World Cup 1996 semi-final, India vs Sri Lanka: Eden Gardens brings shame to nation

India were outplayed by a brilliant Sri Lankan side in the Wills World Cup 1996 semi-final at Eden Gardens. The crowd could not digest the disappointment and resort to hooliganism, bringing the match to an abrupt halt. Match-referee Clive Lloyd had no option but to award the match to the Lankans by default.

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Armed security lead the Sri Lankan team off the pitch after the abandonment of their 1996 semi-final against India at Kolkata's Eden Gardens. In an unprecedented move, match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka when the disgraceful hooliganlism of the crowd could not be brought under control by the authorities © Getty Images
Armed security lead the Sri Lankan team off the pitch after the abandonment of their 1996 semi-final against India at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens. In an unprecedented move, match referee Clive Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka when the disgraceful hooliganlism of the crowd could not be brought under control by the authorities © Getty Images

March 13, 1996. India are outplayed by a brilliant Sri Lankan side in the semi-final at Eden Gardens. The crowd cannot digest the disappointment. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the disgraceful hooliganism that led to match-referee Clive Lloyd awarding the match to the Lankans by default.

The day had started with fanciful dreams of glory, and ended in a tale of untold disgrace.

The spirit of the nation had soared with the deeds of the team — hopes raised after a fantastic win over Pakistan in the quarter finals. The crowd had swarmed into the magnificent amphitheatre, teeming in tens of thousands, intoxicated with expectation. The sweltering heat of the March afternoon had been enhanced by a searing first over. Passion and excitement had simmered around the stands. It was Eden Gardens — the Coliseum of cricket. The gladiators were out there, engaged in a titanic clash, and the favoured ones had drawn first blood.

And then the story deviated from script. The Sri Lankans played fantastic cricket. India pinned their hopes on their one champion. And in the evening, when wickets fell in a tearing hurry, the plot was completely lost.

As darkness spread across the skies, shadows loomed over the big dreams. The World Cup prospects vanished through the cracks formed on the pitch. The wings of fancy were trapped in the turning web woven by four Lankan spinners. The hopes plummeted to the ground, disintegrating into disgusting debris of dissent — in a shower of bottles and fruits that brought a memorable match to a deplorable end.

The ‘sport-loving’ populace in the stadium could not digest the fact that the better team had won. Rage flared in flames as parts of the seating were set on fire. It was neither the first nor the last time that the Eden crowd would bring shame to the city and nation. But, it was the only time they left their murky signature on the result of the game.

Match referee Clive Lloyd made an attempt to restart the game, but by then the sport on display had ceased to resemble cricket, with hundreds of participants vying to send missiles into the arena. The West Indian legend awarded the match to Sri Lanka by default.

A solitary placard, a drop of sanity in the chaotic waves, proclaimed: “Congratulation [sic] Sri Lanka, we’re sorry.”

The de Silva magic

The day had begun with Mohammad Azharuddin winning the toss and putting Sri Lanka in to bat. With that one act it was paradise lost for the Hyderabadi stylist at his favourite Eden Gardens. He had three centuries and a 60 in Tests played on the ground. In 1993, he had led the country to lift the Hero Cup. It was a ground on which he could do no wrong. And for a while after the toss, it looked as if the honeymoon would continue.

In retrospect, it was perhaps a wrong decision. There was an error in reading the wicket or not giving it much importance. However, the move was calculated. Throughout the tournament, the Sri Lankan top order had ripped apart bowling attacks with furious blitzkrieg launched in the first fifteen overs. In the group match, Sachin Tendulkar had scored a run-a-ball 137 and India had set 272 to win — formidable enough in those days. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana had responded by plundering 42 in 3 overs. Manoj Prabhakar had been cruelly blasted out of international cricket, reduced to bowling off-spin in his last spell. Dot-balls had been thunderously applauded. The target had been made to look almost trivial.

No total looked safe as Jayasuriya came out flailing his bat at everything on offer and connecting with surprising regularity. And then there were Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga and  the others. India thought they were better off not setting a target.

A lot of thought had also gone into tackling the opening onslaught. And it bore fruit. Within four balls of the first over, Javagal Srinath had both the dangerous men, both curiously caught at third-man. The stadium erupted in celebration. Azhar’s decision looked like a stroke of genius.

Gurusinha bothered the scorers only once, with a single in almost half an hour’s batting. However, there was a hint of a problem raising its sublime head. At the other end Aravinda was batting as if on a different planet.

The drives were crisp, placed precisely between the fielders, and raced away along the velvety outfield. Most of them streaked through cover and extra cover. He murdered the bowlers — especially Venkatesh Prasad — but without any semblance of violence. It led Christopher Martin-Jenkins to borrow the old Neville Cardus metaphor for Reggie Spooner, “He uses the bat as a lady might use her fan.”

