It’s the wall of noise that hits you first.
If you are a cricket journalist fortunate enough to cover the game in India, you face the paradox of being at the nerve-centre of the cricketing universe – but in a bubble. You sit inside press boxes that are air-conditioned. With televisions to see replays, with scorers to give you all the facts so that you don’t go wrong in analysis or report, with food available and wi-fi.
But also with glass walls, real and metaphorical, you are part of the action without being in the thick of it. You need that if you want to work. It is an extreme inconvenience if you want to experience cricket raw – which is what I was able to do when India and Australia played the second Test of their four-match series at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
And, in the stands, it’s that wall of noise, passion and energy that hits you.
Day 1 – Saturday, March 4
Get to the stadium early. There might be queues. There might be traffic jams. There might be anything. And you cannot afford to miss the start of the Test. So we are in our seats well before Virat Kohli and Steven Smith stride out in jackets for the toss. We can’t know then, but this is the most civil they’ll be to each other for the next four days. Maybe the next four decades, given what went down.
But for now, they’re just striding out. One of my friends is a fellow cricket journalist. We haven’t consciously spoken, or even thought, about whether sitting in the stands means liberating the inner fan or keeping journalistic tenets alive and striving to stay neutral. Turns out, we didn’t need to because neutrality was – pardon the terrible pun – ‘tossed’ out of the window early given how inordinately pleased we were that India had won a toss they badly needed to.
A member of the Indian team would later tell me that some of them weren’t entirely sure batting was the wise choice. The pitch had been watered a fair bit, and the dampness would help give spinners some bite. Nathan Lyon chomped so hard he had eight wickets.
But that was for later. The first sight that struck was that of Mitchell Starc. The press box in most grounds is more or less behind the bowler’s arm. I was at a stand near square leg from one end, cover from the other. Starc lopes to the crease. He doesn’t run. And there is a visible burst of energy at the moment the ball is delivered. He’s a built-for-fast-bowling machine. At least from square leg. It is an enthralling sight, more so because you have no idea about the lines and lengths Starc is bowling at. All you can see is the lope and the speed.
If you’re watching, that is. The thing about cricket in India is, it’s also a social occasion. Or to be more accurate, a social media occasion. There were people dotted all over who watched cricket only when taking a break from clicking the ubiquitous selfie. Sincere apologies to the woman seated in front of me, who might find a startled face in the background during one photo because I didn’t look away in time.
Two women, though, were more intent on the game. It’s not every day that you find yourself seated in the same stands as an India legend and – if all goes well – a future legend. Smriti Mandhana was on crutches alongside Jhulan Goswami. They didn’t stay for long unfortunately, and there was no opportunity to ask them about their insights into what was happening.
Day 2 – Sunday, March 5
Test cricket at its best. The friends I was watching with thought it better to stay at home for the first session and come at a leisurely pace.
There was nothing leisurely about the action, though. This was a proper dogfight of a day, and the best of both worlds was getting updates later on the intensity of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav’s bowling, and the discipline of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. I had seen it live, they had seen it with the additions that television provides. Together it made for a fuller picture. The downside of being at the ground was that the giant screens don’t show all the replays, particularly if an appeal has been turned down and there is no review. Why? Who knows. So while the bristling intensity was palpable, there was no way to know how many close calls there were.
Still, at the end of the Test, those inside the Indian camp would say how it was this day that saved the series for India. It may have resulted in only six wickets, but India never allowed Australia to get away and always had their batsmen under the pump.
The crowd was the 12th man with the force of a tsunami, and Kohli – as he has done all season long – held them in the palm of his hand better than Freddie Mercury could. Kohli gestured, we cheered. Kohli raised his hands, we raised our volumes. Kohli, the conductor of the most cacophonous orchestra in the world, had the crowd baying for blood even as the bowlers were running in. When one such moment brought Mitchell Marsh’s wicket the delirium in the stands seemed to be matched by 11 men on the field.
The only dissonance between King and subjects was the growing chants of “We want Jaddu”. He strangely didn’t get that much of a bowl in spite of being the most successful one. As chants go, that was still far better to hear than “RCB, RCB”.
I’m no IPL-hater, and come April-May I will find nothing wrong with that chant. I will even welcome it as the sign of a vibrant crowd. But it just felt terribly, terribly out of place for a match played in white clothing by the national team. Does the word ‘earsore’ exist?
