The people of Ranchi proved an old adage on Saturday. All roads in the city seemed to lead to the brand-new Jharkhand State Cricket Association Stadium on its southwest outskirts, as cavalcade after cavalcade of bigwigs and bikers made their way to the first international match in Ranchi.
It might be a cricketing backwater, but Ranchi has produced a gem in India captain MS Dhoni, and the local people's love for him knows no bounds. Images of Dhoni are plastered on either side of the main road leading to the stadium, with local companies taking full advantage of the interest the game has generated to promote their wares, while also wishing the Indian team good luck.
"Mahi means the world to Ranchi-ites. In fact, one hotel he used to frequent as a youngster has been renamed after him," said Pratap Singh, who runs a hotel in the city. "We feel a connect with him because he is one of us, and has worked his way to the dizzying heights of cricket. He is an inspiration."
To the man on the street, all that matters is a glimpse of the captain and his team of superstars. Ever since the players arrived in the city on Wednesday evening, the Radisson Blu Hotel has been surrounded by people, and loud cheers go up from time to time when a player is spotted or a team bus leaves or arrives.
Even on Saturday, as the Indian team bus left the hotel for the venue, hundreds of people cheered it along, with chants of 'Dhoni, Dhoni'. Even the policemen lining the route couldn't help but get carried away, and had a hard time keeping the crowds under control.
"It's a proud moment for the city so the crowd is understandably excited. We are too, but it's our duty to ensure the safety of the team and keep them under control," constable Bikash Kumar said.
Scores of tricolours were being sold along the streets, and as one got closer to the stadium, there were face-painters and people distributing '4' and '6' banners. Traffic moved at snail's pace, and even as early as two hours before the first ball, fans had grabbed their seats. Others waited for entry in queues that doubled back on themselves, especially on the southern side of the ground where two of the bigger stands are located.
The stadium itself is a beauty, invoking bits of Lord's, the Dubai stadium, and the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai. White canopies top four of the stands and contrast well with the light brown bricks and stone of the buildings themselves. The capacity is just under 40,000 and, like the new Rajkot stadium, the pillars supporting the upper tiers of the stands are placed deep into the buildings, in order to provide a good view from all parts. The stands, too, are very deep, a bit reminiscent of Kolkata's Eden Gardens, while the two grass banks square of the wicket on either side are a novelty at an Indian ground and add a lot of charm to the venue.
As Dhoni and Alastair Cook appeared for the toss, the roar from the fans seemed to lift the ground off its foundations, and the now-familiar 'Dhoni' chant went up. He called correctly to add to the joy, and responded to Ravi Shastri's question about playing at home by saying: "It means a lot, a very special feeling. I have grown up here, played a lot of cricket and of the 40,000 people [here], I must have played tennis-ball cricket with at least 15,000."
Soon after, as the bowlers of the two teams practised on the side pitches, the crowd was treated to a unique experience - of low-flying gliders scattering gulaal (pink powder). Three planes encircled the area and performed some acrobatics too, and the spectacle got the crowd warmed up for the prolonged period of cheering to come.
"I never expected to see this. First our city gets a hero, then a beautiful stadium, and now we get to see a flypast too. Sapna sa lag raha hai [it feels like a dream]," proclaimed Puja, a housewife sitting in the South-Eastern stand.
By the time the first ball was bowled, over 90% of the stadium was full, excluding the JSCA president's enclosure on the northern side, which remained empty for much longer.
The Indian team may be losing more than it wins, and the busier metropolitan cities maybe giving some matches, especially Tests, the cold shoulder. But Ranchi's response proved that cricket still held the prime spot in the heart of small-town India.