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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kolkata - Ee Cholbe Na !

It has been a while since my last blog but the state of Indian cricket has never been far from my mind and it is only my time and certainly not the lack of material that has prevented me from dumping my thoughts earlier on this subject.

Trust me, if one had the time and the inclination, one could write a blog about Indian cricket almost every day. There never seems to be a dull moment – and while the drama on the field may not always be eye-catching, that off it more than makes up for it.

What is it about this game that has so many of sub-continental origin so passionately in its clasp ? The more informed amongst the fans follows, and often pretends to understand, every nuance. He speculates about the state of the pitch, whether it will show signs of cracking on the last day of the Test and what rollers should have been used. He speculates about the team selection (which , by the way, is never perfect), he argues about the batting lineup (never perfect either) or the bowling changes that the Indian captain has used (never perfect either).

Each follower has his hero(es) and much of the energy in discussion and debate is often spent understandably in protecting this hero in the face of criticism from others.

While individual allegiance may be divided, usually allegiance to the team is unquestionable. Especially by spectators on the ground who usually make extra effort to display their allegiance – carrying flags and painting their face with national colors. As a player, when you are playing in your own country, you would not be unreasonable in expecting the crowd to support you all the way. It is but natural.

It is precisely in this matter that Kolkata disappointed me. “Disappointed” is an understatement. It hurt me a great deal.

I have always been a fan of Kolkata. As a young boy I grew up in Eastern India and would, every now and then, visit Kolkata. I don’t know whether it was the people or the language or the tram system or just the relaxed feeling I always got when I was there, but, despite the power cuts and the slow-moving traffic, I really loved it – there was a charm about it. I loved looking at the Victoria Memorial building at sunset. Whenever I passed the Eden Gardens, I would take a deep breath of pride – this to me was definitely the best ground in the country and possibly the best in the world. (The fact that it was also the ground where my Vishy scored a brilliant second-innings century against the West Indies in 1974-75 only made me love the ground even more).

Before this ODI on 22nd November, there was a lot of discussion about how the Kolkata crowd would behave. There were many who felt it would be hostile to the Indian team. Even the South African captain, Graeme Smith, joked along these lines, saying it was like playing a home game. Many suggested India should not even play at Kolkata.

I staunchly defended Kolkata. I was confident that the Kolkata crowd would put all these doubters to shame by putting up an exemplary show of support for India. True, the crowd would be hurting that their pride, their Prince of Kolkata, would be missing from the line-up. But they were bigger than that – and when it came to support for the national team, there would be absolutely no two opinions about that. The country comes first, an individual player, however much admired, comes second.

I was wrong. I had misjudged the extent of hurt the crowd felt. They took this opportunity to let the world know that, for what had happened to their Prince, they would spare nobody.
The Indian captain, their darling just seven months earlier when he had been the architect of a dream victory against Pakistan with two stellar centuries and could do now wrong, was boo-ed in a manner he must not be accustomed to for a long long time.

The coach, much more the center of antipathy than anybody else, was, not surprisingly, especially targeted.

For the most part, India was not the team the crowd was cheering for.

Not that the players did anything to cheer about. On a green top, against some immaculate bowling, India just caved in and South Africa romped home, worthy winners. Whether the curator should have considered Indian strengths while working on the pitch is something that has been widely discussed – my take on this is that while it is normal for curators to deliver pitches favourable to the home team, India, which boasts of world-class players, should not have to hide behind favourable pitches to win matches. As a batsman, if you cannot play the moving ball, just work on it. But that is another discussion.

Coming back to Kolkata, I can see where the crowd is coming from. This is not the first time that Indian crowds have shown their displeasure at team selection.

Way back in 1972-73, Salim Durrani, hugely popular with the public, was having an indifferent run and was dropped for the Kanpur Test against England. The crowds came out in protest “No Durrani, no Test”.

In 1974-75, Bishen Singh Bedi, was dropped from the Indian side for the first Test at Bangalore against the Windies due to a ban imposed on him by the Board for giving a TV interview in England in 1974. “No Bedi, no Test” the placards said.

In 1983, Kapil Dev was “penalized” for an “irresponsible” shot in the Delhi Test by being dropped for the Kolkata Test. There were placards of “No Kapil, no Test”.

In all the above instances, the match just went on. Once the match started, I do not recall any problems of support. There was always unflinching support for the Indian team.

This is where Kolkata was different. The crowd took their disappointment and anger just one step too far – by rubbishing the Indian captain.

If Kolkata thinks it has made a point, it is fooling itself. On the contrary, it is damaging its own cause. Just like Sunil Gavaskar refused to play in Kolkata after his treatment at the hands of the crowd in 1983 (he was pelted with oranges for playing a loose shot), there may be more reasons for players and match officials to stay away from Kolkata.

Which would be a real pity. Kolkata is a prime city. It has millions of cricket lovers. It just does not deserve to be given a miss in discussions about big-match venues.

This match did not have any untoward incident as such. Not supporting the home side is atrocious in some eyes but not something the ICC will care too much about. It cannot be compared with the 1996 World Cup drama or the match a few years later against Pakistan, which was also a black mark for crowd behaviour.

My love for Kolkata and the Eden Gardens has made me try to rationalize the crowd behaviour. Would the Mumbai crowd have behaved similarly if a fully-fit Sachin Tendulkar had been dropped from the Indian side ? I don’t know. Maybe it would. So is it then fair to single out Kolkata ?

I cannot answer these questions. They are all hypothetical. All I can say is that I am deeply disappointed at Kolkata.

Another reaction could have been that the crowd could have gone out of their way to support and cheer Team India. To show that, whatever their personal preferences, they stand behind the captain and the team. Kolkata would have made millions of fans overnight.

As it stands, Kolkata continues to get brickbats from the rest of the country. It hurts me a lot – it did not have to be so.

But I guess Chennai is Chennai, Mumbai is Mumbai - and Kolkata is Kolkata. Let’s just leave it at that.

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