When all roads led to Eden Gardens

WE all know that cricket in India is a religion and a passion and a glue and much more. A lot of learned people have commented on cricket's clout, analysed its social importance and studied its economic strength. All of which is fine but to really grasp cricket's incredible hold, and to experience its magic, there is no better place than Kolkata.

The Kolkata one-dayer was played on a weekend but life in the city still came to a halt. A newspaper carried a story 'Aaj, just cricket', saying how everything else was unimportant. As all roads led to the Eden Gardens, attendance at the Kolkata zoo was thin, the animals had few visitors. And if this was not bad enough, even the young (and romantic) couples who normally throng Victoria Memorial took a day off. They postponed their activities, opting for cricket instead of stolen cuddles behind the white marbles of the stately building.

In Kolkata, cricket is BIG, and it is not a simple matter of numbers alone. The stadium accommodates a hundred thousand, but many more want to get in so tickets are sold in black. To ensure peace almost 20,000 policemen are on duty, the fire department is on alert, the bijli people on their toes to ensure uninterrupted supply in a city starved of power. The entire city, quite visibly, is down with a crippling cricket viral - when the match was on, there was such pressure on the mobile phone network, the system collapsed and nobody could get through!

Of course, when there is such passion, some paagalpan can not be far behind. The team hotel resembled a railway platform at the time of peak time departures, it was full of fans desperate to catch a glimpse of the TV umpire, and even the media coordinator of the English team was coolly signing autographs. When the teams walked across the large lobby to reach the team bus, hotel guests and others lined up to applaud loudly as though the players were brave jawans heading for the LOC. When the Indian team returned, past midnight, they looked like a conquering army back from the front. They were greeted with much clapping and shouting (the loudest for Sachin who had music strapped on his ears to cut out the noise), much shoving and pushing to get a closer look.

When the entire city is down with cricket bukhaar, it wasn't surprising to see major newspapers carry extensive who-did-what, said - what, went-where kind of reports. A sample: According to Chef Amit Ghosh who apparently held a press conference to provide details, Sachin had Kaolardnaa (Thai chicken curry with steamed rice) for lunch in his hotel room; Srinath opted for Khumbmakai (button mushroom curry); Ratra ordered a thaali. The entire team, he went on to inform readers as if passing on national secrets, was having a lot of nariyal pani. Tell me, isn't this certified lunacy?

Before the game, Nasser Hussain (so articulate, composed and authoritative) said he saw the one-day game as a test, of character. "You are," he pointed out in his cultured manner, "playing in front of a large crowd, not one dog and two retired pensioners as happens often in England, and the pressure can be unnerving."

Which, one must concede, is a major issue because when every spectator present appeals (each time ball hits pad) the noise is such the stumps shake in the middle and the bails threaten to come off. Clearly, the Eden Gardens is not for people with bad stomachs, the weak kneed or the faint hearted. If a player is not up to it he'd better opt out or take out medical insurance or contact Dr. Trehan at the Escorts Heart Institute for an urgent appointment.

As we found out, the pressure got the umpire too, he ruled against Trescothick to settle the match. Till then England was on course despite the stiffish target which could have been larger but for ordinary shots from the Indian top order. Dinesh Mongia, however, batted with extraordinary poise, striking the ball cleanly and boldly. Badani too made an impression with his cool head and frenzied running towards the end.

But if crowd response is any indicator the hierarchy of stars (and box office ratings) seems to be undergoing change. Sachin, of course, is number 1 to 10 and after him is Sourav, more so in his home town. But the emerging star is Sehwag whose positive shot making has made him a red-hot favourite. Not far behind is Harbhajan, perceived to be a match-winner, a cricketer who takes wickets but no nonsense from opponents. He likes a scrap, does not shy away from battle, has an impressive presence and loads of attitude.

While Kolkata is a huge advertisement for cricket, two things stand out. One, despite the overwhelming public support, the sport is overpriced and becoming out of reach even for big MNC's. In times of economic slowdown and recession, there is a cash crunch, so the standard theory of unlimited money and big sponsorship in cricket needs to be revised. Not many companies, despite the absence of other sports to support, can afford the price tag of over a crore for a game.

But having said that, it is also a fact that the great Indian cricket industry is sustained by the magic of Sachin Tendulkar. Every sport needs a star who generates interest, pulls in crowd, interests the media and sucks in sponsors. Sachin does all this, he is a powerful magnet who attracts attention and money, the system works because he is an outstanding player and a terrific role model.

That he is so low key, modest, self effacing, laid back, humble is a miracle. Contemporary society teaches you to be aggressive/ arrogant/ assertive; people feel the only way to climb up is to pull others down. But Sachin is in his own zone, driven by an inner rage to perform and an unshakeable assurance about his ability. All he needs to achieve his goals is a bat in his hand. Just that.