Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed in the most bizarre manner which led to turmoil and which finally resulted in the Test played in front of an empty stadium © Getty Images
Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed in the most bizarre manner which led to turmoil and which finally resulted in the Test played in front of an empty stadium © Getty Images

February 19, 1999. India seemed to be cruising to a comfortable victory when Sachin Tendulkar collided with Shoaib Akhtar and was ruled run out by the third umpire. What transpired was ugly, uncouth and one of the worst smudges in the sketchy history of the Eden Gardens crowd. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the match which had to be completed in front of an empty stadium.

Wasim Akram could have won the hearts of a nation. Instead he decided to win a Test match.”  Thus blared the headlines of the following day.

A leading English daily of Kolkata carried illustrations recreating the controversial moment frame by frame — carried in eye-catching colours, just below the masthead.

The representation of facts was not exactly the greatest advertisement for journalism. Especially when one considers the incendiary statements flagrantly used by the local media. It was unfair, left a lot to be desired and ultimately went a long way in instigating what took place on the last day of the match.

Eden Gardens has never been known for the most dignified crowds. Bottles and fruits have been pelted often enough, and burning effigies have taken on the proportions of indigenous art form.

Now the simmering dissent, which had caused a substantial hold up on the fourth day immediately after the unfortunate incident, was fuelled by the fire of journalism with its visible yellow tinge. On the fifth day, fanned by untold disappointment, it burst into flames of a near riot.

The final nail in the coffin was hammered by the boorish policemen manning the stands. According to The Guardian, “(The police) chased fans up the alleyways and elderly men, women and children were ejected, if necessary by kicking, punching and beating with lathi sticks.”

The final 10 deliveries of an engrossing Test match were played out after a three-hour delay, in front of a handful of officials, dignitaries and policemen. The huge crowd of Eden had been evicted, the empty stands a sad contrast to the first four days of exuberance and enthusiasm. The inaugural game of the Asian Test Championship, the first Test cricket tournament attempted since the failed experiment during a rain-affected summer of 1912, was played to a finish in funereal atmosphere. The huge bare amphitheatre of cement seemed to be the skeletal remains of the joys of cricket as a spectator sport.

The fascinating build-up

It was doubly disappointing. The first four days had seen swarming crowds of 100,000 and the last day had seen as many as 65,000 flock in — in spite of the fact that hardly a session’s worth of cricket remained to be played. The Test match had created a world record for attendance.

And the cricket had risen to the occasion. After a high voltage two-Test series that was shared one game each, the teams clashed to produce a keenly contested tussle.

On the first morning, on a pitch with surprising patches of grass, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad had reduced Pakistan to 26 for 6 before a superb fightback by Moin Khan had carried the visitors to 185. And on the second day, as the ball had aged with time and overs, first Shoaib Akhtar and then Wasim started to make it perform magic tricks.

India had progressed to 147 for 2 when thwarted by one of the most famous brace of deliveries ever witnessed in the history of Indo-Pak cricket. A searing yorker by Shoaib, bowled off an enormous run knocked back the stumps of Rahul Dravid, and the following ball produced the same result against Sachin Tendulkar. It was mainly due to the strokeful 79 by Sadagoppan Ramesh, scored largely when the ball was new enough to pre-stage the esoteric mysteries of reverse-swing, that the Indians managed to take a 48-run lead. Two more runs would have resulted in a bonus point according to the rudimentary rules of the competition, but in the rush towards that 225-run goal, Nayan Mongia was run out.

The second Pakistan innings was a tale of two towering feats. Saeed Anwar, dropped early in the innings in the slips by, of all people, Mohammad Azharuddin, carried his bat to score a superlative 188 not out. And Srinath produced one of the greatest spells of fast bowling by an Indian pace bowler, taking 8 for 86 to finish with 13 for the match.

Srinath’s effort reduced Pakistan from a virtually impregnable 262 for 3 to 316 all out, leaving India with 279 to win.

When giants clash

On the fourth day, openers Ramesh and VVS Laxman batted with little discomfort and the score rollicked along. Cheered by a houseful crowd, in the electric Eden Gardens, the Indian openers brought up the hundred of the innings without the loss of a wicket. And that was when things started going wrong — for the Indian team and the assembled crowd.

Ramesh was the first to go, given leg before wicket off Saqlain Mushtaq by umpire David Orchard. The batsman did not look too happy, and the ball rolled a bit too quickly off his pads —suggesting the involvement of a healthy inside edge. Neither did Laxman’s bat-pad dismissal look too clean.

However, the arrival of Tendulkar brought along with it the usual cheers, smiles and searing hopes. The master had scored a glorious and heart-breaking 136 a couple of Test matches ago, with India finishing 12 runs short. Today he seemed determined to end it quickly.

The flash point

An audacious square-cut off Wasim flashed away to the fence faster than the eye could follow. And at 143 for 2, he brought off a classy on-drive, surgically finding the gap between mid-on and mid-wicket. Tendulkar and Dravid ran as substitute Nadeem Khan raced after the ball. They had completed two, which incidentally brought up 5,000 runs in Test cricket for the maestro, and Tendulkar was running back for the third when the throw came in. The ball freakishly hit the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Tendulkar should have been comfortably home, but as he reached the crease he collided with Shoaib, who was backing up close to the wicket.

Akhtar slumped on the ground from the impact and after some confusion, there was an appeal. The umpire, Steve Bucknor, signalled for the third umpire.

