Monday, March 14, 2011

Eden Gardens ready for World Cup

Eden Gardens' wait is over; the World Cup has arrived in Kolkata. It's more than two weeks later than was originally scheduled, but it's finally come.

It hasn't come with the pomp and ceremony it was supposed to bring: a match between India and England would have, no doubt, been played in front of a capacity crowd. It hasn't come with the local heroes that the people of Kolkata have not seen play live for their country, in the city, since February last year in a Test match. It hasn't come with a match that, on paper, offers a close contest that may prove decisive in the group stage. But it's come; and, more importantly, the iconic stadium is ready to receive it.

Eden Gardens was stripped of its right to host the India-England clash because the ICC decided that it would not be ready by February 27, when they inspected the venue on January 27. It was a massive blow for the stadium and considered an embarrassment; but instead of cowering away, the Cricket Association of Bengal have come out defiant, insisting that they were always ready on time.

Kishore Bhimani, veteran administrator, journalist and now media manager of the venue, was involved at the time and was among those who believed the match should have stayed at Eden Gardens. "I thought we were ready," he told ESPNCricinfo. "There were some problems with the drainage system, the radio boxes and the sightscreen, but I think the main issue was that there was a mismatch between our promise to them [the ICC] that we would have it all done and their belief in our promise." The drainage system and media facilities have been spruced up and the sightscreen now covers the entire lower tier, things the administrators say were easy to fix.

The CAB is adamant that they could have had those alterations made in time for February 27 and that they were denied their golden moment of the tournament. For them, the loss they have suffered, not just in monetary terms, but purely by not having an India game, cannot be recovered. "It's like having had diamonds and now being given silver," Biswarup Dey, the joint secretary of the CAB said. "Everything was fine, it was all ready and nothing major has changed since we were first inspected. But the ICC is the parent body and we can't say anything more."

Most of the officials had the same attitude, not wanting to hark back to the game they so desperately wanted to host, and are anxious to get on with hosting the matches they do have. Bhimani is even optimistic that the response from the public will be positive. "We are expecting a crowd of around 35,000 for the match between South Africa and Ireland. Of those tickets 7000-8000 were sold, the rest were given to affiliates"

It still means that more than half the stadium, which has a capacity of 63,000 (down from 100,000 after the renovations) will be full. That so many people were willing to buy a ticket to see the game is impressive, especially since the cheapest seat is Rs 400 (10US$), and Bhimani thinks the reason may lie with one of the teams that is in town. "South Africa are playing very well so people want to see them but they are also a real favourite in Kolkata."

Eden Gardens was the stadium where it all started for South Africa, in 1991, when they re-entered the international fray. This is where they came after a 22-year exile imposed on them by Apartheid and this is where they re-started as an international cricket team.

Bhimani was part of the organising committee for that tour and he remembers the excitement when South Africa was welcomed at Eden Gardens. "There were at least 100,000 people lining the road from the airport to the hotel to see the South African team. At the hotel, there was great curiosity from people to see the team. And they [the team] weren't worried about security, they were happy to meet people."

On the field, South Africa weren't quite as suave. They were overawed by having to play in a "stadium with 87,000 seats, each of which was occupied," as Bhimani said. Most of the players had only performed in front of domestic crowds in South Africa, which never numbered more than a few thousand. Andrew Hudson, who opened the batting then and is convenor of selectors now, admitted to being so nervous that "I was trembling" and was out for a third-ball duck. India won the match that day, but South Africa won hearts.

Twenty years later, South Africa have a lot more experience in international cricket and of playing in front of big crowds, and are back in the city for a pit-stop on what they hope will be a road to a title that has evaded them. The memories of their first visit may be what draws Indian crowds to come and watch them here but the team is not dwelling on the past. They are here thinking only of the future that they hope will include a piece of ICC silverware, and are only too happy for Kolkata to be one of the venues where that crown is won.

"It's a special place to play," Corrie van Zyl, South Africa coach said. "It's awesome to be back. We were here last year when the stadium was being built and it will be nice to see it now that it's finished." The concrete slabs have been replaced by bucket seats with roofs being constructed over them. Not all of the roofs are complete, with two of the stands only sheltered by a skeleton structure on which the covering is yet to be added. Ironically, that covering is being imported from South Africa.

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