Australian Cricket In Calcutta (Kolkata)
Written March 16, 2001
Edited March 17, 2021 For Better SEO
After making one’s international Australian cricket touring debut in the West Indies 1995, and which continued the following year at the Cricket World Cup in India & Pakistan, I can't remember ever hearing the words, 'Eden Gardens', even though Australia won the Cricket World Cup 1987 at this famous stadium.
It wasn’t until Sri Lanka were awarded the win against India in the Cricket World Cup 1996 Semi-Final played at Eden Gardens that ‘passion and desire’ to watch Australia play here was born. Watching the crowd go bat-shit (India capitulated from 1-99 to 8-120 chasing 252 to win) is a common thread in India, for the win or loss. In this instance, hurling bottles and then setting the ground ‘on fire’ did little to ‘inspire’ a tail-end fightback.
The only two it inspired was 1; the match referee, Guyana and West Indies legend, Clive Lloyd who awarded the match to Sri Lanka, and 2; me to see Australia play at this mighty ground.
It wasn’t seen so much as luck as ‘expectation’ for the Australian Cricket Tour to India 2001 to have a test scheduled in Calcutta (now Kolkata). With 13 active Test venues, perhaps ‘luck’ more than expectation was on our side when we found ourselves headed for the 2nd Test in West Bengal.
With Australia chasing their 17th consecutive test win, there was no bigger ‘away’ stage on which to perform. Nothing about playing here disappointed, except the result! It lived every expectation, including the fire!
Walking to the ground on Day 1, I had nervousness never felt before. I had goosebumps. I was anxious. The evil-looking stadium loomed through the haze. The giant steel frames supporting the huge bank of floodlights could be mistaken for an unclad tower block such is their enormity.
There is nothing discreet about Eden Gardens. The tower heights suggest the ground is vast, and far from the light source for the outside walls are not very tall for a stadium that ‘reportedly’ holds 120,000. I was about to find out.
Across the Maidan, the crowd flooded toward the ground. Bamboo corrals fed us to the correct entry gates to face India’s most stringent security. Thousands lined up, tickets casually flapping in hand as if this was a year-round event. For Indians, I suppose it was. For us, this was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience so our tickets remained secure until production was necessary, which is often in India.
Indian security and police love checking tickets, even seemingly without reading them, at any given time. At Eden Gardens you can walk hundreds of metres, needing to produce your ticket 5 or more times before you even reach the gate.
Knowing the Indian skill of queue jumping, we bypassed the maze-like lines of patient Indians, and went straight to the gates. Rigorous bag searches were employed, which is part of watching cricket in India, but here it was ‘deeper’ than anywhere. One felt it was more out of curiosity. If you look at Indian cricket spectators, they only carry match tickets! Security just wanted to know why we needed bags.
Indians know entry protocols and indeed the wrath of a lathi stick better than us should they cross the line by carrying an unnecessary bag! Debate, hidden pockets, and ‘big hats’, ensured security would not find what they might have been looking for.
Getting there early was good because if the police searched 80,000+ as thoroughly as they searched us, there’d be no entry for many before lunch. Nonetheless, entry was made, and Eden Gardens was every-bit as sinister inside as it appeared out. Dark, cold, damp, and fragrant! Making our way along the concourse under the stand, we walked through the narrow channel, up to the boundary fence, and into ‘H Block’.
Eden Gardens was indeed vast. Unlike the towering Melbourne Cricket Ground, Eden Gardens has flat, deep sweeping lower terraces of near 100 rows that give reason for spectacularly high floodlights. The upper level under a skeletal steel framed roof, if there was a roof, was close to 50 rows. It was breathtakingly enormous. The high barbed wire fence lining the boundary forced us to sit close to the back of the terrace to see above the fence line. Sitting against fence of the walkway into H Block prevented people entering from that side.
Early on the first day it was clear Indians wanted to sit in the middle of us to increase their chance to ‘get on telly’. A fence at one end of the rows meant we only had to control the interest from one side. It’s not as if there was nowhere else to sit in this giant concrete doughnut that was ever-more daunting and oppressing than any other.
