5th May : When Eden Gardens favoured Ganguly over the Knights

A match that changed the dynamics of Bengal cricket.

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It has been five years since then but the frenzied atmosphere that the Eden Gardens offered in a life-time experience on the occasion of that Kolkata Knight Riders versus the Sourav Ganguly led now-defunct Pune Warriors game still generates enough goose bumps in the physique of all Kolkatans, if not Bengalis alike.

One of India’s most successful captain, Sourav Ganguly, was earmarked an icon player for the Kolkata-based IPL team at the auctions in 2008. The first season, Dada led them to sixth in the pool of eight franchises. Next year taking advantage of the event being held at South Africa and away from India and most importantly Kolkata, Ganguly was stripped of his captaincy but remained an integral part of the team in what was learnt to be a canny piece of work from the Knight management. However following a last place shame overseas, he was back to the helm the following season although his side failed to make the semi-finals for the third straight time.

Just before the 2011 mega auctions, the Knight Riders – co-owned by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan – released Ganguly, citing his price tag of around four crores is a liability to their allotted purse. Retaining the prince of Kolkata would force his franchise – tagged as one that talks more off than on-field – to dole out a salary almost double his existing one. Unsatisfied with the results of the past three summers, the purple camp released all their players for good. Khan later appeased his city-based loyal fans with a distant promise of buying their regional pride fresh at the auctions – but the Bengal scion went under the hammer twice to remain “UNSOLD”.

For the first half of the 2011 season, all that the “Maharaja of Bengal” could do was to sit at home and watch the most expensive purchase of the season – Gautam Gambhir – lead his former Knights in a brand new facet. Ganguly later received a helping hand from another Bengali – Subrata Roy – who brought the new Pune-based franchise ahead of the 2011 season with the league expanding itself from eight to ten teams. The man with 18000 international runs eventually donned a blue jersey when the Warriors inducting him as a substitute for another Indian international whom he groomed in his five-year national tenure – left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra. Led by another home-discard Yuvraj Singh (cold shouldered by Kings XI Punjab), the debutants finished second-last in the standings with four wins out of 14. Ganguly featured in just four of them.

The 2012 started with a lot of differences between the BCCI and Sahara (the owner of the Warriors) over Team India sponsorships as well as the IPL franchise fee. Also with Yuvraj out of reckoning with a rare cancer syndrome, they appointed Ganguly as their mediator with the organizers that farther materialized into on-field captaincy. Pune started well but once again their campaign lost steam as the season progressed. More than halfway into the season, the most awaited clash in the IPL bi-polarized the “City of Joy”.

Coming to more noise that build up the rivalry, this was actually the second game between Dada and Kolkata. At the fag end of the last season, the Knights did travel to the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai to take on the Yuvraj-led Warriors that had their former skipper in the playing eleven – the only highlights from the southpaw’s unforgettable 22-ball 18 was the Iqbal Abdulla delivery that he dispatched to the stands. The travellers had an easy time chasing the 119-odd that almost sealed their maiden entry into the play-offs. Later that year after the IPL was done and dusted, Ganguly hosted Gambhir in his reality show loosely based on the UK-based “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” with the episode garnering a lot of TRP.

Coming to the main part of the story that is the Eden Gardens fixture on that particular Saturday late afternoon was an amalgamation of many clashes. Just Pune versus Kolkata on paper, in reality it was the revolt of a city with affiliations to the hero – the greatest amongst their heredity – against a franchise bearing the name of Kolkata that outsourced a leader from outside before disgracing their own demigod. The ever-charming SRK too looked nervous that day – perhaps sensing a backlash of the order from an emotional race that rooted South Africa and routed a Ganguly-less India some six and a half years back on an issue quite similar. It was high time for the Bengal pride to rise in rebellion against some outsiders earning big in their name without the real essence of the region.

Gambhir won the toss in front of a fanbase of Ganguly who is perhaps destined at birth to receive that unparalleled adulation any time he turns up at his home ground. Howsoever the Blue shirts drowned the purple fever in the throng, Gambhir knew the only thing that mattered at all was to be played in the middle. The Delhite hit Murali Kartik for a four on the very second ball of the day to keep the jeers at bay. The Knight chief – another Indian opener and also a left-hander – added more drama when he hit another Bengali in the Blue shirt, namely Ashok Dinda, for a sixer to demonstrate quality selection over regional allocation. For the first half an hour, the Knights called the shots in the battle – adding 68 without losing in the first six overs of powerplay.

