Bengalis can be neatly divided along the lines of a few rivalries. They are either ghotis or bangals. Bangals came from east to west Bengal at the time of partition, ghotis always lived in the west. (Also Read: When Eden played 'Ekla Chalo' for Ganguly)
Regardless of whether they are ghoti or bangal, they like either Pele or Maradona. Their team is either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan, Brazil or Argentina. The twain do not meet. This is no laughing matter. Bengalis can spend hours debating these things at roadside addas, coffee shops and pubs. Support is absolute and stubborn, never-changing. It has to be either-or.
Slightly less intense than the sports affiliations are the Amitabh Bachchan-Rajesh Khanna debates. Then there are certain non-negotiables - those for whom it is blasphemous to think worthy rivals exist, icons without parallels. Kishore Kumar. RD Burman. Manna Dey. Sourav Ganguly.
Kolkata was a great sport-loving city, selling out cricket and football matches long before Ganguly arrived. Once he did arrive, though, he took the mania to another level.
He shares a special relationship with Kolkata fans. Arguably no other Indian player, not even Sachin Tendukar, has had such a bond with his home city. Form matters little. If you are not on the side of dada, you are on the wrong side of Kolkata.
Rahul Dravid and his Indian team experienced that six years ago. Ganguly had been dropped, and he and the coach, Greg Chappell, were in the middle of a public spat. At such a delicate time India came to Kolkata to play South Africa in an ODI. A green pitch was rolled out, the crowd booed India, and though infamous for having stopped two international matches before this because they couldn't bear to see India lose, they now applauded South Africa for thrashing the team that had no use for their dada. Dravid commented upon arrival in Mumbai that it felt good to be back in India.
This kind of thing is not unique. When Bajan Anderson Cummins was not picked for West Indies back in 1992, Barbados almost rioted, and boycotted the match. A slogan at the near-empty stadium read, "No Cummins, no goings." In the late '80s in Perth, almost every Australian wicketkeeper on national duty was booed at the WACA, because Perth believed that place belonged to Tim Zoehrer. Hell hath no fury like love for a favourite sportsman combined with perceived injustice to said hero.
The whole of the last week has been one big build-up to the match of this IPL, never mind that there has been no break from non-stop IPL games, merging into each other like the contents of one large multigrain khichdi. You might struggle to keep abreast with who is playing whom, where and why, but this match has been pencilled in.
Ganguly no longer represents Kolkata in the IPL. The perceived injustice is conspicuous here. Kolkata Knight Riders, the city franchise owned by film star Shah Rukh Khan, first took away his captaincy, and then eventually, as they say in corporations, let him go. The new captain, Gautam Gambhir, had to struggle for acceptance at first, but time has passed since then, and he has been leading from the front this year. Knight Riders are not far from their second straight appearance in the knockouts.
Ganguly's wife has been quoted as saying she is sure the whole of Kolkata will come out to support "their dada". Chain emails have been informing philistines that Warriors are owned by a Bengali and captained by a Bengali, as opposed to Knight Riders, who are owned by a Delhi Pathan who now lives in Mumbai and captained by a brash Punjabi from Delhi.
You land in Kolkata on a hot, muggy afternoon and the first billboard you see outside the Dum Dum Airport stars Ganguly. Only further in towards the city do you see Knight Riders on billboards. In sets of three. Mostly advertising heavy sherwanis. The message on those billboards is: "Play to earn your respect". Somebody at the ad agency knows the dynamic between this team and its city.
Knight Riders don't stand a chance here, I think, if Ganguly gets anywhere close to getting on a roll. They could be playing against close to 70,000 people. The likes of Gambhir have benefited from it in the past, notably in a Test against South Africa when the visiting side just froze in the noise. Bear in mind the stadium was only half full then, because one part had been brought down as part of World Cup renovations.
Times have changed. The first myth to be busted in Kolkata is that Bengalis are blind supporters of Ganguly. They understand that their dada is not a natural fit - at this age - for Twenty20. This format needs a constant attempt to convert regulation ones into twos. There is little time to play yourself in, much less to make up for it later. Ganguly has been going at a strike rate of under 105.
Yet Ganguly created some hysteria with a Man-of-the Match showing against the strongest side in the league, Delhi Daredevils. Who doesn't love them an underdog? What a celebratory run he went on after taking a wicket in that match. Surely that converted the doubters?
In today's age, though, that game, played 12 days ago, is already history. Half the people I talk to about Ganguly want to know why he is not letting Steve Smith bat. Smith, the Australian allrounder who went from being the next Warne to the white Ravindra Jadeja in no time, has been going at a strike rate of close to 150, but hasn't - batting after Ganguly - had enough time in the middle to score even a fifty.
