The spectator experience in Indian stadiums can often be unpleasant. One group of fans from Mumbai wants to change that, one chant at a time
When I was running in and scaring tailenders in my Under-16 days, I was a very vocal cricketer. Don't get me wrong - I don't mean I sledged the opposition. But I did scream at them from the sidelines. Or rather, chant at them.
Every wide ball our batsmen got was greeted by a sadistic "Kashibai wide ball takte, taku de taku de." (Kashibai bowls a wide. Let her keep bowling them.) Every boundary they hit evoked a jingoistic "Ata kasa vattay, chan chan vattay" (How are you feeling now? Feeling great.) If you have played junior team sports, chances are that lines of this sort are more than words on a screen to you; they are tunes in your head.
When I graduated from age-group cricket, the chants disappeared (as did the U-16 tournament; when the BCCI took over in 2006, they didn't bother running one and still don't). As we grew older, we left behind those markers of immaturity and got down to the serious business of making runs and taking wickets.
I hoped to rediscover those chants whenever I went to watch a live game. But while there are always crowds for international games in India, there is no real chanting, only chatter. Lots of acclamation, some heckling, even abuse, but little chanting, organised or otherwise.
A bunch of cricket nuts in Mumbai have been trying to change that.
Anish D'Souza lives in the US, but mentally he's wherever there is cricket. He is the kind of fan who has two or three screens in front of him showing whatever cricket is on around the globe. If there is a Test in India, he doesn't get much sleep. If there is a Test at the Wankhede, he is there in person. Most non-resident Indians try to visit home during festivals and holidays; Anish plans his trips based on the Future Tours Programme.
"I saw the same few faces come every time," D'Souza says. "We would come, cheer, chant, and go back." But back then they didn't allow phones into the stadium. The first time they did - in 2009 at Brabourne - he took down the numbers of these like-minded fans. That was how the North Stand Gang was born.
Sport pulls people into stadia and momentarily binds them together. For the North Stand Gang, those bonds did not dissolve when they left the stadium. When did they really become a gang? "After WhatsApp," says Sabarish Gopalkrishnan, one of their more recent members. "When most of us were still students and in Mumbai, we used to meet almost every other weekend," D'Souza says. Even now, while life has taken them to different cities and countries, some of them remain friends.
These conversations, over social media and in person, led to the decision to watch every Test and some ODIs together as a group.
They shared train schedules and traffic updates. They harangued the Mumbai Cricket Association to find out match dates, and the ticket booking company, with tweets and calls, for ticket release dates. A volunteer stays up at night to book tickets in bulk. Always the North Stand of the Wankhede (the 2009 Test was the last the Brabourne hosted), Level Three, blocks G and H, which have a straight view of the pitch.
"There is only one condition to join the North Stand Gang. You have to be loud and keep chanting," says Kishan Purohit, one of the core members of the group. No strident vuvuzelas allowed here, though. "We want innovative chants. Liri lara layo, haiyo haiyo. Chakala makala chakala makala, hoo ha hoo ha. They may mean nothing, but they get the crowd going." The one with the loudest voice leads, the others follow. When vocal cords need a rest, another becomes the herald.
Some of them are fans of European football and have brought across chants from there. "Ole, ole, ole" becomes "Kohli, Kohli, Kohli". "Oh Robin van Persie" becomes "Sir Ravi Jadeja". When there's a lull in play, they even sing the good old "Washing Powder Nirma" ad jingle.
For last December's Wankhede Test against England, the North Stand Gang was perfectly synchronised, turning up in identical t-shirts, which, designed by one of their own, Vipul Yadav, recount the history of the Wankhede. They also had five banners, all signed by Sachin Tendulkar. There were close to 40 people sitting together (thanks to them having booked 40 tickets at 1am, within minutes of release). Forty may seem a small number in a stadium of 30,000, but it is enough to get critical mass. Herd mentality does the rest. The gang is the crowd version of Twitter influencers, and can start Mexican waves at will. Besides, it's not too hard to get people to join in when you are chanting "Ek do, ek do, Ben Stokes ko fek do" (One two, one two, hit Ben Stokes out of here).