On the field Tendulkar looked confident. He had been well inside the crease at the time of the collision, and believed he was home and dry.

This also happened to be the first Test in which all officials were neutral. Third umpire KT Francis took his time and to the utter shock of the Indian side and hundred thousand spectators, ruled against Tendulkar. As the ball hit the stumps, the batsman had been pushed away from the crease by the impact of his collision. Technically, he seemed to be out of his ground when the bails came off.

In retrospect, the incident seems to have been a genuine accident. Tendulkar, eyes trained on the fielder, had not really looked where he was going. And Shoaib, with his back towards the batsman, had not intentionally blocked the batsman. However, when in the next over he walked towards the third-man and gestured to the crowd to keep calm, it provided the spark for them to erupt in an angry shower of bottles and fruit.

Tendulkar, on the other hand, made directly for the TV umpire’s room instead of joining his team. He wanted to look at the dismissal. And on seeing the replays, he just shook his head — later voicing that he was not convinced. What stands out as odd even today is that India were awarded just two runs. Tendulkar had grounded his bat to complete the third and was found short of the crease when the collision had pushed him back. Logically, it should have been three even if he was declared out.

The missile shower

Now, with missiles pelted into the field, play was held up. Bucknor tried to placate the crowd with some gestures of appeal, which did not help. In any case, Bucknor had never really been a very popular man in India. His colleague, Orchard, had distinctly less desire to communicate with the crowd. The body language of the South African, who had already given a couple of questionable decisions against India and now seemed eager to withdraw, infuriated the crowd even more.

An early Tea was taken, and at the behest of ICC President Jagmohan Dalmiya, Tendulkar himself came out and walked around the field, raising his arm in a placating gesture, urging the crowd to allow the game to continue. The mouth was set in disbelief, the eyes were largely set towards the ground. But, he dutifully completed a round of the Eden and the match resumed after a 67-minute delay.

The break did little to help the flow of the Indian innings. Dravid was caught gloving a ball down the leg side. Azhar and Mongia followed each other in quick succession, and at the end of the third day India stood on 214 for 6, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble at the wicket.

The evacuation

The papers were scathing in their criticism of the incident. While the technical correctness of the decision was forgotten in the fumes of dissent, many scribes openly asked whether Wasim should have allowed Tendulkar to continue his innings. It was perhaps ironic that the event should coincide with the anniversary of the Jubilee Test of 1980 in which Gundappa Viswanath asked umpire Hanumantha Rao to reverse his decision so that Bob Taylor could continue his innings.

However, as Wasim said later on in his post-match reaction, “Why should I do that? If a team fails for only one man, that is our bonus. The whole world saw none of them were responsible for the collision. But you have blamed me. Is that wise?”

Indeed, Wasim openly accused the press for being responsible for the riot on the final day.

On the scoreboard, it looked evenly poised as the sides faced off the final morning — 65 to win with 4 wickets in hand. But, the balance had shifted undeniably towards Pakistan.

Still, thousands swarmed in for the remaining bits of the day. The local hero, Ganguly, was the overnight batsman and hopes rested on him — the flames of expectation stoked by hundreds of articles in the local papers. However, when he edged the ninth ball of the day to the first slip, the thronging spectators were rudely awakened from their dreams. Things were not helped when Srinath was soon snicked Wasim to Moin, and in the following over a fighting Kumble drove Shoaib uppishly into the hands of cover.

Some elements of the crowd found this too much to bear. The shower of bottles, stones and fruit was resumed, with little instigation other than disappointment. Newspapers were lit and the stands were clouded in a smoky haze. The players went off the ground and it took three hours for the police to evict all the people — the thousands of harmless fans along with the handful of troublemakers. The match was concluded in front of an empty Eden Gardens, as a further ten balls were required before Prasad was bowled by Shoaib.

Wasim was scathing in his criticism of the press. In the post-match conference he did not mince words as he addressed the media: “You have held the crowd responsible…but I will never blame them for this because they were all pre-occupied with those reports, (because of) which the saddest thing in Test cricket happened here today.”

Azhar, the Indian captain, had painful memories of the rowdiness of the Eden crowd. It was a ground on which he had made his century on debut and had played some of the best innings of his career. But, when India had collapsed to 120 for eight in the World Cup semi-finals in 1996, the match had to be abandoned and awarded by default to Sri Lanka because of severe crowd problems. The Indian captain had been booed, jeered and abused to in the most despicable manner. At the end of this match, he simply reiterated that the players were human beings and it was not possible for them to win every day.

Wasim was disgusted enough to call for a two-year ban on Test cricket in Eden Gardens. The next Test was not played there till March 2001. Bottles have not been allowed in the venue ever since.

However, in November 2005 the Kolkata crowd found a way to plumb a new low. After local hero Ganguly had been dropped from the side, the stadium vociferously cheered the visiting South Africans to a victory over the home side led by Dravid.

Brief Scores:

Pakistan 185 (Moin Khan 70; Javagal Srinath 5 for 46) and 316 (Saeed Anwar 188*, Yousuf Youhana 55; Javagal Srinath 8 for 86) beat India 223 (Sadagoppan Ramesh 79; Shoaib Akhtar 4 for 71) and 232 (Sadagoppan Ramesh 40, VVS Laxman 67; Shoaib Akhtar 4 for 47) by 46 runs.

(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)