Watching cricket in India – diary of a first-time spectator in the world’s most cricket-mad country.
Whether you’re a lifelong cricket fan or just have a passing interest in the game, anyone who plans on going to watch a match of any significance in India has been told what to expect. “The atmosphere is totally unique”, they say. “You wouldn’t believe the noise”, they say.
In truth, I wasn’t buying it. I’ve watched international and domestic cricket in the UK and Australia, seen many a close encounter, and witnessed some amazing scenes; the noise in the western terrace when England beat South Africa at Headingley in 1998 was certainly ‘loud’; watching Mitchell Johnson steam in to bowl at the MCG with ninety-one thousand fans behind him and a succession of terrified England batsman in front of him during the last Ashes series down under was as gladiatorial and ‘atmospheric’ as it gets. So when I booked my tickets to watch England play their third ODI at the magnificent Eden Gardens in Kolkata (or Calcutta, as the locals assured me everyone still calls it) against a rampant Indian team that had conquered all before them throughout the winter, a big part of me expected the atmosphere in the ground to be akin to that of a balmy July afternoon at Edgbaston or Trent Bridge. That is, albeit without the increase in decibels during the evening session as a result of the entire twenty thousand-strong crowd spending much of their hard-earned deepening the pockets of whichever brewing company happens to sponsor the test series that summer.
It’s worth pointing out that booking a trip to watch your team play in India off your own back is not for the faint hearted. Before you even arrive there, it’s likely that in order to procure your tickets to the game you will lock horns more than once with that most ferocious adversary, Indian bureaucracy. Rest assured, this beast takes no prisoners. If you’re used to booking your tickets six months in advance, think again. Without using a tour company or supporters club to help guarantee your tickets (I was slightly surprised and more than slightly nervous to find out that the Barmy Army did not add the white ball leg of England’s tour to India to their winter schedule), you must go ahead and book your flights and accommodation without any sign of tickets for the games being available. You then wait anxiously until 2 weeks before the game for the tickets to become available online – that is of course providing the date and venue of the match doesn’t change in the intervening period, something not unusual in this part of the world – only to then find out it is not possible to register to buy tickets online without an Indian mobile number.
Several phone calls later, with an average hold time of an office lunch break (as I was to find out the hungry way), I had reserved my tickets, to be collected at the ticket office at Eden Gardens any time up to 24 hours before the match. Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive into Calcutta until twelve hours before the match. This meant that picking them up on the morning of the game from the alternative ticket office pick up point at the as-yet unspecified location was required. The new pick up point, I was assured, would be revealed to me if I called the hotline on the morning of the game.
The morning of the game arrived, and with my blood pressure rising by the minute, I called the hotline in order to find out the secret address where the treasure was hidden, which, after a waiting time of a delicious Indian breakfast, I was given. The match day collection point on this occasion is actually rather easy to describe. It was a hole the size of an A5 sheet of paper cut into a corrugated iron fence in the middle of a park. Unfortunately, the park in question was a good four or so miles away from Eden Gardens, so the expedition to find the ‘sports club’ where it was based involved stopping countless people to ask for directions for something which, by and large, none of them had ever heard of. When I eventually found the wall round the back of an unused football stadium, thanks to a very helpful horse mounted police officer, I duly passed my print-out confirmation of the tickets through the nondescript opening, and not 5 seconds later, remarkably, two match tickets appeared. I’d be surprised if the good Charlie had the same sense of exhilaration when finding his golden tickets as I did stood in the middle of a park in Calcutta.
The ’ticket office’ in Kolkata.
After spending a couple of hours trying to regulate my blood pressure to a level that vaguely passed as safe to continue, it was time to head to the ground itself for the hotly anticipated 3rd one day international (when I say hotly, it was in fact a dead rubber after India had won the first two, but let us not dwell on that).
