When Rohit Sharma struck a record-breaking 264 against Sri Lanka here on Thursday, his timing was perfect in more ways than one — his hunting ground, the Eden Gardens, was celebrating its own milestone of completing 150 years.
“People here know their cricket. This is a special place and I wanted to make it count for myself and for the team,” said Sharma, who now has centuries in all formats of the game at the Eden.
This one will take some beating, said Virat Kohli of Sharma’s feat. What will also take some beating is how 50,389 fans came to watch a game that was more or less a formality, India having already won the series.
But come they did — making their way through a noisy political meeting that took up part of the road leading to the stadium, past vendors selling India flags (Rs 40), tricolour strips (Rs 10) and fake Team India jerseys (Rs 200), amid chants of “change, change” (the Eden regulars’ way of exchanging tickets) — and soon, the stadium was nearly full.
Just like it was some months ago when Yusuf Pathan transformed the white ball into a shooting star, his 22-ball 72 doing to IPL records what Sharma’s 264 did to 50-over internationals.
The Eden has seen many changes in its long innings. It can no longer be compared to the Coliseum — from cramming 80,000-90,000 in the days before the 2011 World Cup, it now officially holds 66,000. Its light towers, which also illuminate Durga Puja immersions, came with the Hero Cup in 1993.
Newspapers, mostly used to cushion the effects of sitting on craggy cement slabs but once lit in a vain attempt to thwart the visiting team’s appeal for bad light, are no longer allowed inside. And you don’t actually need them because the concrete slabs have made way for bucket seats.
During IPL, the Eden wears an intimidating shade of deep purple, the colour of the home team, and a deejay works the crowd with music from Freddie Mercury’s Queen to Kangana Ranaut’s film of the same name. The glitterati now sit in hospitality boxes, except Shah Rukh Khan who prefers watching his Knights from the balcony.
Not everyone likes the change though. “I don’t watch ODI or T20,” says Bhupendra Kumar Dey, 82, who watched the first Test at the Eden Gardens in independent India, against the West Indies in 1948-49. “Thanks to the British, December 31 used to be an official holiday. It was a time of celebration and the Eden Gardens was central to it. Everything was allowed inside — transistors, binoculars, fat lunch packets and oranges. For water, we depended on the military personnel who roamed around with big waterskins.”
A member of the Cricket Association of Bengal since it was rolled out in 1974-75, Dey remembers temporary stands being transported from the Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting grounds, the breeze from the Hooghly that aided swing bowlers (blocked now by a second tier) and the old pavilion where you could see batsmen gearing up.
But through the years, the Eden’s sense of humour has remained intact. After Thursday’s match, the crowd started chanting “Anushka bhabi jindabaad”. After a while, even Kohli was smiling. When South Africa were welcomed back into international cricket, a young man quipped as Allan Donald marked his long run-up, “Orrey, oke ekta cycle de re (give him a bicycle, please).”
It hasn’t all been fun and laughter. There has been crowd violence, deaths and India haven’t always been the Eden’s darling. Barracked by a section of the crowd after a rumour that he’d insisted on dropping Kapil Dev for reckless batting, Sunil Gavaskar is reported to have once vowed never to play on the ground.
Moving to another city after a roundhouse whack from South Africa, a recently-retired India cricketer reportedly said, “It’s good to be back in India.”
The Eden still doesn’t have a website and there are no stadium tours, museum, memorabilia shop or cafeteria. Like Sharma’s innings, it hasn’t always been smooth going. But the good thing is that the Eden is still batting.