‘Concrete doughnut’ refers to the stepped terraces of more contemporary stadia, compared with the antiquated match-stick tinderboxes of West Indian cricket grounds of old. Eden Gardens was a whole new definition because even the high-backed bench seats, the length of each block, are concrete.
Perhaps the Cricket Association of Bengal knew their rabidly partisan crowd well by not including anything that could be easily destroyed or burned such as wooden benches or plastic seating?
*For historians, the stadium was designed in 1841 and built in 1864 with a capacity of 40,000. No doubt a ‘give or take’ India assessment. The ground gets its name from Eden Gardens, one of the oldest parks in Calcutta, named after the Eden sisters of Lord Auckland, the then Governor-General of India.*
The concrete seating and part-roof was installed for Cricket World Cup 1987 and to cater for very short people, barely 30cm wide when seated, suggested by the very-narrow ‘seat demarcation’. We needed two seats at least, our knees spread wide against the concrete in front. No one could sit next to you in the ‘allocated seat’ because your legs, knees and butt filled the space.
Although getting in was a ‘lengthy process’, it was surprisingly orderly. For future reference, getting in early is best. Beat the crowds, find your seat, and then soak it all up. Eden Gardens, along with Lord's (London), the MCG (Melbourne), Wanderers (Johannesburg) and Gaddafi Stadium (Lahore) is one of the great Test Cricket Grounds that must be experienced to be believed. I say experienced because ‘seeing’ it is not watching cricket.
There are two sides of the venue and a visit in the off-season will not tell the story you should hear, especially when part of 100,000+ crowd of which 6 has been recorded in the ground’s history. Hearsay and inuendo suggests there was ‘close’ to that during this test. It barely reached 70,000 with the eastern side unroofed terraces not well-occupied.
By the time Steve Waugh won the toss and elected to bat, there may have been 30,000, so we got off to a very ‘relaxed’ start, though very short-lived.
The wicket of Ricky Ponting ignited the crowd after Australia tabled 256 runs. The fall of Adam Gilchrist first ball sent the crowd leap-frogging seats with ecstasy. When Harbhajan Singh captured India's first ever test hattrick, a brilliant catch at bat-pad ridding India of Shane Warne, the stadium that is the 'Garden of Eden' erupted into frenzy. It felt as if 200,000 maniacal Indians were there!
I had never seen a reaction like this at any cricket match before. The sweeping flat terraces watching their team struggle was instantly awash with deafening hysteria. Flags, arms, hands, heads were aloft. Now near 50,000 Indians, were celebrating. I was caught between distress and disbelief. This was my first hattrick against Australia. With no idea how to cope with the barrage of insults, water bags, food, rocks, and rubbish that rained down, I grabbed my camera and snapped images that can hardly be put in words. There was nothing like it.
The excitement of the hattrick subsided, calm lasted until 3:45pm when hell broke loose with frustration that India couldn’t bowl out Australia, now closing in on 300. Anything that could be thrown at us, was. You aren’t allowed to bring water bottles into the ground, but they sell convenient grenade-like 300ml bags of water. If you were hot and bothered, there was no need to buy water as we were bombarded with countless Rs2 (A$0.03c) pouches. Threats were jeered, along with food and rocks. The brittle aged concrete seating easily chipped apart with a deft tap of the foot, and hurled bit by bit, chunk by chunk.
Police were scrambled to settle everyone down, albeit temporarily. Stumps were drawn and all were sent home to come back and do it again tomorrow.
With Australia starting 8 wickets down, the Indians knew it wouldn’t (shouldn’t) be too long until Sachin Tendulkar was batting. It was this anticipation that brought a bigger crowd, early.
Naturally, the crowd was chanting for Sachin (as if the only player in the side) and would gladly see India’s first 2 wickets fall in 2 balls if it meant Sachin was at the crease. They first had to get Australia’s last 2 wickets that didn’t come until after lunch. Steve Waugh 110 and Jason ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie 46 batted through the first session, before Dizzy was out leaving Steve and Glenn McGrath 21 to get Australia to 445.
This kept the very partisan crowd very quiet. They went quieter when the score was 1-32. When the score became 2-32, shock met with wonder. There were 60 of us on Day 2, and during our celebration of the 2nd Indian dismissal, our cheers absorbed by rapturous adoration for the incoming Tendulkar. It was what everyone had been waiting for. Even us. Sachin walked on, and a reverberation thumped across the terrace as now 60,000 leapt in unison.