Walking to the ground with the masses (approximately sixty-six thousand nowadays, since the refurbishment of the ground for the 2011 world cup), is an experience in itself. Despite my general appearance blending me in about as well as Marcus Brody from Indiana Jones, (and with my similar Holy Grail quest already completed), I was surprised that the vast number of Indian merchandise sellers that line the streets en route to the ground still did their level best to push their ‘official’ Team India kit onto an obvious away fan such as myself. Likewise, it is not easy to make it into the stadium without a selection of coloured paints being applied to whichever part of your body walks past the street artists first. As it turns out, not all of them realise the England flag is a red cross on white background, rather than the other way round, but all part of the experience I suppose.
The local fans weren’t shy about making their feelings known about their prediction for the game – hand signals of 3–0 were regularly sent my way, along with a chant about a whitewash, which presumably didn’t refer to them all redecorating. Had I been an England fan in Australia, where the home supporters aren’t perhaps as ‘subtle’ in their forthcomings about their thoughts on the visiting poms, it may have been possible to feel a hint of intimidation about their pre-match opinions. However, when they’re sending their banter your way with great smiles on their faces, then hastily follow it up with a handshake, a selfie and a message of good luck, you get an idea of how well natured the interaction with the locals is going to be. Most of all what is clear is just how happy they are to be there. Perhaps it’s because they just love cricket, perhaps it’s because they’ve just been put through what I had to get hold of their ticket. Either way, I can relate entirely.
Walking towards Eden Gardens
Once inside the ground, having been herded through wooden fenced alleyways by policemen who are seemingly trying to break their whistles through overuse, past a couple of paddocks full of grazing pigs and horses, (which wouldn’t be so random if we weren’t slap bang in the centre of a city with a population of 14 million), the serious business of the cricket began.
To start with, it looked as though I was going to be proved correct. India lost the toss and put England into bat (as is their way), and England’s opening pair of Jason Roy and Sam Billings proceeded to put on almost 100 for the first wicket, with little or no chances being given, and therefore not much to shout about for the home fans.
The ground itself is certainly imposing; the second largest cricket ground in the world comes complete with enormous floodlights that can be seen from all over the city and loom over the ground making it feel like you’re caught in the set of Independence Day whilst they’re filming yet another invasion.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth over that the giant crowd first stirred from its slumber. Roy and Billings took to the Indian attack in a manner that as an England fan I have now become strangely accustomed. Complete positivity from the word go, impeccable timing and sumptuous cover drives from both ends. When the spinners come on, attack them. It still sounds strange talking about England in such terms, where have the good old days of a decent score being 250-270 in 50 overs gone?
It wasn’t until Sam Billings top edged a reverse sweep to short third man off Jadeja’s bowling that the crowds ability to make some noise was first tested. Up until that point, the focus of most of the attendees had been on making sure that if a television camera is pointed in their direction, they make as much noise and wave as violently as possible.
Eden Gardens in all its glory
India continued to take wickets at regular intervals, and if it wasn’t for a fantastic seventh-wicket partnership between Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes worth 73 off just 40 deliveries, England could have well posted a well below-par total. However, by the time the sun disappeared behind the west stand and the mighty floodlights kicked into gear to reveal the frightening levels of smog apparent at that time of day in Calcutta (not pleasant, but it does somehow add to the atmosphere!), England had reached a solid 320 in their 50 overs. Solid, but of course, with India’s middle order of Kohli, Yuvraj and Dhoni in such great form in the first two games of the series, there was little doubt amongst the home supporters about which way the pendulum would swing when their heroes went out to bat.
The following 50 overs were unforgettable. The crowd kicked into life as soon as their batsmen walked out. They had also been treated to a prize giving ceremony to MS Dhoni at the interval as a thank you for his period as captain, along with the renaming of several stands in the iconic stadium after some local Bengali cricketing heroes, Saurav Ganguly among them.