Then there are those who sympathise with how hard Ganguly is trying but say the eye, the shots, are just not there. One of them, my host, a man who played cricket for Mohun Bagan, has followed Ganguly's career from when he was an adolescent and nicknamed Maharaj (king), and watched his Lord's century at Lord's. He doesn't like Twenty20 because the contest, he says, is now between bat and bat, not bat and ball. Even he is interested in this match, though. He says Knight Riders have earned acceptance here, especially among youngsters. He is also of the view that Ganguly shouldn't continue playing because he is clearly not half the player he was. "If you were to go to the game, who will you support?" I ask. "Sourav, of course," he says without a moment's thought. That's Kolkata.
I go to meet a friend. We get to discussing Ganguly and his relationship with the city. An email arrives from Google India with statistics on web searches over the last week. Ganguly leads the way with a whopping 41%. Only 11% of those searching for cricket have looked for MS Dhoni. We discuss how irrational sport fans can be, and how understanding their behaviour and preferences is one of marketing's biggest challenges.
On my way out, not carrying a chhaata, a cardinal mistake in Kolkata, I am caught in a downpour - almost expected after the oppressive heat and humidity during the day. People on the street are worried about the game already. "Jodi jhor-brishti hoye?" (What if it rains?)
The Saturday game is the event of the year. Four days ago, the Cricket Association of Bengal released 10,000 tickets for sale. More than 25,000 prospective buyers turned up. Hundreds of policemen had to maintain order, the obligatory lathi charges were carried out, and the tickets were gone in no time.
The mindgames begin. The Warriors' CEO, Deep Dasgupta, says it is all on account of one man. Knight Riders' Jeet Banerjee says it would be inaccurate to credit it all to Ganguly; Knight Riders, after all, have been drawing crowds too.
For the last four days, the lead sports story in the newspapers - English, Bengali, Hindi - has been this match. One of the reports says how Jagmohan Dalmiya - how can you keep him down? - tried to install big screens all over the city for those who missed out on tickets, but the police have more than enough to handle at Eden, let alone more crowds outside the stadium. In the newspapers Ganguly is always Sourav on second mention, not Ganguly. Gambhir, Dravid, Kumble, Tendulkar are just cricketers. Sourav is theirs.
Any discourse about Bengalis is incomplete without emotion and overstatement. Historian and cricket writer Ram Guha has been quoted thus: "I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but Sourav Ganguly, for many Bengalis, has been without question the most popular icon after Subhas Bose. His being dropped from KKR last season was seen by many as a kind of repeat of Bose being driven out of the Congress by Gandhi."
How can politics be far away? I am told that Ganguly always supported Bengal's former Communist government, and that he is not liked by the current chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. It has been noticed that Ganguly is not invited to as many government functions as he used to be earlier. Shah Rukh Khan is now the brand ambassador of the state. He is supposed to have been promised thousands will be sent for this match, dressed in purple, carrying purple flags. What intrigue, just for one man, one match.
Bara Bazaar in central Kolkata is a typical Indian old-city marketplace. It is also the betting capital of Kolkata. The bookmakers here have Knight Riders - four wins in a row, stronger team, playing in familiar conditions - only at 60-40 against Warriors, who have lost four in a row.
Elsewhere mishti'r dokaan (sweet shops) are making special mishti (sweets), pujas have been arranged, pandals have been booked. The man himself is still in Pune, and will get to Kolkata later tonight. This match is going to be his third in five days - a gruelling schedule in May.
I make my way to Eden Gardens, where the authorities have wisely, and unlike at some of the other Indian grounds, allowed the public to watch the players train. I go past the heavy police cover to find about a thousand people watching the Knight Riders train. Inside Eden Gardens you turn right for the home dressing room, and left for the visitors' one. It's the home viewing area where Ganguly sat shirtless, his upper body wrapped in a towel, for more than five hours when, 11 years ago, Dravid and VVS Laxman did the unthinkable against Australia. That's the dressing room Ganguly has always used, but tomorrow he will turn left, and not many will be able to see how he reacts when he does so.
I watch the Knight Riders train from the lower tier of the club house. The seat I am sitting in goes at Rs 6000 for IPL games. In the black market, it is now going at Rs 40,000.
Part of the Knight Riders team are Bengal players Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Manoj Tiwary. Shukla last played against Ganguly 14 years ago, in a club match. Tiwary has never played against Ganguly. For his team-mates, Ganguly is dadi, not dada. Tiwary has spent hours and days watching dadi at Eden. "If I got to see one cover-drive, that made my day," he says. Tiwary expects 70% of the crowd to support dadi. That cover-drive, though, that thing of beauty, nowadays counts for just one run. You need slogs and switch hits and whatnot.
A day before the match Gambhir is asked what he thinks of the "away match", and he doesn't seem impressed with the line of questioning. Kolkata is free to support anybody, he says, before reminding them that it is Knight Riders who carry their name and who play for their pride. He is also unimpressed with how their bowling coach, Wasim Akram, has upped the stakes by calling this game as good as an India-Pakistan game. It is perhaps how Akram and the like played. That was an era of showmen, and the higher the stakes the better the likes of Akram played. This era has enough pressures to deal with and always underplays everything.
