There is a festive atmosphere all about Eden Gardens. You want to think that it is an event of great import that is being marked here in Kolkata, but you would be wrong.
Instead of highlighting Sachin Tendulkar’s walk into the sunset after a glorious career, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) is keen on celebrating the cricketer himself.
Hoardings line up all the streets leading to the stadium, while the walls of administrative buildings and the pavilion adorn his portraits, reflecting umpteen moments from a 24-year long career. There is even a wax statue, replicating his signature century celebration, stationed right outside the Indian team’s dressing room.
Sachin has noticed everything that has been done for him, not just in this city but across the nation as billions prepare to bid an emotional adieu. But here in Kolkata, things have been a little overbearing. A gentle reminder of the milestone he has set should have been enough, perhaps a little more.
There was a severe need of knowing where to draw the line, because at the end of the day, this is about cricket more than any one player. Sadly, that aspect has been lost somewhere in between 199 roses, an equal number of sweets, cakes, posters, statues, music albums, picture gallery launches and what not.
Then again, it is a true reflection of the passion that flows in the veins of Kolkata’s people. Truth be told, they have displayed it in full with regards to Sachin Tendulkar and those moments have become souvenirs in his time on the cricket field.
It was here at the Eden Gardens in 1993 when he snatched the ball from Mohammad Azharuddin’s hands and bowled a superlative last over in the semi-final of the Hero Cup against South Africa. The emotion those six balls evoked in three generations of cricket fans in this country is unmistakable.
Then there was the semi-final loss to Sri Lanka in the 1996 ODI World Cup. Sachin was the stable force in India’s chase and once he was out, the batting collapsed. There were protests at the stadium, almost rioting, with the match awarded to Lankans and it can be imagined why.
Rioting did indeed take place and the stadium had to be vacated when Sachin was run out, although obstructed, in the Asian Test Championship match against Pakistan in 1999. Then came his sterling bowling spell in the 2001 Test match against Australia, where after the heroics of VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh, he played his part with three wickets in the second innings.
Last but not least the least he finally conquered Eden with a century against West Indies in 2002, a match saving 176.
Each of those moments reflects a different stage in Sachin’s long career. From a youth, full of brash energy, to the centre-point of Indian batting and indeed the singular hope for his team’s win, to leading the pack as others were inspired by him and started sharing his burden, to finally becoming the senior statesman with a sedated batting approach, the crowds at Eden Gardens have seem him in all these avatars.
Chennai could have been the only other ground in India to credibly host his 199th Test. Yet Kolkata will do great justice to the man, if only the CAB can reign in the overbearing celebrations and instead just voice their sentiments as a wholesome crowd when he takes the field on Wednesday.
This is how Sachin will want it, as much attention to be given to his team-mates and indeed the opposition against whom he will reach this milestone, walking away thereafter. It brings into context the true purpose of this gathering in Kolkata - the first Test between India and West Indies to be played at the Eden Gardens.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni not only needs to be worried about the hype and hoopla his team has to encounter over the next two weeks. As also the fact that his players have been experiencing too much limited overs cricket of late. His batsmen have gone bonkers in all parts of the world, from the subcontinent to England to the Caribbean to Zimbabwe.
His bowlers have done well abroad and lost all their confidence in the recent ODIs versus Australia. The changeover to this longer format of the game will test them, pun intended, albeit against a relatively weaker side.
Meanwhile, West Indies may not boast of bulging reputations across their squad, but they have a handful of players who can change the game single-handedly. Chris Gayle is at the forefront, bringing the Sachin farewell extravaganza to a stirring stop if he gets going.
Darren Bravo and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are both left handed batsmen, and Indian bowlers struggle against southpaws. Marlon Samules and skipper Darren Sammy are handy all-rounders providing crucial balance to their eleven.
They landed quietly, slipped into Kolkata and played their warm-up game against Uttar Pradesh unnoticed, almost. India need to be wary of this threat, amidst all the distractions.
Select quotes from pre-series press conference:
Dhoni: "Change in format is a big factor for us. Both batsmen and bowlers have been working hard on it in the nets and we have assessed what all changes need to be made. We haven’t decided yet whether to play with five bowlers or not.
"Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane will have to wait if we do play five bowlers. If not, either of them will get the nod depending on how we assess the pitch tomorrow.
"There is still one more match to go in the series after this game. So let us win the series and then we will decide whom to dedicate this series to. The team has a surprise farewell gift in store for Sachin Tendulkar but I will not reveal it now."
Sammy: "We are not worried about any distractions. It is an honour to be part of the series where Sachin Tendulkar brings down the curtains on his career. But we are here to play Test cricket and compete hard, we are here to win.
"Our young players have gained a lot of experience since we visited here last in 2010. The Indian team has changed a lot as well. Their batsmen have gone from strength to strength, playing a lot of ODI cricket.
"We hope they will play more shots and give us chances. I am not sure whether their bowling is a weakness. If it is, we will certainly exploit it."
© Cricket World 2013