IT’LL PROBABLY go down in cricket history as the only time a fast bowler ran in to bowl while his colleague stands behind the third-man fence with one leg stuck in the fence. Pramodya Wickramasinghe, while tying his shoes laces, was held hostage by three North Stand faithfuls of the Wankhede Stadium.
Even as fellow pacer Chaminda Vaas leapt into his delivery stride from the Pavilion End, his fellow pacer couldn’t escape from their clutches. Fortunately for Wickramasinghe, the ball didn’t head towards him, considering the foot wasn’t released till Vaas had begun walking back. He did try raising an alarm, but by then his temporary abductors had disappeared into the crowd with nobody prepared to tattle on them.
To be fair to the North Stand crowd, from their perspective anyway, they had given Wickramasinghe every chance to turn around and acknowledge their greetings with a wave earlier. Even if he’s unlikely to have understood much of the ‘Saara Lanka jaanta hai, Sita hamari maata hai’ chants that were ringing out behind him. How can you blame a few if they decided to take matters into their own hands, a bit too literally?
Thus far on tour, Alastair Cook & Co have played in front of stereotypically ‘warm’, ‘hospitable’ and ‘know their cricket’ crowds. In Rajkot and Vizag, the locals just seemed too overawed, even grateful, for the two teams to have graced them with Test cricket. Mohali, like always, didn’t seem too bothered even as India overwhelmed the visitors to go 2-0 up.
But it’s unlikely they can expect a sterile atmosphere at the Wankhede, especially from the notorious North Stand. In a country, where cricket venues and the atmosphere they produce can more or less be generalized, this is one clan that likes to make its presence felt, and doesn’t take any prisoners in the process. From racial slurs against West Indies fast bowler Mervyn Dillon—calling him a ‘black b*****d—to the infamous monkey chants directed at Andrew Symonds and deragatory chants combining Andrew Flintoff’s name with a four-letter cuss word, the North Stand has been at the forefront of ‘expressing themselves’ long before it became a mantra for the Indian cricket team.
To the extent, like Dilip Vengsarkar reveals, the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) had to involve the cops to keep the rowdiness in check. “During our time, the North Stand was where the club cricketers sat because of the view and they would shout out genuine advice to both batsmen and bowlers. But during the early 2000s, we started receiving so many complaints from cricketers even of the calibre of Glenn McGrath that we actually started keeping 20-30 policemen inside the stand for the first time,” says Vengsarkar.
THE NORTH Stand is not quite Bay 13—that flagrant bastion of Australianism that resides at the MCG. It doesn’t quite possess the same intimidatory disposition. And if the lasting image of Bay 13 is the thousands in there clapping vigorously amidst loud chants of “Lilllleee, Lillleee” after their hero Dennis Lillee had dismissed Viv Richards in the last over, the North Stand faithful never quite had the luxury to indulge in that kind of support. There were trains to catch, and crowds to escape.
But any opposition cricketer who’s had the opportunity of fielding in front of it will confess to have learnt a lot more about himself from the thousands screaming behind him. Wankhede crowds though historically haven’t believed in discriminating either. Every image of the ground might resonate with shouts of ‘Sachin, Sachin’, but it is here that even the great Sachin Tendulkar was booed. But the North Stand regulars will be the first to tell you that it was the complimentary pass holders at Garware Pavilion who were responsible for the jeers. Even Virat Kohli wasn’t spared the treatement—he was called a ‘cheat’–when he donned RCB colours during an IPL match in 2013. And Harbhajan Singh was involved in a spat with a spectator in the Divecha Pavilion stand the last time England played a Test here.
But at the turn of the millenium, the North Stand was the place to be if you were a teenager or even slightly older looking for a good time with live cricket action to boot. It was hip, it was happening, and there was never a dull moment in there.
“If you happened to be a regular at the North Stand, you weren’t part of the crowd, you were part of a cult. It was like going to a rock concert. The West Stand had its shade, the Divecha and Garware Pavilions had their view and good-looking people, the East Stand simply sat fighting the sun while the North Stand had the vibe,” says Ganesh Vaidyanathan.
The new-look Wankhede has in a way split the stand into different parts—with the media box now occupying the central part of the erstwhile North Stand. But back in the day, it wasn’t just one section going after you as a cricketer, but pretty much one entire half of the stadium.
“It must be entertaining for those sitting in the stand, but it’s really not nice when you are being humiliated in front of 40,000 people with taunts that are so personal,” says former opener Wasim Jaffer. Incidentally the only time Jaffer faced the ire of the North Stand was in a Ranji match against Hyderabad in the late 1990s when he kept stone-walling, therefore delaying the entry of Tendulkar, who the hundreds had come to watch. “Ehh Jaffer ghari jaa, aai bolawate (Jaffer go home, your mother’s calling)” they screamed.
The late 90s was also a time that an entire generation of young Indians was getting exposed to the internet, Australian crowds on TV and the WWF. The likes of D-Generation X—a pro-wrestling faction that gained notoriety for being unabashedly outre—were not surprisingly a great source for the North Stand crowd in their own sophomoric diatribes. So when Steve Waugh’s army came calling on their ‘final frontier’ tour in 2001, they were greeted with vociferous, “Aussies suck” chants, with crotch-chops in tow. When the Aussie contingent of the fans would begin their routine, ‘Warnie, Warnie’ chants, they were silenced with the second of the two Warnies being replaced by a not too complimentary ‘horny’.
