Cricket wins at Eden Gardens

IN Ravi Shastri's vocabulary anything major or significant is "serious", and nothing describes cricket in Kolkata better than this word. Whichever way one looks, no other city demonstrates such amazing involvement with the game. When a match is on, just about everything (even political rallies of fiery Mamatadi) are pushed into the background. For Kolkata, cricket is a continuous, joyous carnival. Really serious stuff.

As usual, during the third Test, cricket was uppermost on everyone's mind, its influence could not be missed. The most obvious manifestation, of course, was in the frenzied scramble for tickets, this when the series was dead, the West Indies flat on the mat like a boxer felled by a hefty strike.

The black marketing industry is currently in a slump (with Shah Rukh Khan film tickets available easily across the counter) but cricket, obviously, is riding out this recession admirably, and demand maintained at a healthy level because India is winning.

In this context, Kolkata was another glorious stop for Sourav's triumphant Gaurav yatra, his chance to march majestically in front of devoted subjects. Sourav is on a roll, ordinary persons and pundits (including Pataudi, India's all-time favourite captain) are singing his praises, the fans are understandably jubilant - no wonder it is party time. But the leader finds all this gushing adulation a trifle unnerving. "Oh," he said, with a disapproving shake of the head. "There is too much expectation, too much pressure. People get too involved."

The involvement Sourav speaks about is impossible to miss in Kolkata. At Eden Gardens thousands hang around patiently, desperate for a fleeting glimpse of cricket stars. At Taj Bengal, the team hotel, hundreds throng the lobby searching for autographs, most fail miserably in their objective as players whiz past them to board the bus.

Heightened interest in the game is reflected in extensive media coverage - even the minutest cricket detail is prominently put on page 1, that too in colour. Earlier this was done only by Bangla newspapers (the equivalent of England's tabloids) but now all major newspapers compete to dig up details of Harbhajan's pre-match shopping or Sanjay Bangar's temple visit the day before to ensure he does not nick Dillon's outswinger.

Often this quest for masala stretches to ludicrous lengths. The hotel staff, it appeared, was besieged by reporters wanting to know who did what and ate what. As a result the chef held daily press briefings, where he once announced that Tendulkar preferred pomfret and sea food while Sehwag is partial to daal and roti. Readers were also informed about Viv Richards' round of golf, Dillon's snazzy shirt at the Exide party, Marlon Samuel's misguided adventure in a hot night spot which landed him in hot soup. But, please, stop a moment and think: should important space in so-called national dailies be consumed by such trivial details?

Next morning, when play got under way, it was time to get serious. As Sourav went out to toss (smartly dressed in India cap and blazer) the roar from the stands was so loud it could be heard miles away at Howrah. And when he called right, and opted to bat first to the unconcealed delight of thousands, the collective scream of approval was really deafening. Kolkata loves cricket, adores cricketers and their own Sourav da is number one in the popularity stakes.

But currently there is another star on the horizon, the red hot, explosive Sehwag who took off like a Diwali rocket from Sivakasi, determined to smash every ball hurled at him. Bangar, his partner, was sedate and correct, careful not to offend the bowlers by doing anything disrespectful. Describing their contrasting approach someone thought Sehwag feasted on chillies for breakfast while Bangar chose a bowl of Calmpose tablets.

As the innings progressed, on what was a benign track, wickets fell, some to forgettable shots. "We have missed out big", commented a player ruing the lost opportunity, "this was a 500-run wicket". Sourav was caught behind off Hooper's lollipop offbreak, Sachin edged a lazy drive to first slip. Laxman moved smoothly to 48 but wasted the good start; later the number 6 was so heartbroken he sat silently in a corner, gloomy look on face, icepack on knee and cancer-stricken cyclist Armstrong's book in his hands for inspiration.

Dravid did nothing wrong but was dismissed by Shepherd, a horrible lbw decision considering the huge inside edge on the shot. Despite this cruel end Mr. Nice Guy showed no emotion, he shook his head (only a few inches) , returned to the pavilion and went through an elaborate stretching session with Adrian Le Roux!

But the bad decision did trigger a mini debate on dodgy umpiring. The ICC has an elite panel, the best are appointed to Tests, but the question is: have standards improved? The players are quite clear in their opinion, they feel there is no improvement, the number of terrible decisions have not reduced.

Second time round the Indian batsmen made good, Tendulkar crafted a superb innings when India seemed on the verge of a deplorable collapse. He asserted his class emphatically, giving a fitting reply to critics who question his wonderful ability on the basis of some obscure (and fractured) statistical analysis. Tendulkar, of all contemporary batsmen, sits alone in a zone where he is battling himself more than the bowlers - when in the right mood it does not matter who is charging in to bowl.

Laxman's hard fought hundred was a tribute not just to his powers of concentration but another indication that he is a high quality player. Hooper, Gayle and Samuels bowled 60 overs between them but a Test hundred is a Test hundred, Laxman will accept that gleefully.

The Test ended in a tame draw but a massive crowd watched play for five days. Everyone (Sourav, Hooper, the ordinary enthusiast and the clever blackmarketeer) went back happy. Ultimately, cricket won, once again, at Eden Gardens.