India v Australia, TVS Cup final, Kolkata November 18, 2003

Lungpower of the masses

Roving Reporter by Soumya Bhattacharya
Everyone takes the Eden Gardens crowd seriously

Eden Gardens: the atmosphere's bigger than Lord's or the MCG
© Getty Images

Everyone takes the Eden Gardens crowd seriously. The Australian High Commissioner Penelope Wensley, with whom I had a quiet chat on the eve of the game, talked about them and what it might be like to be in a stadium packed with more than a 100,000 people. Hunched over his laptop in the press box, veteran cricket writer Peter Roebuck, who should know a thing or two (or three) about needle matches, says a final at Eden is bigger -- in terms of atmosphere -- than a final at Lord's or the MCG. Why? "The people. There are just so many of them."

And all those people, nearly every one of them, take themselves seriously. (Trust me, I know. I've been to the cricket with them for the last 25 years.) They do so because they have an inexplicable but firm conviction that they can, just by being there, influence the course of a match. (Can anyone anywhere else be so much on the margins and fancy himself so central to the outcome of an event?) On the way to the ground, traffic is rerouted; solid phalanxes move, half a step at a time, one man's knee knocking into the back of the calf of the man in front, towards the ground. There's hardly space to breathe. But several of the people in the hydra-headed mass that make its way to the gates manage to scream. "Chechiye haariye debo". ("We'll roar so much that they will panic and lose.")

Hours before the toss (when do the first spectators start coming in at the Eden? Just when?), the ground is packed. "Sourav's playing," smiles a gent with quiet certitude from the balcony of the BC Roy Club House, the preserve of the elite at the Eden. I ask if he knows who'll win the toss and hurry on.

"Not playing," someone else shakes his head as I head for the stairs to the press box. I don't have the heart to ask him about the toss.

When the toss is done, the second groan comes from the crowd. (Australia win and choose to bat, which, by the wisdom circulated in the morning's papers, means that they have as good as won the match.) The first groan (moan? Howl? I don't know, it sounds weird when so many people do it together) came when it was more or less confirmed that Sourav was not playing. Wish I'd met again the gent with quiet certitude.

There is nothing to lift the mood of anguished gloom as nine is scored off the first over. The crowd waits, excitement in abeyance. Five overs into the match, Gilchrist goes. And then there is the eruption. When it happens, you know (even if you have spent a quarter of a century watching cricket here) what is meant by lungpower of the masses. In every covered stand, in front of the iron railings, there are guys running like planes before takeoff, tricolours trailing behind them like a slipstream. The Mexican waves are not so much waves but energetic ripples. (We never got that right but we never stopped trying.)

The Eden crowd has vitality. It also has a heart -- well, sometimes. The guys don't hoot when Laxman drops Ponting on nought. Or Hayden on 10. (Remember 281? Okay.) But by the time he puts down Martyn on 44 in the 30th over, patience is wearing thin. ("Bring on a substitute. Get Kaif. Get whoever. Take him off." And who can blame them?) They know, and Laxman must know, that it will take something Very Very Special for them to exonerate him tonight.

The Eden crowd is not a great crowd to have when things are going wrong. I only wish they stopped trying the Mexican wave. But they won't. On their doing it at the fall of a wicket, they are convinced, hinges the course of a match. These guys take themselves seriously, see?

Soumya Bhattacharya is deputy editor of Hindustan Times, Kolkata.