1999 October 30, 2010

The run-out that sparked a riot

When the first match in the inaugural Asian Test Championship descended into chaos with the controversial run-out of India's hero Sachin Tendulkar

The idea of an Asian Test Championship must have seemed good - and lucrative - to the Asian Cricket Council in the late 1990s. Keen to boost income, the region's three big teams - Bangladesh were two years from getting Test status - would all meet and India and Pakistan's resumption of cricketing relations removed the last and most significant obstacle to the event.

Even before the start the Championship was threatened by politicians as those from India and Pakistan postured and tried to use the cricket for their own purposes. In the end it was agreed the tour of India by Pakistan could go ahead, but only shortly before it was scheduled to start.

The Calcutta Test in February 1999 was originally planned as the third and final match of the series between the two. But once the idea of the Asian Championship was accepted, it became the new tournament's inaugural game. The public showed their support and around 100,000 turned up on the first four days, and 65,000 on the fifth even though India had only four second-innings wickets left. The attendance smashed the 63-year-old record for the highest aggregate at a Test.

However, the game was marred by crowd trouble and was, Wisden observed, completed in near silence, "watched by a few officials, VIPs, journalists and police, after the crowd was forcibly expelled because of a riot".

The first three days passed without incident and, initially, India appeared to be on the way to a memorable victory as Pakistan slumped to 26 for 6 on the first morning. Led by Moin Khan's 70 they recovered to 185, and restricted India to a slender first-innings lead, although the crowd were left unsatisfied when Sachin Tendulkar was bowled by Shoaib Akhtar for a first-ball duck. The two were to cross swords again in the second innings.

Superb bowling from Javagal Srinath - he took 8 for 86 and 13 for 132 in the match - was matched by a brilliant innings from Saeed Anwar, who carried his bat for 188, as Pakistan made 316 second time around and set India a target of 279 with more than two days to get them.

By the fourth afternoon India were well placed on 143 for 2 when there came the incident which turned the whole game ugly.

Tendulkar, cheered to the rafters by a massive crowd when he came in, was on 7 when he clipped Wasim Akram to deep midwicket. He took two runs - completing 5000 Test runs in the process - and was on his way back for a third when substitute Nadeem Khan hit the stumps with his throw from the deep. In the ordinary course of events it was a straightforward third run even with the direct hit, but Tendulkar collided with Shoaib Akhtar, who was waiting close to the stumps to gather the return, and as a result was out of his ground, even though he may well have been just inside the crease at the moment of the collision. Steve Bucknor referred it to the third umpire, KT Francis, who, after a long delay, gave him out. This was the first series where all officials were neutral.

Who was at fault very much depends on who you support. Shoaib was doing what any fielder would have done, taking position two or three yards behind the stumps to take the return, not going close up because there was no likely run-out opportunity. He was just off the cut strip and at no time appeared to even glance at the batsman, and in fact had his back to him. Tendulkar did not seem to see Shoaib and was watching the ball on its return flight, even moving slightly and inadvertently into Shoaib as he tried to run his bat in.

The neutral's view seemed to be that it was a genuine accident, although in the Times, Richard Hobson was not sitting on the fence. "Tendulkar could blame only himself for the dismissal… he kept his eye on the throw instead of his own route to the crease. Wasim Akram, the Pakistan captain, was under no obligation to withdraw the appeal."

Tendulkar headed off looking slightly bewildered and went straight to the TV umpires' room instead of the dressing room, to see the incident replayed. He said nothing but just shook his head unbelievingly as he reviewed the dismissal.

Rahul Dravid blocked the final three balls of the over but then the huge crowd erupted at what was perceived as a gross injustice to their hero and started chanting "cheat, cheat", pelting Shoaib Akhtar with bottles and other objects as he returned to his position in the deep.

Eventually the umpires took the players from the field for an early tea and it was only after personal pleas from Tendulkar and ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya that the match was able to resume. "It was good of Sachin to go out and pacify the crowd," said Dinesh Vajpal, Calcutta's chief of police. "Fortunately we had not allowed spectators to bring in anything lethal."

At the close, Dalmiya caused more than a few raised eyebrows when he claimed the trouble had been overblown. "The crowd felt an injustice had been done, but there was no violence as such and within five minutes they held up placards saying they were sorry," he said. "There were only 20 or so mischief-mongers and the rest of the crowd sorted the matter out themselves."

