As in life, sport is charged with 'atmosphere'. Greatful Dead fans may vouch for "the buzz" at a Jerry Garcia concert. Potheads may rave about "that stoned feeling" at Anjuna beach. Atheists may be humbled by the sea of humanity and religiosity at the Kumbh mela. For me, witnessing an India-Pakistan cricket match as a spectator belongs to that zone. The game in question was the quarter-finals of the 1996 Wills World Cup in Bangalore.
Bangalore holds many attractions. Salubrious climate, lip-smacking South Indian food, a rocking nightlife; a lively cricket culture just adds to its charm. Over weekends, playing fields teem with youngsters practicing hard to make the cut. The bowlers make a fascinating sight. The lanky ones invariably aspire to become fast bowlers, while the short lads with an analytical air about them learn the art of spin bowling.
An India - Pak match was just the fillip these youngsters needed to watch and emulate their heroes. The grown ups needed no incentive. I worked in an advertising agency where patronage of cricket flowed like draught beer from a barrel. Our conference room with cable TV resembled an exclusive box reserved for families in a cricket stadium. On big match days, work came to a grinding halt.
In the week leading up to the match, it was carnival time at our agency. Cricket enthusiasts were willing to pay whatever it takes to get a ring-side view. Seats in a vantage stand were going at Rs 1,000 a pop. Roughly translated, it equaled a month's entertainment at a pub. I dithered. Just then my Account Director, Mr. R.V. Raman, agreed to pick up the tab.
We were a group of six attending the match; G.Suresh, Ravi, Manohar Kulkarni, M S Dinesh, Kiran and myself. Needless to say, productivity at the work place hit an all-time low. The Print and Production department printed 'Do or Die' t-shirts for the occasion. Discussion revolved around strategy to beat Pakistan! My colleagues spun theories with the conviction of a think-tank.
I have no illusions of being a cricket pundit. I mulled over the mundane thought of getting home after the day-night match. Going into the Cup, India had a miserable record against Pakistan in one-dayers. Commuting to the stadium required me to criss-cross a Muslim neighbourhood. Whichever way the match swung, I had no chance of dodging an acid bulb, tossed in a fit of joy or rage, on my humble Luna. So I made arrangements to sleep the night at a friend's apartment not very far from the stadium.
The big match took place on Saturday, March 9. The Chinnaswamy stadium is in the heart of town, at one end of M.G. Road. We queued at the turnstiles around noon, well in advance of the scheduled 2 pm start. We entered the stadium in 30 minutes and scrambled to get seats with a good view at the BEML end. We were lucky to get seats just to the right of the sight screen.
As we settled into our seats, we sensed this match was destined to be a grand spectacle. Some fans daubed their faces with paint of the Indian tricolour, others huddled themselves under a huge flag. At one corner, there was an orchestra of sorts. A bugle and cymbals accompanied the chant, 'Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega'. On any given day, Hindi would mark a discordant note in the streets. Today, the entire stand joined in for a victory chant.
A loud roar went out as the captains, Mohammad Azharuddin and stand-in Aamir Sohail walked out for the toss. Wasim Akram had pulled out due to injury. Azhar called right and opted to bat first. The stage was set for a gladiatorial contest. The Pakistan team was greeted with a slow clap of hands as they made their way to the playing area. But when Sidhu and Tendulkar walked out, the roar got so deafening, it felt as if the roof would cave in.
Waqar opened with the new ball. The Indian openers got off to a steady start. Every boundary was lustily cheered; misfields were applauded with pleasure. Tendulkar fell when the total touched 90. A collective sigh went out at his dismissal. Privately, I wanted Tendulkar to do the star turn.
Manjrekar joined Sidhu and, soon after, the latter got to his individual fifty. Manjrekar departed trying to force the pace. The captain, Azharuddin, was greeted to a tumultuous reception. Sidhu rolled the strike and kept scoring at a brisk pace till he perished in the 90s. The colourful Sardar, he of the twisted rationale and wit, played responsibly and was roundly applauded as he made his way back to the pavilion.
