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Rewind...To When Eden Gardens Roared On Shoaib Akhtar

Prithvijit Roy recalls an early Indian Premier League clash between Delhi Daredevils and Kolkata Knight Riders at the iconic Eden Gardens Stadium in Kolkata.

Before beginning my story I would like to introduce myself. I am an Indian born into a Bengali family in the city of Delhi. My story comes from the city of joy - Kolkata - which is located in West Bengal.

This story dates back to the year of 2008 when I was pursuing my MBA in Kolkata. My sole identity in the college was a Bengali who doesn’t know how to speak, read or write in the bengali language (Bangla) as he hails from Delhi, where this language is not spoken on an everyday basis.

Like every Indian I am a cricket fanatic who like the generation of the 80’s grew to idolize Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid. But what distinguished me amongst my fellow Bengali friends is that my favourite or Blue Eyed boy in the Indian team was none of the three legends mentioned above including Ganguly. This certain gentleman was known by the name of Virender Sehwag, a rugged Jaat from the suburbs of Najafgarh which lies on the outskirts of Delhi.

Virender Sehwag

Virender Sehwag - the man the author wanted to see perform at Eden Gardens on that day
©REUTERS / Action Images

The date was 13th May 2008. The IPL had been conceptualised and launched with eight major Indian cities having their own team – Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Chandigarh and Mumbai. This concept galvanized a sense of belonging to our respective cities.

Being a batch of 480 students hailing from different cities of India, we made our own groups who would be at loggerheads with each other, while supporting their respective teams. Of course I was in an ethical dilemma: should I support the city where my linguistic roots lie or should I support the city which is my birthplace? I guess my soft spot for the Blue Eyed Boy of the Indian team (Sehwag) tilted me towards the Delhi Daredevils.

The city of Kolkata has a charm of making itself a part of you even if you are an outsider. With a pace of its own and warmth of its own, it grows on you gradually similar to what wine does to your senses.

The IPL with its initial concept of icon players representing and leading their respective city-based teams captured the imagination of the public. Saurav Ganguly still being a part and parcel of the Indian set up was pretty much the darling and flavor of the city. Though he had lost his place in the one-day team and was on the verge of contemplating retirement (which happened later that year), he was still one of the focus of attractions as far as the common man in Kolkata was concerned.

The so called Delhites and supporters of Delhi had already made our own group and had become one of the most boisterous groups in the college. We got a sense that people loved to hate us, especially on days when the Delhi Daredevils defeated any opponent.

However, for me that hardly mattered. All that mattered to me was Delhi must defeat Kolkata Knight Riders in their own backyard at the Eden Gardens. And the build-up had started in our college perhaps two weeks prior to 13th May 2008.

Needless to say, amongst friends and peers, most of my college mates who hailed from Kolkata considered me to be a traitor or else they could not imagine a Bengali supporting another team other than Kolkata in their own backyard. Yes it was a slight dilemma for me to face the harmless jibes from my college mates, but it was also a lot of fun as I was getting to know many more people with whom I had not interacted before. The KKR theme anthem “KORBO LORBO JEETBORE” was reverberating in every corner of Kolkata and my college was no different.

The Background

Sourav Ganguly

Much talk centred around Sourav Ganguly (left) ahead of the game
©REUTERS / Action Images

Kolkata as a city, because of its slow-paced nature, gives one the time to ponder on a life after work as well. The Knight Riders had not been faring too well in the tournament after they had started off well thanks to the historic 158 by Brendon McCullum at the M Chinnaswamy stadium against Royal Challengers Bangalore.

Delhi, on the other hand, had been doing quite well and were in contention as a favourite for the finals. My hero Sehwag was perhaps at the peak of his ability, having decimated the likes of bowlers like Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn against Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challenger Bangalore in previous games.

My fanaticism for Sehwag had perhaps earned him more enemies than admirers amongst my peer circles in Kolkata. Not only friends, I had also not spared the either the security guards, computer lab assistants or even my professors to keep reminding them how Kolkata were languishing behind in the tournament and that one Sehwag would be sufficient to give the entire team of 11 KKR players a thrashing.

