Tea. Kaziranga. The one-horned rhinoceros. Sericulture. Political strife. Think Assam and this could well be a quick - by no means comprehensive - list of associative words that come to your mind. But omit football and the list is definitely incomplete. Across the eight states of north-east India, football is the true lingua franca of the masses, and Assam is no exception.
Football was brought into the north-east by the Christian missionaries from Great Britain and it soon became more than just a sport. The reasons that contributed to football's presence across the world - ease of access and low-cost infrastructure - apply to Assam as well.
Also, like in many parts of the world, football became a means of social and economic liberation; while football helped people of the state stamp their identity, it also was a ticket to a better lifestyle. According to Sharda Ugra, senior editor at ESPNcricinfo who has chronicled the growth of north-east football for ESPN's multi-sports website, at one point footballers in the region wanted to go to Kolkata to pursue football professionally in the quest for a better livelihood.
Guwahati, the biggest city of Assam, is fittingly one of the host cities of the ongoing Under-17 football World Cup. Kausav Baruah, a sports journalist with local newspaper the Assam Tribune, puts the spectator numbers for games not featuring India - France v New Caledonia and Japan v Honduras - at around 12,000.
Amid all this, cricket remains a niche but loved cousin. Even if you were a kilometre or two away from the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport, you couldn't have missed the deafening soundtrack produced by a screaming, hyperventilating mass of fans to welcome the Indian team. "It's not that cricket is not popular in Assam," Baruah says. "After all, an international game is happening in the city after seven long years and everyone is aware of what it means to see players in the blue jersey."
After decades of footballing monogamy, Kerala has indulged in a breezy romance with cricket in recent times. There is no reason why Assam couldn't go the Kerala way. A sell-out crowd for the second T20I between India and Australia in the new Baraspara Stadium is as good a place to start as any. But there is much work to be done.
If you have grown up in Kolkata, like I have, in the 1990s, then Guwahati is bound to evoke a sense of déjà vu. For the most part, the city seems to be torn between tiny, congested streets and expansive, ambitious stretches. On the one hand there are the elegant waterways, the pungency of mustard oil and the vocals of the legendary Bhupen Hazarika filling the air, and on the other, cute cafés, wildlife workshops and majestic mountains. It's easy to pigeonhole Guwahati as an idyllic city but it would be as much a lazy stereotype as is some of the casual racism that is directed at people from this region.
Assam, like its other sisters from the north-east, doesn't often find itself in India's mainstream narrative. Even during the floods that claimed several lives earlier this year, Assam's plight wasn't as much in the public glare as was, say, an inundated Mumbai's at about the same time. But the people of Guwahati are a delightful mix of hardiness and fun with an unmistakable streak of ingenuity or what they call jugaad in Hindi. Sample this: a cycle-rickshaw driver has an umbrella custom-fitted right over his head to guard against the rains. In exhibit two, a café manager tells me of how his cricket-fan friend advised him to acquire a ticket to the India-Australia match for INR 4000 (USD 60 approx) and sell it to some other fan for a slightly higher price. That it would be a viable proposition is beyond doubt, given the high demand for tickets and the resultant glee of black-marketeers.
To understand what the return of big-ticket cricket means to the people of Guwahati, you don't need to look beyond Brett Lee's example. Now, Lee isn't an active cricketer, and while he's popular with the Indian crowd there isn't the kind of euphoria around him that a Virat Kohli or an MS Dhoni would generate. He is usually approached by the odd selfie-hunter or two, but once he touched down at Guwahati he was mobbed by at least 500 people and appeared a touch surprised. Forget match day, the roads leading up to the Barsapara were clogged with people on the eve of it. And they sure knew how to make noise. Minto, an auto-rickshaw driver, is a football fan who has shown up for the France-New Caledonia game but is disappointed that the tickets to the India-Australia game are sold out. Ramanand, in the food business, has pushed football to the back of his priorities for now. "India is not even playing here, so there isn't much interest. But, at least in cricket, there is an India-Australia game."
By 6.15 pm on match day, nearly all seats were taken. About 15 minutes later, they took up the same incantations as their counterparts from other cities: "Kohli…Kohli." "Dhoni… Dhoni." "We want sixer… we want sixer." Forty-five minutes later, they lost their voice as India suffered a top-order collapse. By 10 pm, their vocal chords were functional again when Moises Henriques completed a half-century. It hurt them that India were on the losing side, but most were not going to not acknowledge good cricket. Some it seems were not as graceful, and that left a regretful blemish.
On the eve of the match, Richie Richardson wore two hats - that of a match referee and a man with a soft spot for Guwahati. There is good reason for the latter: Richardson had made his ODI debut at the Nehru Stadium here in 1983. After he was done briefing the different crews - pitch, security, medical and catering - he spoke to the Assam Cricket Association (ACA) officials of his affection for the venue. He even jokingly asked if the catering staff could make his favourite bhindi bhaaji. "I wish you the very best from my heart," he told the officials. "I played my debut game here. I want the best for you. [I hope you do well] so that you get more matches in the future."
Barsapara's debut international match, though, isn't ACA's only challenge unfortunately. While independent audits have found several discrepancies in its functioning, allegations of corruption and political interference are freely tossed around inside the association. On the eve of the match, there is even a scuffle for match tickets outside an administrator's office. The stadium smells of fresh paint, but that upkeep and general maintenance is a problem becomes evident when you take a tour of the restrooms.
Like Richardson said, the ACA's challenge would be to demonstrate to the wider community that it is equipped to stage games of such magnitude. But, before they focus their energies there, they would do well to put their house in order. One way of doing that would be to strive for on-field success by tapping into the potential of the domestic side. The Assam team made the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy two seasons ago, but followed it up by finishing last in their group in 2016-17. It hasn't helped that they have had three different coaches in as many seasons.
Inspiring stories, like that of Krishna Das, the fast bowler who played a key role in Assam's journey to the Ranji Trophy semi-finals two seasons ago, is testimony to how players from the the state have grown with the game. If Assam can unearth more such players, the state's cricket will automatically be spoken about more for the right reasons. Barsapara could then be a useful means to a greater end.