In 2011, when Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium hosted a Test after almost five years, there was a vocal bunch of supporters seated in the top tier of the North Stand that virtually conducted the crowd cheers.
This group kept the atmosphere electric with shouts, chants, rhythmic clapping and even Mexican waves. The chants were innovative, the enthusiasm infectious and by the second session, most people in the stand had joined them in the cheers as one unit. Whether it was Sachin Tendulkar coming in to bat or discussing the countdown as Rahul Dravid approached his 13,000th run, they kept the match against West Indies alive.
This was the North Stand Gang – a cricket fan group named after the stand they sit in, with the best view of the action as they say – who attend every match in Mumbai, be it Tests, ODIs, T20Is or Ranji Trophy. Now, they even travel to Pune as the NSG for matches.
Back then, the group was more casual – like-minded cricket fans who wanted to watch international and even domestic matches together. The group of fellow fans soon became friends who hung out with each other even when there was no cricket and now has become one of the most recognisbale cricket fan groups in India.
By the time the next Mumbai Test was played – against England in 2012 – the core group had absorbed a lot more fellow fans from the 2011 match, including this writer. Ticket, travel, and tete-a-tete plans were made beforehand. Even though India lost the match courtesy Kevin Pietersen’s stunning hundred and the final day was a mere formality, the support of NSG didn’t dim one bit. At one point, a journalist from The Guardian came and sat with the fans instead of the Barmy Army section.
It was a whole new experience of in-stadia cricket watching.
Cut to 2016, when England played a Test in Mumbai again, the North Stand Gang appeared as a consolidated unit with coordinated T-shirts that immortalised the memorable moments at the ground. By now, the 50-strong contingent in their now-famous white tees was hard to miss and was interviewed by media and even invited by the Barmy Army to their party and gifted memorabilia.
It was at this time that a group of fans uniting for the cricket experience became an informal institution that, as their T-shirt says, is akin to “India’s 12th man.”
“After the 2016 Test, Kohli actually gave a lap of honour to the crowd which is unusual because it wasn’t as close or as important a match that the captain had to do that. I believe that was for the turnout and the way the crowd supported the team,” recalled Ashutosh Shirke, a 41-year-old entrepreneur and one of the co-founders. Even Rahul Dravid had acknowledged the crowd in the North Stand as heroes after winning an ODI against South Africa back in 2005.
Originated at Brabourne
Incidentally, NSG was formed not at Wankhede but at Brabourne, the older cricket stadium in Mumbai, during the 2009 Sri Lanka Test. Memorable for Virender Sehwag’s 293, there was another small but important factor that made that match stand out – mobile phones were allowed in the stadium for the first time.
Anish Desouza, Ashutosh Shirke and a couple of other regulars recognised each other. “We exchanged numbers and decided to watch matches together in the future,” said Desouza, another of the co-founders.
The numbers grew and it was the 2011 World Cup that their friendship solidified as they watched the big games together – the match against South Africa in Nagpur where India lost but Tendulkar scored a century, the quarter-final against Australia in Ahmedabad and the final in Mumbai.
They kept in touch through social media, first through the now-extinct Orkut and then Facebook and Twitter. At present the Twitter account has over six and a half thousand followers and is popular for keeping fans entertained with trivia.
But the most crucial tool of growth was the word of mouth and the magnetism of the enthusiastic group in the stands which welcomed all the fellow chanters.
Heroes of the sporting world
Sport owes a great deal to those working from the outside to enrich our viewing experience.
In the past, some of the chants heard in Mumbai stadiums could be considered borderline offensive but when NSG comes up with creative chants, the hook is in the words, not the crude sentiment.
“Mumbai ka Don Kaun, Sachin Sachin” is one such chant, which is inspired by the cult sports movie Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, according to Desouza, an engineer who now lives in the US. In 2016, he flew down especially for the Test and the reunion of the original NSG core – fans who have travelled all over the country and world for matches by now, but attest that nothing beats Wankhede.
“It has become a lot more structured now. We are still normal fans and not affiliated to any organisation. Someone is checking ticket sites every hour to book tickets, we try to make sure the stand is sold out and that everyone has tickets,” said Vipul Yadav, a 35-year-old brand manager who has been a member of the group from the start, even when he was working in Delhi.
“We are not hoarding tickets or selling them to anyone, this is just to ensure that someone who can’t book at the time is also able to see the match,” Desouza added. The gang even helped many fans get tickets for Tendulkar’s farewell match, when red tape had made it extremely difficult to get direct entry.
Newer members joined through Twitter, such as student Nish Navalkar. The social media handle is managed by a group of six-seven individuals and it functions like a professional unit even though run by fans.
“I used to travel to Mumbai from Nashik for matches with my father and mostly we sat in the North Stand. It was always known for being the loudest and having the best chants with support for both Indians and the visiting team,” Navalkar said.
“I knew about the chants but I came to know that there is a group of fans like this only when I joined Twitter in late 2013. The tweets were great and it caught my attention and they created a stadium like atmosphere even on Twitter during match days… for the 2016 Test, I didn’t have North Stand tickets but after the first day I was sure I wanted to sit with them so I messaged them on Twitter and I was welcomed,” he added.
Around 2018, they started adding newer people to the WhatsApp group. The group grew and people started adding friends. Now, the group has over 70 people in it and the atmosphere is said to be like a stadium on match days.
One most significant, if subtle, aspect of being organised as a group like this is that fans are given voice, which is rare in Indian cricket.
“It feels great that fans get recognition because I remember how poorly fans used to be treated in Mumbai stadiums and in India generally. Fan experience is not something they have cared about so this is refreshing,” said Yadav.
“Cricketers interact with us now, commentators acknowledge us, Star Sports interviewed us and some of us were allowed to meet cricketers during the Pune Test.”
Ultimately, it is all about the experience of the collective.
As Shirke said, “It’s nice to be recognised like this. We want to make it an event that there is a Test match happening in Mumbai. It’s about the in-stadia experience, watching a match as NSG. The motto can be let’s make Test matches great again.”