I knew at the back of my mind, that if Delhi lost, these people would never spare me with their taunts for the rest of my life. Similarly if Kolkata lost (which seemingly had a better probability), then I would not spare my college mates with my brand of sledging.

The City Centre Mall which was located close to my college became the hub of a college get together as they had placed a giant screen that would telecast all the matches live. Needless to say all the fanatics in my college who were supporting the different IPL teams would get together at 8:00 P.M to witness the saga and drama of each T20 game live.

Personally I was planning something which was one step ahead. I was planning to get a ticket to the Eden Gardens as I wanted to see my rustic idol smash the KKR team into pulp live in the first person.

There was also a huge build up for this game as a certain Pakistani superstar was to be making his IPL debut too - a certain Mr Shoaib Akhtar! What seemed to be a last throw of dice by the KKR management and the team, they seemed to be getting their wounded soldier back in the playing 11 to salvage some hopes of ending up as the top four teams who would play in the semi-finals.

As the city of Kolkata enjoys its shares of debates and discussions over cups of tea and cigarettes, everyone seemed to be debating as to whether Ganguly was suitable for this fast paced format or is it correct to play a maverick maniac like Shoaib Akhtar, who might get injured while bowling his first ball.

Amidst all this, my heart was pumping with joy as I had managed to arrange a ticket for myself and I would be going out with a couple of my friends who were neutral supporters as far as Delhi and Kolkata were concerned. My friends and peers who were supporting Delhi had not managed to get tickets for the match, would be assembling at the coliseum of the city centre mall to root for Delhi.

This seemed to be the only match which mattered. We didn’t care whether Delhi won the IPL or not.

As far as my understanding went even the KKR supporters in my college didn’t care for the title too. This seemed to be the only game which mattered to everyone. Whoever would be defeated would be pummeled to submission for the rest of their life, even after we would pass out of college. The words remain true till date.

The Day - 13th May 2008

The day finally arrived. As it was an evening game we headed straight from college to the stadium. I would either come back as a hero in my own eyes who would be hated for what I was (a Delhi and a Sehwag supporter), or as the laughing stock of the entire campus. Either ways it would be a night to be remembered.

Personally, I had done nothing much to make many allies who would come in my hour of need if Delhi lost. There was a massive rush at the Eden Gardens which in those days had a capacity of hosting a crowd of one lakh people.

Match At A Glance

Indian Premier League 2008

Kolkata Knight Riders 133-6 (Salman Butt 48, Maharoof 2-25)

beat

Delhi Daredevils 110 all out (Shoaib Akhtar 4-11) by 23 runs

Eden Gardens, Kolkata, 13th May 2008

Despite the stadium not being a full house, I was sure the crowd would comprise more than 80,000 people. A thought came across my mind. If this atmosphere was electric, I shuddered to think what it would have been like on that fateful afternoon of March 2001, when Australia lost to India after having asked them to follow on.

Newspapers and experts stated that crowd attendance was 150,000 when Glenn McGrath was the last man to be given out and that too as the poor umpire was under pressure from the vociferous appeal of the crowd. For a moment, I took pity on those Australian players, for what they must have been subjected to in terms of the ruckus created by the crowd.

Anyway, I was sure in my heart of hearts; this was going to be different. Sehwag would silence the crowd with effortless ease, while I will be executing a sledging marathon over my local Kolkata friends not only the coming days but also for the years to come. Over the next three hours God taught me the best lesson in humility one could ever get.

And The Game Unfolds

KKR began slowly and steadily with Salman Butt and Aakash Chopra and crawled through their entire quota of 20 overs to make 133 runs. For a T20 match this was a below par score and for a daredevil like Sehwag I was sure he could make the entire score by himself too in his sleep.

The only highlight of the KKR innings was those four deliveries when the darling of Kolkata Ganguly came in to bat. The second delivery he faced turned out to be a no ball and the Eden Garden crowd roared with joy as it was a free hit.

I must have been the only Bengali who was quiet as the free hit license would give Ganguly to go full throttle for a six against my Delhi. My worst fears were confirmed when from his third ball he hoisted Yo Mahesh (the bowler) for his trademark straight six.

As much as my heart sank on seeing the ball flying over, it brimmed with joy to see the entire Eden Garden of 80,000 people to swing with joy and pride over their favourite son’s achievement. The cheer was deafening to say the least.

