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When Eden Gardens was ablaze & angry fans went after fraudulent officials while the Test came to a halt

When Eden Gardens was ablaze & angry fans went after fraudulent officials while the Test came to a halt

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

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 took off 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 its cultural heritage, keen knowledge and enthusiasm about the sport (and anything else under the Sun) Calcutta 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 hands, even by Calcutta 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 a veteran called Sitesh Roy was severely injured in the process. As he went down bleeding, hell broke loose. The spectators, who had outnumbered the police, began a counter-charge: they lifted 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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
Hunte clearly mentions that as he had tried to climb the flagpole to retrieve both flags (note that no Indian had attempted the same), a policeman asked him not to risk it, and retrieved the flags himself. The viewers of the scene saw from a distance that a dark man in an all-white outfit (Calcutta policemen have a white uniform) 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.
 
Amidst this pandemonium and bloodshed, the All India Radio commentators 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.
 
Amazingly, the entire stadium was restored inside two days (the next day was a scheduled rest day), and play resumed – though a lot of that had to do with Sir Frank Worrell’s intervention. Worrell, always a popular figure, was on a personal tour of Calcutta; it was on his insistence that a reluctant West Indies side took field the next day, and play resumed as if nothing had happened. The West Indian cricketers were also promised a bonus of £45 each.
 
After Garry Sobers played a brisk innings to help West Indies put up a fair total, he and Lance Gibbs took seven 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 one at one point of 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 the 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) bt 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)

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