Before the cheering for the wickets had died down, de Silva had somehow caressed his way to half century off just 32 balls, with 11 boundaries. No one could set a field to dim a brilliance of that quality. It was a game he was playing with himself. Irrespective of the wickets, the run-rate remained over six. Three more boundaries split the field with the same ease and conspicuous absence of effort. And then a stroke of similar nonchalance, essayed as elegantly off Anil Kumble, took the edge and knocked down his middle-stump.

It was 85 for 4 in 15 overs, and Aravinda had scored 66 of them, off 47 balls with 14 fours. The score did not look intimidating, with a substantial number of wickets lost, but the storm that had raged in the middle had left India shell-shocked and demoralised. The experienced trio of Ranatunga, Roshan Mahanama and Hashan Tillakaratne calmly consolidated as bowlers struggled to rediscover their rhythm. By the end of the 50 overs, Sri Lanka had piled up an impressive 251.

The collapse

The response of the home team was a snapshot of Indian cricket of the 1990s. The pitch seemed to be breaking by the minute. Azhar’s ploy now raised several eyebrows as the focus of hindsight bore down with every passing over. However, Sachin Tendulkar batted without a bother in the world. He had bowled 10 excellent overs taking 2 for 34. Now he proceeded to play another gem of an innings.

The wicket asked probing questions. The master had all the answers. Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Dharmasena and Jayasuriya turned the ball alarmingly. The broad blade smothered the spin, milked the runs, and also engineered ways to find the fence.

With Sanjay Manjrekar hanging in, the Indian score was a healthy 98 for 1 as the 25 over mark was crossed. That was when the last dramatic chapter unfolded before the chaotic epilogue. Having scored just a single, Jayasuriya now proceeded to win the match with the ball. Tendulkar missed one down the leg side, Kaluwitharana whipped off the bails. The famous willow was on the line, but not inside the crease. The red light glared ominously. Tendulkar walked back for 67.

Seven balls later, Azhar hit a return catch to Dharmasena and was booed back to the pavilion. It was just a precursor of the heckling he would be subject to during the rest of the match. That winter, Azhar, no longer captain, tore apart a fearsome South African bowling attack to score a century in 74 balls in the Eden Test. He did not raise his bat to acknowledge the cheers.

However, back in the middle, Manjrekar followed next, bowled round the legs by Jayasuriya. Srinath, promoted in the order, more through wishful thinking than with calculated strategy, was run out by a throw from Jayasuriya.

Ajay Jadeja had no clue to Jayasuriya’s turn from outside the leg-stump. Aravinda now entered the fray with ball in hand, and removed Nayan Mongia.

Aashish Kapoor had done precious little with his off-breaks on the same pitch on which three off-spinners, including one part-timer, were going on rampage. Now he hit Murali down Aravinda’s in the deep.

From 98 for 1 India had been reduced to 120 for 8. Vinod Kambli was at the other end, scratching around for a painstaking 10 made over 29 balls. The voices around the stadium had been long shorn of the earlier boisterousness, and a dumbfounded mixture of disbelief and disappointment pervaded the atmosphere. Sadly, it was mixed with some elements of rowdy dissent.

Fires burn in the stands during the 1996 World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka played at the Eden Gardens © Getty Images
Fires burn in the stands during the 1996 World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka played at the Eden Gardens © Getty Images

The disgrace

Kapoor was known to be the last with some ability with the bat. As Anil Kumble walked out to join Kambli, the first bottle made its projectile way into the arena. It was followed by another, and then several. To break the monotony, some fruits were propelled as well.

The hundreds of policemen deployed in the ground could do little to control the widespread hooliganism. Fielders moved in from the outfield, waiting for the madness to abate. But, the bottles kept piling up near the ropes. In some sections, seats had been set on fire. All because Sri Lanka had been the better team of the day and was on the verge of winning the match.

Lloyd awarded the match to Sri Lanka by default, and not too many people disputed the verdict. Aravinda was named Man of the Match for his superlative knock.

The reign of the hoodlums, however, continued well beyond the official end of the match. The Indian cricket team, Azhar in particular, was booed and abused during the presentation ceremony and as they left the ground.

The rage was not restricted to Kolkata. Effigies of the cricketers were burnt around the country. A guard had to be placed outside the house of Azhar.

In the days that followed private individuals and organisations from various parts of India sent out  spontaneous and organised tokens of apology to the Sri Lankan cricket team, in noble bids to atone for the ignoble demonstration of the Eden crowd.

The Sri Lankans of course did not take long to put the ugly memories behind them. Four days later, Arjuna Ranatunga’s smile was wide, proud and heart-warming as his team sauntered past Australia in the final.

Brief Scores:

Sri Lanka 251 for 8 in 50 overs (Aravinda de Silva 66, Arjuna Ranatunga 58; Javagal Srinath 3 for 34) beat India 120 for 8 in 34.1 overs (Sachin Tendulkar 67; Sanath Jayasuriya 3 for 12)  by default.

Man of the Match: Aravinda de Silva.

(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)

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