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Will Eden Gardens adopt Karthik?

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Dinesh_Karthik_India_Cricket_IPL_Kolkata_Knight_RidersAs the harsh rays of the sun gave way to the calming presence of twilight, central Kolkata basked in the bright white lights that shone down on the yellow cabs and the pedestrians who were scurrying through the crowd to get to the stadium in time. The new decade of the Indian Premier League had begun at the Eden Gardens. The home team Kolkata Knight Riders faced the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the first match at the City of Joy.

Eden Gardens. The Mecca of Indian Cricket. The colossal ground that houses more than 67,000 spectators. A towering presence across the Hugli River that remains the hub of all activity whenever a game is scheduled to take place here. The ground has seen more cheers and jeers than any other, none more memorable than the semi-finals of the 1996 World Cup, where a group of spectators set fire to the stands, leading to the game being abandoned with India getting knocked out.

Since that fateful day, the historical ground has witnessed its own set of iconic moments – from VVS Laxman’s legendary knock of 281 to Harbhajan Singh’s hat trick in the same game against the Australians that set back their juggernaut. After the triumph in the 1983 World Cup, the come-from-behind- victory at the start of the new millennium when Indian cricket was engulfed in match-fixing scandals promised to change the face of the sport in this part of the world.

But that is not what sets the Gardens apart from the rest. There has been no shortage of memorable wins around India. To say that the ground in Calcutta stands apart for the matches that have been produced thus far would not be entirely true. What one can emphatically say is that the experience of turning out at this monumental ground remains unparalleled – both for the home team and for the rivals.

It was not very long ago that the Prince of Kolkata, Sourav Ganguly, had been removed from the Kolkata Knight Riders’ scheme of things after the team, under his leadership (though Brendon McCullum led the franchise in 2009), had brought nothing but shame and embarrassment in the first three seasons of the IPL. Discarding emotions for ruthlessness, KKR’s CEO Venky Mysore let go of Kolkata’s son for Gautam Gambhir, who faced a similar situation in the 2011 auction after his home side Delhi Daredevils did not retain him.

Not unexpectedly, the initiation of Gambhir, India’s silent hero in the 2011 World Cup Finals, was not well received. The culture of Eden Gardens and Kolkata remained hostile. Empty stadiums greeted him and effigies were burnt. The crowd, that one could always swear would stand behind the home team, shifted towards the Pune Warriors when Ganguly turned up to play for the now-defunct side. As the myths around the Gardens were unravelling, Gambhir soon realised that only a series of good performances could manage to bring the angry fans back to the ground. Over the next few seasons, he managed to do just that.

Just a year later, it panned out quite beautifully. As KKR galloped to their maiden IPL triumph, no one refused Gambhir’s attempt at offering the olive branch. Time and again, he had stated that his sole aim remained to provide the citizens of Kolkata with truckloads of joy, and 2012 was the very first instance when the Gardens had let go of its divided opinions to embrace Gambhir. The Delhi boy had, in his own words, become “Kolkata’s chhele” (Kolkata’s son) and very soon, he was accepted into the land as its own.

The fiery Gambhir was a perfect match for the volatile crowd at Eden Gardens. When he erupted, the ground around him roared as well. When he was dismissed, an eerie silence enveloped the stadium, making it tough to believe that more than 65,000 people were assembled together. When he set up a bold field against MS Dhoni, Kolkata came out in full support. And when he won, the smiles and the sense of pride were all so special. Here was a player who had taught the city to get back up with élan and he stood tall as a champion player who had managed to win not only matches but hearts as well.

Just when Kolkata were looking ahead to another season of the IPL, news trickled in that the left-hander had left KKR to join Delhi Daredevils, in a bid to finish off where he had started. Dinesh Karthik had been chosen as the new leader of the side and a sense of disbelief had gained force. No Gambhir? How could KKR play without their maverick leader? KKR had been synonymous with Gambhir. Eden Gardens had gotten accustomed to watching the ever-so-serious face go about his business in a routine manner.

As Karthik walked out to the toss against RCB, the spectators felt a sense of déjà vu; they were rushed back to the first time when Gambhir had walked out in the middle in the Purple and Gold colours. Gambhir had been the toast of the nation then, and Karthik, after his phenomenal performance in the finals of the Nidahas Trophy, is currently the poster-boy.

Kolkata’s dear son had left home and a new captain had entered the picture, and the clouds of uncertainty over his acceptance had loomed large. This time around as well, Karthik faces an uphill challenge to replicate the feats of Eden’s adopted son. While Gambhir might have returned back to the city of his boyhood, he has stamped his presence amongst the likes of Ganguly quite effortlessly. For Karthik to follow a similar route, he has to take inspiration from Gambhir’s book, and even though it might not be an easy journey, in the end, it will all be worthwhile.

 

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