In this era of match referees and all-invasive TV coverage, player behaviour has generally improved, even allowing for the occasional over-the-top sledge and tantrum. But in Toronto in 1997, Inzamam-ul-Haq was guilty of an offence which, were it to happen today, would almost certainly have seen him banned for a very long time.
The incident took place during a match between Pakistan and India in the Sahara Cup, a tournament devised to cash in on the lucrative expat market in North America ahead of the main seasons in the two countries. The series, which had been launched successfully in 1996, consisted of five matches in eight days at the superbly named Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
India secured a narrow 20-run win in the opening game, and in the second match, the following day, bowled Pakistan out for a derisory 116. Inzamam scratched around for a 34-ball 10, "looking distinctly awkward in his new Gooch-like stance," according to Cricinfo's man at the ground.
When India batted, the crowd were on the Pakistanis' backs from the off, with Inzamam singled out for attention. Shiv Kumar Thind, a Canada-based Indian, who had been allowed into the ground armed with a megaphone, taunted Inzamam, as he had done the previous day. What exactly was said is still a matter of debate; what is not in doubt is that it the gist of it was puerile and mildly offensive.
Thind was at the centre of a small group of Indians who kept up a remorseless barrage of insults. Dawn, a Karachi-based newspaper, reported that eyewitnesses said the supporters barracked whatever Inzamam did. "O mote, sidha khara ho [O fatso, stand straight], mota aaloo, sara alloo [fat potato, rotten potato]." The report added that the same group had also targeted Mohammad Azharuddin who had only recently left his wife for Sangeeta Bijlani, a movie star, and another, Debasis Mohanty, was abused by being called "kalia" [blackie].
I am bruised all over. My shirt got torn. But most of all I feel hugely insulted. How can someone just slap and assault me and get away with it? Shiv Kumar Thind
As India cruised on 45 for 1, the teams took a drinks break. It was then that the trouble started. Again, as with much of the whole affair, the story is muddled, but it seems that a bat was brought to the third-man area by Pakistan's 12th man and almost immediately Inzamam, who had been in the slips until then, was sent down to the boundary by his captain.
As the taunting continued, Inzamam snapped and jumped into the crowd. Another eyewitness told The Guardian that Inzamam grabbed the bat and headed for the man with the megaphone. "If not for the spectators and security staff curbing him, he would have broken the head of that guy. The guy with the megaphone was no match for Inzamam and got mauled. Even when Canadian police took Inzamam back onto the field, he was trying to get back to the stands."
The Toronto Star carried an account by one of its senior editors. "For getting called several kinds of potato, Inzamam went into the stands ... and attempted to attack a mouthy fan, triggering a nasty mini-riot that could easily have escalated to world-wide ugly.
"Worse, a cricket bat appeared - no one is sure from where, although two witnesses said they thought they saw Inzamam call to his bench for one - and there was Inzamam, apparently swinging his bat at the customer(s) before someone restrained him. He didn't appear to hit anyone with the bat. That is consistent; the Pakistani batsmen were off the mark all day."
I had not gone into the stand to have a fist-fight with him. I just went to ask him why he was abusing me Inzamam-ul-Haq
Inzamam, who clearly regretted the incident, admitted he had been wrong but asked, "how long could have I tolerated the man abusing my religion, country and family members?" He continued: Besides being a sportsman, I am also a human being. How many people in the world would have accepted someone who abuses his country and religion. I had not gone into the stand to have a fist-fight with him. I just went to ask him why he was abusing me. On the contrary, he attacked me with the megaphone and whatever I did later was purely to defend myself. How could have I allowed him to inflict physical harm on me?''
Inzamam was led to the pavilion - some said he was close to tears - and the police arrested two spectators. Only then, woefully late, did the organisers put out a PA announcement asking for the crowd to stop using megaphones. By then, the horse had well and truly bolted.
Both captains came out and asked the crowd to calm down, and after a 40-minute delay the match resumed - Inzamam also took his place on the field - and India eased to a seven-wicket win with no further alarms, either on or off the field.
In the post-match inquests, the organisers emerged with little credit, especially when it was revealed that Salim Malik and other players had complained about the abuse during both matches but no action had been taken. Dawn attacked the organisers for possessing more spin than either team, an accusation that gained credibility when Bill Sinrich, a vice-president of TWI, the promoters of the Sahara Cup, told reporters that "none of the referees nor cricket officials present have seen anything untoward. They will review the TV tapes before commenting on the incident." They must have been the only people on the ground to have missed it.
Jackie Hendriks, the match referee, expressed sympathy with the provocation Inzamam had been subjected to, but banned him for two ODIs nevertheless.
Sachin and Azhar both said they would touch our feet to stop us from filing a complaint. I told Sachin that I could give my life for him but that I would still file a complaint. I told them that even if the prime minister of India told me to forget it, I wouldn't Shiv Kumar Thind
Ramiz Raja, Pakistan's captain, also recognised that Inzamam, who had a reputation of being a mild-mannered individual, had been provoked. "It wasn't a wise thing to do and it was bad for cricket," he said, "but the fans have been hurling abuse at the players for the last two days and he is a human being and has emotions." But he refused to answer the question many were asking. How did Inzamam get hold of the bat and who had ordered the 12th man to bring it out? ``I don't know," he shrugged. "I can't comment, I have other things on my mind at the moment."
And when a West Indian reporter asked the Pakistani management if he could speak to Inzamam himself, he was met with a dead bat. "No, he can't speak English.''
Back home, Pakistan's management were heavily criticised for allowing such a situation to develop, and then for not backing Inzamam in the aftermath. "The management and the skipper should have strongly defended him," said Hanif Mohammad. "It's no secret that Inzamam is the coolest player in the team. They [the officials] must have been unconvincing before Hendricks."
Haseeb Ahsan, a former chairman of selectors, was equally scathing. "Had the management acted swiftly before the brawl took place, neither Inzamam would have been suspended from two matches nor the relations between the two countries had further suffered.'' But he also censured Inzamam. "He should have never gone into the enclosure because anything could have happened. He might have fractured his hand or suffered any other serious injury."
The rest of the series passed without incident, India romping to a 4-1 series win.
Thind was arrested by Toronto police, accused of throwing his megaphone at Inzamam, and the player himself was released on bail. Both parties subsequently agreed to drop charges against each other. The Pakistan cricket Board decided to take no further action against any of its players.
"My career has been as clear as a crystal," Inzamam reflected. "I regret that I did something unbecoming of a sportsman and inside me, there is also a patriotism but a vulnerable soul."
But the final word should go to journalist Prem Panicker. Many not present read of the incident and found it mildly amusing that a professional cricketer should take such offence at being called a potato. But Panicker pointed out that the cricket bat "was brought out and handed over to Inzamam, who then used it to go after the concerned spectator. The legal phrase for that is premeditated assault with a deadly weapon ... and if you think it is rather ridiculous to equate a cricket bat with a Kalashnikov, then you've never kept wickets standing up and been inadvertently slugged by a batsman going for a sweep. For believe me, a bat can stun, at worst, and even kill."
A video of the incident is available here.
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The Cricketer Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Dawn Various issues
Toronto Star September 16, 1997
The Guardian September 16, 1997