East Zone v North Zone, Duleep Trophy, Rajkot, 1st day October 20, 2005

Batting for the absentee spectators

Rahul Bhattacharya at Rajkot
Rahul Bhattacharya watches Sourav Ganguly began among the most important matches of his career in an near-empty stadium
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Sourav Ganguly: his every movement provoked noise © Getty Images
Sourav Ganguly began among the most important matches of his career in an near-empty stadium distinguished by a sickly powder-blue clubhouse and surrounded by trees that remained dotted with intrepid viewers all day. Nobody apart from scaffold constructors populated the stands - more like steps, really - outside the `V', while the ones at long-off and long-on housed the press and assorted observers under a delightful orange and green bandhani shamiana.

Although 14 wickets fell it was a superbly slow day. A bit of green, a touch of bounce and a lot of batsmen dismissed. Otherwise, as per usual at these fixtures, a dog loitered behind the sightscreen, the scorers were deceived by bowling changes, and everybody consumed plenty of tea. A sniffer dog made an appearance, though, alongside a couple of commandoes carrying AK 47s.

Sensing it was a day of seam, knowing that he had it all to prove, Ganguly willed himself on to 13 overs on a hot day. He bowled with control and finished off the tail. Otherwise he encouraged his large Bengali pace duo from mid-on and was compelled to make numerous chases, one or two completed successfully and several abandoned almost instantly.

All day all eyes remained on Ganguly, and his every movement provoked noise. He was occasionally mocked in the normal manner, but largely found support. A loud man in a green shirt and a mouth bright red with paan provided advice. `Natural game, Ganguly, natural game.' A committed fan, whose greatest wish had been to meet the man, held up a chart with the first two lines, `I worship you Maharaj. You are the person for whom I can die easily if needed.' Later Ganguly invited him in the dressing-room and presented him an autographed training jersey, a deed which brought tears to the young man's eyes.

All in all it remained a wonderfully languorous affair. North were bowled out and East began to follow suit.

At 5 pm, half an hour after the scheduled close of play, Rohan Gavaskar played on to his stumps whereupon Ganguly lowered his legs down from the railing on the pavilion balcony, fastened his black elbow supporter, strapped on his arm guard on top of it, tied his orange and grey bandana, donned his helmet, and descended the staircase, suddenly under siege from a group of uniformed schoolgirls. `Play natural Ganguly,' the red-mouthed man offered again.

A buzz entered the game. Whistles went out from here and there. Discussions under the shamiana. Sleep left the arena clean. This was now more than the Duleep Trophy.

Amit Bhandari, a tad swift but no more, bowled a bouncer first up which did get above chest height and Ganguly ducked it. Second ball Bhandari repeated the delivery and Ganguly lashed him to the midwicket fence with a sound that scribes agreed was the finest from all the strokes on the day.

VRV Singh, among the three or four fastest bowlers in the land, was produced, fresh, from the opposite end. Three slips, a gully, chatter from the fieldsmen, anticipation in the gallery, game on. All but one delivery was directed short of a length. Ganguly left some alone, defended a couple and walked up and down the pitch between deliveries.

With the second ball of his next over, VRV, to a roar of excitement from the small audience, and certainly to the attention of the two selectors present at the venue, hit Ganguly flush on the helmet. The ball ricocheted high, slow and far towards square leg. It was a terrific delivery. Simply, Ganguly had not the time to tackle it. Encouraged, VRV began lengthening his follow-through. Alas, he lost his direction.

Soon Ganguly took a second boundary of Bhandari, an airy drive past point. In came Gagandeep Singh, an impressive and tireless swing bowler in the mould of Damien Fleming. An under-edge one bounce to the keeper and an inside-edge that squirted past leg stump provided further hope to the Northies.

Big and shuffling, VRV kept steaming in from across the ground. He landed it on a length and Ganguly left it alone. He landed it on a length again and Ganguly flashed uppishly but wide of gully for four. He pitched it further up and Ganguly creamed it square for a pretty boundary. He dug it in once more and Ganguly ducked. He went round the wicket and Ganguly shouldered arms. It was Ganguly's last ball of the day. Doubtless the tussle will resume tomorrow and the same two hundred-odd will watch on. A few hundred million others will be interested.

Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On tour with India 2003-04