It was Dillon a year later who felt the worst wrath of the North Stand abuse, despite being rather ineffective against the mighty Indian batting line-up. And he responded in WWF fashion too to the constant chants of “Dillon is a b*****d” by pretending to loosen his shoulders and in the process flashing his middle fingers to the crowd behind his back. This was of course before the advent of the Spider Cam.
The North Stand regulars also enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the police. Though they were placed specifically to keep them in check, they would intermittently break into “Mumbai police zindaabad” chants whenever they appeared to get upset with the over-exuberance in the area or respond with “Sorrry, sorrry” if the cops asked them to tone it down a bit. The Dillon affair though saw a number of young fans being evicted from the venue, and it set the precedent for stricter policing. Not like it dented the North Stand’s creativity.
One of the more popular members of the North Stand contingent was a middle-aged man who simply went by the moniker of “Uncle” and his trusted whistle. His primary duty was to initiate countdowns from 10 to 1 to incite his own version of the Mexican wave. And you dare not begin a chant while Uncle’s wave was on.
“It was a time the Indian team was what the cricket world considered, ‘nice’. Even if they had a firebrand at the helm in Sourav Ganguly, even the fast bowlers like Srinath or Prasad were good guys. So we took on the opposition on their behalf,” says Abhishek, who hasn’t missed a game since 1993, when England were thrashed.
The taunts weren’t always puerile either. You were never too far from a pun or a quip, witty or otherwise. And everyone was chipping in. From a pan-chewing 50-year-old going “Brad who’s your dad?”–directed towards Aussie pacer Brad Williams—to “Hussey toh fassi” or even a silly rendition of “Who let the dogs out” every time Brad Hogg touched the ball. If the cricket got a little staid, there were always the snide, and at times rather nasty, remarks on Pakistan to fall back on or their own version of Queen’s “We will rock you”. Then there were always the camerapersons to be harrassed. There were those like Ajay Jadeja and even Brett Lee who thrived on the North Stand vibe and in turn won them over.
“The best part always has been that we’ve been like an improv act, and the chants generally come through without any planning. We aren’t like the Barmy Army who have fixed songs and slogans,” Abhishek adds.
The din of plastic bottles being used as percussion instruments on the wooden seats provided the perfect soundtrack, and you simply couldn’t zone off, even if the cricket wasn’t always keeping you on your feet. It doesn’t mean that North Stand didn’t follow the cricket. For the one-hour period post lunch on Day 3 of the India-Australia Test in 2001, when Tendulkar held the Aussie bowlers and the crowd in awe, the only word emanating from the section was the name of their beloved star.
The North Stand has a humour too, famously so. In 2006, Monty Panesar’s dropped catch was greeted by “Monty hamare saath hai, yeh andar ki baat hai…” chants that refused to die till the time the turbaned left-arm spinner held on to a skier and shut them up. Even though the boom of social media was still a few years away, they somehow always seemed to be on the pulse with regards to which cricketer was having an affair with an actress. And he would always be referred to as her bhai. They could be subtle too at times.
“At times it used to be funny to hear an opposition player being heckled. Like the time they went after Flintoff with some banter in Hindi. He was clearly getting rattled and our whole dressing-room was in splits,” says Jaffer.
Wisecracks though have been a penchant for Mumbai crowds historically according to those who took the stage in front of them in the previous era. “Ashok Mankad was always on the heftier side. And every time he fielded a ball, the entire stand would go, Ganpati Bappa Moriya, much to his angst,” says a former Mumbai cricketer.
The renovation of the Wankhede for the 2011 World Cup may have changed the dynamics of the setting in many ways, but the North Stand spirit—they even have their own Twitter handle @North Stand-Wankhede—still stays strong according to those who still only feel at home there. In 2009, they crowded the northern end of the Brabourne Stadium when India took on Sri Lanka. And it felt like the good ol’ times again as they even managed to target a veteran scribe-cum-TV personality in customary fashion when he refused to acknowledge their friendly greetings.
With two days to go for the Test, the North Stand Gang are already buzzing and counting down each day. Most of the talk revolves around the buildup to the match, right from information regarding where to pick up online tickets to pictures of long queues leading up to the box-office. Some others like Prateek Tiwari are already getting warmed up for their act. “I want to see how it swung. I want to see how it spun. At G-Block, with @NorthStandGang, I’m going to have some fun,” reads one of Tiwari’s tweets. There is also a picture of a five-day match ticket for the India-Sri Lanka Test from 1997, the one Wickramasinghe will never forget while. The official handle is getting the rest into the mood posting preparatory chants like, “Twinke Twinkle little star, Kohli is a super star” and a self-congratulatory “Sabse acchha stand kaun? North Stand Stand”. Mangalam Maloo, meanwhile, is reminding his colleagues lest they forget that, “we also use cuss words for the neighbouring country!”
The IPL strangely has brought out a more welcoming side of the Mumbai crowds. Not only have they begun echoing the now univerally acclaimed “A Beee deee” chants whenever AB de Villiers is in town, they have coined rhythmic chants for their own foreign players in the Mumbai Indians outfit, from Malinga to Pollard.
Does that mean the English shouldn’t expect a cauldron on Thursday? The leg-pulling stunt on Wickramasinghe should tell them that they’re better of keeping their feet safely grounded when they enter Wankhede. Yes, even if they have come to Mumbai carrying a deficit in the series on the last two occasions and recorded famous wins. They have been forewarned.