39
Courtesy: H Natarajan

On November 9, 1969, Australia wrapped up the first Test match of the series at the Brabourne Stadium. However, there was more to the story than the eight-wicket victory the visitors registered. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when the players armed themselves with stumps for self-defence.

It was a Test played under sombre clouds — of controversy, public outrage and riots.

Trenches had been dug and shelling had started for various reasons long before Graham McKenzie ran up and bowled the first ball of the match to Dilip Sardesai.

Srinivas Venkataraghavan, at the time a 9-Test old off-spinner of promise, had been omitted from the side. And ironically, he was the one who found himself at the centre of the mayhem that unfolded in the Test.

The decision of the selectors was met with huge outcry. Two Tests earlier Venkat had picked up 9 wickets against New Zealand, and protests rang out loud and clear from all corners. Subrata Guha, the medium-pacer from Bengal selected as the third seamer along with Rusi Surti and Abid Ali, offered to stand down in one of the noblest shows of self-sacrifice ever witnessed in the game. An off-spinner for a medium-pacer was not the ideal bargain, and did little for the variety of the attack with EAS Prasanna already in the side. But, by the time Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi walked out for the toss alongside Australian skipper Bill Lawry, Venkat had made his way into the team list.

Pataudi won the toss and India reached 271 in the first innings, thanks to a 146-run fourth-wicket partnership between the captain and Ashok Mankad. Both batsmen enjoyed lives early on, and made them count. At one stage on the second morning, the Indians were 239 for 4 with Ajit Wadekar and Pataudi at the crease. But McKenzie  with 5 for 69, aided by mystery spinner John Gleeson with 3 wickets and Alan Connolly with 2, skittled out the rest of the batting for a mere 32 additional runs.

Keith Stackpole led the Australian response with a strokeful hundred, and Ian Redpath put the bowling to sword with 77, but their innings also hurtled to a quick finish. From 297 for 4, with a huge lead in sight, they faltered to the spin of Prasanna, ably supported by Bishan Bedi and to a lesser extent, Venkat. The third day ended at 322 for 7.

Armed with stumps and bail

The eventful fourth day ensued with the Indian spinners making short work of the remaining Australian wickets. Prasanna finished with 5 for 121 and Bedi with 3 for 74 off a whopping 62.4 overs.

The lead was substantial, but manageable. However, India collapsed dramatically in the second innings. On a track made to order for the home spinners, Gleeson wrecked the innings  quickly by removing Sardesai, Mankad, Borde and Pataudi. Only Wadekar stood firm as wickets fell all around him, and when Connolly trapped all-rounders Surti and Abid Ali leg-before, the score read a miserable 89 for 7.

As the shadows lengthened, Venkat showed a lot of pluck in sticking around and providing Wadekar with admirable support. They had added 24 when the infamous incident triggered. Connolly ran in to bowl with the score on 113 for seven, and Venkataraghavan slashed at the widish delivery. It went through to wicketkeeper Brian Taber, and only a solitary gully fielder appealed. The huge crowd watched in disbelief as umpire Sambhu Pan raised his finger. As the batsman walked off in disbelief, a bemused Taber remarked, “He missed it by a foot!”

More or less the same sentiment was being aired by Devraj Puri on the radio. The crowd was already distressed by the inept performance of the home team, on top of the uncomfortable overcrowded stadium amenities. The heat and humidity did not really work wonders for the tempers either. And, as was the norm, a lot of them were carrying transistors as well. They erupted in unison.

Most were of the opinion that Lawry should have recalled the batsman. But the Australian captain was not known to be excessively diplomatic.

Soon, the stands were set on fire and bottles and chairs started being hurled into the ground.

The match continued as raucous chanting engulfed the stadium and missiles kept making their way into the playing area.

The smoke billowing across the outfield made it almost impossible to see what was going on in the middle. Jehangir Irani, one of the official scorers, marched to the middle in protest, requesting the match to be suspended. Lawry, however, wanted to have the match under wraps before the end of the day. He curtly told Irani to sort out his problems by moving elsewhere.

As the smoke continued to swirl around the stadium, Connolly remarked, “I reckon I can clean up the tail in this smoke.”

Two fielders were struck by bottles, although not seriously. Graham McKenzie started out on his long run up and was brought to a screeching halt as a large stone fell in front of him. The police, spurred into action, ringed the field, standing almost within the playing area.

To their immense credit, India continued playing.

In all this commotion, with just a few minutes remaining, the ninth wicket went down when Ashley Mallett bowled Prasanna. And after another over, played out by Wadekar, the day’s cricket came to an end. However, the action was far from over in the middle.

Former Australia cricketer Doug Walters

“I’ll try and poke someone’s eye out with it,” said Doug Walters (above) carrying a bail in his hand © Getty Images

The Australians remained in the field for another 20 minutes as the police tried their hardest to clear the spectators from the clubhouse. Even then, when the players were finally escorted towards the dressing rooms, plenty of the angry crowd remained in the premises. Some of the members were equally irate in their enclosures. As they went in, several players armed themselves with stumps. Doug Walters, who made do with a bail, said: “I’ll try and poke someone’s eye out with it.”

Gleeson was felled by a bottle, and later certified that the members had better arms than the general mob. Wicker chairs were thrown from the clubhouse balcony, some narrowly missing the Australian captain.

Once in the dressing room, the Australians were made to dive for the showers as bottles smashed all the windows. The police now clashed with the crowd and the injury list finally contained rioters, policemen and bystanders — although, thankfully, none of the players.

Aftermath

In the Times of India, KN Prabhu wrote, “It is a novel and sad state of affairs that violence latent in our public life should spring to the surface on our cricket fields. The major casualty was the fair name of Indian cricket, and Bombay cricket.”

The Cricket Club of India blamed radio commentators for inciting the crowd and initially banned the broadcasters on the fifth day. They had to allow them later in view of the international commitments. As has become the norm in matches held in the country today, bottled drinks were not allowed inside the ground.

The seats had been dismantled, used as missiles and charred, but even then 20,000 turned up, the majority standing or sitting amidst the ruins, just to see the one Indian wicket fall before the Australians knocked off the winning runs.

The remaining 4 Tests were played with the tourists under constant police protection.

Australia led the series 2-1 as the teams met in the final Test at Madras. Requiring 249 to win, India was cruising along at 114 for 2 with Wadekar and a young Gundappa Viswanath at the crease. However, Ashley Mallett claimed 5 as India lost the last 8 wickets for 57 runs and surrendered the series 1-3.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)