When the crowd got out of hand

THE myth that draped Calcutta as a sporting city was blown to pieces on a night of shame at the Eden Gardens. Even as Match Referee Clive Lloyd abandoned the World Cup semifinal and declared Sri Lanka as the winner, it left a scar on the city and the sporting traditions of a cricket-crazy nation.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THE myth that draped Calcutta as a sporting city was blown to pieces on a night of shame at the Eden Gardens. Even as Match Referee Clive Lloyd abandoned the World Cup semifinal and declared Sri Lanka as the winner, it left a scar on the city and the sporting traditions of a cricket-crazy nation.

As bonfires in the stands grew in numbers, panic set in. It was a volatile situation no doubt. The Indian cricket fan, during that abominable episode in 1996, had shown that he was not yet mature enough to digest a defeat and the average Calcuttan happened to be no different.

The unseemly scenes at the Eden Gardens exposed the sorry state of affairs when it came to crowd control. It also exposed the so-called cricket-loving and sports-loving image of a society which could not tolerate a below-par performance from its heroes.

If Sri Lanka was a winner that night, it deserved every moment of the triumph which placed it in the final. If cricket is a religion in India, it is no different in Sri Lanka, where cricketers are accorded a special status. But the Indians in the stands at the Eden Gardens invited shame by their boorish reaction to the home team's defeat.

The hype that preceded the match also contributed towards raising the expectation of the local populace. Newspapers carried screaming headlines, reminding the fans of how good their team was. The fans thought that the Indian team was unbeatable. It was not so. It was as fallible and feeble as a new entrant and the events confirmed the fears that Azharuddin and his men had not been trained to handle pressure.

Azharuddin, the Indian captain, did not hide his disappointment and owned up to the defeat which led to those unpleasant incidents. In his column in The Sportstar, Azharuddin wrote, "I speak on behalf of the team when I say how terrible we felt that evening in Calcutta when the whole of the country turned against us. I accept the defeat was more mine than anyone else's in my team.'' It was also true that the decision to field first had been reached after long deliberations involving the entire team.

It was not the first occasion that trouble had erupted in the stands at the Eden Gardens. The West Indians had experienced similar mayhem during a Test in 1967. The Pakistanis, when they visited in 2000, finished a Test in a near-empty stadium after the spectators had been driven away to ensure the safety of the players. So much for a sporting city. And so much for a venue so revered by countless cricketers.

Azharuddin was guarded in his criticism of the spectators, and understandably too. "It is not in my province to say anything about how the people behaved. The only thing such behaviour does is to bring negative publicity for our country.'' This was putting it too mildly. To put things in perspective, it was disgraceful behaviour by a section of the crowd which sullied the name of the city.

The scene was shattering. Burnt poles, heaps of newspapers forming the fuel for the bonfires, charred seats. It was scary and humiliating for the organising committee, which had, until then, staged a remarkably exciting World Cup. A small section of the spectators had vitiated the atmosphere and sadly the nation paid for it by inviting scathing criticism from the international cricketing fraternity.

The sight of Vinod Kambli pleading with the Match Referee to resume the match after disturbances forced a stoppage was poignant. Kambli was in tears and Lloyd had been rendered helpless by the circumstances. It was frustrating for the administrators. A very small but unruly section of the crowd had put them all to shame. The Match Referee was justified in having doubts about a change in the crowd's behaviour. There was no guarantee that India, if the match had resumed, would have ended up a winner. It was a tough decision for Lloyd to make but he acted in the manner best suited considering the explosive situation at the Eden Gardens. The reason for the disturbances was that the Indian team had failed to live up to the very high expectations of the public. A defeat in the league stage against Sri Lanka at Delhi was seen as a lesson, but the team had learnt little. And worse, the crowd was convinced that the skipper had taken a poor decision to field first despite being told that the pitch would assist the spinners in the evening.

It was a newly-laid track and fielding first was unwise, especially in a match of such enormous importance as a semifinal. That the match involved the home team ought to have made the organisers wary in their pitch preparations. But cricket matters became secondary and the Indian team ran into a shockingly poor pitch which became a minefield in the afternoon.

The Sri Lankans posted a decent target after having suffered two early blows. The Indians proved woefully short of facing the challenge. The home team was hopelessly placed at 120 for eight in 34.1 overs when the first bottle came hurtling down from the stands. It was followed by more as frustrated spectators gave vent to their wrath by targeting the Sri Lankans, for doing well. Lloyd, on his part, made an attempt to restart the match. Kambli's face lit up. He saw a great chance for himself, however unreal it may have appeared at that stage. But one more bottle flung from the stands missed Lloyd by a whisker and almost hit a Sri Lankan cricketer. This was just the signal for the Match Referee to cry halt. He called off play and awarded the match to Sri Lanka. "I had no choice,'' Lloyd had remarked. No one really had in the face of some unsporting elements who held the majority to ransom.

S. S. Perera, the celebrated Sri Lankan writer, pointed out in his book, The Story of Sri Lankan Cricket that "it must be said no one in that massive crowd suffered bodily harm and the crowd was only reacting against the Indian team for its abysmal performance." The crowd-behaviour was no doubt deplorable but what irked most was the ease with which the culprits got away.

True, many in the stands apologised to the Sri Lankans. They raised banners congratulating the Sri Lankans and jeered the Indian players all the way. The Indian team had to be provided heavy security on its way back to the hotel. It was a grim reminder to the players of the fickle nature of the fans. Just one defeat had turned the National heroes into villains. The prime target was Azharuddin and for no fault of his. He did take the blame for electing to field but not many were aware that it was a collective decision.

"I would have won the match,'' Kambli reportedly went around telling his mates, but the point was not if India would have won. What were the factors responsible for instigating the spectators into such violent behaviour? The disappointment of watching the home team make an exit from the World Cup was huge but then that could not have been the only reason.

The Calcuttans had waited for the Indian cricketers to arrive in the city. The players were given the status of gods and it all seemed so heady for Azharuddin and his men. There were a few in the team who were wary too. They were aware of the extremely unpredictable nature of Indian cricket fans and hence they were hardly surprised at the manner in which things unfolded that ugly night. It was a black day as far as Indian cricket was concerned. The police was not adequately geared to tackle the situation but there were strong reports that suggested the involvement of punters and bookies in the trouble. The argument put forward was simple — there was too much money at stake on India winning and those who had backed the home team now wanted the game to be abandoned in order to save their money. These reports remained rumours but it did not leave anyone in any doubt regarding the character of the spectators at the Eden Gardens. Not all were cricket lovers.

Even as the nation stood in shame at the World Cup semifinal being abandoned on account of crowd behaviour, there was reason to believe that the administrators had failed in their duties. Even the media had to share the blame. Too much hype before the match was followed by over-reaction to the sad developments. Hard-hitting headlines in the newspapers the next day gave an indication of the state of mind of the public in general. The disappointment was widespread.

If there were lessons to be learnt, the administrators showed no signs of having picked them up. Four years later, shame embraced Calcutta again when crowd trouble brought a Test against Pakistan to a halt. That it was completed after the spectators were evicted from the stadium showed the city's sporting traditions in poor light. Not all deserved to be blamed but they had to share the humiliation for allowing things to come to such a stage.

The loss of face on that World Cup semifinal night was not an incident in isolation. An uneasy and unruly element had crept into the cricket fan's psyche, goading him to react strongly, and violently too, to an Indian defeat. The seeds had been sown in 1967 when the West Indian cricketers fled to save their lives even as Eden Gardens burnt. The seeds had now given rise to unsavoury fruits which bred trouble at the same venue. The disease has spread since that monstrous night at the Eden Gardens when cricket was dealt a deathly blow by a few disgruntled elements.

It shall remain a sour chapter in the history of cricket and was summed up by a young fan, who pledged never to return to the Eden Gardens to watch cricket. It was a small loss, meaningless to those administrators who care little for the average spectators, but it was just the message for those who believe in the spirit of the game — cricket is not just about winning.