The floodlights came on as Kambli joined Azharudin. At this juncture, the Indian innings seemed to be losing momentum. Azharudin broke the shackles with a towering hit off the spinner, Mustaq Ahmed. The ball flew in our direction, kept climbing, and then cleared our stand tier even as hundreds made a vain attempt to catch it. Shortly after, Azharudin edged Younis and Latif flung himself full length to pouch the ball. It was a stunning catch, one that merited a standing ovation from our stand. For the first time partisan spectators applauded a member of the rival team, and Latif acknowledged it with a raised glove.
That brought Jadeja to the crease. While his partners got out at the death, Jadeja proceeded to unleash mayhem. The hapless Waqar Younis went for 22 in one over. Jadeja got the crowd to its feet with a flicked six off his toes over mid-wicket. The stands resonated to 'Jadeja zindabad'. And when he holed out at 45 from just 25 deliveries, he received a thunderous ovation. The last four overs fetched a staggering 57 runs and India reached a formidable total of 287 for 8.
As the Indian team entered the field, the crowd made a spontaneous 'Mexican wave'. The Pakistan openers, Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar, had other plans. They went hammer and tongs at the new ball bowlers and local heroes, Srinath and Prasad. Deliveries disappeared to all parts of the ground. In little under an hour, the stadium went from raucous to mournful. The orchestra fell silent. We could well have been at a funeral!
It was a blistering exhibition of strokeplay. I clapped at one audacious strike by Anwar, only to be reprimanded by a frustrated spectator for 'supporting the Pakis'. I got off with a mild warning. Venkatesh Prasad wasn't so fortunate. As he retreated to the boundary below us after another expensive over, he was pelted with bottles of mineral water. He could have been knocked down senseless, had it not been for protection from the high barricades.
The batting may have been stunning, but the tension in the stands was palpable. G. Suresh, who sat alongside me, kept puffing one cigarette after another saying, "Hey Al, we need a wicket real bad." I couldn't agree more. Soon enough, Anwar holed out to Kumble off Srinath for 48 and the crowds were on their feet again. The openers had blazed to 84 runs in a mere 10 overs.
If Anwar's dismissal was an act of folly, what followed was insanity. Sohail spanked Prasad through the covers, walked up to the bowler and pointed his bat to the cover region. Sohail charged out to swat the next delivery towards the covers, missed and was bowled. The captain had lost the plot. The crowd hissed at the fall of the wicket while Prasad pointed Sohail in the direction of the pavilion with a volley of abuses.
The terraces sensed a quick capitulation. The orchestra now sang, 'Hum Honge Kaamiyaab'. Inzamam joined Ijaz but an enthused Prasad shut them out. Veterans Salim Malik and Javed Miandad scratched around but fell trying to keep pace with the mounting asking rate. Rashid Latif raised visions of a fightback with a towering straight six off Srinath but he was outfoxed by spinner Venkatapathy Raju. Each dot ball was cheered with a huge cheer. When the overs ran out, India emerged victorious by 39 runs and a hoarse roar enveloped the stadium.
We made slow progress out of the stadium. There was a festive mood in the streets. Some girls were hugging complete strangers while others were sobbing. We walked in search of a pub in the middle of the night. Fatigued, we settled for 'Chung Fa', a Chinese restaurant. Inebriated spectators greeted us. A middle-aged gentleman at the next table kept muttering, "I say, what a match!" He insisted on buying drinks for all the tables in sight. The breweries must have gone dry on that merry day.
At the restaurant, patrons were transfixed at the TV, watching scenes of the match. We raised a toast to the heroics of the Indian team. It was well past midnight. We dispersed to go home. I walked to my friend's apartment. There was a small note on the door from the naukar -- a cricket fanatic -- informing the owner he wouldn't make it to work. It was a Sunday. An ace punter, chances are he'd bet his life's savings on an Indian win. In good measure, he'd earned both the holiday and the winnings. As for me, I needed sleep to recover from the hysteria.