Day 3 – Monday, March 6
There was a goodish Wisden India presence in the stands for this day and it made for lively viewing. The merits of what lengths the Australians bowled were discussed. The serenity of Cheteshwar Pujara’s batting was applauded. The DRS dismissal of Kohli was contested. Thankfully, nothing was analysed.
In the stand we were sitting in that day was one particular gent who had plenty of advice for the Indian batsmen and a carrying voice. It mostly consisted of one word: “Batting-aa!” Variations, such as throwing in the name of the batsman in question, were allowed. With our best stiff upper lip impressions, we sneered that he was not a proper Test match fan. And then it slowly dawned on us that the gentleman in question was cheering the dot balls, the perfect defensive shots, the well-judged leaves. He may have had a T20 voice, but he was a Test match fan.
And he had the force of personality to carry others in the stand with him. He wasn’t making an exhibition of himself. He was putting on an exhibition in the art of cheering. I was to discover by the end of the Test that every stand had such people. And each one became the centrifugal force around which the fandom and cheering coalesced.
That this was a Monday morning made no difference. There were understandably fewer people in the stands than on the weekend but not by much.
The traffic and queues outside the stadium could be better managed, but still they came. The food prices inside Chinnaswamy seemed to have gone into reverse demonetisation – nothing below Rs 50 so it was like the 10- and 20-rupee notes were banned – but still they thronged. The seats were not the cleanest, but still they packed in.
It was a humbling, first-hand lesson into what makes cricket in India tick, and offers us the means to make a living by watching the game.
Day 4 – Tuesday, March 7
At the start, it looked like India finally had the upper hand in the match. In two overs, Starc and Josh Hazlewood destroyed that hope.
I made my way over to ‘N’ stand, where Ramachandra Guha, historian and cricket writer, and more recently one of the four members in the Committee of Administrators, was enjoying what had developed into an absolutely classic Test match.
Given his position in the BCCI right now, Guha preferred paying for a ticket for himself and son Keshava, rather than getting passes from the Karnataka State Cricket Association. A great hour was spent watching the precursor to the game’s final denouement in their company, with the true Test cricket aficionado’s love for the longest format and the variety of challenges it posed, coming through.
I asked him how he was enjoying the view from a different vantage than his usual seats only to be told with a smile, “I have watched the game from the stands many times. I’ve been coming here since 1979, before you were born.”
In case there are any readers wondering about my age, that last bit is accurate: 1979 was indeed before I was born.
Sitting in that stand, the whole Smith-DRS drama was played out with the batsmen facing their backs to us. All we could see was Kohli at the head of a pack of Indian fielders that converged on Smith.
Later, back at the familiar position at square leg, you could sense the inevitability of an Australian collapse. Above us, a group of 150 children – 50 of them special needs – had won hearts with their unflagging enthusiasm. They had coordinated chants, and they never let up. Their entry had been arranged by NGOs and allowed by the KSCA – a magnanimous gesture that stadiums all over India should replicate.
The children were 150 but with one voice. That voice was one among thousands as people realised one of the great Indian Test wins was at hand.
There was Kohli, seemingly in three places at once. There was Ashwin, back with a vengeance. There was Jadeja, giving less than zero away to the batsmen. And there were the Australians, with a rabbit-in-headlights feel about them. And still there throughout was the crowd. Heaving, throbbing, swaying, chanting. Coming back to life better than even David Gilmour could have envisaged.
And there, finally, was the victory amid whoops and war-cries. Nationalism has become a bit of a dirty word – with ample justification – in India’s current political scenario. For the only time in recent memory, it didn’t feel wrong to describe the moment as swept up in nationalistic fervour.
Day 5 – Wednesday, March 8
The Test is over, and I don’t have to do my routine of early morning departures, and late-night shifts. It was a sporting miracle of sorts. Not Eden Gardens 2001, but a good joint claimant for the silver medal among a few other wins.
At the end of the first innings, Australia were ahead.
At the end of the second innings, Australia were ahead.
At the end of the third innings, Australia were ahead.
At the end of the match, India had won.
There’s no need to use the Day 5 ticket. Better frame it, to remember a classic.