Gambhir made merry of the Pune bowling with a fifty and the opening wicket added 113 in 13 overs. With Brendon McCullum falling the very next over after his captain, the Knights could not capitalize on the start. The Pune bowlers – Murali Kartik, Angelo Mathews, Wayne Parnell and Bhuvneswar Kumar – kept clipping their wings every time they aimed high. The Bengal remnants – Manoj Tiwary and Debabrata Das – fought against the tide (both at ground and gallery) and ensured 150 on the boards.

Robin Uthappa (now a Knight keeper) and former Australian captain Michael Clarke opened Pune’s chase in home away from home. The crowd desperate for some “Bapi Bari Jaa” moments (local equivalent to Ganguly fireworks) was not disappointed as the Warriors top-order failed to inflict much wound on the shielded Knights and soon Pune looked in a spot of bother with 55 for five two balls into the ninth over. As the mystery spinner Sunil Narine removed an uninspiring Steve Smith, the stadium’s favourite came to the fore as a late number seven behind the Sri Lankan all-rounder Mathews.

Narine flirted with Ganguly – but the latter understood the gravity of the situation to let go off the first four deliveries that he faced awarding the Caribbean a rare wicket maiden in the format. The unpredictable mass that jeered the Knights yet cheered the Pune wickets just to see their own hero went berserk as Ganguly hit Jacques Kallis twice to the fence. 66 for the loss of five at the halfway, an asking rate of 8.50 would not be a big issue if the Pune skipper had a go.

After a boundary off the pads, Ganguly hit Narine for a four as well. With 61 needed off six, Mathews went for broke and successfully connected three consecutive Yusuf Pathan errand out of the park. Ganguly soon joined the bandwagon with four and six off consecutive Rajat Bhatia overs. With a further 23 needed off 15, the Delhi pacer had the last laugh though as he trapped the crowd favourite to miscue one to the mid-wicket. Iqbal Abdulla made no mistake in grasping the coveted catch for the Knights that perhaps for the only time broke millions of Bengali hearts. Pune remained favourites but only till Narine bowled a superb penultimate over conceding just four leaving the visitors require an improbable 18 off the last over.

Marchant de Lange – who accounted for Uthappa and Clarke at the start – bowled the last over. The incumbent Mathews seemed at a loss and perished. Bhuvi however reduced the losing margin to just seven runs after smashing two boundaries. Gambhir, in the match briefing, thanked the turnout for cheering for both the sides. His nemesis for the evening blamed his top-order and pointed out Narine to be the difference between the sides. SRK – true to his elements – took Ganguly around the ground in a lap of honour.

What next? The rivalry later renewed with the Knights visiting the Warriors late into the tournament. Once again, the Purple subdued the Blues – thus signaling the changing dynamic of the times. Ganguly’s Pune – who avoided the wooden spoon in their inaugural seasaon managed to get one this time finishing at the bottom of the heap. The Knights kept on their momentum and were crowned the champions of the season. The Eden crowd – in another show of their impulsive psyche – gave jovial responses to the victors who were felicitated lavishly in a never-before seen state-organized ceremony that also marked the changing equations in the Bengal political circuit. Later in the year, Ganguly hung up his boots for good.

In six seasons since they decided to move on without the biggest name in Bengal cricket history, the Kolkata-based franchise won two titles besides making the play-offs four times – a feat they never achieved in their three-year stint with Ganguly managing the affairs in  two of them. Shah Rukh Khan was later made the ambassador of Bengal while Sourav Ganguly returned to the game holding the reins at the state cricket association. No shortage of bonhomie between the two though who at the present work hand-in-hand organizing the home matches for the Gambhir and co.

Although a part of Kolkata – out of their love for Virat Kohli – did support the Royal Challengers in a game at Eden recently, a majority of the Knight fans have gotten over that five-year old episode and could not even in their wildest dream could think of aligning with their rivals. The Kohli supporters were roasted by these regional die-hards after the Bangalore side were reduced to a mere mobile number at the end. Many now openly agree that the axing of Ganguly was a boon in disguise – as the silverware shines more than anything else. But there are a select few who have shunned his offenders for life.

 

Perhaps only Kolkata can dare to worship their deity in a grander way than their religion itself.

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