Why does a game of cricket turn a billion people into raving lunatics? Why do two warring neighbours put all else aside and watch 22 men battle it out with bat and ball?
Cricket is beyond a sport in India. It is a religion. Most businesses – except, perhaps, the less legal kind – come to a standstill when a crucial match is underway. Barring few, all radios and TV stations are tuned to match broadcast. For a brief period of time, millions of people project their aspirations and frustrations on 11 men in blue. Be it victory or defeat, each is celebrated or mourned as deeply as a personal win or loss. The greater the rivalry, the more intense the emotion.
When arch rivals India and Pakistan play, fireworks follow. To watch India play Pakistan at a cricket ground in India is incredible. To watch India vs. Pakistan with a full house at the world’s second largest cricket stadium (Eden Gardens, Kolkata), in India, for a World Cup match, is epic. Not for the match itself – the movement of the ball is clearer on television – but for the wild energy and charged atmosphere.
Clash of the Titans…
The rivalry between the two nations – fuelled largely by the past – can be summarized by a simple statement: India may lose the cup, but cannot lose against Pakistan.
To add to this rivalry:
- India had never won against Pakistan in a match at Eden Gardens
- Pakistan had never won against India in any World Cup match
- Political conflict between the two countries led to periods when the teams did not play each other
- If India lost the match, it would end their hopes of gunning for the T20 World Cup
Given the hype and circumstances, it took some serious legwork by family and friends for us to score tickets for the knockout match in Kolkata.
battle cricket ground…
Memories of historic cricketing moments swirled in the air as more than 65,000 people chanted “Indiaaaa, India!” or players’ names at the top of their voices in Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Tens of thousands of Indian flags flapped and fluttered in the wind.
The event kicked off with the a live rendition of the Pakistani national anthem by Shafqat Amanat Ali. The spirit of sportsmanship was evident as the stadium filled with applause for the renowned Pakistani singer. This performance was followed by one of the highlights of the night: live performance of the Indian national anthem by India’s greatest superstar – Amitabh Bachchan. Echoed by the entire smartphone torch-waving crowd, the rendition was enough to induce goose bumps. The stadium filled with a deafening roar until it practically crackled with electricity.
As the match progressed, the roar became louder. Silence could only be heard at the fall of Indian wickets. Thoughts and emotions were expressed freely, frequently and dramatically. Yet, the crowd was not anti-Pakistan; it was pro-India. Throughout, the digital revolution was evident as a majority of the crowd helf up smartphones in an attempt to capture memories of the historic encounter.
Besides the venue and match itself, crowd culture shaped the viewing experience. The crowd at Eden Gardens was LOUD. So loud that cheers for singles sounded like those for boundaries. On one side, a Bengali guy patiently asked people blocking his view to move by saying “Oh Dada! Eh Dada! Side jao” …”Hey Brother! Please move aside”. For every ball; throughout the match. On the other side, the view-blocking renegades broke out into jigs and dance moves that rivaled Michael Jackson’s. Award-winning melodrama followed every shot.
Commentators were not just in the box – self-proclaimed cricket experts were all around. The dancing dude dispensed priceless tips – complete with full-blown action – for how Virat Kohli (star batsman) should swing his bat or what kind of bowling the relative newbie, Jasprit Bumrah, should do. His cronies chimed in with tips for how the brilliant captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, should set the field. With the amount of free advice dispensed, even cricket first-timers could become budding experts.
An innings to remember…
Virat Kohli’s undefeated 55 – complete with a raised bat salute to one of the world’s greatest cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar – sealed India’s win. While the match itself was not the greatest game, the people, place, energy, patriotism and passion made it an unforgettable experience.
To watch two great rivals battle live, is to watch history being written. Records were created and broken, emotional rollercoasters ridden and intense passion witnessed, but what remained was the memory of the moment of triumph and feeling of unbounded joy. The kind of joy that was shared by more than a billion people across the world.
When an event becomes an experience…
While the match viewing experience was fabulous, our cricket experience did not end there. The cherry on the cake was staying in the same property as both the cricket teams.
In stark contrast to the super-charged stadium, the hotel was a relaxed space with no evidence of any tension brewing under the surface. Despite their celebrity status, the players were surprisingly normal. While the rest of us struggled to recover from the incredibly stressful match, the Indian cricket team was back at work in the gym the very next day. Watching the men in blue work out was a revelation: they pushed themselves hard, but had fun doing it.
Our trip was full of more special fan moments: sending off and welcoming the team, sharing an elevator, walking on a treadmill, lounging by the pool or dining in the same space as past, current or future legends.
We did not hound any players for pictures, nor did we approach them for autographs or offer unsolicited advice. We did not congratulate them, nor did we follow them. We were happy to observe. It was wonderful for us to simply have a window into the world of cricket that extended beyond the game.
For us, picking the right property turned a memorable game of cricket into a fabulous experience.