On Day 2 of the Kolkata test, rain interrupted proceedings after lunch, pattering down and leaving the entire outfield covered. For those of us out there for the weekend, it was a dampener, but as it so often happens in cricket’s longest format, it is as much part of the package as floppy hats and stinging pulls at short-leg’s shin guards. As the rain receded, it was an endless strip tease of sorts, with the groundsmen taking the covers on and off, almost on a whim. At one point, some of us even decided to leave for the day, at which point play promptly resumed.
With hardly an hour to go, and New Zealand at 85 for 4, Ross Taylor was holding fort. Out of nowhere, spin was replaced by pace at both ends, and with a zephyr drifting across the ground from the High Court End under cloudy skies, Virat Kohli did what is not so common in this format. For outsiders and critics, Test cricket is a soporific, seemingly endless fare, where you are not guaranteed a result after 5 full days of play. It is what causes endless arguments and countless obituaries to be written, as to whether this format even deserves a place in times where scientific discovery has proved that the average human has lesser attention span than goldfish.
Kohli, like footballers egging on home crowds when they need inspiration to push themselves against the run of play, called for the Eden crowd to make some noise as his two pacemen ran in. First, it was Shami, who seems to be back at his very best this series. At the other end, as Bhuvneshwar Kumar came on, the noise reached a crescendo – a vocal Mexican wave, if you will. Eden Gardens has traditionally been home to India’s most partisan crowds : “no Mushtaq, no Test”, bottle throwing at the Asian Test Championship in 1999 and the abandonment at the 1996 World Cup, all landmarks in its CV over the years.
Instantly, despite less than 20,000 in attendance, the crowd was on its feet, and Bhuvneshwar struck twice in two balls. As he delivered his hat-trick ball to Jeetan Patel, he ran in sync with a wall of noise erupting from the top tiers behind the sight screens. Soon, Shami was threatening from the other end, with sharp bouncers directed at rib cages of the lower order batsmen. By this time, the crowd was baying for more of the same, and Kohli, it seemed, had woken up an all-too-familiar monster. When play ended for the day, with New Zealand slipping to 129 for 7, Kohli walked across to stands on both sides of the pitch, applauding generously before urging his teammates to follow suit.
— Srinath (@_peews) October 1, 2016
At the end of the game, he credited the crowds as much as his bowlers for the win, and though it was a touch too flattering, he went on to explain the rationale behind the statement. Crowds in Australia, England and South Africa most often become the proverbial 12th man, pumping the players’ adrenalin up and making them go that extra mile. At a time when the sport has figured how best to extract the maximum decibels out of packed audiences at T20 games, with horns, acrobats, cheerleaders and other paraphernalia, India’s Test match audiences have not evolved beyond a single chant – “Ind-yaa! Ind-yaa!” set to the “Sa-Chin! Sa-Chin!” metre. Kohli’s intervention was much needed, and is perhaps one we will see a lot more of in the coming months, with India set to play 13 Tests at home.
The effects of the previous evening carried on till the end of the Test match, with an even larger crowd on Sunday getting into its element, cheering every run, every defensive stroke after the side was down to 43 for 4. At the end of Day 4, as India were made to work hard to get all 10 wickets, Kohli spoke about how all the raucousness made Shami and co. push on, bowling the extra 12 balls that got them the wickets at later stages of the day. The 12th man isn’t a myth, and the Indian captain talking about how it “makes a huge difference to a bowler’s mindset” is only proof that, with the right messaging and a little bit of engagement to crowds that throng just to watch good cricket, even without a result guaranteed at the end of it, this format is more than guaranteed its place in our times, without any need for suspicion about its health.