“It’s a great day for singin’ a song and it’s a great day for movin’ along. And it’s a great day from morning to night. And it’s a great day for everybody’s plight.”
The immortal Lt. Col. Frank Slade, played by the peerless Al Pacino in the timeless movie, Scent of a Woman, goes from being the grumpiest sourpuss on the planet to the happiest man in the world in a classic scene that anyone who has watched the movie will remember as long as they live. To be at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, a nameless face among a throbbing sea of humanity in the stands of a great cricket ground on a day when the home team overcame a determined and worthy adversary was perhaps the closest one could come to feeling the euphoria that Pacino so expertly encapsulated.
The chants of India! India! were louder than the cheers of Ashwin! Ashwin! that followed earlier and, at least at the M4 stand, where your correspondent was parked, the spontaneous throat-swell out-decibelled the enthusiastic roars that Virat Kohli’s exhortations brought about. For a cricket reporter long used to the sanitised environs of air-conditioned press boxes, there was no better day to be in the crowd. The young lovers seated at the back of the stands unclasped hands as they crept to the edges of their seats. The policemen on security duty, briefly forgot they were in uniform, lathis raised in celebration. The catering staff, whose backs were turned to the action as they tended their stoves, lost track of their daily sales targets and sated their appetites for the good times.
To be in the crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and feel how much cricket, and this Indian team, meant to the good folk of Bangalore, who packed the stadium on a week day for a game in a format that was allegedly dying in this country, was more of a seratonin surge than any antidepressant ever prescribed.
India were ambushed in Pune, on a turning track, where Australia played far better cricket for the duration of the game, out-bowling, out-batting, out-fielding and even out-DRSing the home team. For long enough periods of the Bangalore Test, it seemed that the theme would continue. Kohli padded up to a ball that he should have known was destined for his stumps. Ashwin put in the effort, but the record-breaking number of overs bowled in a season seemed to have robbed his fingers and shoulders of the zip that made him a champion. Ishant Sharma made more cartoon faces than taking wickets, giving away vital boundaries while he was at it.
Just after lunch on the fourth day of the second Test, sitting in the stands with a veteran journalist friend, it was unclear if the crowd simply did not understand the game, or were blessed with an optimism that we were robbed off by years of watching Indian defeats and deadline-busting depression. Every half chance was cheered, every appeal backed up, every DRS call given out. The scoreboard still had Australia firmly in front, Australia 42 for 1 after only 9 overs, scoring at a rapid pace in pursuit of an eminently gettable 188. The pitch for all its cracks and alleged volatility, was giving the bowlers nothing even as they gave their all.
Steven Smith, the Australian captain, jumped around in his crease like a toddler on a trampoline, but seemed in no real trouble. India’s best bowler in this season, and arguably of the last few years, Ashwin, was being picked off for runs with no fuss. Ishant was being his usual unlucky self, coming in off his long run and bending his back without actually giving the batsmen any grief.
Then, Kohli, taking a break from his official duties as the man who gets the crowd involved in the game, pressed Ravindra Jadeja and Umesh Yadav into service. Between the 16th over and the 22nd over, only seven runs were scored, with one batsman dismissed.
Suddenly, it was India in charge and Australia on the hop. Just as Mitchell Starc dug into his reserves to produce a spell of extreme pace earlier in the day, Ashwin fell back on his abundant reserves of mental toughness and never-say-die grit.
The M4 stand had gone a touch quiet, post-prandial somnolence not being helped by the ultra-sweet grape juice and fresh-cut watermelon being hawked seat to seat on a warm afternoon. But this crowd, whose only jarring notes were chanting RCB! RCB! when India was fighting tooth and nail to win a Test and keep a series alive, and booing Australian batsmen after they had been dismissed, may not have appreciated the importance of the dry spell that Umesh and Jadeja induced.
But they sure found their voices once more when Ashwin reaped the rewards. Here was a situation where the workhorses had to tighten the screws so that the game-changers could screw the Titans. Smith went, big heart and exceptional hands not enough to withstand a withering examination. Shaun Marsh did not quite know what he had gotten himself into and it was suggested to him to go for a DRS review, he misunderstood and went back to the dressing-room instead. Matthew Wade gave his opposite number a chance to show his athleticism, Wriddhiman Saha flying through the air in slow motion to wrap the big gloves around a ball that might’ve evaded the close-in fielder on the leg side. When Ashwin gleefully snapped up the return catch from the man who had shaded him with 8 for 50 in the first innings, and threw the ball into orbit, India had sealed the deal.
More importantly, Ashwin had given the thousands at the Chinnaswamy Stadium exactly what they wanted: to be a part of a famous India victory. They loved every Indian bowler’s success and they lived every ooh and aah when Australia’s batsmen fought back. Not every Indian fan will appreciate the sacrifices that their millionaire heroes make, fewer will empathise when one of their Gods shows his feet of clay and none put much store in Rudyard Kipling’s wisdom of treating triumph and disasters, those impostors, just the same.
These thousands took time off from work, made excuses to loved ones and braved the elements to watch something from an uncomfortable seat in an ageing stadium when they could have done better at home or in any one of Bangalore’s innumerable comfy bars. It is for them that cricket is played. It is they who make India the most powerful cricket board in the world.
India’s billions and Australia’s millions may have paid for this Test match by watching it on television, but the heartbeat of the game is still in the stands.
Having been fortunate enough to sit at Eden Gardens when Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman worked enough magic to resuscitate Indian cricket back in 2001, to walking the streets outside the Wankhede Stadium in the wee hours of April 2, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, with a piratical twirl, brought the World Cup back, it was the greatest gift to be sitting in the stands at the Chinnaswamy Stadium when Kohli’s India gave their supporters a day to remember.
At once, India’s cricketers and their fans were in sync. And the the energy that came from this will power the great game’s good health forever and a day.
(This piece first appeared on Cricbuzz on March 7, 2017)