An Oasis of Serenity
India’s favourite cricket stadium evokes the grandest sentiments from players and spectators, but the lore of Eden Gardens goes back to the times of the English settlers
Partha Mukherjee Kolkata
As the East India Company burgeoned into an empire, so did cricket, the imperial game, move from one settlement to another to ignite a passion among young minds about the cherry and willow. With time, it spilled out of ground and became daily life jargon. Even in the corridor of a court, a lawyer would be heard telling an opponent whom he suspected of an unfair ploy: “Ain’t Cricket!”
Old timers have written in their descriptions of Calcutta in the 19th century that when the cobbled steps at the ghat (bank) would echo the sound of boots of the earliest English settlers on its steps, tucked away among their accessories would be a cricket bat or two. And what instruments these have since proved to be in the transformation in taste of the native babus.
It is learnt that when the tall ships cast anchor off the small Calcutta port, some of the crew rowed ashore and promptly pitched their wickets on the river bank in an attempt, perhaps, to restore power to their limbs, rusted by the restricted movement during the long sea voyage.
According to Pearson Surita, the famous sports commentator of yesteryear, the first organised cricket match to have been played in India was between two teams drawn from amongst the Writers – mainly, the products of Haileybury and the Imperial Services College who came to India in droves as the administrative force of the British, one being the Old Etonians and the other a less distinguished lot called, simply, Calcutta. However, the Etonians triumphed over Calcutta by an innings and 152 runs with Robert Vansittart’s magical spell of bowling and a superb knock for a ton and two (102). The ‘Vansittart Match’, as Surita dubbed it, had the spectators in Calcutta floored with awe and amazement for two consecutive days — 18th and 19th of January, 1804. Though Raju Mukherjee, the former Bengal cricketer now metamorphosed into an eminent cricket writer, mentions in his recent column in Ananda Plus that the match was held in 1780, timeline matters very little when the description of the match still continues to draw interest from avid readers of the sport as well as of history.
However, the game travelled farther, interest grew and, naturally, the importance of an official governing body was felt by all concerned to control the proceedings of matches played those days following a set of rules.
But considering its popularity among the large populace of the city, a group of Calcuttans formed an official body in 1825 and the Calcutta Cricket Club (CCC) came into being on a rectangular patch of turf on the Maidan to the south of Governor House—where Mohammedan Sporting Club has its tent today — with a splendid banyan tree close by like a village belle with her hair tousled to offer cool shade to players. But, as luck would have it, the club authority was pressured by the Army authorities, the bailiffs of the whole of the Maidan, correspondence between the two authorities following until 1854. Ultimately, the Club had to vacate the land. Though they were offered a large strip of land to the east of Auckland Square Gardens near where Customs Club have their tent
today, the club was yet to find its permanent address.
By then the Governor general, Lord Auckland, had gifted the Auckland Square Gardens to his sisters, Emily and Fanny Eden, and hence the name went down in the annals of history. New roads and pathways were laid; arrangements for the beautification of the environs were made.
However, the club appealed to the then ruler for finding them a spot where they could go on chasing their dream of playing cricket in the city. Considering the intensity of their desire, the Government granted them permission for playing cricket on the turf of Eden Gardens and at last the Calcutta Cricket Club had a home of its own. It was in 1864 that the garden saw the first cricket match played on its turf. The month was October.
Even though 150 years have passed since then, quietude still embraces the garden. Visit Eden Gardens one evening and laze in the empty stands; silence beats upon itself until you feel the air whispering tales from a time when this stretch would be filled with giggles of a bevy of English ladies
Eden Gardens welcomes you with open arms. As you enter through any of its many gates, you reach an oasis, sealed off from the cacophony of the city. The velvety green lawn rolling out beside the silvery sheen of the lake, and blooming flowers in the bright polychromatic hues create here the effect of a fairyland where you feel like being lost in an unperturbed tranquility. Coy lovers find a private nook on the wooden benches where the fresh herbal tang prompts them to wish away the emptiness of their lives.
Perched on the uppermost tier of the stand, you stretch your hands to touch the boundless sky; you find no word actually expresses your feeling of being one among more than 95,000 hysteric spectators. From the village greens of picturesque South England counties to Eden Gardens runs one thread that unites them all — Cricket.
Eden Gardens! The very mention of the name evokes countless memories. Memories as varied as the ages of the cricket connoisseurs but pleasant and nostalgic recollections nonetheless.
Others have memories of more than recent happenings: The year in 1969, Graham McKenzie has India on its knees — 0 for 2. In walks Gundappa Viswanath, a mere stripling of a lad. And soon the moans die down and the stadium reverberates with cheers as silken strokes to third-man and point are executed with pin-point precision by the genius of the wrist. Yet others recall that heady winter of 1961-62 when the gardens gifted her first victory to the country, Edward Ralph (Ted) Dexter’s team being the vanquished ones.
Many will recall Rohan Kanhai’s elegant strokeplay in 1959 when he scored that superb 258, a record until VVS Laxman’s highest individual score of 281 against the Australians
“And how about Sir Garfield Sobers?” chips in another aficionado. Remember the many great innings he has played on this ground and that remarkable feat he performed of running 50 yards towards third-man from the slips to try and catch a mistimed hook by an aggressive Budhi Kunderan.
