The Telegraph
Monday , January 13 , 2014
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Royal Bengal tigers!

Calcutta: Decorated elaborately in the essence of religion, a group of sadhus, probably Gangasagar-bound, passed by Eden Gardens on Sunday afternoon, sporting a bewildered look on their faces. But then, the euphoria outside the main gate of the iconic stadium was worth bewilderment. Some of them decided to join the party.

Can anyone recount seeing ‘mounted policemen’ on horsebacks busy dispersing an over-enthusiastic crowd after a Ranji Trophy match? Have you ever heard chants in the names of the so-called ‘domestic’ players drown the horns of a busy road? Has anyone ever seen hundreds of extended hands trying desperately to breach barriers just to touch one Laxmi Ratan Shukla? Yes, a Shukla, not a Sachin!

None from this generation, at least, would come up with positive replies to those questions.

All such things — and many more which escaped notice in the madness that makes a moment special — happened after Bengal recorded a 48-run victory over Railways in a Ranji Trophy quarter-final match. Bengal will be playing in the semi-finals (against Maharashtra) of the country’s premier domestic cricket tournament. But they have done so on 30 previous occasions. Why is it special then?

The answer is not very logical, but is extremely meaningful and is rooted in reality. The overlapping presence of the sadhus and hundreds of fans melted into a single frame on Sunday and that is when one realised why cricket is a religion in this country.

The sport bypasses every man-made difference, dissolves the monotony of everyday survival and evokes a passion that is as strong as an anaesthetic. At times, you don’t even realise why it is special, you just celebrate the game.

The Shuklas and the Ashok Dindas also proved that it is the game, not the status of the player, that draws applause and crowns heroes.

The pre-match hype and the after-match hurrah engulfed all that was in between. Or else why will Shukla, captain of the Bengal team, say “I don’t remember” when reminded that his boys dropped as many as four catches on Sunday?

Sunday at the Eden woke up to a gloomy sky, having an uncanny resemblance with Bengal’s chances of progressing to the semi-finals for the first time after the 2005-06 season. Railways were the favourites to knock off the 154 more runs required for a victory. They had seven batsmen ‘alive’.

Such was the apprehension in the stands, that many who braved the morning weather to come to the stadium to see the match, ironically prayed for the rain as no play would enable Bengal to advance via the three-run first-innings lead.

Play finally started an hour and ten minutes late. As Railways’ overnight not out batsmen, Nitin Bhille and Arindam Ghosh, negotiated the first hour safely, Bengal seemed to slip further away from a semi-final spot.

But just when hopes were receding with every run that was scored, Dinda (2/77) trapped Bhille (5) in front of the wicket. The stands erupted. The score was 135 for four. Bengal still had to take six more wickets. But the crowd, perhaps, sensed the beginning of the end for the Railways.

Bhille’s dismissal saw first innings centurion Mahesh Rawat join forces with Ghosh (50).

The duo had frustrated Bengal in the first innings. They looked threatening enough for an encore. But captain Shukla took it upon himself to change the script. After the Ghosh-Rawat pair put on 34 runs, Shukla (3/45) induced an inside edge off Rawat (14) on to the stumps.

With Dinda, Shukla earning the accolades, how could the ever-enthusiastic Shib Shankar Paul remain behind? He had toiled the entire morning without success.

So when his terrific outswinger kissed Ghosh’s bat en route the ’keeper, Paul (2/47) ignored his heavy frame to celebrate the wicket with a dance. His steps hardly impressed, but his emotions brought a smile on each and every face at the ground.

The remaining four wickets were at the mercy of time. So when Sourav Sarkar uprooted Railways’ No.11 Ranjit Mali’s stumps, the withheld joy overflowed… The huddle, the souvenir collection, the hugs, the playing to galleries… It wasn’t just a quarter-final win, it was a victory desperately sought by a hungry team.

A hunger which saw Sourav Ganguly take time out of his busy schedule to watch the match in person. Cricket is indeed a religion.