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By Suresh Menon
Kolkata has been host to the worst and the best of Indian cricket – from riots and deaths to dramatic finishes, from a day of a Test played without spectators to the start of the journey that saw India become the No 1 Test playing nation. When South Africa, with the blessing of Nelson Mandela returned to international cricket, the players were stunned at the reception they received, with crowds lining the streets from the airport.
There is something about playing before a hundred thousand full-throated fans that is neither easily forgotten nor casually described. The Kolkata crowd is quick to anger, and even quicker to forgive. The same lack of concern for their comforts that led to a riot in the 1967 West Indies series, was responsible nearly three decades later for another crowd reaction (it wasn’t a riot by any stretch of the imagination) that caused Sri Lanka to win a World Cup semifinal there by default.
Even as sections of the crowd throwing bottles and chairs onto the field caused the teams to come off, signs saying, ‘Sorry’ were hastily scrawled and held up. In recent years, crowd expectations (combined possibly with high ticket prices and lack of basic amenities) have made the normally volatile local fan react with startling lack of concern for consequences.
Two of India’s greatest batsmen – Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar – have both been booed by a crowd unhappy with a defeat or a poor individual performance. Gavaskar reacted by refusing to play at the ground after being treated thus.
Rudyard Kipling called Kolkata the “city of dreadful night”, but it was the poet and cricket writer Alan Ross who captured it better when he said, “Kolkata, that Brechtian city of the imagination, a metropolis beyond imagination.”
Few, however, have been able to capture the sheer passion of the Kolkata fan. The illogicality of his obsession, the thoroughness of his preparation, the amount of hardship he is willing to put himself through for the pleasure of seeing Tendulkar bat or Sourav Ganguly adjust his sweater.
And it is this constituency that Jagmohan Dalmiya and his band have let down. The fan asks for nothing more than a good match – and an India-England tie had the potential to be just that in the World Cup – but whether it was the arrogance of the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal or his stupidity that has denied them this, it is not good for either Kolkata or India, or indeed cricket.
It is amazing how deadlines always catch Indian officials by surprise – whether it is the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games (yes, today that 1982 venture is touted as the example of the perfection Indians can achieve, but those of us who were there remember the tension as deadlines were missed with startling irresponsibility till Rajiv Gandhi took over the administration), or now, the World Cup cricket.
At least in other sports, the authorities had the excuse that they were dependant on government handouts, but cricket prides itself on being a self-sufficient business in India.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India must take some of the responsibility too, for although the World Cup is an ICC event, the national board has obviously to ensure that venues are ready and the shopping list of do’s and don’ts adhered to. It might have suited the current dispensation in the Board to blacken Dalmiya’s face for political reasons, but as usual in the petty politics played out by petty men, the larger picture is missed. Hang national pride, who cares about how a nation about to sup at the high table appears to the rest of the world.
This might be the end of Dalmiya (although I doubt even that), but the Kolkata fan has had to pay a heavy price for it.