The guile of EAS Prasanna, the lightning strikes by BS Chandrasekhar, the sight of Tiger Pataudi prowling in the covers, the grace of Ajit Wadekar, the mad genius of Salim Durani, the gazelle-like run-up of Ramakant Desai, the glorious swing bowling of Shute Banerjee, Sourav Ganguly’s scintillating knock of 101 against Pakistan in 2007. Javagal Srinath’s haul of 13-132, Sachin Tendulkar’s memorable final over in the semi-final of the Hero Cup against South Africa, Anil Kumble’s 12/6 against the West Indies in the final of the Hero Cup, hat-trick by Harbhajan Singh against the Australians in 2000-01. One could go on and on, such are the memories the Gardens evoke.
And then there were those legendary men from other shores, whom we want to just catch a glimpse of: Richie Benaud, weaving his magic web, Alan Davidson’s lazy and elegant strokeplay, Ray Lindwal’s immaculate bowling, the awesome sight of Wesley Hall pounding down… Tom Graveney, Ted Dexter, Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey, Keith Miller, Neil Harvey, Bob Simpson, Geoffrey Stollmeyer, Sir Frank Worrel, Conrad Hunte, Clive Lloyd… all of them and many more have graced the turf at Eden Gardens.
But the ground gets its greatness not only by mere association with the great names of cricket. It has a certain ambience all its own. Well, a lot of the ‘atmosphere’ has been lost to the compelling needs of the present; gone are those wicker chairs, the old red-brick pavilion, the shamianas and the green wooden benches. The trees that once dotted the High Court and Maidan ends of the ground, drawing the mist from the Hooghly as it curves away from the stadium, are no longer there, their loss being felt mainly by the connoisseurs of swing bowling of which they were the guardian angels.
But wait, the ‘atmosphere’ is still there in the form of that sea of humanity you see around you, their combined voices rising to a chant as Dale Steyn or Shoaib Akhtar or Lasith Malinga come tearing in, enough to unnerve any but the strongest willed opponent. And in the microcosm of your immediate environs you can still hear some of the wittiest comments, some of the keenest analyses, see some of the rarest dance forms… and seated behind you, some old fogey bestirs himself out of his serenity, as the thunderous ovation for a Raina sixer or a Rahane boundary goes over the fence while others compare it with CK Nayudu’s effort some 70 years ago and find it failing in comparison.
Box: MSC and the legacy of Football
The year was 1891 when the Mohammedan Sporting Club (MSC) came into being. On his visit to the club tent in 2007, Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, was impressed to know the club had been around before the parent body of international football, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was formed. Mohammed Salim, the first Indian to have played for a European club, Celtic in 1936, belonged to this club. It was the first Indian football club to break the supremacy of the British football teams in the Durand Cup when it held the trophy aloft in 1940. Several other feathers, like Federation Cup (1983, 1984), Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield (1936, 1941, 1942, 1957, 1971, 2013), Calcutta Football League (1934-1938, 1940-1941, 1948, 1957, 1967 and 1981), Durand Cup (1940, 2013), Rovers Cup (1940, 1956, 1959, 1980, 1984, 1987), added to its crown, and led it down the annals of the history of Indian football.
The club went by a series of names. Initially, led by Nawbab Aminul Islam, the club was founded as Jubilee Club in 1887; then it was re-christened Crescent Club, which was further changed to Hamidia Club before it emerged as Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1891.
The club deserves to be mentioned as the nursery of Indian football that produced footballers with enormous talent and promise, like Osman, goalkeeper Jumma Khan and defender Taj Mohammed, Nasim, Noor Mohammed, Noor Mohammed (Junior), Sabu, Mohiuddin, Aqueel Ali, Rahamat, Rashid, Rashid (Junior), Rahim, Samad, and Abbas who, without exaggeration, could be described as football wizards in their respective positions.
From 1941 to 1967, for 27 years the club scripted a golden era in the history of Indian football. It made its opponents feel its presence on the ground. Old timers still cherish their performance in the IFA Shield final in 1942, when the Black Panthers beat the formidable East Bengal by a solitary goal. “Oh, Noor (Mohammed, Sr) showed us magic on that afternoon.” An onset of nostalgia was quite apparent on the face of an old fogey.
In 1971 they won the IFA, drubbing a relatively weaker opponent, Tollygunge Agragamee, 2-0. During the 1970s, MSC’s performance satisfied its fans all over the country. The club showed occasional flashes post the ’70s. In fact, during the ’80s they emerged champions in tournaments like IFA Shield, Federation Cup and Rovers Cup. Last year, they won two big titles — Durand Cup and the IFA Shield. In the current season (2014), they beat giants like Mohun Bagan and
While the Indian Super League (ISL) is referred to as the birth of a footballing nation, it is shocking to hear that one of the three big football clubs of the country, MSC, has decided to bring the curtains down. “It’s shattering news, really,” sports journalist and football commentator Novy Kapadia reportedly expressed his concern to the media, “Is it the beginning of the end? You cannot bring down the Red Fort, Qutub Minar or the Taj Mahal, because they belong to the cultural heritage of the country, as does a club like MSC. Closing down clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or MSC would be akin to stemming the tide of Indian history,” he cautions. We cannot ignore the fact that, through the sheer effort of these three clubs, it was possible for the country to get two gold medals at the Asian Games and a fourth-place finish in the Olympics. Now they are on the verge of closure. While sponsors have set their eyes on the razzmatazz of football in its new avatar — Indian Super League — it raises important questions about the historical contributors of this legacy. All of them are keen on the ‘return’ of their money — the so-called mileage. But the fact remains that, barring the occasional flourishes, we still rank 158 amongst all football-playing nations in the world. The question then becomes, how long will Indian football keep at the struggle? Let’s hope the All India Football Federation will shed its somnolence and convince prospective sponsors to focus on the welfare of the game, not just its gleaming bonanza. Let the countdown begin!