At 2-32, and as fair-weathered as they come, the Indian crowd had all but given up, but still primed for flashpoint. This was reached when Sachin was out for 10, with the score 3-48. The crowd's love of Sachin's 10 runs inverted into a monstrous explosion of disposition. Their Cricket God was showering and we lapped it up. It was sensational. No-one would deny wanting to see Sachin in full flight and belt 100, but none of us were disappointed to see his back so early. We went bananas. So too the Indians. The hostile crowd was shocked into silence for a few seconds before the carnage.
"Go Kaspa! Go Gilly! Go Australia!" we chorused to our lads in the middle looking to end the innings quickly as India went from 1-32 at tea, to 8-128 at stumps after 46 overs. Our words not heard. Every cheer was spat back with vengeance and missiles launched from all sides, more so from the terrace above. The Eden Gardens' crowd finally lived up to their vociferous reputation and we were on the receiving end.
We may have been ‘the opposition’, but we should be able to watch cricket without losing blood. Alas, blood was lost. Shoulder lacerations, a gouge on the hand, a nick off the top. Not too serious but define serious when rocks are bouncing off you at a Test Match? Naturally, stones were dished back in anger and I don’t blame any of the guys for doing so.
With 20 overs left in the day, the army was called in. The tin-hatted, baton armed platoon streamed up the terrace and stood at the end of each of our rows. When Rahul Dravid was out, the ferocity of the crowd intensified no matter how big the military presence. According to friends sitting on the other side of the ground, it looked an ugly mess.
"When Sachin was out, it was as if you were seated in the 'Chair of Stalin'. Everything rained upon you guys. The water bags especially. We could see food such as oranges being thrown and everything else that wasn't fruit or water we regarded as rock."
The army filed through the seats to shroud us, yet the Indians carried on as if the army was infiltrating our group to ‘bring us down from within’. With the army keeping a watchful eye, the impact of the Indians’ disappointment at the state of play wore a little thin as the taunts rallied for the rest of the day.
At stumps, we waited patiently as the locals were escorted out with a beat or two from a lathi stick. Once the stand was empty, we were then escorted to the gate and invited to return tomorrow. It was amusing to think the police evicted everyone else first to protect us, but no sooner were we at the gate, they pushed us out into the very crowd they were protecting us from. India!
If the cricket tomorrow is anything like today we should be sat in harmony while being entertained by dominant bowling. One thing's for sure, we won't see the 'Steve & Co' belt them about the Garden, with the ‘follow-on’ likely. Seeing Australia bat once is enough, the same for many things here!
Walking through the narrow channel into H Block, Chief of Police, Mr Hossain, came to say he'd cordoned off our seats and had 50 servicemen to guard us. Segregated from the masses, we had 8 rows in one block with 2 empty rows in front and behind us. One police officer sat at the end of each of our rows, five uniformed police sat in the empty rows, and six plain clothed police sat with us to stop Indians from entering. The upper stand was cleared entirely. No one was allowed in the 3 blocks above, where most of yesterday’s torment came from.
A day at the cricket in India with Indians is what makes touring India so unique, but when they go so over the top we’d be just as happy if they cleared the stadium. 2 years earlier, on Day 4 of the Asian Test Championship against Pakistan, Sachin Tendulkar was controversially run out and the crowd rioted. Play was stopped for an hour and though Sachin walked the boundary to calm emotions, the crowd were unrelenting. Eden Gardens was cleared, and Day 5 was played to a closed stadium.
Compared with yesterday, today was a gem! Instead of countless Indians trying to squeeze into a space you wouldn't let your wife / husband / girlfriend / boyfriend sit, today was like watching cricket at home with freedom to spread out as much as you like! If only it was as comfortable!
Such security didn't fully erase the water bombs and rocks, there were just less of them and those who cared to take on the watchful eye of the police were summarily evicted. One fellow evicted yesterday for throwing rocks, it was reported, received 15 days in prison. At least he didn’t see India ‘follow-on’ after Australia rolled India for 171, some 233 runs behind. The inevitable was in the offing and several of our guys went off to book golf for days 4 & 5.
