Flashback 1996: The day Eden Gardens burnt
It was a hot March afternoon. The year was 1996. India had won an emotion-filled quarter-final of the ICC World Cup against Pakistan and were preparing to play Sri Lanka, themselves riding a crest of wave during that tournament. During those times, India were heavily dependent on their talisman, Sachin Tendulkar, to take them through.
Confidence was high in both the camps. Sri Lanka were themselves coming off a mauling of the hapless English team at Faisalabad. India had already lost once to Sri Lanka during their league match, a Tendulkar century not quite proving enough.
The frenetic start and De Silva magic
The Eden Gardens was packed to the rafters. The Bengali cricket fans are known to be quite emotional and anything less than an Indian win would have been quite tricky. The stadium had already started filling in four hours before the beginning of the match. Indian captain Mohammed Azharuddin won the toss and to the surprise of quite a few, inserted Sri Lanka in to bat on what was a pretty good batting wicket but which was expected to take lot of turn during the second innings.
The start was electrifying.
The two Sri Lankan openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, who had wreaked havoc amongst opposition bowlers during the tournament both got out slashing to third man off Javagal Srinath in the first over. This was possibly the worst start the Islanders could have feared. And soon they were three down for thirty-five when Asanka Gurusinghe was dismissed.
But before and after his dismissal, for a very brief period of time, what followed was a work of sheer genius. Aravinda de Silva played one of the most glorious non-hundred innings of World Cup. He cut and drove with elan off the pacers, and was dominant off Anil Kumble as well. His shots were breathtaking and soon he reached his half-century in no time.
It was incredulous to see that when Aravinda de Silva was bowled off Kumble for 66, the score was only 85. Sri Lanka still had a lot of work to do. But India, lacking a good quality fifth bowling option, as they used to during the 90s and the 2000s, struggled to contain the Lankans.
Some bad bowling was followed by sloppy outfielding. Roshan Mahanama scored a hard working 58 before he retired hurt. Ranatunga and the lower order pushed the Lankan total to a very strong 251/8.
Back in those days, any total above 250 was very challenging. This was a World Cup Semi- Final and India were not known to be good chasers back in those days. So, quite naturally, all the Indian fans in the stadium were nervous and all eyes were on Tendulkar.
They made a cautious start before Navjot Singh Sidhu lobbed a Chaminda Vaas delivery to point. Nevertheless, Sachin Tendulkar went on to play an attacking innings and soon he reached his fifty before India had even reached 100. Tendulkar's trademark straight drives were in full flow and Ranatunga, the captain, was visibly twitchy. Then out of nowhere Tendulkar overbalanced on a Jayasuriya delivery that flicked his pad, rolled on to the wicket-keeper Kaluwitharana.
Tendulkar did not know where the ball was and he was outside his crease. Before he could realise, Kaluwitharana whipped off the bails and Tendulkar was stumped. India were 98/2. Still, a good chance but what followed was one of the darkest periods in the history of Indian cricket. As batsman after batsman started to perish off Sri Lankan spinners, the pitch suddenly became unplayable.
The Lankan spinners extracted immense spin from the wicket, the ball started jumping and bouncing and Indians just could not do anything but slog. The most exasperating dismissal was of Azharuddin who gave a return catch to Dharamasena.
It suddenly got all pear-shaped.
As the Indians hurtled towards an embarrassing defeat, the Eden Garden crowd could not quite take it any longer and started to burn the stands. Objects were thrown at Sri Lankan fielders and captain Ranatunga had to call his players back and the match was stopped. Soon, when play was no longer deemed possible, match referee Clive Lloyd suspended the match and awarded it to its rightful owners, the Sri Lankans as the Indian score read a hopeless 120/8.
The painful image of seeing Vinod Kambli cry as he made his way back to the dressing room, flanked by security personnel, remains a poignant image in Indian cricket history. Azharuddin was later criticised for his decision and received threat calls. Many years later rumours were that the match was fixed, but nothing conclusive has come about it. It was a night of sheer trauma for one country but delight for the other. Sri Lanka, for their part, went on to win the World Cup.
They were deserving winners.