In one of its many announcements on Tuesday, the ICC revealed that it was "pleased with the progress" since its last inspection of Eden Gardens in Kolkata. "If that pace of work is maintained," it said approvingly, "we believe that the stadium will be ready for the games scheduled in March." The cricketers who could be involved in those matches in March will chuckle. They find themselves in this most gladiatorial of cricket venues which, in the past, was made to seem worthy only of the sport's biggest names. But now after cricket's World Cup comes visiting Eden Gardens after 15 years, no India, no triple world champion Australia, no Pakistan. Just South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ireland.
To every cricketer in the world, if playing at Lord's is like going to the Vatican, then Eden Gardens must be Woodstock. (And about Woodstock they will always say, if you weren't there, you'll never know.)
At the moment, cricket's Woodstock has been banished to the outer darkness of the World Cup. It will stage neither an India game nor a knock-out fixture. A furious Kolkata crowd may well go on strike in protest against their city's sudden marginalisation and so not turn up to the 'games scheduled in March.'
To be fair, Eden Gardens has never been one of the world's most spiffy cricket grounds, nor its most orderly. Its edges have always been frayed. What kept it alive and more importantly, relevant to world cricket, was an ephemeral quality, that can only be called its soul. Not the shiny, happy-clappy soul, but like the one they say men possess, carrying as much darkness as it does light. Eden has always been a venue where the extraordinary is routine. When that happens, the ground either lifts those watching into rapturous joy or hurls them into despair and madness. Its fires were either lit in wild celebration or incendiary rage.
When 16 spectators died in a 1981 stampede during a football match in Eden Gardens, the stand where the incident took place was kept empty for years. When two neutral countries played the final of the first World Cup held outside England, every seat was taken. When South Africa returned to world cricket, this expansive, soup-plate of a venue was their garden of Eden. When the crowd couldn't bear to see Pakistan dominate India, they were all turfed out. Three years later, they were gifted India's Renaissance.
What Eden Gardens represented was not merely the city it stood in, but all of Indian cricket, its beauty and its ugliness. Deemed unfit to host a World Cup match featuring its home team, the ground now finds itself disconnected from the very game it once stood for. Today, it is reduced to being considered just another disorganised Indian cricket ground (of which there is enough company). No matter what the effigy burners maintain, the ICC is hardly the villain in Eden's story. It is the Cricket Association of Bengal, which brushed past deadline after deadline, stating, puh-leez, we have staged two World Cups, we know how to do this stuff, and could the ICC please zip it with those meaningless conditions? These were not Eden Gardens' custodians, but its absentee landlords; absent of involvement, expertise and professionalism.
What has surprised everyone is the slackening of Jagmohan Dalmiya's grip on the entire Eden Gardens enterprise. This from an official who knew how to run a tight, administrative ship under his complete control (that ship was once the SS BCCI) and whose core business, essentially was construction, cement, the business of building. Even if his deputies did not realise that the world and its World Cup had changed significantly from 1996, surely Dalmiya did? Or maybe he did far too late.
"To now hear the CAB say that the BCCI's 'guidelines' now require that the India v Ireland match be moved over from Bangalore is an open invitation to wince"
To now hear the CAB say that the BCCI's 'guidelines' now require that the India v Ireland match be moved over from Bangalore, is an open invitation to wince. On the day the ICC was to make an announcement about the state of the ground, the offices of the CAB were empty for most of the day because it was a public holiday.
Of all Eden Gardens stories, the 2011 World Cup has already slipped into among its sorriest. It is the rest that will always rescue it. Siddharth Shankar Ray, eminent jurist and former chief minister of Bengal, was proud of the fact that he had watched every single Test at Eden from 1934 to 2010. He said he remembered Douglas Jardine hooking Mohammed Nissar in that first Test. In the last Test Ray watched, he would have seen Hashim Amla holding India back with the 4.25 inches of his bat for more than 12 hours in the match.
Swarup Kishen Reu, one of India's leading umpires in the 1980s, once told gaping teenagers that standing at the centre of Eden Gardens was, for an umpire, both pinnacle and boot camp. "If 10,000 people in that ground just talk to each other, you can't hear anything. Not fielders talking, bowlers abusing, not a nick, nothing." Local cricket nut and now mother of two, Sugandha Chakraborty, says her earliest memory as a child was the "Eden Gardens' evening roar" as she grew up in the Metropolitan building a kilometre away.
Mudar Patherya, civic activist and once cricket journalist, describes it best. When Kapil Dev began his run-up, he says, "you could hear it on Park Street." Every Chowringhee layabout knew that the ball had gone through to the keeper when the crescendo collapsed. "Our USP," Patherya says, "was always scale."
Along with Eden Gardens' prestige, that scale too is being trimmed in this World Cup. The new Eden Gardens will now seat 63,000 instead of its previous capacity of 87,000. That is 24,000 fewer spectators, if you go by the official numbers. Eden Gardens will be without the number of people that could fit into the Kennington Oval, Sabina Park, the WACA or the Basin Reserve (the latter twice over). West Indian opening batsman Stuart Williams, from St Kitts & Nevis, played an ODI in Kolkata and realised that there were more people in the ground that day than lived in his entire country.
If you believe the magic Eden figure of 100,000, then make that 37,000 people less now (and then we move onto Lord's, the Kensington Oval etc). Kolkatans say the ground had always been an adequate 70,000-seater, which hit 100,000 during the 1987 Reliance World Cup, when four people were squeezed into space earlier meant for three on terraces where seating meant only numbers painted onto concrete steps.
Eden Gardens never had a problem about putting bums on seats so maybe its 2011 World Cup avatar will actually create seats for bums. More than the corporate boxes or the rest of that gloss, if the ICC's conditions mean that the average Kolkata cricket spectator has it easier - an actual seat to sit in, better access to food, water and clean toilets - then a plaque commemorating the ground's evolutionary leap needs to be put up on the premises.
For the moment, the ground and its city are entitled to lament the loss of a major World Cup fixture. It is not as if they are wallowing in the very nostalgia that has led the CAB to this day. Had the CAB understood the heritage of their very offices, India's 2011 World Cup would not have been without Eden Gardens. Nor Eden Gardens without India.