KOLKATA: Few venues encapsulate the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of sporting fandom quite like Eden Gardens in Kolkata. On the good days, as on Sunday night for Kolkata Knight Riders’ opening match of the Indian Premier League (IPL), they truly are the proverbial 12th man, with the chants, handclaps and screams elevating the decibel level to Jumbo-Jet category. On the bad days, as when stands were torched during a Test against West Indies in the 1960s or when the 1996 World Cup semifinal was called off because of rioting, they’re a national embarrassment.
During the past week, Manchester City found out about the magic of European nights at Anfield, and the effect that atmosphere has on the home players. Eden can be even more intimidating, as Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australian side discovered in March of 2001. Their 16-Test winning streak was ended on a balmy afternoon when over 80,000 baying fans roared India to victory after they had been asked to follow on.
That game may be recalled for the magnificent batting of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, but as well as HarbHajjan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar bowled on the final day, there might not have been a victory to savour without the crowd. Australia lost seven wickets in a calamitous final session, with even streetwise veterans freezing in front of what was a wall of noise.
The national team too has had to endure the ugly side though. When they played an ODI against South Africa in 2005 — at a time when Greg Chappell, the coach, had sidelined Sourav Ganguly, former captain and local hero — the vast majority barracked for the visitors. When the team landed in Mumbai for the next game, a disgruntled player was heard muttering: “It’s good to be back in India again.”
The city’s relationship with the IPL has been similarly complex.
Right from day one, it was obvious that the demographic was going to be a very different one. During the first season (2008), Kolkata played Bangalore on Rabindra Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Because of steady rain, the match didn’t start till nearly 10pm, and a significant number of the 60,000-strong crowd had to walk or hitch rides home at nearly 2am.
Many of them were not wearing the Ganguly replica shirt, but ones with the name of Shah Rukh Khan — the Bollywood star who is one of the team owners — on the back. Then traditional fans sneered at the gaucheness, but those that initially came to watch ‘cricketainment’ have largely stuck around.
The tribal loyalty found on the Kop or inside the old Ali Sam Yen, where Galatasaray used to welcome visiting fans with “Welcome to Hell’ banners, is seldom to be found. Of course, most want Kolkata to win. But on Sunday, there were thousands of fans in Bangalore red, with many of them having Virat Kohli’s No.18 printed on the back of their T-shirts or painted on faces. And as much as they cheered the players in purple and gold, there was no mistaking the admiration when Kohli and AB de Villiers were batting together.
Khan was in attendance too, before he goes overseas for his next movie, and they serenaded him frequently as he watched the game with his daughter. With the players, the bonds were a little more tenuous.
The IPL’s auction system has meant that very few franchises have held on to a core group of players for any length of time. Three of the four bowlers who helped Kolkata skittle Bangalore for 49 back in 2017 — Umesh Yadav, Chris Woakes and Colin de Grandhomme — are now part of the Bangalore squad. The fourth, Nathan Coulter-Nile, had also been drafted by Bangalore before he pulled out injured.
But fragile attachments or not, a packed Eden under lights can inspire both Titan and tyro. “It’s amazing,” said Mandeep Singh, who once played for Kolkata and whose 18-ball 37 was one of a handful of positives Bangalore could take from their loss. “As a boy, I watched HarbHajjan in that historic match (2001). Even practicing here for the first time was a dream come true.”
Arindam, who sold dozens of the golden flags that found their way into the stands, was a content man after midnight. Ganguly may now be an administrator, and there may not be any local boys in the XI, but in his words, “These are good days.” The fitted, shiny jerseys and cheerleaders are a world removed from 2001 and the Miracle of Eden, but Kolkata’s tumultuous affair with the game endures.