Every boundary by an Indian batsman was met with more excitement than any of the England wickets they had taken when they were bowling, and the silence that met the Indian wickets to fall was almost comedic in its completeness. When David Willey brilliantly clean bowled Ajinkya Rahane in the second over, you could certainly hear the proverbial pin drop within the ground. However, before Rahane had even made his way across the boundary rope on his way back to the pavilion, you could sense the atmosphere change. One by one, the crowd was realising who was coming into bat next; their man Virat Kohli, who has already reached the sort of hero status previously only reserved for Sachin and MS, confidently marched through the gap in the advertising boards and onto the field. By the time he reached the middle, sixty-odd thousand people were all on their feet screaming, waving their flags and blowing their horns. His first boundaries then raised their spirits to a level I’d never seen in a cricket stadium before – especially one without a bar under every stand. As a predictable Englishman, my thoughts immediately turned to the obvious question: What on earth would they be like if they were all eight pints deep?
In hindsight, it’s irrelevant. When one understands the way they watch cricket in India having seen it first hand, one can then understand the importance they place on it. How many overs in a day’s play have been wasted by spectators (myself included) conversing over an accidently (very) long lunch in the Harris gardens at Lords or the food village at Cardiff? So much of the conversation in stadiums in other countries around the world during a day’s play is not actually concentrated on the game on the pitch, or even cricket in general. Not so in India. I’d be surprised if any of the punters miss more than a couple of deliveries during the whole match, and although hardly fluent in Hindi, it was clear what they were talking about. It goes some way to explain why they describe cricket more in religious terms than a sporting one. It’s quite something.
England’s bowlers hung in there brilliantly despite the chaos going on in the stands around them – perhaps by that stage of their tour they were used to Indian crowds, perhaps it is just a measure of how far they have come as a professional outfit in the Trevor Bayliss/Eoin Morgan era, but they had India under the pump around the forty over mark, and the excitable shrieking/cheering/flag waving had begun to wane. Kedar Jahdav and Hardik Pandya hardly seemed like the likely partnership to succeed where the likes of Kohli and co before them had failed. However, the runs kept coming, and the noise slowly began to crescendo until, unbelievably, they had put on 104 and put India within reach. When Ben Stokes had Pandya clean bowled for a brilliant 56, it still seemed very unlikely that the 45 required off the last 27 deliveries was possible.
As previously stated, England have come a long way in recent times. But it is still England. You still fear deep inside that when faced with such a scenario, they’re capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Eden Gardens is, after all, the scene of the most catastrophic example of this when Carlos Brathwaite hit Stokes for 24 off the final 4 deliveries of the Twenty20 world cup twelve months prior. So with reason, India still felt in with a shout.
England managed to dismiss both Jadeja and Ashwin, and India were left 16 off the last over – bowled by the resurgent Chris Woakes – to snatch the whitewash. Frankly, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. And when Jadhav hit six and four off the first two balls of the over, I thought the stadium had erupted, and England had done it again. I’d genuinely never heard noise like it. Think of the most raucous atmosphere at a football league game you’ve ever witnessed, take away the abusive language, triple the decibel level, and you’re somewhere close. Once the ears had recovered, the following two deliveries were the precise inversion. Woakes held his nerve, bowled two dot balls, and the noise evaporated. The penultimate delivery was hit in the air, cue another explosion of noise, until Sam Billings took a great catch under pressure at deep point and Jadhav was gone. Requiring an unlikely six off the last ball with number nine Bhuvneshwar Kumar facing his first ball, the sense of shock at an Indian defeat (not something they’ve been used to this winter), was palpable. Sure enough, a swing and a miss resulted in England’s first ever limited overs victory at the ‘Temple of Cricket’.
In terms of “the tension, the drama, the buzz, the crowd, the atmosphere”, as the 12th Man’s impression of Bill Lawry would say, Eden Gardens had it all. Whatever preconceptions you may hold as a fan of the game before actually watching cricket in India, it’s unlikely they will be accurate. Stressful? Yes. Manic? Definitely. Sober? Regretfully. But ready to fall in love with the game all over again? I’m afraid so.
In summary, watching cricket in India: Bad for the heart rate, good for the heart.