May 5 Match day, and what irony that another favourite son, an adopted favourite son, Mohun Bagan's Brazilian striker Jose Ramirez Barreto should play his last game for the club tomorrow, against a team from Pune. Like Ganguly, he is not retiring, just amicably parting ways with Bagan. About 30,000 are expected to give him a send-off on Sunday, but the event of the year is today, with 70,000, including the police and other organisers, expected at Eden.
Outside the stadium, replica Warriors jerseys are priced at Rs 50, Knight Riders ones at 40. Yet it's Warriors shirts that are selling more. This could have to do with the fact that the home fans have already bought their share of jerseys earlier. The crowd seems split down the middle, with an equal number of purple and blue jerseys visible.
The sight of Ganguly at the toss sends the stadium into raptures. In the half hour between toss and start, both parties get into a chanting battle. "Pu-ne, Pu-ne." "K-K-R, K-K-R." Knight Riders have won the toss and have elected to bat. Shah Rukh hasn't arrived yet.
Gambhir grabs the initiative and plays the crowd into his favour with a fifty on a slow surface. After his fall, though, Knight Riders lose their way, and add just 37 off the last 45 balls. The stands, though, are just as loud, cheering every dot ball, and every time Ganguly moves his arms to direct the field. The roof comes off when he catches Shukla.
In the second innings, Knight Riders strike early. A man behind me begins to shout, "Bari chole jao, Pune. (Go back home, Pune.)" A father and son in the same row as me argue over who is better. Son likes Knight Riders, father can't forget what dada has done for India and Bengal. Most instructive too: son identifies with modern winners, father thinks it began with Ganguly.
Two things happen in the fourth over: Shah Rukh finally arrives, and the second wicket falls. Girls, grown-up women, grown-up men forget cricket, grow weak in the knees and start waving at Shah Rukh. Whisper it: the cheer is louder than what Ganguly received at the toss.
I, and the shouting man behind me, are more interested in why Ganguly didn't come in at No. 3, and if the crowd will pull their eyes off Shah Rukh now that Ganguly is about to walk out. Ganguly doesn't. Finally, ironically, Smith does. People in my section of the crowd begin to smell a rat. "The owners have changed the batting line-up," they say. "dada doesn't run away."
Smith falls. Another wicket falls. Then another. Still no dada. Somebody shouts from a few rows back: "dada toh bari chole gecchhey. (dada has gone home.)"
He hasn't. He comes out at the fall of the fifth wicket. Gambhir sees him get up and immediately asks for a helmet. A silly point is in, so are a slip and gully. Ganguly pokes and fumbles at Sunil Narine's offbreaks. Four dot balls in a row. The crowd doesn't know what to do. Silence for the first time. Confusion all around.
In the next over, Ganguly hits Jacques Kallis over mid-off. Not well timed but over the man. Then he upper-cuts. Kallis responds with a bouncer too high. Then he is in the ear of Ganguly. Eden boos as one. Gambhir takes Kallis off after the over.
As Ganguly and Angelo Mathews go about rebuilding the innings, the running between the wickets begins to hurt Pune. There is no pressure on the fielders in the deep, nor are quick singles attempted. When Ganguly does call Mathews through for one, starting early, running as hard as he can, he is nearly run out. As we await replays, I think if this will be the biggest anti-climax: Ganguly run out at home, taking a single - just the thing to do in this format. What, though, would a potential climax be? Ganguly hitting a winning six perhaps.
Sixes are coming off Mathews' bat, though. Three in a row, which change the game's complexion. It's a straight chase now, except that five wickets have fallen. Ganguly has to mix attack and defence, make sure Narine doesn't take a wicket. Only four runs come off Narine's third over, the 17th. Thirty-one required off 18. Ganguly, the culprit in the last over, now hits Rajat Bhatia for a flat six. Shah Rukh sits still, but the rest of Eden erupts.
Two balls later Ganguly mistimes a pull. Iqbal Abdulla catches it. Ganguly is gone. Shah Rukh still doesn't emote. He is careful not to hurt any Kolkatan's feelings. Eden is confused too. The KKR fans are subdued because they can't cheer at the fall of dada. The man behind me, though, tells Ganguly to "go back home to Pune". Just as Ganguly approaches the dugout, though, someone shouts, "Lubhly, lubhly", followed by which the ground gets on its feet. Seventy thousand people applaud Ganguly as he walks off. He is moved, raises his bat to the crowd. "Class toh class (Class is class)," is the murmur all over my stand.
Knight Riders are mighty relieved at having bitten this dada bullet. The same men who said it was just another game go on a lap of honour to thank the crowd for not making it an away match - except for a few moments. Shah Rukh doesn't miss a good PR opportunity, and takes dada on a lap of honour. Shah Rukh in a white hoodie, dada in the Pune shirt he has reportedly been forced to wear by Shah Rukh.
They all know, though, that the winners on the night have been those who packed Eden Gardens in the May heat, who have shown both their knowledge of the game by not booing the team that represents them, and their respect for their dada. Class toh class.