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As the sun begins to set in Chennai, it paints a stunning picture of contrast at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, once known as the Madras Cricket Club Ground. The golden hue of its rays provide a glow to the thousands of yellow chairs in the grandstands on the eastern and western sides. Only three-quarters of the stadium, though, is immersed in this light.

The terrace of the Madras Cricket Club is in the shade all day. Here you can still see the remains of the old stadium, in the form of another set of chairs. There are hundreds of them, also yellow, but faded. You can say that at Chepauk, the old meets the young (or the new), and a love for cricket unites the two.

“There is both a Chennai and Madras at this ground," said commentator Harsha Bhogle during the first Test between India and Australia that ended on Tuesday with a victory for the hosts. “You will see here the old cricket lovers from this city and they are the last of the romantics. The cricket club that hasn’t changed signifies the latter.

“I remember doing a talk show with (former England captain) Nasser Hussain here and these people came to talk to him, not because he was Nasser but because he was Joe’s (former Tamil Nadu cricketer Jawad Hussain’s) son. They enjoy meeting a cricketer. This is the Madras culture. It is different from Chennai, because they now belong to the Super Kings."

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Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

“Passion for cricket is the hallmark of the sporting culture of Chennai," says former India player W.V. Raman, a face readily identified with Tamil Nadu cricket. “Always, a formidable crowd gathers to watch cricket here, irrespective of the format. But they identify Tests to be the top rung of the ladder. They appreciate competitive cricket and Test match battles are usually so, hence that is where the affinity comes from," says Raman.

The roots of this affinity lie in the city’s street-cricket culture. Its birth coincided with the rise of Indian cricket as a whole—first in the 1960s, when Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi forged the idea of this nation’s team competing on the world stage, and later in the 1970s, when Ajit Wadekar’s team put that thought into action. It was synonymous with the rise of this sport everywhere else in the country.

You think gully cricket, and it’s primarily Mumbai’s Azad Maidan and Shivaji Park that come to mind. Yet thousands of matches were played every evening across this city. The IDPL and Somasamudram grounds, the Marina beach, where children just lined up with bats, balls and stumps to play their hearts out. Today, these grounds have been engulfed by the ever-bulging realty sector and cricket on the beach is banned. Yet the streets in the Chepauk area are still lined with cricket equipment shops, if only as a desperate bid to reinvigorate this below-club-level culture.

“The great thing about this city’s cricket clubs is the patronage they enjoy from the corporate sector," says Bhogle. “It is alive even today, where cricketers find proper jobs. This doesn’t happen in Mumbai any more when it should, instead of the contracts that are handed out to players there."

It is a direct result of this association with the game at every level of society that provides an audience for its highest format. An entire generation, the one after that, and the next, grew up playing on the streets of this city and watching cricket at Chepauk, in that order. It is a stereotypical build-up for this society’s love for the sport and it has percolated down from a father to his sons, and their children. They were here, watching India beat Australia.

“The ‘Knowledgeable Chennai Crowd’ moniker isn’t really anything at all, but in a nonsensical way it rings true," says Mahesh Sethuraman, a 29-year-old banking professional who is also an active sports blogger in his spare time. “Club culture gave way to partisan crowds at the ground and they have been repeat comers here. They will come to watch and talk about what they have seen, and not just at the international level.

“For them discussing club cricket holds as much value, (former India cricketer) Erapalli Prasanna is on a par with (former Tamil Nadu cricketer) Divakar Vasu. You will not see this at other grounds because people nowadays go for star attraction. That isn’t the case here."

He has been visiting Chepauk since 2001, when India beat Australia in that famous clash. Among his group of friends is 33-year-old IT consultant Siva K.G., who boasts of a much older relationship with this ground.

“I have seen Dean Jones throwing up after scoring a double hundred in high humidity, seen an exasperated Ravi Shastri after the tied Test, Shane Warne regaling the crowds, Navjot Sidhu softening him up, seen Sachin Tendulkar bash up the Aussie bowling, Pakistan win and Harbhajan Singh bowl India to victory," he says. “My first memory though is from when I was four years old and brought here by my uncle. I didn’t understand the game then, yet I couldn’t get over the giant of a man that was Malcolm Marshall. It is an impression that has never gone away."

There is significance in his many visits to the ground, in that it doesn’t tell a tale of any particular hero. Instead it points to the raw magnetism of many-a-superstar who has displayed his wares here, as a wholesome part of this game. The D-Stand bears testimony to this. For years before it was torn down and rebuilt, it was a hub for club members who would rush to get in and place themselves just above the bowler’s arm, perhaps the best vantage point at any cricket ground.

In 1999, that stand became the source of inspiration for Chepauk’s greatest moment ever. Pakistan beat India in a pulsating Test lasting four days and as Siva put it, “a section of the D-Stand crowd just started applauding. Next thing I know, the entire stadium was on its feet, cheering the Pakistan team which was on a lap of honour."

Bhogle, on air that day, described it as a “victory for this sport". Raman deemed it his best-ever memory at Chepauk, negating the minor fact that his Test debut came on home turf.

Even so, Chennai stands at a cross-roads today. It is now a major Twenty20 venue and the patience of its patrons with respect to other formats is being tested. The new stands don’t allow for the relief of shade during a gruelling day of Test cricket. Ticket availability, other than for the Indian Premier League, is a big question mark because the administrators refuse to sell them online, generating serpentine queues from 4am on match days. Security checks are a hassle at every entrance point and there is a lack of proper access for the umpteen fans, compounded by a paucity of facilities.

It’s the story of many cricket grounds across the country. Yet the cost of negligence here could be far greater.

“Chennai, along with Mumbai and Kolkata, is a traditional Test centre in India," says Bhogle. “People in these cities used to get excited at the prospect of watching cricket and that thought shouldn’t go."

On the second morning of the first India-Australia Test, a petite old woman stood at the iron fencing surrounding the boundary ropes, hand-in-hand with her young grandson. Together, they were watching Sachin Tendulkar field at fine leg. It was an uncommon sight, one that amply displayed Chennai’s love for cricket, spanning generations. It needs to be protected.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.

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