The match witnessed one of the bloodiest riots ever to be seen on a cricket field. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan
The match witnessed one of the bloodiest riots ever to be seen on a cricket field. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan

Enraged by the action of police, an infuriated crowd erupted at the Eden Gardens on January 1, 1967. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the bloodier riots to have happened on a cricket ground.

Nothing unusual was sensed when India and West Indies went to Calcutta, with the home team down 0-1 in the series. In fact, the perpetually enthusiastic Calcutta fans were expecting India to square the series against Garry Sobers’ West Indians. The Test started on December 31, 1966, and West Indies meandered to 212 for 4 on a somewhat sluggish pitch. Rohan Kanhai batted with great care and was not out on 78 at stumps; it was an uncharacteristically cautious innings, and the fact that he was dropped twice on 40 did not help.

There were a few minor disruptions due to crowd activities on Day One, but that had hardly prepared Eden Gardens for what was about to happen the following day. What ensued next day was beyond the imagination of the residents of the City of Joy.

Calcutta, or Eden Gardens, has always been distinctive in its nature. Despite her cultural heritage, keen knowledge and enthusiasm about the sport (and anything else under the Sun) she has always been more volatile in its reactions towards various issues. However, the incidents on New Year’s Day 1967 got a bit out of hand, even by her standards.

The Eden Gardens, in those days, had a capacity of 59,000 people. However, due to the callousness of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), a lot of duplicate tickets were issued and a lot of fake tickets were sold in the black-market; an estimated count of 80,000 spectators was admitted on that day. Officials were accused of selling tickets in the black-market, and even the complimentary tickets scheduled for VIPs were sold in the market.

The stands were overpacked and consequently the crowd began to lose their temper. In addition to that, the facilities at the Eden Gardens (like all Indian grounds in the 1960s) were not up to international standards, and the situation began to take a serious shape.

Gradually, even before play began, the spectators began to cross the fence (there was no metal net those days) and spilled into the ground. The general mood of the crowd was very, very ugly, but they still held themselves back. Until the police resorted to lathi-charge.

The police charged the spectators who had entered the arena: several spectators tried to protest, and Sitesh Roy, a veteran, was severely injured in the process. As he went down bleeding, all hell broke loose. The spectators, who had outnumbered the police, began a counter-charge: they uprooted bamboo poles from the stand, set fire to the canvas roof of the stands; the police responded with tear-gas; the mob infested the entire ground; and a bloody riot followed.

Conrad Hunte (above) risked his own life, climbed the terrace amidst the spreading fire and tried to retrieve the national flags © Getty Images
Conrad Hunte © Getty Images

The players naturally refused to enter the ground. The West Indian cricketers, playing in an alien country, obviously panicked more than their Indian counterparts. They ran outside the stadium and ran helter-skelter on Red Road, adjacent to Eden Gardens, along the Hooghly and lost their way amidst thousands of spectators. They were then guided back to the stadium, where they remained confined until they were escorted to their hotel.

Meanwhile, things had started to get out of control. Amrita Bazar patrika reported the next day: “There was virtually a stampede when the spectators rushed out from the ghetto-like track of the ground. Policemen and their vehicles came under heavy attack. A police jeep belonging to S. T. Howrah was set on fire outside the All-India Radio buildings. Isolated policemen were also assaulted … Two police motor-cycles were set ablaze too … The tent of the Sporting Union Club erupted in flames … People ran pell-mell with their paraphernalia of kit bags and flasks dangling from their shoulders … A state bus in Esplanade East was set on fire, followed by another three, one single-decker and two double-deckers, which met with the same fate. The glass panes of display windows of some shops in Chowringhee Road tinkled down as brickbats smashed on them … Attempts were also made to break open some closed shops in Bharampalla Street, near New Cinema. Another state bus was found burning near Raja Subodh Mullick Square.”

The errant, fraudulent officials meanwhile begged Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi to provide them shelter in the safety of the Indian team coach that took the players away to safety: had the crowd had their way the officials might not have escaped the stadium alive that day.

