When he saw a packed Eden Gardens for the first time in 1972, English cricket writer E.W. Swanson was reminded of something a young army officer said about the war from which he had just returned: “The noise and the people!”
Six years later, during the Test between Sunil Gavaskar’s India and Alvin Kalicharan’s West Indies, when I first walked through the tunnel to the gallery holding on to my uncle’s hand, wide-eyed, to encounter a dream called Eden Gardens, the noise (actually the roar) and the colour of the packed stadium had stunned me so much that I now know exactly what Swanson was talking about. Forget the ordinary spectators. Even for legends, from Vivian Richards to Vijay Hazare, and Shane Warne to Sachin Tendulkar, the first day first show at Eden was always special.
Eden is still special, but only for a few. Since the ugly stone throwing and bonfire of 1996 (during the World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka), glory fell from the air. But I was still not prepared for the disappointment that I felt while watching the India-Pakistan Test that ended last week.
| Indian players meet dignitaries before the Test with Australia at Eden in 1964; (below) Viv Richards during an India-West Indies ODI in 1988
Where were the viewers this Test' The stadium can hold around 90,000 and is only second to Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in capacity. Ali Bacher, South Africa’s former cricket chief who accompanied the nation’s team to Eden in 1991 to play its first international match after being reinstated to international cricket, had said: “There were 95,000 people inside the stadium and thousands more outside it.” Even the silence was awe-inspiring — it was the suspended breath of a mighty animal. Sports journalist Kishore Bhimani gushed in the 1980s: “After Eden Gardens — with its electric excitement, the massive crowds and the galleries hushed with expectations, everything appears a little less real.”
The attendance has gone down steadily. But this Test' The maximum attendance was on the second day, with a 60,000-strong crowd, and that too post-lunch, only when local hero Sourav started to go great guns. On other days, it hovered between 20,000 and 40,000. On the last day, despite India pushing for a victory, the stands were hardly 40 per cent full. Still the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) officials claimed that this has been the biggest overall turnout during Tests in recent times!
Forget the holes in the attendance. Forget the parochialism. Eden was unique in the way the crowd cheered the Indians. This is Ali Bacher again, continuing on the atmosphere at the same match: “As the team’s manager, I was on the edge of the field when our openers went out to bat, Jimmy Cook and Andrew Hudson. I took one look at Andrew and I could see that he was overwhelmed by the incredible atmosphere… I knew that the first ball he received on the wicket would be enough to dismiss him and, in fact, it was the third ball he received from Kapil Dev that did so.”
Not for nothing was the Eden crowd termed the “12th man” by visiting teams. After the historic Test against Australia in 2001 which India won after following on, captain Sourav Ganguly said that he had depended as much on crowd support as on his bowlers — the famous Australian batting line up was choked within two sessions — to win the match. Former West Indies fast bowler and commentator Michael Holding said: “The crowd got more and more vocal, sounding more like 200,000 than the official count of half that number and the Australians must have felt a long way from home.”
But this Test' India was in a commanding position at the end of the fourth day’s play. But where was the roar' How could there be, for again, the stadium was only half full.
Eden has lost its voice. Not a coincidence, the match was drawn.
Everyone knows why the crowd has thinned — predominantly in Tests. It is the price of ticket (from less than Rs 100 in the 1980s to Rs 1,200 at the higher end, in both Tests and ODIs now). Tickets mostly end up in deeper pockets; not necessarily spectators knowing the game, as getting a ticket for a match (more so for the ODIs) has almost become a status symbol. During the 1996 World Cup semifinal, when the Indian batting crumbled on a deteriorating pitch, all hell broke loose. The match had to be abandoned and awarded to Sri Lanka. The ground was blacklisted for a period. It was later found that the trouble had started in H Block, which had the costliest of the tickets.
Shorter attention span — ODIs are more popular than Tests — and TV contribute to fewer spectators. But should the crowd profile change so much' I was once privy to a lengthy, and funny and caustic, exchange between two middle-aged spectators on how Shane Warne’s bowling was different from Anil Kumble’s. I still remember the cheers for Australian skipper Kim Hughes in 1979 for negotiating Dilip Doshi well on a turning track. In 2007, if an Indian batsman remains quiet for a brief period — maybe due to good bowling or a tricky match situation or plain lack of flow, as M.S. Dhoni did on day four — he can expect a snub from the crowd.
