“March 13th 1996 would remain etched in memory for being the only time in the history of cricket that the responsibility for a home team’s defeat rested as much with the team as with its unsporting fans. It would forever be a heavy cross to bear”
I could feel the noise level in the stands rising. That in itself was not unusual, for this was the Eden Gardens, the most intimidating Cricket stadium in the world. It was supposed to be noisy and belligerent, murmurs and chants quickly ascending to a cacophony of unbearable proportions. On the ground, 11 foreign gladiators were meant to feel the pressure and the intimidation of the arena.
But this noise was different. It was an expression of discontent by 100,000 people, or at least a significant proportion of them. I could hear the cursing, the swearing, the anger. And I could smell the liquor as it was passed around in the stands, camouflaged in water bottles, among angry young men, whose alcohol-fueled coarse language indicated they did not belong to the Cricket Association of Bengal Members Stand where they were sitting. I should know, for I had been a fixture at those stands for over two decades ever since, as a seven-year-old, I had watched Tiger Pataudi’s India defeat the mighty West Indies on a cold January morning.
It was clear that the largely middle-class Bhadralok members had let the temptation of black market prices get the better of their deep-seated love for watching cricket at the Eden.
As unusually for the Eden, the ire was directed at the home team.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. For the first time since Kapil Dev had raised the Prudential World Cup to the heavens and been drenched by champagne at the Mecca of Cricket in 1983, an Indian team had a real chance of winning the World Cup.
Less than a week before, in the quarter-finals at Bangalore, a billion peoples’ hopes had been raised by one of the most dramatic victories in India’s relatively young ODI history. The icing on the cake had been the fact that the opposition was the defending World Cup champions Pakistan.
A scintillating 93 from Navjot Singh Sidhu and a brutal 25 ball 45 assault by Ajay Jadeja at the end, including 22 runs off a Waqar Younis over, had taken India to 287 in 50 overs. As they had often done in the past, Aamer Sohail and Saeed Anwar seemed to be running away towards victory. Then came the turning point of the match. Sohail was plundering the Indian bowlers then and after yet another boundary, he looked at Venkatesh Prasad as if to mock him.
Prasad came back and bowled him. Eyes blazing and his mouth frozen wide open in a sustained war cry, he asked the Pakistan captain (Wasim Akram was injured) to “get out”. Javed Miandad and Saleem Malik came together, but this time could not complete what they had done to India many a time in the past. Azharuddin’s men would not be denied, and restricted Pakistan to 248.
The fans at the Eden had every right to expect an Indian victory. It was true that the hosts had lost to Sri Lanka in the group stages, but despite Lanka’s recent successes, in the semi-finals at the Eden, the venue of the home team’s Hero Cup heroics barely three years before, India’s victory was considered a mere formality by the fans.
Azharuddin won the toss much to the ecstasy of the crowd. And then, despite the fact that most of India’s significant ODI victories had come batting first, including the most recent one, he put the opposition in purely on the basis of the group stage loss when Lanka had chased down India’s total. Manager Ajit Wadekar later confirmed that it had been a team decision made before the start of the match.
Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana had redefined how One Day Cricket should be approached. They had perfected the art of launching a brutal all-out attack on the bowlers in the first 10-15 overs of the match. It was a formula the world would embrace and make it the Standard Operating Procedure at the start of the innings. But not that day. When Srinath dismissed both openers in single digits, Azhar’s decision looked inspired. But a pudgy Aravinda de Silva in the company of a pudgier Arjuna Ranatunga, aided by the stylish Roshan Mahanama, took the score to 251 for 8.
At 98 for 1 with Sachin Tendulkar on a magnificent 65, it looked like India would stroll to victory. But Jayasuriya was determined to do with the ball what he had failed to achieve with the willow. Once Tendulkar was stumped by Kaluwitharana off Jayasuriya while setting out for a non-existent run, the match took a dramatic turn. India collapsed like it had never collapsed before. A deck of cards would arguably have fallen with more dignity.
As a bemused Ajay Jadeja walked back to the pavilion, comprehensively bowled by Jayasuriya after struggling for 11 scoreless deliveries, the first bottles started raining down on the ground. India had gone from 98 for 1 to 115 for 6 in a matter of minutes.
With the stands turning increasingly violent, I quietly made my way out of our seats and started the long descent down the stairs. As we descended, we could see the fires starting in the stands, the bottles being thrown, the screams of panic starting. We could also hear more wickets falling and the crescendo of booing rising to the skies.
The transistor radio in my hand (the ubiquitous companion at cricket matches of the time) told us that the booing was at the dismissals of Nayan Mongia and Aashish Kapoor. India was 120 for 8 in the 35th over. Vinod Kambli was at the crease, but this is where the match would stop.
The front pages of the papers the next day told the rest of the story. The photo of a dejected Vinod Kambli looking forlorn, tears streaming down his face as match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka, would remain a painful memory. 15-years later Kambli would accuse Azharuddin of fixing the match, a charge Azhar would deny, pointing out that this was not the first nor the last time India collapsed in a cricket match.
Sri Lanka eventually won a World Cup they richly deserved and would thereafter be a dominant force in cricket, 1996 being the turning point, much as 1983 had been for India.
For Eden Gardens and the cricket crazy people of Bengal, it was a day to forget. Yes, there had been the Test match against the West Indies in 1967 when the CAB had sold far more tickets than the capacity of the crowd, and there would be 1999 when the ground was evacuated to let the India-Pakistan Test match continue in front of empty stands. But this was different.
March 13th 1996 would remain etched in memory for being the only time in the history of cricket that the responsibility for a home team’s defeat rested as much with the team as with its unsporting fans. It would forever be a heavy cross to bear.