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England a long way from paradise in iconic Eden Gardens

Wednesday, 5 December 2012 - 1:14pm IST | Place: Kolkata | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

Fireworks, fog and volatile fans made Calcutta most daunting of venues, but as crowds fall so does its awe.

As Monty Panesar fields by the boundary over the next few days at Eden Gardens he should spare a thought for England players who have gone before him. "The crowd thought it was really funny to lob firecrackers at you so they exploded about head height," recalls John Lever, one of only 11 English cricketers to have won a Test match at Eden Gardens. "It was a bit off-putting and not much fun. I always fielded on the boundary so it did wear a bit thin after a while."

Given Panesar's tendency to daydream, England coach Andy Flower probably would not mind the odd rocket heading his way to keep him on his toes, but finding a crowd to throw a firework will be hard these days at one of the most iconic grounds in world cricket. When Lever, a fast bowler, was part of Tony Greig's victorious England team in 1977, 100,000 spectators turned up to watch the last day's action when India were beaten before lunch.

Now it is unlikely the entire five days will bring in that many spectators. Only 5,000 tickets had been sold by the weekend — optimistic reports have suggested an average daily attendance of 20,000 — and there has been no sign of long queues at the box office since then.

"On the last day when their wicketkeeper [Syed Kirmani] hit a ball that went past me and to the boundary, meaning we would have to bat again, the roar was a noise I had never heard before. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," says Lever.

The ground was spruced up and reduced in size for the 2011 World Cup. There is a lawn to rival any village bowling green in front of the pavilion, giving the place a country club air, but seats costing pounds 1.25 per day at this Test are like those at most grounds in India — spattered with bird droppings (pigeons were roosting in the Test Match Special commentary box this week).

The surroundings helped create the ground's unique atmosphere, with the old three-tiered concrete stands making a daunting backdrop.

"They liked to flash mirrors in your eyes when you were batting," says Dennis Amiss, the former England batsman. "They were very passionate about their cricket and when we won by 10 wickets in 1977 they got very upset and they started to gather around the pavilion. It was an old wooden thing and it started to rock. We got a bit worried but the army came in and got us out pretty quickly. It was the Indians that the crowd were unhappy with, not us, but it had us worried for a time."

One thing that has not changed is the quality of food. The West Bengal Cricket Association this week apologised to Virender Sehwag after he complained about his lunch. In 1977 it was touring players who grumbled. Greig's team lived on tinned spam and bananas. "You couldn't take a chance on eating curry at the ground," says Lever. "I'm sure it would have been fine but you just didn't want to get ill."

That is what happened 15 years later when Mike Atherton pulled out of the Calcutta Test after being sick while inspecting the wicket. He spent four days in bed, which was probably the best place to be as England picked four seamers on a spinning pitch and lost by eight wickets.

"It was a baptism of fire for me," says Paul Taylor, the former Northamptonshire seamer who made his Test debut in that match. "My standout memory is that I shouldn't have been playing. [Phil] Tufnell and [John] Emburey were sat in the pavilion while I was the fourth of four seamers on a pitch which turned from day one."

That was England's last Test appearance here before today, but even 19 years ago a huge crowd was in attendance. "The noise was unbelievable," said Taylor. "It was like standing next to the M25 at rush hour with this permanent buzz."

The early-morning dew in West Bengal is why today's (Wednesday's) Test started at 9am local time. "We would turn up early at the ground and it would be like the Yorkshire Dales for a couple of hours," adds Taylor. "Every morning there was a haze about the place and you couldn't see from one side of the ground to the other."

After the match Ted Dexter, then chairman of selectors, blamed the Calcutta smog for England's defeat. He is back in the city as guest of honour having captained England here in 1961. "I got in terrible trouble about the smog," he said. "Somewhere I sat next to this professor. He said I'm making a study of pollution and its effects on athletes. I said a couple of ours are coughing pretty well perhaps you could let us have a proof of it. I don't think I ever saw it but I mentioned it in a press conference."

These days it would be on Twitter. Steven Finn posted a picture last night of his PlayStation games with Samit Patel. Evenings before matches in the 1970s were different. "We played charades a lot which we enjoyed until Mike Brearley and Mike Selvey started doing Keats's poems," says Amiss. "We were all right on things like Bambi, but when those two started doing the highbrow stuff we would walk out."

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