The 67-minute delay affected India more than Pakistan. Within a few minutes of the resumption Dravid was dismissed by Shoaib, and when Mohammad Azhuruddin and Nayan Mongia fell within seven runs of each other near the end of the day, Pakistan were in the driving seat. By stumps, India needed 65 with four wickets in hand.

Much depended on Sourav Ganguly, and after he fell to the ninth ball of the final day the mood in the crowd again turned ugly. When 20 minutes later Srinath was caught behind off Wasim Akram to leave India 231 for 9, Wisden reported: "Spectators started burning newspapers in the stands and hurled stones, fruit and plastic bottles on to the field. The match was held up for over three hours as about 65,000 people were removed by police and security men. The crowd's anger was still concentrated on Tendulkar's run-out, but there was little viciousness in the riot; it was born of disappointment rather than anti-Pakistan feeling. There was no sign of violence outside the ground."

But the Guardian was more critical of the police's tactics, saying they brought "no credit to the game or its decision-makers… they chased fans up the alleyways and elderly men, women and children were ejected, if necessary by kicking, punching and beating with lathi sticks".

It only took Pakistan 10 balls to complete their 46-run win, but they did so in a surreal atmosphere, completely in contrast to the din that had accompanied everything that had gone before. Only about 200 people were left inside the concrete bowl, although one elderly couple had refused to budge, steadfastly asserting their right to remain and watch. They stayed until the team took to the field, at which point around 50 security guards pounced and manhandled them out of the stadium.

Although the day before he had been one-eyed, the second far more serious disturbance rattled Dalmiya, who was angry and embarrassed. "I exactly don't find any reason for provocation today," he said. "The action is totally unjustified and uncalled for. The excitement of the crowd last evening was also too much. The spectators should learn that winning and losing is part of the game. Today's gesture was very clear that the last wicket would not be allowed to fall. I condemn today's action in strongest possible manner. Yesterday something happened in a spur of the moment but today there is no explanation.

"If that is the only motive of the spectators, that the visiting team shouldn't win here, I only leave it to the future and hope the God changes their [the crowd's] attitude."

At the post-match press conference, Wasim Akram lambasted the Indian media for stoking up the unrest. "Whatever has happened today, it is only because of you people and your reports. You have said that Shoaib obstructed Sachin from making his ground and I should have re-invited him to bat. Why should I do that? If a team fails for only one man, that is our bonus. The whole world saw none of them were responsible for the collision. But you have blamed me. Is that wise?

"You have held [the crowd] responsible for the whole wrong-doings, but I will never blame them for this because they were all pre-occupied with those reports, for which the saddest thing in Test cricket happened here today."

Azharuddin was much more downbeat. "I don't want to say anything more because I've already said that in 1996, when we lost the World Cup semi-final to Sri Lanka by default. I just want them to behave, because every time we cannot win. We are also human beings and any day we can fail. This incident has let us down in the world of cricket, and I don't know why they did that."

The great shame was that the match was a superb advertisement for Test cricket, even if the crowd's behaviour was not. But the next two games - Sri Lanka v India in Colombo and Pakistan v Sri Lanka in Lahore - were less so, and the final was woefully one-sided as Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka by an innings and 175 runs in Dhaka.

Perhaps the last word should go to Dalmiya, who, after composing himself in the aftermath of the riots on the final day in Calcutta, cheerily told the media: "The game was finished and cricket was the winner."

The era of administrators genuinely out of touch with the real world and believing income was the be-all and end-all was with us.

What happened next?

  • Planned as a biannual event, the second Championship took place over eight months in 2001 and 2002 and was rendered fairly meaningless by the withdrawal of India because of another escalation of political tensions with Pakistan. Sri Lanka gained revenge over Pakistan in the final but Bangladesh, who managed to take only eight wickets in all, were thrashed by an innings in their two matches and the public and media interest without India's participation was negligible. With an increasingly packed international calendar, the third staging of the Championship was postponed and then it was quietly abandoned in 2006
  • Wasim Akram called for a two-year ban on Tests at Eden Gardens; the next game was not staged there until March 2001

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo