Traffic along MG Road had come to a standstill as the number of bodies trying to move forward overwhelmed the narrow pavement. Our auto sputtered and died as the driver gave in and turned off the ignition.
A blur of yellow caught the corner of my eye and I turned to see a man in a Chennai Super Kings jersey with a rainbow-coloured Mohawk and an armful of knock-off shirts and flags. He looked like some strange exotic parrot blown off course, dropped into the middle of traffic searching for a customer.
With sharpshooter precision, he spotted Subash’s CSK shirt and came over to offer, “One for madam?”
After a few more moments of start-stop traffic, we left the vehicle and joined the throngs of fans heading to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium for the Champions League Twenty20 final between Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders. I did buy a shirt in the end, from a woman along the side of the road wearing a clown wig and holding a screaming baby.
As we approached the main gates, the crowd grew in number and chaos. In front of us in line, a group of boys debated which team to support during the match. “My heart is Mumbai,” one said, despite the fact that they were not playing. “I’ll support whoever wins,” one declared finally, and they nodded in sage agreement that this was the best choice.
Our seats were in the front row, a location I have learned that, despite its usual reputation, is not actually the best place to watch cricket. The IPL trumpet, which I have previously heard only emanating from Subash’s computer screen, suddenly blared from a mountain of speakers in front of us as the announcer welcomed us to “the greatest event in the history of world cricket.” Welcome to Twenty20 in India.
The next three hours were an exercise in sensory overload — an onslaught of music and cameras swooping into the crowd, driving them into a frenzy. The cricket going on a hundred yards away was watched, but almost incidentally, and mainly for the big hits. Every now and then, regardless of the score, an announcer would call out, “Come on guys, we want more boundaries and sixes!” At one point after a hit into the stands, the giant screen lit up with one word — EXHAUSTING. A strange choice, certainly, but I couldn’t help thinking it summed up the whole experience perfectly.
In my cricketing education so far, I have watched Tests, One-Day Internationals, and an alphabet soup of premier leagues. In the West Indies, the T20 was a party, complete with rum and almost-nude cheerleaders. In London, there was beer and fireworks and a lot of cursing. Both of these events could be called wild, but they were completely put to shame by the Bangalore crowd, who were happy to do it completely sober. Even watching Sachin Tendulkar bat in a Mumbai Test was quiet in comparison.
Many Test match fans I have met turn into grumpy old curmudgeons at the first mention of T20. Even the most laidback person will launch into a passionate lecture of all the ways it is destroying the sport, society, and possibly the universe. Mostly I haven’t bothered to think on these things, but I generally have felt that T20 is a good introduction to a sport that is otherwise long and complicated. If you would train for a marathon by first running short distances, surely you can watch T20 before taking on a Test match.
Despite this reasonable thinking, two hours in I was pining for the silence of the longer formats, or even the drunken revelry of Caribbean short-form. It wasn’t the music or the dancing or the party atmosphere in the crowd. It was more the way you weren’t allowed to have a moment’s thought that wasn’t given to you by the powers that be. The format is such that fours and sixes are constant, and can barely be appreciated before the next one is being announced by a catchy jingle played at deafening volume. A fan disappointed by a missed catch is immediately snapped back to rapt attention by being directed to get up and dance. It is like some dystopian future where happiness is decided by a voice behind a curtain, and you’ll kill the man next to you for his thundersticks without ever wondering why.
Despite all this, there were still oohs and aahs from sections of the crown when a batsman was beaten, to prove that some were paying attention to the cricketing proceedings amongst the ocean of light and sound. As the overs went on, it became clear to me that there is in fact a real fan base living the highs and lows of the match as the music thumps around them. Among these dedicated souls were children decked out in colourful jerseys and painted cheeks — a whole new generation learning to love cricket.
No matter what, though, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, from the organisers’ point of view, in delivering the “greatest event in the history of world cricket,” the cricket was only incidental. Whether this is good or bad for the future of the sport, I do not know, and one evening certainly isn’t enough to tell me. I do believe, though, that the fans could be given more credit for having the ability to enjoy an evening of fun and cricket.
As for me, eventually I couldn’t take the constant barrage anymore and left with eight overs remaining in the final to retain my sanity. We made a break for it out of the stadium and hailed an auto-rickshaw on the now-deserted MG Road, heading back home. An auto ride in Bangalore has never seemed so quiet. As we drove away, I turned one last time to look at the stadium receding into the distance behind us, still raucous and heaving, echoing with the promised high of the greatest show on Earth.