Fifteen years ago, the perennially gentle and largely lethargic Inzamam-ul-Haq leapt into the crowd, bat in hand, charging towards a megaphone wielding heckler. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day when cricket was faced with a hot-potato situation.
September 14, 1997
From the lazy elegance of his stroke-play to the comical running between the wickets, from the immense girth to the fine touch of mastery, Inzamam-ul-Haq walked the cricket grounds as a gentle giant, both by feats and physiognomy.
He could wield the willow with a dexterity that belied his bulk, but never, by the wildest stretch of imagination, could he be mistaken for a man of action. And with the amount of deft touch he displayed at the crease, one could hardly expect him to wield the bat as a battering instrument.
Hence it is more than surprising that he sprang into the crowd, bat in hand, charging at a man who had been barracking him with a megaphone – intentions more than hostile.
But then, there were a lot of things that were surprising that day at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
Shiv Kumar Thind was one among many who had been allowed inside the ground armed with a megaphone. Strange indeed considering the complaints raised by Salim Malik and others about the insults hurled at the players during the previous match of the series.
And then there is the mystery of a bat appearing for the fielding side – that too in the third-man region. Which had a nasty correlation with Inzamam being moved there from the slips almost simultaneously.
Inzamam, himself, was not really having a very happy day. Pakistan had limped to 116 all out and he himself has failed to middle anything during his 34-ball struggle for ten. At the wicket, he had looked like a – er – rather gigantic fish out of the water, grappling with his new stance that resembled Graham Gooch.
The crowd, on the other hand, were having a field day. Pakistan’s leading daily, Dawn, reported that armed with their megaphones, a section of the crowd continuously taunted Inzamam chanting, “Oye motte, seedha khadha ho. Mota aaloo, sadda aloo.” (It roughly translates to, “Hey Fatty, stand straight, you fat, rotten potato.”).
The same group reportedly also directed slurs at Mohammad Azharuddin, with comments linked to his decision of leaving his wife for actress Sangeeta Bijlani. The Indian medium-pacer Debasish Mohanty was also not spared, with shouts of “Kalia” dogging him whenever he fielded near the boundary.
Thind, a Canada-based Indian, had singled out Inzamam for persistent badgering.
With India on 45 for one, drinks were taken. As against the run of play as it can get, a bat magically appeared at the third-man area, borne by the twelfth man of the fielding side! And as mentioned earlier, Inzamam was dispatched into the outfield from the slips by captain Rameez Raja. Various eyewitness accounts vary about which of these two incidents happened first, but the coincidence is glaring.
Abuse continued to float in – coarse, puerile and amplified into the ground. Finally, at one point, Inzamam snapped. He grabbed the bat and leapt into the stands, heading menacingly for Thind. According to eyewitness versions published in The Guardian, “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.”
Thankfully, in keeping with Inzamam’s form that day, the bat did not make connection. According to The Toronto Star, “two witnesses said they thought they saw Inzamam call to the bench for (the bat).”
A clearly distressed Inzamam was led to the pavilion. Two spectators were arrested, and at long last thean announcement was aired over the public address system, asking people to stop using megaphones.
There was a 40 minute delay , as the captains, Sachin Tendulkar and Rameez Raja, went around the ground, requesting the crowd to calm down.
Eventually, play resumed and India cruised to an easy win.
The reactions were varied and gory.
Inzamam denied that he had intended violence. “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,” he maintained. Or perhaps to ask Thind exactly why potato figured so largely in his barrage.
The master batsman did admit that he had been wrong, but would not downplay the role of provocation. “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 … 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?”
Thind, however, did not take it lightly. “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?” he asked.
And neither was he prepared to forget the incident. “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.”
Skipper Rameez, while admitting that it had not been a wise thing to do, defended his star player saying that he had been provoked. However, when asked about the sudden appearance of the bat around the boundary he was hazy in his response, “I have other things on my mind at the moment.”
Journalist Prem Panicker, however, was more than scathing in his verdict: “(The 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.”
Thankfully, the authorities, cricketing and otherwise, did not take it that seriously.
Match referee Jackie Hendriks took a lenient view of the matter considering the heckling Inzamam had been subjected to. The Pakistan stalwart was banned for just two ODIs.
Inzamam was released on bail, while Thind was arrested on the allegation of throwing his megaphone at the cricketer.
Both parties, however, agreed to drop charges of assault.
(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)