Paradise Lost: Love and Longing at Eden Gardens

Written by  //  February 14, 2011  //  Sport  //  5 Comments

I knew a day was special if the night before, our school authorities declared, that the next day would be a half-day. It rarely ever happened, certainly not at St. Xavier’s, where we were told very sternly on entering our ‘portals so dear’ that the demand for holidays for a rainy day or on account of a bus strike would be dismissed summarily.  So when word spread on the evening of 12th of March, 1996, that the next day, a Wednesday, would be a half-day (the official term was ‘absence in the second half would not be noted’) on account of the World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka, my excitement knew no bounds. Come 1 p.m. Wednesday, 13th March, I would be one in a hundred thousand, cheering India on to glory at Eden Gardens. And I’d be doing it ‘officially’.

Wednesday afternoon worked according to a classic Eden spectator’s script. Subscribing to the popular logic of using public transport on a match day, (public transport let you off about 2 kilometres away from the ground, whereas with a car, the officially designated parking for people who were nobodies like us would most likely be across the river or something as ridiculously far) we arrived at the Gostho Pal statue outside the ground, resplendent in its vicarious glory. This was everyone’s rendezvous point—all the more important when, like us, one had 8 tickets in different parts of the ground and had to madly scramble to get them all in one place. This was achieved with consummate ease by my mother, playing either of the “I’m giving you better seats than what I’m getting” or “I’m here with my 11-year old and we are separated (helpless expression)” ruses. They worked to a dream and we were on our way— with tickets to L Block, where the really knowledgeable cricket lover went, in stark contradistinction with the boorish mather public (loosely translated as ‘general class’) and the stuck-up Anglophiles cooped up in their suits in the Club House gorging on cream tea and scones or whatever else they liked to believe people eat in cricket grounds in England. Along with us into L block, came our masterpiece, a whole nine yards of yarn in saffron, white and green, prepared painstakingly for the last three days. It was large, cumbersome and obstructed everyone’s vision. But no one minded it at all— it was one of those days.

And it only got better. Galvanized by the Eden roar, or so I’d like to believe, a terrible ball from Srinath in the very first over had Kaluwitharana slashing and caught by Prasad in the deep. And we couldn’t believe our eyes when Jayasuirya was out in a similar fashion in the first over as well. Eden’s magic was working instant wonders and Sri Lanka were 2-2 at the end of the first over. We could hardly contain ourselves. And that was not the end of it. Azhar, captain courageous and Calcutta’s adopted son, in a masterstroke decided to open the bowling at the other end with Anil Kumble. And when Aravinda De Silva, who was having the tournament of his life was bowled by Kumble, his middle stump flying off in our direction, I could sense a whiff of something special. However Ranatunga and Mahanama in their own inimitable (read: boring) styles milked the bowling around through the middle overs and when Sri Lanka reached a respectable 251 at the end of 50, the match was very much in the balance.

Despite the early loss of Sidhu, Tendulkar and Manjrekar ensured that we were off to an unspectacular but steady start. Sachin was not his usual self, but was effective, a little like his double century at the Sydney Cricket ground. But as soon as Sachin departed, India collapsed like a pack of cards. From 98-2 to 120-8. In a World Cup semi-final. At home, with 100,000 supporters cheering on.

In the stands, we were dumbstruck. With the exception of Vinod Kambli, not one batsman showed any degree of resilience to try to stay out there. It was a shameful display, a master class in how to throw away a cricket match. In 10 overs our World Cup dreams were shattered, no one showing any desire to fight. Some inexplicable strategic decisions worsened situations further- to send Srinath up the order when the batting needed solidity and then the sheer stupidity of a run out while trying to preserve one’s wicket. Some said they had thrown away the match for money, others more charitable said that the heavy roller used in the interval had destroyed the subsoil of the pitch. Being Bengali though, no one was speculating, everyone knew.

What happened next however was something no one could have speculated, let alone known, Bengali or otherwise. The abandonment of the match and Sri Lanka’s victory by default owing to unruly crowd behaviour is of course now part of Eden Gardens’ history and I don’t want to revisit it here by explaining the incident itself in any great detail. All that I remember from the time however is being scared—the ground was strewn with bottles, the players, my childhood heroes were begging the fans to remain calm, there were fires burning in one part of the ground, people were running helter-skelter, the gates had been opened so all sorts of people were coming into the ground to satiate their curiosity while others tried to flee at the same time and the police were lathi-charging wildly with little idea of whom they were targeting. I left the ground with the abiding image of Vinod Kambli crying, while I too, wiped my own tears that were by this point, streaming down uncontrollably as I dodged my way to the nearest form of transport which would take me to the safety of home.

Of course, speculation was rife in the newspapers the next day on what actually happened at Eden Gardens. But like a good Bengali, I didn’t need to speculate, I too knew. And if you were there, you would have too. You would have known what it meant to be let down. To be frustrated with your team’s utter lack of application. To be sick of losing a game without having tried hard enough. And you would also have known that it had nothing to do with the Sri Lankans at all; it was most unfortunate they were caught in a purely private crossfire between a team and its fans.

The innocuous water bottles were weapons that day. The beautiful Eden tradition of the lighting of the newspapers (‘mashal’), all around the ground at the end of a match became deadly. And the passions of the wise and knowledgeable Calcutta public became uncontrollable. But that’s what it was in pith and substance— a case of misdirected passion; not violence, not indiscipline, not unruliness— the bottles were blunt and couldn’t hurt anyone, the flames were quickly doused and passions soon subsided. Not for a moment then, nor do I today, condone these acts. Such actions, no matter how bona fide, have no place on a cricket pitch. But if you were there that day, as I was, you would have understood why it happened. And perhaps even felt the slightest and most human sympathy unadulterated by any semblance of socially constructed civility.

It was one of those days— the best of times, the worst of times, rolled into seven hours.

5 Comments on "Paradise Lost: Love and Longing at Eden Gardens"

  1. Anisha February 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm ·

    Thankfully (in retrospect) I wasn’t at this game but I did get whacked on the back of my head by a water bottle in 1999 after the rumour spread that Shoaib had “pushed” Sachin out of the crease, causing his run out. The first riot that followed was just plain bad behaviour. Maybe the second riot was more about the righteous anger at the team because we were 9 wickets down by that point but, in general, it was a pretty pathetic showing from the Eden crowd – far, far more cynical than during the 1996 game. After the first riot, Sachin was asked to come out and “calm” the crowd. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a furious expression on his face!

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