However, as they say cricket is a great equaliser. Next ball, Mahesh had the final laugh as he clean bowled Ganguly who attempted another signature six. As the Eden Gardens plunged into gloom with its trademark pin drop silence, my happiness knew no bounds as I cheered and shouted my lungs out on Delhi’s breakthrough.

I will never forget how everybody in the stands glared back at me. My friends had to tie my mouth up by stuffing a cloth, or else they feared the fanatic crowd would reach towards me and give me a sound thrashing. Though The Eden Garden crowd has mellowed over the years from the debacle of the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, a fear for one’s safety still lurks around the boundaries of this ground, especially once passion seeps into the crowd to support their favourite teams.

Anyone who is against their favorite team becomes the crowd’s enemy. I called up some of my college mates to taunt them on Ganguly’s dismissal. Perhaps I was in such an ecstatic mood that I didn’t realise that some of them had left their cellphones at home and had come to the stadium to watch the game.

Thinking that my friend was at the other end, I uttered the choicest of slangs to make my happiness evident over the dismissal of her favourite hero, only to realise that it was not my friend, but her mother who had picked her phone. Amidst this hysteria I turned red in embarrassment as I had realised my folly.

My friend’s mother was sporting enough to realize that it wasn’t me, but the passionate Delhi/ Sehwag supporter who had spoken to her. To this day, this one incident has served as a foundation of my friendship with my friend and her mother. I am grateful to Saurav Ganguly for my entire life for this spurt of joy.

However, this was just a precursor of the events to follow. As Delhi came out to bat, Eden Gardens thundered with rapturous joy as Ganguly led his team onto the field with the ball in the hands of the Rawalpindi Express - Shoaib Akhtar.

Experts had felt he was past his prime which was true to a certain extent. Historically Sehwag had done well against him and having conquered him in Multan, Lahore and Karachi, experts had predicted that Eden Gardens would be an encore.

However this time this time a different script had been written.

Pretty soon, it was Kolkata who were celebrating...

Pretty soon, it was Kolkata who were celebrating...
©REUTERS / Action Images

This was perhaps the rarest occurrence in India where 80,000 Indian fans would be supporting a Pakistani against an Indian. To my horror as the Rawalpindi Express thundered in from the boundary line to his bowling crease, the Eden Gardens roared behind him as Sehwag edged his first delivery.

The celebrations in the stadium were indescribable. To see my fellow Indians celebrating the dismissal of my hero for a first ball duck was heart-wrenching. How I wanted to disappear from the earth at that moment.

My friends had starting messaging me to congratulate me on my misery. However this was just an appetiser as far as my stunned silence was concerned. In the course of the third over Shoaib broke the spine of the Delhi batting as Gautam Gambhir was caught at point. AB de Villiers was caught out hooking a Shoaib thunderbolt in the fifth over as Delhi reeled at 28 for three.

I follow cricket today as well and it amazes me to see the stunning heights Gambhir and de Villiers have achieved for their respective IPL teams - KKR and Royal Challengers Bangalore. If I ever met them in person, I would want to ask them what happened to them on the night of 13th May 2008.

The final nail in the coffin came when Akhtar trapped Manoj Tiwary lbw as Delhi declined to 28 for four.
Meanwhile at the City Centre mall a large crowd had gathered to see the live screening of that game. Obviously they had not appreciated the fact as to how the Delhi supporters of my college had celebrated the fall of each KKR wicket when they came out to bat.

If a crowd of 500 had gathered at the City Centre mall, only 9-10 would have been Delhi Daredevils supporters who mostly comprised my friends. The remaining 490 people gave it back to them when each Delhi wicket fell.

My friends were horrified as to how seriously the rest of the crowd had taken it to the next level when they danced savagely to mock the Delhi supporters as Delhi continued to collapse.

At the other end of Kolkata at the Eden Gardens I was dumbstruck. To see 80,000 people celebrating a club level cricket match victory with such ecstasy was a sight to behold. Witnessing and narrating a first account story of that fanaticism that city generates for its sport is like reliving that night every moment when I tell this story.

