talents among those they had neglected. Then the doors began to open.

One brilliant cricketer to emerge was Bidhu Mukherji. He was a natural athlete. He was extremely successful against the opposition provided by the CCC and BCC, once even scoring a century at Eden Gardens. Mukherji was chosen to represent the maharajah of Patiala’s all-India team on its tour of England in 1911. But his family forbade him to cross the seas for then he would lose his caste.

Around the early 20th century, two great patrons of cricket emerged in Bengal, the maharajah of Cooch Behar and the maharajah of Natore. Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Cooch Behar had fabulous facilities at Woodlands (the site of the present Woodlands Hospital) and Jagadindra Nath Roy of Natore provided superb arrangements at Natore Park (now Picnic Gardens). They invited cricketers from all over the country and had coaches brought from England. This approach helped the local talents to perform and prosper.

Although the CCC and BCC did precious little to encourage local cricketers, the CCC came to the forefront to help Indian cricket time and again, especially to gain entry at the International Cricket Council, then the Imperial Cricket Conference. The CCC helped organize the first visit to India of a British team (Vernon in 1889). Later Lord Hawke (1892) as well as the Oxford Authentics (1902) required the active support of the CCC. In 1926, the CCC, this time with financial assistance from the Bengal Gymkhana (an association of wealthy families of Bengal), helped with the tour of Arthur Gilligan’s MCC side, which played two unofficial Tests in India. The second of those happened to be at the Eden Gardens.

The first official test played at Eden was in 1933-34, when Douglas Jardine duelled with C.K. Nayudu. As of now, no less than 39 tests have been contested at Eden. Eden has also hosted 19 one-day internationals as well as two T20 internationals. Over the decades Eden has been associated with cricket in various other forms and formats: unofficial tests, jubilee matches, commonwealth teams and, of course, national first-class championships. Not to forget women’s cricket and junior age-group matches at the national and international levels. The Cricket Association of Bengal club’s fixtures are a regular feature.

Amazing feats have been witnessed on this ground over the years. Nissar and Shute burnt grass with pace as Willis, Marshall and Roberts scythed through oppositions. Amar Singh, Fazal Mahmood and McGrath mastered seam and swing, so did Akram, Botham and Kapil Dev as they commanded respect with variation and deviation. If Holding, Lindwall and McKenzie were poetry in motion, Hall and Gilchrist reflected ferocity. The all-round magnificence of Miller, Mankad, Sobers and Imran evoked awe and admiration.

Palwankar Baloo from Maharashtra was the first of the world-class spinners to set foot in Eden for the Natore XI in the early part of the last century. He tormented the best of batters with the twist and turn of his wrists. Then came the teasing wiles of Gupte and Ghulam to be followed by the deception of Durani and Borde. Later emerged the magical Chandra with Bedi, Prasanna and Venkat in tow. Kumble and Harbhajan kept up the tradition. Benaud and Warne spelt magic, while Gibbs and Underwood showed their class. The athleticism of Lloyd and Sheahan, Solkar and Rhodes is still spoken of in wonder.

Batsmanship of the highest order has been exhibited at Eden. Ranji and Hobbs of the classical period sanctified the arena as did Deodhar, Nayudu and Wazir. Then it was the age of Merchant, Mushtaq and Hazare, followed by Mankad, Umrigar, Manjrekar and Roy. In the 1960s Borde, Pataudi, Jaisimha and Hanumant were trailed by Gavaskar, Viswanath, Mohinder and Vengsarkar. Then came Tendulkar in the company of Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman.

From overseas, magnificent batsmen graced Eden by their presence: Weekes and Harvey; Dexter and Hanif; Sutcliffe and Crowe; Richards and Greenidge; Majid and Miandad; Kallis and Jayawardene. Eden still harbours fond memories of those magnificent classicists of earlier generations, Stanley Jackson and Charlie McCartney.

But one lasting memory is of the greatest of creative artists, Rohan Kanhai. No one in the world of cricket has been able to replicate his trademark stroke: the falling sweep. He would actually be with his back on the ground as the ball sped to the fence. Even Zimbabwean Marillier’s original scoop over the wicket-keeper has been used by others, but no talent could match the originality of Kanhai. Eden Gardens and Kanhai are original and unique.

The original ownership of the park that houses Eden Gardens has not been recorded. But the land passed into the hand of the governor general, Lord Auckland. His sister, Emily, tended the expanse of greenery and turned it into a garden for citizens. Their family name, Eden, stuck to the garden. Now Eden Gardens is all set for its 150th birthday in mid-April this year.