India got off to a better start opening with 52. The 2nd wicket at 97 brought Sachin Tendulkar to ‘save the game’ once again. The subdued crowd perked up, though only briefly as Sachin was again in the showers after only 10 runs. We went ballistic as the little man walked off with no hope for India at 3-115! Though India reached 234 ensuring Australia would bat again, when Sourav Ganguly was out when the score was 232, it was icing on what seemed an inevitable Australian victory cake.
Rahul Dravid & VVS Laxman took India to stumps with a lead of 17 and we went home to pre-celebrate Australia’s 17th consecutive Test victory. If we knew what was to happen tomorrow, we’d not have stopped ‘celebrating’.
This was the toughest day of spectating in 6-years of touring. It was a long, hot day in the bleachers and none of us were happy. The Indians were again kept well away but Christ it was still hard. You can keep an Indian at bay, but you can’t keep the rocks! Rahul and VVS just kept batting.
With every milestone the crowd got bigger and bigger and louder and louder as the lead reached 100, then 200, and then 300, as VVS reached 150, then 200, then 250, as Rahul scored 50, then 100, and 150. The crowd tripped out. It was simply put, unbelievable. The crowd had swelled to 70,000 if not more. The noise was unrelenting. It was brilliant.
There was barely a moment when the Indians were not leaping across the seats, dancing in the aisles and per se ‘swinging from the rafters’. Starting their 2nd inning 233 runs behind to now be 300 in front was something no one saw, especially at 9-129 in their first inning.
Though VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid slayed us, we waved the flag proudly all day. At the end of every over, we were on our feet trying to lift the boys. After tea, we were up after every ball. 61 of us stood with flags flying, bellowing to the team, “C’mon Glenn! C’mon Gilly! C’mon Haydos! C’mon Tugga!” Every chorus needing to be louder as the Indians matched our support.
Adam Gilchrist searched for something from us. From drinks in the 2nd session, every over he looked up for inspiration, clapping his hands, begging us to give all we could. It was tough, but we kept going even though we were drowned by parochial Indians keen to stop our efforts. Our flags and their noise created the epicentre of support, the intensity from both camps had everyone in the middle looking into the stands, urging us to keep going.
Late in the day, Steve Waugh looked to us, held his hand up and waved it about as if waving a flag. That is something Steve just doesn't do. We waved but it didn’t help. Australia went wicketless.
It was a tough day. Nothing tougher. Several times wickets threatened, but no. Sitting behind everyone, I could see heads drop, deep into the final session. There is only so much one can do but we'd solace in the knowledge that this is test cricket and a wicketless day happens every now and again.
It happened before and will again. It's just a bastard when it's Australian bowlers who can't get the wickets. We live with it, glumly, and looked to Day 5 to produce one of the great victories. Whether for Australia or India.
The highlight at the end of a tireless day, whilst 10 Aussies trudged off, Adam Gilchrist ran over to the fence and beckoned me down. I fought through the throng at the fence who thought Gilly was coming to see them.
Adam offered these tremendous words:
"Thanks for all your support today, all you guys. It has been brilliant, but we are going to need you guys tomorrow. It's going to be tough, but we are going to need you. Thanks to all the guys, mate!"
I shared Adam’s words to everyone, who were both chuffed and surprised he'd make such a gesture, but that's Adam Gilchrist!
We'll give Day 5 our best and although we had plans for days 4 & 5, we appreciate the game can produce anything it likes at any time, and it did! No matter what tomorrow brings, no one will be disappointed with the fact that we were there!
What occurred on Day 5 was spectacular. Another 13 overs and 68 runs by India, set Australia the unlikely target of 384 runs to win a Test that two days earlier looked done and dusted; Australia 2-0 up in the best of three series. It was not to be.
A draw was the best for Australia but with 6-overs left in the match, when Harbhajan Singh claimed his 13th wicket for the match, Jason Gillespie LBW, the stadium erupted. An inferno of flamed paper held in salute of what 3-days ago was an impossible Indian victory. Cricket presents the unthinkable and today was no exception.
This is what makes test cricket exciting, a game that takes 25-minutes shy of 30 hours to be decided. The turnaround in cricket fortunes, unfounded! To top it, a game that ends with the stadium ablaze.