Though the Delhi supporter in me felt the pinch of losing a game, the cricket lover in me was spell-bound to see what victory means to a crowd who is so passionate about its sports and their favourite team.

My phone could not stop ringing as I kept getting calls from my fellow classmates who obviously were having the upper hand. For a brief while my hopes were raised as Tillakaratne Dilshan, Amit Mishra and Farveez Maharoof tried to wrest the initiative back by stitching some small partnerships between them.

However, in the 18th over everything was dismantled as Laxmi Ratan Shukla captured three wickets in that over to send Delhi packing for 110. When the last batsmen - Mahesh - got out, the stadium erupted with drums and fire crackers as I saw Ganguly and Shoaib Akhtar run and jump like delighted frogs at the onset of rain.

Glen McGrath was the last man, stranded on the other end. For the first time in my life I felt sympathies for Steve Waugh's mighty Australians who had collapsed by losing seven wickets in the cauldrons of Eden Gardens seven years ago in 2001.

That time, McGrath was the last man to be given out, this time he was the last man standing. The icing on the cake was when I checked my mobile.

It’s not an exaggeration if I stated the fact that I received 10 text messages in the space of one minute. The contents ranged from the choicest of slangs in the Bengali language to the statement of KORBO LORBO JEETBO RE.

I could imagine no other city in India where an IPL victory would be celebrated with such intensity. I just feared the welcome that awaited me in college the next day

The Man of the Match ceremony was another theatrical act to follow as Shoaib Akhtar stepped on to the platform to receive his Man of the Match Award. Nobody could have deciphered that night whether Shoaib is a Pakistani or not. That particular moment he was the darling of the crowd.

The stadium entered into further delirium as the KKR owner Shah Rukh Khan, the famous Bollywood star jumped into Shoaib Akhtar’s lap after presenting him the award. The tune of the KKR anthem was reverberating in the stadium as the crowd too got into the swing with the trademark Eden Garden Mexican Wave.

Generally it is believed people get high with an overdose of wine or alcohol or drugs. Eden Gardens and Kolkata was on a Shoaib-SRK high. And the hit and the kick it was giving to a sports lover like me who just loves to soak in an electric atmosphere of a sporting amphitheater will be a treasure I will carry with me for the rest of my life

Shah Rukh Khan played his part in a memorable day

Shah Rukh Khan played his part in a memorable day
©REUTERS / Action Images

The Aftermath

By the time I left Eden Gardens it was midnight. My phone was on the verge of getting discharged as my phone kept buzzing with taunts and jibes from my adorable friends.

While on the one hand, no doubt it was disappointing for the Delhi supporters to lose a game, from an individual point of view it felt great so many people now knew me in college, just for the fanaticism that I symbolized as a Delhi supporter.

The next day in college, the chaiwallah’s (tea bearers in the college canteen) and security guards gave me a rousing welcome by addressing me asking me how was I feeling. Such sympathies are generally given to people who have lost a dear one and are undergoing personal grief.

To be honest yes it was grief, but in my heart of hearts I also felt a great joy gelling with the people in my college and getting to know them after pleasantries regarding my state of mind with respect to the defeat had been discussed. To see some of the prettiest ladies of my college smiling with joy to see my deflated enthusiasm for Delhi’s defeat filled my heart with happiness and joy.

Perhaps a defeat for Delhi wasn’t so bad after all. Had Delhi won that game would I have been able to gel with those people? No, I don’t think so. Six years after that defeat, even when we have entered the professional treadmill, it is always nostalgic to catch up with friends and relive this particular game again and again.

Indian historians believe that in the year 327 BC the great Greek emperor Alexander invaded India and fought with the great Indian King Paurava who refused to bow down to him and fought with him till the last drop of his blood.

After Paurava was defeated, Alexander restored him his kingdom to which Paurava remarked, "I have lost a battle but I have won a friend."

As far as I was concerned, "I might have lost a match, but I won countless friends, the bonds of which remain strong even today."

After this game no doubt Delhi has defeated Kolkata as many times as Kolkata has defeated Delhi. But no emotion of victory or defeat is as sweet or innocent as those felt during that night of 13th May 2008.

I am thankful to Shoaib for having won that game.

I am thankful to Sehwag for having lost that match.

© Cricket World 2014