Samir Chopra February 11, 2009

The Sabina Park cauldron

I think I genuinely felt scared

One of the oft-repeated lines in the aftermath of the English defeat in Kingston has been (no, not the business about how it's all the IPL's fault, and no, not the KP-Flintoff Mutual Dislike Society) a mention of the crowd at Sabina Park. To a man, correspondents reporting on the fourth day's play noted the electric atmosphere, the hooping and hollering, the dancing, the egging on, or quite literally, the willing, of the players to bigger and better things.

I knew exactly what the correspondents were talking about and it wasn't just because I had watched the 51 Debacle live on my 19-inch flat screen monitor at home with the speakers turned up (well, the one good one). It was because I had once sat in the middle of a Sabina Park crowd that had gotten pumped up similarly. On that occasion, another West Indian quick had triggered a collapse in an opponent's batting line-up. The collapse was not so spectacular, and the opponents recovered, but the experience was enough to let me know what an opposition side could feel like when confronted with that famous combination: a hyped-up fast bowler and an excited West Indian crowd.

On the third day of the first Test (in Kingston) during India's tour of the West Indies in 1997, the visitors resumed at 108 for 1 facing a West Indian total of 427. VVS Laxman, on 54, and Rahul Dravid, on 28, walked out to do duty. All was well as they took the score to 127. Then, a young debutant called Franklyn Rose bowled Laxman. The crowd celebrated vociferously; it was the first wicket of the day, cause for celebration, but still, it wasn't that big a deal. Laxman was a relative unknown. But Sachin Tendulkar was now out in the middle, and he was the man for whom, as a beer vendor at the ground had assured me, the crowd had "respeck".

Dravid went next at 140, caught behind off Rose. Now, the crowd was up and about, getting louder and louder. There was a stir around me, the chatter had gotten louder, I could see folks dancing in the upper stands. Perhaps the folks rolling those fatties up in the nose-bleeds had put their rolling papers away.

And then, at 145, Rose bowled Tendulkar with a ball that kept slightly low. To make things worse, Tendulkar made that familiar exaggerated squatting move which he employs when balls keep low. He gave the impression of being utterly defeated.

The Sabina Park crowd went ballistic, in all the ways that Saturday's correspondents reported. And at that moment, the sound levels threatened to deafen me, while simultaneously evoking a curious emotion: I think I genuinely felt scared. I saw a young Indian fan walk past me, his face stricken. I knew how he felt. I felt like a force of nature had been cut loose and that no one, not the Indian fans in the stands, and certainly not the Indian team out in the middle, could resist it. Azhar fell at 153, again to Rose, and it seemed our worst fears were confirmed.

India survived that day. First Ganguly and [Nayan Mongia, and then later, Mongia and Sunil Joshi, put on useful, dogged stands, to bail out their team. But for that magic hour, I had been able to experience what many, many teams and batsmen before me, had felt and not enjoyed. And probably never will.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here