The crowd that takes over the stadium now treats the match as another social event (and they want to make most out of it). Where once people went just to see Pataudi fielding in cover!
Less love, more hate
The lack of love for the game reflects in less tolerance. The old crowd, which would appreciate Gavaskar taking his bat away to avoid snicking Marshall’s outswing deliveries in the first hour of a Test, has been largely replaced by a wild crowd with tricolour-streaked faces, who want a four or a six or a wicket in every other ball. The obscenities are coarser when their expectations are not met.
Yet, when Imran Khan’s Pakistan snatched a win from the proverbial jaws of defeat in the first-ever ODI at Eden on February 18, 1987 — Salim Malik scoring 72 of 36 balls — people were disappointed but applauded the winners. But the crowd quality went down so in the following years that by 1999, a Test between India and Pakistan had to be completed after vacating the ground when Tendulkar was run out after an on-pitch collision with Shoaib Akhtar.
The Eden crowd has also lost its code, its subtlety of reaction. A soft clapping or a sharp comment or two. Eden regulars remember a person sitting on the upper tier at the High Court-end during a Test and suddenly screaming “Kapil, loadshedding ball dao (Kapil, bowl a loadshedding delivery)” so loudly that Kapil Dev stopped and acknowledged or commenting “Bedi to bowler noy, roller” (Bedi is not a bowler but a roller). Now making fun has been replaced by hurling obscenities or doing the Mexican wave. Where is the originality'
Only occasionally one heard a comment like: “Asadharan running between the wickets” (Excellent running between the wickets) as Sourav and Laxman ambled across for a leisurely single. Perhaps the demographic and lifestyle changes in the city, as one CAB veteran put it, might have something to do with it.
Also missing at Eden now is the buzz of radio commentary. Spectators used to be so involved with the game that they would listen to radio commentary while watching the match on the ground.
Eden has a unique chemistry with most cricketers who played on its 22 yards — only love with some, love and hate with others. The likes of Mushtaq Ali, Viswanath, Azharuddin, Chandrasekhar, Tendulkar, Ganguly and even players from abroad like Tony Greig and Richards have always been favourites. The relationship went to the other extreme with Gavaskar during the 1984-85 series against England when he vowed not to play at Eden again when angry spectators threw oranges towards his wife. There was a public apology afterwards and Gavaskar did play at Eden later. Despite the controversy, he wrote: “If somebody wanted me to chose a ground to score a century on, I would choose Eden.” And who can forget the farewell given to Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal when the relation between the two countries was far worse than now'
The old relations continue, but no new bonds seem to have formed. Even Laxman, who played one of the greatest Test innings ever at Eden against Australia is not much loved: abuses were hurled at him when he dropped a couple of catches in a subsequent Test.
Pitch and frequency
Since the 1970s, pitches at Eden were always on the slower and lower side, but that used to help the bowlers as well; at least the first session to pacers and the last couple of days to spinners. That has changed. “Post the pitch fiasco in the World Cup semi-final (an under-prepared pitch was considered the cause of Indian batsmen’s undoing), nobody takes a chance and prepares a flat pitch favouring batsmen. The results in Tests have come despite the pitch,” feels a former Bengal cricketer.
The pitch might have been the worst in the just-concluded Test — it remained a bald head even on the fifth day. “Can you believe that Younis Khan, fighting to save the Test got his century reverse sweeping against the spin'” says a former cricketer.
The frequency of matches has gone down at Eden. Tests used to be an annual event till the 1980s. In the last 17 years, nine Tests have been held. ODIs have become more frequent.
Enhanced security. That’s also killing Eden. A regular since the 1960s, a senior government official, recollects how he would go to Dacres Lane to have a “low-cost” lunch. “There were hardly any police, but there was no trouble either,” he says.
But Eden in 2007 is like a war zone. Each spectator has to go through three metal detectors plus frisking. No bag or food is allowed. Even water for children is prohibited. “Tomorrow, they might ask the spectators to take their shoes off before entering the ground, as shoes are objects that can be thrown!” quipped an Eden regular.
PS: This Test, I knew what it felt like to be in the minority. But there’s a ray of hope. It’s not as if Gen X doesn’t care at all. A young IT professional let me know that he took couple of days off (an unthinkable thing to do) to watch the Test.