An astute crowd at a gaudy stadium
The Feroz Shah Kotla must be the most insalubrious ground in the cricket world; as it rises to its full height, every possible empty space is wallpapered with advertising hoardings, for a range of products that is a study in itself.
It must be the only ground in the world where Sachin Tendulkar can look up from his crease and in his peripheral vision see himself blown up to a two-storey-high megascale, holding a sticker-free cricket bat. It is an advertisement for the cement company he endorses, one of three cement companies that find themselves represented at the stadium.
The unconventional products advertised around the ground included the following: Kamla Pasand and Rajshree (paan masala), Chaini Khaini (chewing tobacco), Haywards (beer), Pataka Chai (tea), Oxyglow Cosmetics, Makita Power Tools, Sanjay Ghodawat Group (a business group in Kolhapur with interests in agriculture, chemicals, real estate, engineering, textiles etc), Red Chief (footwear) and Kaspersky Anti-Virus.
In the middle of this melee of screaming logos, clashing colours and subliminal advertising, a gripping Test match unfolded. Like a racy gangster novel, it was enveloped in smoky atmosphere, replete with unpredictable incident and loaded with the constant possibility of corkscrew turns of events.
Virender Sehwag stripped it of all portent, until of course he decided to leave, with fury-inducing extravagance. India were still 181 short, and the ball was 18 overs old, getting softer and harder to score off.
Enter the "so we meet again" pair of Dravid and Tendulkar. The two oldest (they will both be, jeepers, 39 in less than five months), most skilled men in the Indian dressing room collected their runs as methodical weavers pluck out the warp and the weft. The smoke thickened, the light faded and the setting sun stood like an orange lozenge in the sky.
All the while, the stadium was building up to an event. The sense of expectancy was driven not by television, not by a flashing scoreboard (that responded to minor events on the field with ambiguous messages like "Brilliant/ Great hands/ What a shot"), not by PA announcements, but by the much-condemned Delhi crowd. Their numbers were paltry on the Tuesday but their voices could be heard scattered in the stands. They were counting down.
Not with the help of radio commentary or egged on by TV experts; they had nothing but their own calculations to go by. Twenty eight was the figure in their heads. The last leg of that journey, from 20 to 28, took 28 balls. When the number arrived from Tendulkar's blade, with a humble single off Devendra Bishoo, the crowd leapt to its feet, applauded and cheered. Only then did the scoreboard mention the landmark and flash: "Congrats Sachin, 15,000 Test runs."
To discover what the shouting was all about, Tendulkar checked the screen. When he saw the number, he raised his eyes to the sky, his bat to his team-mates and the crowd, accepted Dravid's congratulations and stood at the non-striker's end as the over played itself out. Four balls later, with only three overs of play left, Dravid almost ran himself out. He had not grounded his bat when crossing over and was perilously close to being in mid-air when the bails came off. The third umpire's decision took an age and, with no replays on the screen, the crowd was mumbling in anxiety, Dravid holding his breath. The result had him exhaling, the crowd cheering and chiding his carelessness.
The day ended with a back-foot drive through extra cover from Dravid, the ideal image the Indian fans would want to take home. The teams returned to their dressing rooms with 124 runs left for India to get, a game to be won or lost, Dravid and Tendulkar still around, and that Other Big Number luring the crowd back for one more morning.
Kotla's hideous advertising? It was like it had vanished.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo