For decades an inscrutable viral outbreak would descend on Kolkata on the eve of every local Test match. The generally able-bodied would cough into the phone and croak from unusually subdued throats that the doctor had advised complete rest. In this rehearsed manner, the Kolkatan would duck work, files would stay stranded on desks, and the local economy would slacken.
This gent would turn up at the ground one hour before the match to watch the players at nets, be resplendent in some Rs 250 season-ticket concrete seat, feast on eggs and toast at lunch, abuse Gavaskar for getting out on zero, throw banana peels at the nearest fielder, pontificate on the geometry of a Viswanath (pronounced "Bisshonaath") square cut, order lebu lojenz (lime lozenges) at tea and torch his Anand Bazaar Patrika broadsheet before taking the bus home.
Our friend did not watch the India-West Indies Test this month. He explained the interrupted attendance record to an evening neighbourhood audience: "Prochoor kaajeyr chaanp" (Huge work pressure). He was lying. He had lost interest. Finally.
Considering that more than 50% of the tickets for the Test were free - distributed through the hosting association's supply chain of clubs as their privileged entitlement - the more worrying question is whether people like our friend have irreversibly lost interest in Test cricket. Has Kolkata gone through the largest mass conversion in history without a whisper?
The clue comes from an unexpected location - Kolkata's Maidan market, the Wal-Mart of all popular pirated sports jerseys in the city. One would have expected that most chest-wear in this junta-class market would be stamped "Sachin" or "Dhoni". Ah, surprise. The November winner of the most visible jersey on view was "Etihad", the sponsor of Manchester City. If this airline starts flights from Kolkata today, it wouldn't need an advertising budget; it is already the most popular airline in the city.
The big question: why has Kolkata moved on?
One, with lives accelerating, there is a growing preference for quicker pursuits. The one-time must-attend-every-cricket-match type flew from Kolkata to Delhi to be at the Formula 1, and was later treated for an insomnia-related disorder called "EPL-itis". But when the Test match came to Kolkata, he gave his prized club-house ticket to someone who gave it away to someone who gave it away to someone.
Two, the football spectacle has got grander as television screens have become larger, audio systems more sensitive and "high density" de riguer. When the camera comes in from the top-of-the-ground position and the crowd roars "Mehsee! Mehsee!", Kolkata's bar stools fill up, grandparents sidle into sofa corners and even the maidservant stands and watches en route to the dining table.
My friend Arvind, who runs Shisha, Kolkata's swinging nightclub, says that on nights when the bar licence allows him to serve liquor until 2am, the place stays full with people sipping their whatever and hollering at the giant TV screen. On the other hand, when two teams engaged in a Test match on November 14 - with the understanding that we would only know who won/lost on November 18, and the outside chance that it could well be neither - people at Arvind's place nibbled at their starters and, for a change, looked into each other's eyes.
Three, in an inflation-obsessed Kolkata, football is a cost-killer. One English willow will set you back Rs 12,000; an equivalent amount can fund one football and jerseys, shorts, shin pads and boots for 22 players. Watching a Test match can set you back a few thousands; a number of those who bought tickets for the 2008 Maradona exhibition match paid Rs 100 per head. Nearly 70,000 turned up to watch East Bengal play Mohun Bagan, paying down to Rs 40 a ticket.
Four, cricket continues to be snootily elitist in an informal Kolkata. It is surface-sensitive, requires patient rolling and watering for accident-free results. Football tolerates dust and slush (the more the better). A game of cricket on a turf wicket on a formal Kolkata ground costs Rs 5000; football is generally free, because after 9am most grounds are free for most people.
Five, the excellence of any sport is reflected in the intensity of its orgasm. In cricket, say, 30 years ago, the big thing was a batsman, tied down for overs, suddenly stepping out and lifting the spinner for a six. The Eden Gardens crowd would break into knowledgeable appreciation. "Ki jaajment!" (What judgement!) the Bengali would extol, nudging his son. Today, if 70% of the batsman's runs have not been derived from boundaries, he is dismissed as a plodder; five sixes in an innings is now the new cutoff for public recall (lasting four days). So when people say there has been a surfeit of cricket (which has been the running complaint for at least a decade), what they are really saying is: "The outstanding is now more commonplace than ever. We don't know how excellent excellence is any longer." In the absence of any index to rate a great innings different from a common one, people have drifted. Kolkata football has picked up the spillover.
Six, from the parochial perspective, Kolkata had probably given up on Test cricket years ago but had politely never let on, what with Sourav Ganguly still playing. Now that the Prince of Calcoota has retired and there is no Bengali interest left in international cricket, why bother whether Tendulkar gets his 100th century, or Laxman yet another Eden whopper, or whether India wraps up the match in four days.
Seven, the biggest blow has come from electronic surveillance. In the good old days, you could bank on someone at the office to sign you in ("Guru, aaj key baanchiye dibi", or "Boss, you must save me today'). Card-swiping has made attendance in most Kolkata offices fudge-proof. Besides, for the exec type, there is the ubiquitous "con-call". For the marketing rep there is the "target". For the slacker, there is the "pink slip". For the middle-level boxwallah, who does not respond to the email from the US client, there is always the Damocles at the weekly review meeting - "You didn't revert for a full 27 minutes".
So is Test cricket's romance with Kolkata over? Yes and no.
Yes, the time when the BCCI could put out any second-rate side and expect the Eden Gardens queue would snake all the way to Esplanade is over. The worm has turned. After years of watching rubbish without complaint, the Kolkatan has finally said "no".
No, the Bengali will come back when better teams stop by in Kolkata (India versus Pakistan would draw 63,000 on the opening day), if he can buy tickets on the net or from malls, and if the Test begins on Thursday so he can squeeze in two weekend days to watch in person (as opposed to starting on Monday, as happened with this Test) without depleting his casual leaves.
If not, football will continue to give cricket a kick in the… forget it.