Cricket: Letter From ... Calcutta - The city paying for its passion

India is running out of sympathy with crowds which have earned notoriety on the terraces
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The Independent Online
CRICKET IN India, it is said, is more of a madness than a sport, and nowhere is that theory more wholeheartedly embraced than on the terraces of Eden Gardens, Calcutta. A recent edition of Sports Illustrated included a match there in a list of things every sports lover should experience before they die.

Yet disturbances during an Asian Championship Test match against Pakistan have again highlighted a darker side to the passionate nature of the Calcuttan crowd, a problem which has manifested itself on several occasions in the past and which is threatening to result in a suspension of Test cricket from Eden Gardens. Almost a month later, leading commentators in Indian cricket are refusing to let the issue die despite the best efforts of Calcutta's press to dampen the flames.

India is in the midst of rebuilding sporting and political ties with Pakistan, and while last month's trouble was triggered by a controversial dismissal, that of Sachin Tendulkar, the idol of Indian cricket at a delicate stage of the match, it could not have come at a worse time for Calcutta's cricket authorities. Returning for a run, Tendulkar had collided with the Pakistani fielder Shoaib Akhtar, who was positioned in front of the crease. Nadeem Khan's throw hit the stumps, Tendulkar was out and it was too much for parts of the 90,000 crowd to take.

Television replays suggested that Tendulkar might after all have grounded his bat in time and the following day objects rained on to the field from all sides as India's batting collapsed. The ground was cleared and Pakistan were forced to seal victory in front of an empty stadium.

This time, the press and politicians cried, the fans had gone too far. Not simply a sporting occasion, the tour by Pakistan had been central to the new goodwill between the two countries. The trouble was blamed on a misjudged and unwanted mood of nationalism, a charge hotly denied by the local media, who argued the disturbances were simply a result of genuine passions boiling over again.

"Here Tendulkar is a household name, far more famous or popular than the prime minister, for example," says Jayanta, a sports journalist in Calcutta for over 20 years. "When he was given out, the crowd were simply shocked to the core, and from that shock rose a great grief which resulted in this odd incident."

Last month's disturbances were, however, only the latest in a long series of "odd incidents" involving the Calcutta crowds. Back in the mid-1980s, play at Eden Gardens was disrupted by unruly spectator behaviour on two occasions, in Test matches against the West Indies and England. In 1994, the exclusion of a Bengali player, Utpal Chatterjee, from the Indian team led to angry scenes. Then during the 1996 World Cup semi-final, with India facing defeat by Sri Lanka, a riot on the terraces forced an abandonment of the match in favour of the visitors.

Neither has crowd violence in Calcutta been confined to cricket. Supporters of the city's two main football clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, have a history of hooliganism, the most serious incidence of which occurred in 1980 during a match between the two sides at Eden Gardens, when 16 people died and many more were injured in rioting sparked by a controversial sending-off.

Perhaps to understand such disturbances is to know something of the unique spirit of Calcutta itself. Bengali people see themselves as the artists, writers and political activists of a nation, and Calcutta is the region's great insurgent heart, a city from which the British were first driven away in 1911, where a Marxist state government still prevails and where citizens love to while away the hot afternoons talking politics or sport.

But now the rest of India is fast running out of sympathy for Calcutta and its crimes of passion. For Jayanta, the future of Test cricket at Eden Gardens is safe if only because of the huge gate revenues, but there will be no end to the terrace troubles from the overly devoted Calcuttan supporters. "Of course I am not supporting crowd violence," he sighs, "but it is the way things are here. The crowd, they identify themselves with the players, with the game itself... they identify themselves with everything. That is just the way it is with the Bengalis."