"Yes, we can be a bit hostile," says Purohit, trying to smile angelically. Even abusive? He grins, halo fading slightly. "But on the whole, our Mumbai crowd is very mature."
D'Souza backs him up in a separate conversation. "I had gone to watch an India-Pakistan game at the Eden Gardens in 2013. India did badly, and the fans turned on us and booed our team. We support India till the end." Even when South Africa score 434 in an ODI? "Yes, even then," says Purohit.
The North Stand Gang even earned the respect of the Barmy Army during that December Test. So impressed was the Army by the Gang's gusto, they presented the group with an England flag signed by the entire contingent and their official book of chants. The North Stand Gang in turn gave the Barmy Army one of their T-shirts. It was validation of the sort these fans had never expected.
In 2011, while studying at IIT Bombay, D'Souza volunteered to teach maths and science at the Shindewadi Municipal Public School in Dadar. But he ended up teaching the students whatever he knew, which included music and sport: cricket and football mostly. He even roped in some of the North Stand Gang to help on occasion.
By then the Gang had been watching Tests together for a couple of years, and some of them had even followed India around in the 2011 World Cup. For the final alone, they spent thousands, despite having booked tickets well in advance. It was a kind of excess that most of D'Souza's students probably couldn't imagine. He decided to involve them.
"We asked for voluntary donations from North Stand Gang regulars, and so many pitched in to buy tickets for these kids," D'Souza says. "I had a chat with the principal and we agreed that the best students from two classes would get to go." For day one of the India-West Indies Test in 2011, which ended in a draw with the scores level, the North Stand Gang enjoyed the company of children from the Shindewadi school.
"This was before the BCCI and MCA started getting schoolchildren to games," D'Souza says. "They got to see Sachin live. It was a special moment for all of us."
The next year, D'Souza arranged for female students from the school to attend an India v Australia women's ODI, for which entry was free. And for some time now, the Gang has also arranged for entry for a few die-hard chanters who have been with them for a while but can no longer afford to buy tickets nowadays.
A few North Stand Gang regulars came down to Pune for the first Test of the India-Australia Test series, Gopalakrishnan among them. A data analyst who thinks GRE math is a walk in the park, his real talent in the stadium is with his hands. With crisp, infectious clapping, he roused the somnolent Pune crowd to slow-clap in sync with the bowlers' run-ups. Every boundary was celebrated with a mini-dance, like a Mexican wave that began and ended with him. No poor ball was spared. "Short kyun daal raha hai, yaar?" (Why are you bowling short, man?), he yelled at R Ashwin on day two. Immediately after that he launched into a story of how he used to bowl offspin with a rubber ball, and how difficult it is to control.
It's not just a red haze of passion, there is knowledge here too. Adoration of both craftsmen and the craft.
Gopalakrishnan and his friends started most of the chants in their stand over three depressing days for India in Pune and brought some life into the crowd. It had a downside, though; when he jumped a barricade to get into a stand with a better view, stadium security took all of two minutes to recognise him and help him back to his seat.
Some might associate Test match viewers with old-timers, but most of these men and women - yes, it isn't just a boys' club - of the Gang are in their twenties, working in IT or accounting or finance. And they are purists, attending every Test, picky when it comes to ODIs, and giving the IPL a miss altogether. "A Test is like a storybook. Each day a different chapter," D'Souza says. "In a T20, the match is over before you can absorb the experience. Also, tickets to the IPL are very overpriced."
Purohit echoes his sentiments. "We want younger viewers to come and support the Tests. Tests need a different temperament. Even the temperament of fans has to change."
In this age of top-class TV coverage and stinking stadium toilets, astronomical prices and endless security checks, why should fans go to a stadium to watch a game of cricket anymore? The North Stand Gang is one answer. Like the West Block Blues, Bangalore FC's loyal fans, they offer an organised fan experience, still a new concept in India.
So for the next Test in Mumbai, you know where to go: Wankhede Stadium, North Stand, Level Three, Blocks G and H. Go ahead, teach this lot a few chants yourself.