Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium is home to the North Stand Gang, an ever-expanding group of cricket fans from all walks of life
One of the more emblematic stories about the North Stand Gang (NSG) is connected to Ajinkya Pandharkar. His wedding date had been set for November 2013. In October, Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement and the cricket board quickly declared that a farewell Test match at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium would be held a month later.
Pandharkar panicked, mulled the consequences of choosing Tendulkar over his wedding and prayed there would be no clash in dates. Fortunately for the bride, the West Indies folded up in three days, the Test ending on 16 November. The groom could rush to Nashik for his sangeet on the 17th.
“I got free by 2pm, had some pizza and ran. My friends in Nashik called me to ask where I was. I said I am at the Wankhede, bro, and Sachin is giving his last speech. I will call you back. My wife (Shweta) still taunts me about this," he says.
Pandharkar is a “member" of the North Stand Gang, a bunch of cricket “crazies" who get their name from the space they like to occupy at the Wankhede, flanked by the University grounds behind them and the Western Railway tracks on the other. This community of 70-80 people, held together by their love for cricket, food, trash talk and ability to cheer the loudest, is one of the most visible elements of the stadium during a match.
Ironically, it was at the Brabourne Stadium of the Cricket Club of India (CCI) that the NSG found its identity. In 2009, when Sri Lanka played the third Test of a series against India at CCI, mobile phones were allowed into the grounds for the first time. Anish D’Souza and Ashutosh Shirke, regulars at Mumbai matches, exchanged numbers and realized they had something in common—they expressed themselves loudly and passionately on the ground.
NSG numbers grew organically, helped by social media. Most of the new members say they were attracted to the group because of its energy. “I have been attending matches at Wankhede since the late 2000s, when my dad used to take me there. I knew there was some force in the north stand, which was different from the other crowd," remembers new recruit Nish Navalkar, wearing a T-shirt that says “India’s 12th man—North Stand Gang".
WhatsApp helped get them on the same communication channel, communication being another word for sledging, discussions and sarcasm. Common topics of debate include M.S. Dhoni’s selection, four- versus five-day Tests and LED versus wooden bails on stumps.
“We can debate for hours. It’s an infinite loop," says Navalkar. On match days, an average of 1,500 messages burn through WhatsApp and 500-700 exchanges happen on days when there are no games.
Anyone can join in—most “members" were once just curious fans who gravitated towards the noise. New members are inducted after direct messages and engagement with NSG’s social media handles proves their passion for the sport. It’s mostly a men’s group of 30-something professionals, though not by design. The few women in the group, as Pandharkar says laughing, are WAGs, referring to a British tabloid acronym used for the wives and girlfriends of footballers.
“It takes nothing (to join the Gang). You chant, you are part of us," says Darshan Doshi, a logistician who plays the guitar and is in the process of working on NSG’s anthem. Till such time as it is ready to be unleashed, he uses film songs to come up with chants like, “(Shikhar) Dhawan karenge, Dhawan karenge, Dhawan karenge," “Ole, ole, ole, Kohli, Kohli" and “AK nahin, BK nahin, CK nahin, DK sahi…" for Dinesh Karthik.
The group has also travelled to other venues, like Pune last year, where one of the members hosted some 20-odd other group mates. Of course, many discussions were on where to eat after the day’s play.
“It is not just some vague discussions. We are knowledgeable fans—we don’t say things for the sake of it—99% of us understand the game and have watched it for 20 plus years," says Sagar Walve.
Over the last few weeks, some members have been gathering on Saturday mornings for a nets session at a ground in Bandra East—to practise what they preach so easily on Twitter. Last Saturday, one member had driven to the grounds straight from the airport, having arrived from Ahmedabad. Another had to attend his sister’s nuptials but could not resist knocking the ball around for a bit first.
“Once you play, it gives you a different perspective on watching," says Walve, a doctor and medical adviser. “You understand that it looks easy from the stands or on TV, but it is physically demanding. They think a fielder just standing there is so easy. Of 50-60 balls bowled, he is in anticipation of that one ball…"
He narrates the story of a fan (now part of the group) from Himachal Pradesh who was to take a bus to Chandigarh, then a bus or train to Delhi and finally a train to Mumbai for a match, but ended up missing his last connection. In about 30 minutes, the group got activated and an air ticket was organized for the stranded fan to get him to Mumbai.
Then there is Farzan, mentioned often by his colleagues as the member who predicts the team combination, fondly called the chief selector. “Yeah, his selections are pretty good," software engineer Vineet Gharge admits grudgingly.
In true cricketing tradition, Farzan also allowed superstition to get to him. He had tickets for the 2011 World Cup final in Mumbai but somehow started believing India would lose if he went to the match. “People were shelling out lakhs of rupees for the final. He is a crazy fan, can talk cricket all day. He is that nuts," says Shirke. “But he did not go for the final. Sounds silly, but I respect him for that." India won that match and the title.
Shirke credits D’Souza as the group founder—“I am one level below. For the initial years, he was the fulcrum around which NSG was built." In 2017, D’Souza, who had moved to the US, had a near-fatal accident in the gym. But he managed to recover and the next year, he came for the Mumbai T20 tournament.
“This guy, I had to help him walk to the stands because he had barely recovered. But once there, it was as he used to be, cheering with the same fervour, the same josh," recollects Shirke.
Their fan following has its own fandom as well. In the documentary Sachin: A Billion Dreams, the camera pans to the NSG, holding up a banner for their beloved cricketer. The banner was later autographed by Tendulkar. V.V.S. Laxman had a 45-minute discussion on cricket with some of the group members in Pune last October during the South Africa series while members say Aakash Chopra waves to them when doing his on-ground commentary. Kohli did a lap of honour at the Wankhede after a regulation win over England in December 2016, possibly in acknowledgement of the crowd’s support.
“During Tendulkar’s speech (in 2013), the crowd reaction to whatever he says is absolutely in sync, if you notice, all the oohs and aahs, every single one. A lot of people have not noticed this, but credit goes to the crowd for the response. That reaction gave me goosebumps," remembers Shirke, who has his own IT firm.
If these stadium regulars wish for something, it is better access to the grounds (in places where security is high and entry points are limited), cleaner washrooms and improved maintenance of the stands. “We snack before the game so we don’t have to eat chappals (footwear) which are sold as overpriced pizza. Besides, I wouldn’t mind a ban on those vuvuzelas, which are an annoyance to everyone except the 200 people constantly blowing them," adds Shirke.
Their love for cricket, including the Ranji Trophy and the local Kanga League, remains the glue that keeps them together and they stick to their North Stand because it offers one of the best views of play, from where the swing, spin and bounce of the ball is easy to spot. Their motto, Shirke says, is to make Tests great again, which they are doing one chant at a time.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.