Blast from the Past: When the Indian crowd cheered for South Africa at the Eden Gardens
It was November 25, 2005. The fourth One-Day International between India and South Africa was taking place at the ‘Mecca of Indian Cricket,’ the Eden Gardens.
There was the same hint of passion and frenzy in the stadium that is usually associated with this cricket-loving city, but the usual warmth was lacking. Something was amiss, the crowd seemed unsettled. Their favourite, Sourav Ganguly was missing from the team, and it was perhaps unsurprising that Eden Gardens would retaliate.
Heading into the match during the 2005 series, the Sourav Ganguly-Greg Chappell standoff had reached the boiling point. To make matters worse, Chappell was accused of disrespecting the fans when he reportedly showed the middle finger.
The 90,000-plus crowd decided to turn up for the match and vent their fury.
The Eden Gardens Debacle
Isolated murmurs of dissent that began in the very first over of the match with Irfan Pathan's dismissal turned into shrill cries of Chappell hatao, desh bachao (remove Chappell and save the country). Cries of Dravid haaye haaye, Dravid Murdabad (Shame on Dravid) reverberated through the galleries when the captain was dismissed after making just six runs.
India at that point was reduced to 71 for five. The ‘cheering’ started again as last-man Harbhajan Singh was dismissed at 188.
South Africa bowled India out for a paltry 188 and they chased down the target in 35.5 overs mostly due to an unbeaten 134 by Proteas skipper Graeme Smith. India were thrashed by 10 wickets and during the presentation, the crowd again jeered Indian skipper Rahul Dravid.
On that day, Eden opened its arms only for Sachin Tendulkar, who disappointed with just two runs. The rest of the Indian story was all about the batting collapse that followed.
And the jeering was non-stop — even when chief selector Kiran More’s face was flashed on the big screen. It was just one of the ways the crowd chose to stick to its 'No Sourav No Cricket' diktat and give a thumbs-down to Greg Chappell and Dravid.
As India was skittled to 188, the giant screen showed a Ranji update of Ganguly’s 159 in Bengal's 378. The crowd erupted in a rapture to hail the all-round comeback of their beloved cricketer.
“Bring Dada Back” seemed to be the sole agenda of the crowd that filled up every inch of the Eden Gardens, the home ground of the former Indian skipper.
The story of Sourav Ganguly’s axing
This incident came on the back of the Prince of Calcutta being dropped from the ODI team in 2005. In early 2006, he would be dropped from the Test team too.
It is a known fact that players get dropped from the team. That is a notion that cricket fans can and should make peace with. But in the case of Ganguly, it was the manner in which he was dropped that incensed the Bengal fans. Not only was he a star player but also the Captain of the Indian team.
It must be kept in mind that injuries and lacklustre performances also contributed to his axing.
The left-handed batsman had last scored a half-century against Sri Lanka in Dambulla, on August 3, 2005. After that, for the next one month, Ganguly was besieged by a string of poor performances, scoring 26, 5, 20, 19, 2, and 31. He played his last ODI on September 6, 2005, against New Zealand at Harare.
As far as the Tests were concerned, an uncharacteristically slow hundred (101 off 360) against a depleted Zimbabwe side at Bulawayo sent the critics into raptures, only for the controversial Ganguly-Chappell saga to blow up in everyone's faces.
Ganguly went public with his dismay at Chappell's suggestions during the match that he step down from the captaincy. Chappell maintained that the Indian captain asked him for his honest opinion on his form and leadership in a private meeting between the two.
The tour went on, with India unsurprisingly sweeping Zimbabwe 2-0, but on the team's return to India, Ganguly was publicly ostracised and there were calls for his sacking. Forty-eight hours after saying that he respected the Indian captain and looked forward to working with him in the future, Chappell shot off a damning memorandum to the BCCI.
Initially, when Chappell took up the reins of the team (recommended by Ganguly), there were successes. It is an often forgotten fact that he was the coach when India strung together a remarkable record of 17 successive victories while chasing in ODIs, starting from September 2005 and running up to May 2006.
India also won a few ODI series at home very handsomely against Sri Lanka (6-1) and England (5-1) and trounced Pakistan in Pakistan (4-1).
In tests, the showing was not the best: 2-0 against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, 0-1 against Pakistan in Pakistan, 1-1 against England in India and 2-0 against Sri Lanka in India.
One test result worthy of mention was the 1-0 victory over West Indies in West Indies: India’s first test series victory outside the sub-continent in a country other than Zimbabwe in a long time. The other test achievement of note was the 2-1 defeat against South Africa, where India managed its first test victory on South African soil.
However, discontent was simmering in the team and the last straw was the World Cup 2007 in West Indies.
A shock defeat at the hands of Bangladesh in their very first match and the subsequent crashing out of the World Cup in the first round for the first time since 1992 had its repercussions.
Indian fans, who are not exactly renowned for moderation, can move from adulation to castigation.
During Chappell’s spat with Ganguly, it was not surprising that he was vilified in Bengal because he is the only player from Bengal to have risen to magnificent heights in world cricket. If similar treatment had been meted out to Rahul Dravid, Karnataka would probably also go up in arms.
What is noteworthy is that Chappell could not find appreciation in other parts of India either. Whether it was his decision to shuffle the positions of players or multiple-captain theory, none of it could please the Indian fans.
However, after the debacle in the World Cup, abhorrence for his methods spread across all of India. The dislike became violent when an Indian fan hit Chappell on the back in Bhubaneswar and the BCCI realised that it was time to end the Chappell saga.
Unity versus Diversity?
As far the incident in the Eden Gardens was concerned, what does it say about the sentiment of Indian cricket? Agreed that the treatment handed out to Sourav Ganguly was in bad taste but does it justify cheering the misfortunes of your own country?
Sport is meant to act as a source that bridges the gap in uniting the immense diversity present in the country. But in a country as diverse as India, is that realistically possible? If a player from a certain region is slighted, then chances are that they would not take it well because, for the fans, that player represents not only the country but also the local region.
This regional attachment and emotions may not be felt as strongly in a cricket-playing nation like England or South Africa because firstly, they are not as expansive as India area wise and secondly, they are not as diverse as India. While someone brought up in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad has completely different cultures, the same is not necessarily true for someone brought up in the South African cities of Pretoria and Durban.
While support for local talent is of utmost importance, maybe new-age cricket fans can also someday realize the true meaning of sport. If we cannot learn to find unity among diversity in the larger context, then at the end of the day the only thing that suffers is the brand of sports.