It was a cracker-jack day in the bleachers. It was an exciting day in the bleachers. One that started an hour earlier knowing today's crowd would be huge. Without knowing how man runs India would set, if Australia would go for the runs or play for the draw.
The belief, after 16 consecutive Test victories, was that Australia would give it a shot. Going to lunch 0-24, we never gave up on winning until 3 wickets fell soon after lunch. After this, we never gave up on the draw amidst continued bombardment. Our flags raised after every ball, we did what we could to stave off the Indian frenzy with voice and spirit. Each ball one ball closer to the draw, which for us was as good as a victory. The Indians didn't understand why we cheered 'dot balls', but they were watching the game through vastly different lenses.
Every one of those 68 runs and each of Australia’s 10 wickets intensified the noise, emotion, expectation. There was no holding back the crowd, no matter how we tried. The Army came on Day 2, but at Tea today, it was as if the entire armed forces were deployed. It was with little effect as many just sat watching cricket, refusing to see or do anything to stop stones and sundry being thrown, such as a bag of chicken biryani that burst on my mate’s left ear.
(There are jokes years later about Flash still finding rice in his hair from that day!)
Confronting Mr Hossain about the endless rain of garbage and lack of security involvement, a rock bounced off his chest and he sprang into action, directing personnel to do their job. One officer had his number taken and was dismissed, the others now ‘semi-frightened’ about losing their job though remaining all the time with one eye on the game.
Rightly so. We didn't want to miss it!
As we supported the boys, we also tried to accept the evolution of the game. At stumps on Day 3 we were bracing for Australia’s first test series victory in India since 1969. 48 hours later we were left with nothing but a draw to cheer for as India celebrated their unlikely victory.
On the brink of a remarkable win, newspapers were lit, flares ignited, and smoke masked the sky putting us on the receiving end of uncontrollable mayhem. Though facing a brutal loss, we wouldn't trade that experience for anything. There was nothing else like it in world cricket. Again, the noise!
The euphoria and passion of the Calcutta cricket public, though intimidating, is unequal. I can’t say I enjoyed every moment, the DNA of cricket in Calcutta doesn’t allow it. By the same token it remains part of this historic Test match, even if some of it was wrong, such as the LBW that awarded Gilly a King Pair. The ball pitched 'a foot' outside leg, yet the Indian umpire Bansal gave it out, which I believe was by virtue of 70,000 people appealing.
There’s not a player of the game at any level who has not been on the wrong side of bad umpiring but when that same umpire does a ‘lap of honour’ with the winning cricket team, you question the ‘authenticity’ of his decisions. Of course, we were angry and when upset, one looks for the ‘what could have been’ moment. Or you throw rocks at the opposition. Or you flick the bird!
Unbelievable! During the umpire’s lap of honour with the India Cricket Team, Sourav Ganguly, Harbhajan Singh & Venkatesh Prasad, as we stood applauding India's victory, gave us a 'merry middle finger'. The shock of losing this ‘unlosable’ Test was bad enough without the Indian captain flicking us the bird. It was a disgrace!
The heartbreak, shock, and disbelief at losing was bad enough but having the Indian captain throw you the finger was appalling. In anger, we gave it back while India continued their rightful lap of (dis)honour. For every rock, orange & water bomb thrown at us through one of the great test matches of all time, it is no surprise it ended like that.
Though accepting the drubbing, we were still in the ground for 90mins after play. We were smashed but didn’t want to leave, as flaming paper continued to kiss the sky. It was stunning. It was remarkable.
I reckon everyone that threw a rock came to shake our hand and thank us for the match. It was bizarre.
90mins after play, exhausted, when all the fires were out and the smoke had cleared, the police cleared the Garden of Indians. Once the anger of being saluted by Sourav had passed, the police not only escorted us from the ground, but home.
It was really quite cool.
A few no doubt have stories of being ‘escorted by the police’ but I doubt any would be ‘home’ after a test match. It was good that the police, just as they had done (mostly) throughout the game, continued to 'look out for us'. The laboured walk filled with thoughts of never wanting to experience a match like that ever again.
Back home, dejected, with cold Kingfisher Lagers in hand, we squeezed into the ‘communal living room’ and watched the replay. Madness!