India v/s South Africa, 5th ODI, Paytm Freedom Series

South Africa mauls India by 218 runs to win the series 3-2

As soon as I booked my tickets to the third tier of the North Stand for the deciding ODI between India and South Africa, I realized that the experience would be memorable – for reasons other than cricket. And not always in a good way. 

There’s a reason I abhor watching live cricket matches at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium. It’s a far cry from the elegance and regality of Brabourne – which still retains a British-era aura and some kind of civilization, even during nasty cricket competitions. But Wankhede is a different, and a more difficult beast. 

Ever since its renovation, after 2011, the architects have somehow managed to cut off any kind of air circulation or a semblance of breeze, despite making the stadium steeper and more ‘airy’. The North stand – a fan favorite – which can be accessed from the gates behind Churchgate station, across the bridge directly above the railway line, is now a cauldron of sweat, grime, filth, heat and a general deprivation of humane facilities. Its four levels harbor toilets that should  never be entered, and the catering machinery is even worse – with rates varying according to the performance of the home team. The seats are tiny, and it’s impossible to breathe during a hot, stuffy Mumbai afternoon.

Despite all this, I went ahead and decided to test my fitness, and my endurance for the abuse that lay ahead. I’ve always known how badly Indian cricket fans are treated at stadiums – fans, who are perhaps the only people, and the sole reason behind the existence of their heroes, or even these horrible facilities that the MCA seems to be so proud of. A fan is at the lowest tier of existence for authorities (unless they’re corporate box VIPs), and they’re herded into stadiums with the grace of victims into a gas chamber. 

Forget the match, or how badly India played, or how it was an absolute annihilation of spirit in general. It was tougher to watch it from the stands for the thousands of cricket lovers. Boredom and physical and psychological abuse – most of which fans take without a peep out of them – result in many things. 

Here are some unforgettable experiences from the 5th ODI:

AB de Villiers

As soon as the South African captain – also the best batsman in the world – walked down the long dressing room steps at the fall of De Kock, the stadium erupted, as if they were witnessing the reincarnation of their own Sachin Tendulkar on the field. A generally partisan crowd began chanting AB’s name, even as he put the bowlers to sword during his lightning-quick century. He gave fans what they wanted, and more, and seldom has a home crowd been so accepting and loving of an opposition captain in their own arena. This is the same stadium that has booed their heroes, including Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni, over the last decade. It was heartening to see, that despite the terrible conditions and unbearable climate, fans knew and recognized the magnitude of the occasion, and the presence of a batsman who could go down as the best ever to grace the game. And he did not fail, and gave the viewers their money’s worth – something their own team could not do.

The Rock Concert

After South Africa scored 439, India trembled and huffed to a grinding halt in 35 overs. Somewhere during their innings, a funny sense of sarcastic acceptance began to take shape. Most couldn’t believe what had happened to the bowlers – and the sheer ease and skill with which AB, Faff and De Kock had dismantled the Indians. It was the kind of hapless but happy resignation that nothing and nobody could change things – which led to a unique spectacle in the stadium. As the floodlights lit up the stadium – which is already a beautiful sight from the outside – thousands began to switch on their phone torchlights and sway them like melancholic fans at a rock concert. This was symbolic of the darkness that had descended upon the Indian team, and the sheer symphony of power and destruction that the Proteas had landed upon them. It looked like diamonds sparkling across the stadium, and made for a truly brilliant sight in the face of such astoundingly one-sided cricket. 

No Music, No Vuvuzelas

The Wankhede experience could have been far more unbearable if it were a T20 show put on by the sponsors. Music would have blared out during every boundary and six (and there were so many, fans would have gone deaf), and chants of Ganpati Bappa would have been replaced by some enthusiastic emcee encouraging the vuvuzelas and cheerleaders from the boundary lines. Nothing is sacrosanct in those games, and thankfully, the South Africans lulled the authorities and organizers into deathly silence. 

Four Centuries In One Innings

For only the second time in the history of ODI cricket (and the second time this year, after South Africa mauled the Windies), three batsmen scored centuries in the same innings. Earlier this year, AB was one of them, in Pink during his fastest century haul against a hapless West Indian attack, and again, he was one of them as his team ran rabid against a clueless and paceless Indian attack. But it was the fourth century that got the maximum cheers from the crowd – because it was by an Indian player! Bhuvneshwar Kumar conceded 105 runs off his 10 overs, the second highest ever in an ODI, and elicited a round of cheers and (ironic) applause by a crowd that had long lost any hopes of an even contest. 

A Lost Cause

Ajinkya Rahane, one of the two local boys in the match, played a blinder, and was perhaps cheered on more vociferously than he had ever been in his career. People jumped in their seats because at least one batsman was marrying heart and skill out in the middle. As soon as he got out – and this has never happened before for anyone not named Sachin Tendulkar – half the stadium headed towards the exit. It was a surprise that they had even stayed till he batted, but his command at the crease was undeniable and fun to watch.