The beginning is inauspicious. Two excellent sides have begun to play, but for the first few overs, it seems like 50,000 people have turned up for the privilege of taking selfies, while the climax of a global showpiece event happens to take place in the background.
Before the anthems there had been a sponsorship gimmick, and even that was lavishly documented in the stands. Women dressed as the partner airline’s flight stewardesses form a circle and perform a dance that incorporates the signals for six and four. What’s next? At the end of the evening, will they push a trolley on to the podium and hand out medals like aeroplane meals? “Winner’s or runners-up medal for you? Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll double-check, but I think we’re actually all out of that.”
But soon enough, three England wickets have fallen and cricket begins to grip Eden Gardens. The smartphones have been stowed in pockets. Tens of thousands of eyes are now trained on the ball. An eager hubbub descends over the vast stands with bucket seats, each affording spectators the personal space the size of a regulation matchbox.
It was thought that West Indies would be runaway crowd favourites here, so many Caribbeans having featured so heavily in the IPL. But Eden has no shortage of love for England. The wickets spark raucous cheers, but so do Jos Buttler’s successive sixes in the 11th over. Exceptional cricket is appreciated. Jingoism is eschewed. A boy of about 12 years of age in the pavilion stand has adopted England as his team, despite clearly not having seen them much before. When Liam Plunkett goes out to bat, the boy calls him “Chris Plankton”.
Then when Joe Root removes two top-order batsmen in three balls, Eden squeals in delight, as if all 50,000 in the stands had been in on this little bit of un-English hi-jinks. Across the stadium, heads are shaking. Eyebrows are raised. What universe are they in that Chris Gayle surrenders so quickly to part-time spin? And what alternate dimension have they entered that England is the team that has dreamt this trap up?
Later in the evening “Plankton” appears to have had Marlon Samuels caught behind, but Eden Gardens is neither appalled that the decision was overturned, nor righteously indignant that Buttler had claimed the catch. There is sage analysis of the replay; an even acceptance of the verdict. The crowd only begins to grow restless when the drama drops to a simmer, but even to call what they do a Mexican Wave, is underselling it. This is more Indian Flash Flood. The wave hurtles around the stadium, and the roars emitted from the stands are thunderous. Faster and louder than any other version of this, Eden Gardens delivers the T20 of Mexican Waves.
As the match winds to its taut conclusion, restless leg syndrome sweeps through the southern stands, and a latent hush takes over to the north. It is only in that sublime final over that tension is released. Each Carlos Brathwaite six is prodding Eden Gardens towards euphoria, but as the batsman himself largely keeps a grip on his emotions through that last over, it is Marlon Samuels who gives in to the rising thrill pulsing through the stands. He runs at Brathwaite, and screams encouragement to him after the first six. On the repeat occasions, he sprints a small circle around the striker, already warming up for his lap of honour.
After the initial mobbing, and hooting, hair ruffling and fist pumping, the West Indies team hear Dwayne Bravo’s “Champion” song fill the stadium. Breaking out of the huddle and facing the crowd, they begin the song’s signature dance; pushing their fists out away from their chests, then drawing them back towards the body in a rowing motion. The crowd itself had come prepared for this. All standing now, huge swathes of the Eden Gardens stands begin to mimic the men on the field. West Indies were rowing away with the World T20, but they are taking tens of thousands of Bengalis down the Hooghly river with them.
Soon enough, the West Indies players’ shirts start coming off. Chris Gayle’s is lying somewhere near the boundary. Samuels is so pumped up, he has flung his into the maidan down the road. Darren Sammy soon takes his off too, and begins waving it around his head. Are they even allowed to be doing that, here? The answer of course is an unbridled, emphatic “Yes!” Among Bengal’s treasured memories after all, is Sourav Ganguly’s shirtless celebration at Lord’s. That moment is so beloved, a photo of “Dada” in all his glory takes pride of place on the staircase of the main building at Eden Gardens. When you are in the Palace of the Bare-Nipple Prince, how better to endear yourself to his court than to follow him in a triumphant stripping off?
Thankfully, though, no one gets so carried away as to reach for the drawstring of their trousers. At least not at this stage of the evening.
When the presentation begins, the crowd cheers Sammy through his emotional speech, and delight in Virat Kohli’s Player of the Tournament award. Many leap around, as the West Indies players do, when the trophy is lifted in clouds of manic smoke and tinsel. The smiles on exiting spectators’ faces are about the size of the biggest Brathwaite six. Soon enough – and it is almost too quick – the almighty swell of energy that has built up and been released in the ground, dissipates into the streets, as fans start to stream out. In stages, Kolkata turns in.
For some, though, the night is yet young. Before many who were at Eden have got home, videos have already emerged of West Indies’ high-octane return to their hotel. Bravo is dancing, Sammy singing. The rest are posing, locking and jerking. They will not get much sleep tonight. The question is, the way this lot celebrates, will the rest of Kolkata?