FRIDAY, March 9, Calcutta Airport, 10.15pm. “Be careful, sir, today is holy day,” a customs official said as he stamped my passport with the loose wrists of a Mohammed Azharuddin or a Ravi Shastri. With his accent it was difficult to tell if he was saying holy day or holiday, but I thanked him and assured him I was looking forward to experiencing a holy day among the people of Calcutta. To this, the customs official smiled (obviously a revisionist in his line of work) and promptly ignored my question on what a taxi to the city should cost (a revisionist, but not a revolutionary).
A few minutes later, I was outside the terminal and in the middle of a police baton charge on hundreds of red, pink and orange Indians. “Be careful, sir,” said a policeman, extracting himself from crowd control for long enough to extend me a welcoming handshake. “They want to dye you many colors.” Then he pointed me towards the taxis and leapt forward to shout at a couple of excited youths, armed to the teeth with fluorescent pump-action water pistols.
Apparently, what I’d taken for holy day was in fact Holi – a three-day Hindu festival that unites Indians under the auspices of the dye bomb. Everyone is a target, and in particular foreigners, and so taxi-fare negotiations had to be kept short and sweet. From the start, I tried to muster some bartering sympathy by saying that I had come only to see Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest batsman on Earth, but the taxi driver called my bluff and declared his undying respect for Steve Waugh. “No captain is more civilised,” he said.
Eventually, we both conceded cagily that we liked some of our own players, too, and the fare worked itself out.
Day 1 of Test, Lindsay Street, 9am. I walked out of my hotel and into a street cricket match, which gave me an image of what the street cricket matches of my childhood would have been like had they been organised better and played on Lonsdale Street. All 22 players wore uniforms, half in white, half in blue, and each had a number on his back. The pitch ran down the parking area in the centre of the road, and the stumps seemed to be growing miraculously out of the asphalt.
“We smash up the road a little bit so we can dig the stumps in,” admitted Lalbatsam, the captain of the Calcutta Gandhi Boys Sporting Club and its star player. He also explained that the club was based out of a single room in the neighborhood and had been put together by the local boys themselves.
“We play 16 overs a side and the rules are the same as for one-day internationals.”
On further examination, there were a few differences. The game is played with a tennis ball, hitting a taxi earns an extra run, and lofted on-drives into the majestic Surana Mansion building or the Punjab National Bank are rated according to which floor the ball hits: two runs for the first floor, four for the second, and six for the third.
The straight boundary is long and marked by a pole bearing an advertisement for Moustache shirts. On the off side is the New Market, and behind the keeper there is an imaginary rope in front of West Bengal Handloom Garments (which incidentally does not stock the Moustache label, but is being run by a man with a moustache).
After a particularly tight single that involved a dive, a rickshaw and a stray dog, I asked Lalbatsam whether they ever played tippity run. They never had, nor did they tape up tennis balls to encourage swing bowling. One hand one bounce was instituted very occasionally, but called one tip one hand. “We like to play as much the real rules as possible,” said Prem, an opening batsman who was sledged occasionally by the opposition because, in Bengali, his name means Love.
The game itself was so exciting that I stayed for two hours and missed the first session of a Test match I had travelled more than 8000 kilometres to see. After winning 20 of the past 22 Sundays, the Calcutta Gandhi boys were in trouble. They needed 12 runs from the last over, had one wicket in hand, and the Nebli Boys Club bowler steaming in from the Ruby’s Sarees end called himself Wasim Akram.
What was strange was that Calcutta Gandhis’ last player batting right now also called himself Wasim Akram, said Lalbatsam. Sure enough, players on both sides were shouting encouragement to their respective Wasims, a curious homage to the great Pakistani all-rounder. Then, with two balls to go, bowling Wasim pitched the ball up to batting Wasim who smashed the ball into the Punjab National Bank building and was caught on the rebound.
The Nebli boys swarmed around their Wasim (whose name turned out to be Jawed) and celebrated a rare win. Eventually, though, the high-fiving was disrupted by a taxi driver blasting his way through the edge of the victory huddle.
“Does anybody ever get hit by the cars?” I asked the defeated captain Lalbatsam.
“Sometimes,” he replied. “See Leng,” he said pointing at a younger kid, not in a blue uniform. Going for a catch at long-off, he got hit by a white Ambassador car. Leng smiled, showed me his scar and let me take his photo.
Eden Gardens, 3.20pm. A few minutes after Harbhajan Singh had taken the first ever hat-trick by an Indian, we were committed to a Mexican wave that was moving so fast and with so ill-defined a front lip that surfers would have described it as six foot and messy. Gourav, a student sitting for his commerce exams the next day, was nevertheless euphoric. “The crowd, it is like a symphony,” he beamed as the wave made another lightning pass.
The Bengali people regard themselves as the artists of India, and it struck me that Gourav was right. There had been something symphonic about the sound cascading from the largest-capacity cricket ground in the world. A sudden explosion at the fall of the first wicket; a sustained rumbling; another joyful roar; a “Hi Hi Hi” chant as fists punched the air together; a cracking crescendo as the ball shot off the edge of Warne’s bat; a delightful breath as the umpire Bensal called for the third umpire (just long enough for a dancing Gourav to drape a flag across my face); and then a sustained and deafening finale as the red light ushered in a slice of history.
If I were to name the piece, I’d call it The Extremely Loud Symphony, and while it lacked a bit melodically, for mine it was at least the equal of anything by Schoenberg.
Day 4, 3.30pm, Old Scoreboard. The melting point for concrete is obviously something well above 35 degrees, because as that long wicketless fourth day rolled on, the seats weren’t getting any softer.
“Bom bom bole,” the crowd sang in Bengali. “Australia gelo gole!” Translated it means: Hip hip hooray, Australia has melted! – and from the noise, dust and heat choking Eden Gardens, it was hard to lay any blame.
I eventually sought some shelter in the old manual scoreboard, and sat down next to the least busy person in the place, Dibyendu Das, a 13-year-old in charge of the bowlers’ wickets section.
“Before lunch I also did the runs against for Shane Warne and Steve Waugh,” he said, as if to validate his free admission.
“But Steve Waugh hasn’t bowled for years,” I replied.
“Yes, but very many runs scored off Shane Warne,” crowed an ecstatic Dibyendu. “I was very busy before lunch.”
I stayed up in the scoreboard until the end of play, because as V.V.S. Laxman set his records, I wanted to be there in the numerical heart of what is the most numerical of games. At least that’s what I’m saying now. There was also the fact that it was 10 degrees cooler in there.
Day 5, Eden Gardens, 4.10 pm. If the death of English cricket was commemorated at the Oval in 1882 – with the subsequent burning of a bail, as legend has it, to create the Ashes – the death of the Australian team here was met with the burning of anything that could be rustled up.
Amid the disappointment of defeat, visually it was one of the highlights of my life: Indians sprinting along the concrete seats, trailing their tricolors; flaming rolled-up newspapers dotting the crowd every dozen or so metres; smoke drifting across the stands and the playing surface to give everything a surreal haze. Apparently, on the other side of the ground, someone threw a whole chicken at the main group of Aussie supporters. I sat there, dumbstruck and nervous, and not sure how to react to the 50 or so faces screaming “Australia lose, India great!”
“You should not be sad, Tony,” said Santosh, a stenographer and member of the Bengali Communist Party, who sat with me through the last session. “Be happy, cricket at the Eden is the winner!”
We then walked out of the ground together, and he wrote a Bengali inscription in my notebook: “Tin diner por, aaj shob shofol holo. Aaj shob deklain, shuk, dukho bhalobasa.”
This match had everything. It had joy, it had sorrow, it had love.