Wankhede Stadium goes unpraised even among Mumbai cricket die-hards. Traditionalists prefer Brabourne; bleeding hearts find it too embroiled in politics and bureaucracy; as for Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata, with their expert crowds and historic stadia, they never even think about the Wankhede if they can help it.
Its defenders sit in blocks G and H on Level 3 of the North Stand, from where you get “the straightest view in the entire stadium.” They start the most intense Mexican waves, live to psych the opposition out with co-ordinated smartassery, and dream up dedicated chants for every Indian cricketer. (There’s a special “Welcome Home Ajju” banner waiting to be unfurled the day Bombay boy Ajinkya Rahane finally makes an appearance in an international match here.) They’re not the Barmy Army, the English cricket team’s crazy, charming fan entourage — but no one in Mumbai cheers for India quite like the North Stand Gang.
One Bounce To Tweflth Man
The Wankhede isn’t hosting a Test in the ongoing India-Australia series, so the @NorthStandGang is currently taking point on Twitter with Che Pu memes for zen master Cheteshwar Pujara and all-caps encouragement for Wriddhiman Saha (Twitter handle: @wriddhipops). A “core team” of about 20 around whom a larger group of supporters ebbs and flows, the Gang has members who’ve been going to the Wankhede as far back as 1993. Their group identity is more recent; the Mumbai Cricket Association only allowed cellphones to be carried into the stadium in 2009, which is when Anish deSouza decided that he needed to find a way for every “enthu cutlet” in the stands to stay in touch.
From Anish, we learn that Wankhede has better bathrooms than the Brabourne, and better views — especially from North Stand — than almost any other stadium in the country. “I object to the idea that the Wankhede isn’t a great cricket experience,” he says stoutly when we call him at lunch break on Day 2 last week. No Mumbai player may have waxed eloquent about the Wankhede as Ashwin does about Chennai, when he says, “Every blade of grass at the Chepauk calls to me”. Still, “people from Bangalore and Madras have probably never watched a test in Mumbai,” Anish says.
You don’t need to be at the stadium to know that the Mumbai fan has a hard-bitten reputation, though. Anish remembers the time an Indian came into the stands with an Aussie flag painted on his face. If you’ve ever been to a stadium where water is sold in airtight plastic pouches, perfect for projectile hydro-warfare, you may guess the fate of that flag. Mumbai cricketers are gritty-mean, “khadoos”; the fans are no slouches.
The Khadoos Army
There’s gritty and there’s gnarly. Wankhede audiences are infamous for having taunted West Indies players with racist chants, and for once having booed their own darling, Sachin Tendulkar. “We keep having to tell our side of the story!” Anish exclaims. On that awful day in 2006, when the Master was dismissed by England, the North Stand maintains they stood up to boo the exulting Barmy Army visitors on the other side of the stadium, and were mistakenly understood to be booing their favourite.
You probably won’t get a water pouch in your face if you wander into the North Stand any more, even if the gang can still be hostile to opposition. “It used to be a really tough place," Anish says, “but we’ve calmed down. We want to be thought of as friendly and welcoming.”
Ashutosh Shirke was in the North Stand on the day in 1993 when the stand invented Indian cricket’s most viral chant ever. Like so much else in Tendulkar lore, it starts with Vinod Kambli, his Bombay brother, for whom the North Stand devised the iambic mantra “Kamb-LI, Kamb-LI!” (You know what that sounds like.) On that day — another India-England game — Tendulkar came in at two-down, and scored 81, melting the hearts of his home crowd all over again. The North Stand switched to “Sa-chin, Sa-CHIN!” They’ve never stopped.
“We’re now building different chants for different players,” Ashutosh says. They have one for every member of the Indian team. You may still hear “Koh-li, Koh-li!” in other parts of Indian cricket-land, but from what Ashutosh tells us, at least in the North Stand, that tune is being retired, like a special jersey.
(Don’t worry, they’re working on retiring the racism too. “It’s a thing of the past,” Ashutosh claims. “The North Stand takes a stand against it, we’ve yelled at people who’ve made such comments until they’ve relented, and we are actively on the lookout for when something goes out of line. I’m ashamed that it happened here.”)
You probably won’t get a water pouch in your face if you wander into the North Stand any more, even if the gang can still be hostile to opposition. “It used to be a really tough place," Anish says, “but we’ve calmed down. We want to be thought of as friendly and welcoming.” If you’re coming to a Test at the Wankhede, tweet them for everything from the nearest train station to what kind of cameras will be allowed past stadium security. You can even buy the North Stand t-shirt, a cute polo number designed by Anish that proclaims, among other things: “I am Vinoo Mankad. I am Polly Umrigar. I am Vijay Merchant. I am Sunil Gavaskar.”
Just don’t drop in for a lark. “If you’re sitting with us, you have to be heard and not seen,” Anish says sternly. “Don’t come to take selfies and leave; come to be loud, to chant, to support your team until the last ball is bowled.” Remember what Jon Snow said: the south may have sun, flowers and affectations, but the northerners have home.
Getting there: The North Stand, Wankhede Stadium, Churchgate. The next fixture, an IPL game featuring Mumbai Indians v/s Kolkata Knight Riders, will be played on Sunday, April 9. Sign up for a North Stand t-shirt here, Rs 750.
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