OH, to be in Kolkata

S. DINAKAR

KOLKATA is a paradox. It can be chaotic; it can also soothe one's senses. Ancient buildings stare down at you as time melts away. Tramlines criss-cross through the heart of the city, just like people meeting and then parting ways.

The ubiquitous yellow cabs dot the West Bengal capital. The bridge on the river Hoogly reminds us about life being a journey. Kolkata is busy, yet, when the evening hue envelops the city, time, ethereally, seems to stand still.

From the hotel, the floodlights of the Eden Gardens sparkle in the night sky. The Gardens is majestic, the turf there is sprinkled with footprints that are eternal.

If this is a city with a heartbeat and a soul, Eden Gardens in no different. Just like Kolkata, it has a distinct sense of history.

The stop in Kolkata will also prove to be the most controversial on this ODI trail.

Emotions run high in the city as Kolkata's favourite son Sourav Ganguly is not a part of the Indian ODI squad. The `Dada' is immensely popular in these parts, and his exclusion from Team India has not gone down well here.

There are demonstrations outside the Eden Gardens. The chairman of the selection panel, Kiran More, and the Indian team coach, Greg Chappell, are the targets of angry groups. Actually, had Ganguly not earned a selection into the squad for the first Test against Sri Lanka, things might have taken a turn for the worse.

The security at the team hotel is tight; the armed special task force policemen might have as well been guarding a fortress. The venue too is swarming with plain-clothed cops.

There are speculations that the spectators will keep away from the Eden Gardens, in the absence of Dada. But then, this had been an engrossing series. It was now on a knife-edge at 1-1.

The pre-match conference was bound to be a stormy one. For Dravid, the moment marked another big test. Questions about Ganguly were bound to be thrown at him.

The Indian captain handled the situation in a packed hall at the Eden Gardens with great charm and dignity. There is so much conviction in the man that he can, without being offensive, get his message across forcefully. In Dravid's case, he does so with a smile.

When asked about the composition of the ODI side, Dravid replied, "I am very happy with the team I have." Under the circumstances, seen in the context of Ganguly's exclusion, this was as bold as one could get in Kolkata. This time around, there was not a single question that followed Dravid's answer. On some groups calling for a boycott of the match, he said, "a small section, does not represent the people of Bengal. I have always been received with much warmth and affection here." Dravid was firm, he was emphatic.

He has this quiet determination about him. The man has overcome several tough situations on the arena. This time, he had come through a fiery ordeal off the field.

The surface for the match raises questions. There is grass on the pitch the day before the game. Much of it stays when the match commences. This is unusual in India where the host has benefited from home advantage. But then, the pitch in Nagpur for the India-Australia Test last year sported more than a thin layer of grass. In the politics of the Board, was the Indian team a sufferer?

The match gets underway in front of a packed crowd of around 90,000; the spectators turn up for the big occasion after all.

By now another controversy is doing the rounds. Television footage shows Chappell pointing his finger at the opposite direction as he climbs the team bus. A crowd shouting slogans had heckled the Indian coach during the practice session in the evening before the penultimate day. A majority of the spectators and the local media are convinced that Chappell made an obscene gesture. More anger builds up against Chappell as the news of the television footage spreads during the match. The situation is turning volatile.

Media manager Wing Commander M. Baladitya swings into action. He reveals that Chappell had injured his finger during practice and was simply looking at the finger when he was boarding the bus. "The incident has been blown out of proportion, he did not make any gesture."

There is more than the usual support for a visiting team. But to say that the Men in Blue were not cheered at all would amount to distorting facts. There was appreciation for Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif when they stroked the ball with authority.

The anti-Chappell and pro-Ganguly chants were on expected lines. The spectators did not indulge in violent behaviour although Dravid says later that some of the Indian cricketers fielding near the ropes were given a torrid time by some sections of the crowd. This is sad. South Africa romps home. It is a match the Indians would want to forget in a hurry.

The teams arrive in bustling Mumbai for the decisive clash. South Africa is thinking of its first ODI series triumph in India. Dravid's men need to regroup after the nightmare of Kolkata. Plenty is at stake for both sides during the match that precedes the crucial BCCI elections in Kolkata.

At the Wankhede Stadium, the VIP enclosure is a mix of the former cricketing greats, politicians and film stars. Among those present is Sunil Gavaskar, who is getting younger with years. Dilip Vengsarkar, as majestic as ever, walks up to meet old friends. Sunil Shetty, Bollywood's loud-fisted action hero, catches cricketing action with quiet attention. Then there is the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, greeting guests with a warm smile. He would be crowned the BCCI chief the next day.

The most enduring moment of the evening is when the crowd, in a manner that is spontaneous, chants `Dravid, Dravid,' after the Indian captain suffers an injury to his elbow during the concluding moments of the winning chase that he has marshalled expertly. Dravid has earned the respect. He was the captain courageous.