At tea-time on Day 3 of the first Test between India and West Indies in Kolkata (6-8 November), Sachin Tendulkar was the last Indian player to walk off the field. He was headed straight for the pavilion when Sourav Ganguly held his arm and ushered him to a little group of children standing near the boundary rope. They were all wearing white T-shirts with 199 emblazoned on them, to mark his 199th Test. The children were holding tricoloured balloons attached to a large portrait of Tendulkar, to be set loose by him. Similar groups of children were stationed encircling Eden Gardens, each with a bunch of balloons plus small pictures—a total of 199 balloons. All flew, except the one Tendulkar launched himself. The portrait attached to it was just too heavy.
It was just another botched effort in a long list of embarrassment for The Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), as it celebrated the Master Blaster’s penultimate Test match. A day before the game, as the Indian team practised, a huge banner welcomed “Sachine" to Eden Gardens, a spelling error that was pointed out by skipper M.S. Dhoni. On the first day of the match, Tendulkar’s wife was welcomed to a “Mr Anjali Tendulkar" message on the scoreboard.
Truth be told, these are silly mistakes, usually to be taken lightly and passed off with a chuckle. But not when an ordinary Test match has been built up into an extraordinary occasion. It is common knowledge that the CAB wanted to host his 200th Test match. On Tendulkar’s request, when Mumbai was assigned the same, CAB president Jagmohan Dalmiya announced that his association would do everything to make the 199th a “memorable occasion". And then, they overdid it.
The “Salute Sachin" week was launched the moment Tendulkar landed in the city; a music album dedicated to his feats blared at all the intersections leading up to Eden Gardens; and life-sized posters and cut-outs depicting various moments of his illustrious career lined the way. Once there, he was greeted by former Australian opener Matthew Hayden’s quote: “I have seen God. He bats at No.4 for India" adorning the door of the Indian dressing room. Right next to it stood Tendulkar’s wax statue, staring at a tricoloured cake of 199 sandesh, the local sweet delicacy.
But that wasn’t all. A photo-exhibition opening; and the unveiling of the toss-coin with Tendulkar’s face embellished on one side later, the CAB was still not done. Seventy-thousand Tendulkar face-masks were to be distributed on Day 1. The plan was postponed, apparently because the face-masks needed to carry the Star Sports logo. The authorities intended to shower 199kg of rose petals on Tendulkar at the end of the Test, anticipating a Day 5 finish. Team India wrapped up the Test in three days and the plan had to be cancelled.
“He deserves this upbeat celebration. He is once-in-a-lifetime cricketer," said advocate Tushar Narayan Chowdhary, 74. “I have been watching cricket at this stadium since 1955 when New Zealand toured India. Kolkata has never before celebrated cricket like this."
Not everyone agrees with him though. “There is really nothing wrong in celebrating arguably the greatest cricketer ever. But flying balloons and showering petals? The CAB truly went overboard," said 18-year-old Oindrila Chakrabarti, who was present on Day 3 at the Eden Gardens’ clubhouse. This section of the stadium can seat 500 people. Only 200 showed up. It adds to reason why the 66,000-capacity stadium remained half-empty on all days of the Test—only 6,000 tickets were put up for sale for the public and the rest distributed as passes to the concerned association’s affiliates.
It is much the same case for the second Test in Mumbai, which starts today. The Wankhede Stadium seats 32,000 people. A total of 27,000 tickets have been distributed to various Mumbai Cricket Association’s (MCA’s) affiliated clubs, gymkhanas, sponsors, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials and players. Even the press box has not been spared, with a section of the 250-seater cordoned off for VIP guests. Meanwhile, there is pandemonium on the streets outside the stadium where Tendulkar will play his last Test match.
“I landed here at 3am and witnessed crowds hollering for match tickets," said Subash Jayaraman, cricket blogger, two days ahead of the game. He travels to India every year from the US to watch a home-Test. He doesn’t know yet whether he will get to do so this time around. “The crowd grew every hour until the morning when we were told the tickets will be available online. And I have tried and tried again, the website KyaZoonga.com just didn’t load easily as the website was under duress from unprecedented traffic."
Fifteen-hundred of the 5,000 tickets available for commoners were to be sold to non-resident Indians (NRIs) on a first-come, first-served, basis, at ₹ 10,000 each. “I went to that counter as well, and unsurprisingly, it was closed," said Jayaraman.
The other 3,500 had better luck. Like Ashwin Sanzgiri, a finance professional, who put eight computers on to the website. “After 6 hours of slowly progressing on one of them, the session timed out after I paid up. At 4am though, I got a text that my two tickets were confirmed," he said. He paid ₹ 5,000 for them.
Except for the KyaZoonga sale, there is a disconcerting similarity in the manner tickets have been distributed by both the CAB and the MCA. Take it a step further, this is the distribution system employed for almost all cricket matches to be hosted in the country. The concept of equality, particularly for high-demand matches, is non-existent. The common fan, despite playing a vital role in filling the BCCI’s coffers, stays marginalized as ever.
In 2011, the International Cricket Council (ICC) deployed a ballot system for general quota tickets to the World Cup final, also held at the Wankhede. Even then, the MCA had its own share to allocate to its associations, out of which 405 went unsold. If this is repeated, imagine the exasperation of a billion cricket fans, each of whom wants to get one last look at their hero.
Chetan Narula is a freelance sports writer/journalist.