One man, however, chose to act differently. Conrad Hunte, a man of great morals and conscience who had played a part in the revolution in Jamaica and an ardent supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, realised that the West Indian flag would soon be engulfed in the fire. He risked his own life, climbed the terrace amidst the spreading fire and went on to retrieve the flag. However, Hunte’s autobiography Playing to Win tells us a different story altogether.

Let me quote Hunte verbatim: “I looked up and saw our national flags fluttering in the breeze, threatened by the fire that was now coming towards the pavilion. I started to climb up to get the flags and avoid surrendering them, the symbol of sovereignty of our two nations, to ‘mob rule’. The plain-clothes policeman said, ‘Don’t you go. I’ll get them.’ He went and brought the two flags down, and gave them to me.”

The viewers of the scene saw from a distance that a dark man performing the act, and believed (and spread) the more romantic version of the tale — that of Hunte being the sole hero of the entire drama. Ananda Bazar Patrika, one of the biggest media houses of the city, reported the same under the headline TRUE CRICKET. And the myth stayed.

Amidst this pandemonium and bloodshed, All India Radio commentators blatantly lied on air that play had been delayed because of fog. When the real news came out in the newspapers the next day it obviously resulted in a nationwide outrage against the broadcasters.

Following an emergency meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Prafulla Sen, BCCI Vice-President MA Chidambaram requested the West Indies cricketers to continue with the game the day after. He even promised to provide them with emergency helicopters and jeeps escorted by armed forces.

The response was curt: “By the time your helicopters and jeeps arrive we might be dead. What will those of us who survive tell their family and relatives?”

The deadlock continued. The rest day was rescheduled from January 3 to the second to give the players an extra days.

Hunte met Sobers, his captain, in his room on the morning of January 2. He insisted Sobers agreed to continue with the match, for the fault did not lie with the public.

“You are in Moral Re-Armament. You will go to any length to find a solution. But I am no peace-maker,” responded Sobers.

There was no way Hunte was willing to give up: “But you are the man who holds the reins at the moment. What you decide will alter the course the team take and may affect the future of millions of people in this country and in our own land.” Sobers agreed to ask the team.

Frank Worrell was there, of course, on a personal tour of Calcutta. He was there when Sobers spoke to the team. Midway through the team meeting, there was a knock on the door: Pataudi.

Amazingly, the entire stadium was restored inside two days, and play resumed — though a lot of that had to do with Worrell’s intervention. The West Indian cricketers were also promised a bonus of £45 each. However, throughout their stay in Calcutta, the cricketers kept receiving calls, insisting them to leave.

Hunte later wrote: “Had we not played, I learned afterwards, there was a plan to march sixty thousand men, women and children on the Calcutta cricket grounds and demand their money back. This would have been an impossibility and would have sparked off more rioting.”

After Garry Sobers played a brisk innings to help West Indies put up a fair total, he and Lance Gibbs took 7 wickets each and went on to defeat India by on the last day (technically in four days); no Indian batsman crossed 40 in either innings. It was yet another humiliating loss, despite their being 89 for 1 at one time — a situation from which saving the follow-on or the match should not have been a tough ask. However, the disgrace was nothing when compared to the murky face of CAB that the world got to see on that ill-fated New Year’s Day.

There was inquiry regarding the incidents later on; Justice Kamlesh Chandra Sen blamed CAB officials for the entire incident. There were several limitations imposed on CAB, and the 400-page report was full of suggestions as to how to conduct future Tests.

Brief scores:

West Indies 390 (Conrad Hunte 43, Rohan Kanhai 90, Seymour Nurse 56, Garry Sobers 70; BS Chandrasekhar 3-107) beat India 167 (Budhi Kunderan 39, ML Jaisimha 37; Lance Gibbs 5-51) and 178 (ML Jaisimha 31, Rusi Surti 31, Hanumant Singh 37; Garry Sobers 4-56) by an innings and 45 runs.

(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)