Heartbreak in sports isn’t very uncommon. If you support a team with fanatical craze, you are very likely to get your heart broken a few times at least, because every team loses at some point; sometimes at critical junctures.
But 13th March, 1996 delivered one of those blows which take a lifetime to recover. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just my house, where the pallid gloom of an unrelenting event hung with musty dankness. It was an entire nation that was shovelled into an acrid aftertaste of loss. It wasn’t just any match. It was a semi-final. It wasn’t just any semi-final. It was the World Cup semi-final. It wasn’t just any World Cup semi-final. It was the World Cup semi-final hosted at Eden Gardens, the cricketing heart of India – it was at least, until then.
It wasn’t India’s first loss at World Cup semi-finals. Graham Gooch swept India out of contention in 1987, when the hosts were title favourites after winning the World Championship of Cricket in emphatic style. But, this time around, the whole nation was on a high, after India edged out bitter rivals Pakistan in the quarter-finals, fired up by the legendary Aamir Sohali and Venkatesh Prasad duel.
India faced Sri Lanka in the semi-finals, on a day that preceded my 8th standard annual exams. I had put in painstaking efforts to make sure I didn’t have much syllabus left to do before the match, so I could actually watch it in peace. I couldn’t, not because of the syllabus but because of the proceedings. It was Sri Lanka, which during the league stages had handed India a surprise defeat. Sri Lanka, which had earned a few easy points because of abandoned matches, caused by security concerns. Sri Lanka, a team India mostly had the better off, until the World Cup. Little did I know that it was a new phase, that for the next few years, India would be indomitably trampled by Sri Lanka in the ODI scheme of things, handing them their biggest defeats.
Mohammed Azharuddin elected to field first after winning the toss, a move that is now widely considered one of the biggest blunders in ODI history. Azhar and the Indian think tank were obviously worried about Sri Lanka’s ability to chase down targets. At that juncture, it was short term memory ruling the roost. The Indians, who couldn’t defend a sizeable total of 271 during the league game against Sri Lanka, were myopic about their decision. Little did they remember the way the same pitch exploded 3 years prior to that evening, when Anil Kumble’s best figures of 6-12 etched in every Indian fan’s mind and made a mess of the West Indian batting line-up.
I sometimes wonder how the Indians managed to forget the Hero Cup final and underestimate their own ability to collapse in chases, almost spectacularly. Perhaps the fear of loss often blinds men even at the low-hanging fruit of opportunity. That win at the toss was game, set and match for Azhar, had he chosen to bat first. Later, the match referee, Clive Lloyd remarked that it was too bad a pitch for a World Cup semi-final, a match where India lost 7 wickets in the space of 22 runs, resulting in a cataclysmic collapse from 83-1 to 120-8. Lloyd was an angry man that evening, after a shower of bottles caused the match to be stopped and later abandoned – a horrific taint, an unmistakeable and irredeemable black mark on the history of Indian cricket, abetted by the city that boasts of India’s richest sporting culture.
6 hours before the chaos, Indian fans were celebrating wildly. Javagal Srinath, thanks to an inspired ruse, had both Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana return to the pavilion, when the score was just 1. Sri Lanka were 35-3 before Aravinda de Silva, played the knock of his life, salvaging the situation with Roshan Mahanama, who later continued the good work with his skipper, Arjuna Ranatunga. de Silva scored 66 flawless runs in 47 balls – 56 scored of boundaries – before coming back to pick a wicket in the overs that he bowled. Jayasuriya would also later make up for his batting failure, with figures of 3-12 off 7 overs. In a span of 7 hours, Azhar’s status cascaded from the greatest peak to the lowest abyss.
Eden Gardens used to be a bigger place those days than it seems to be now. The innocence of those eyes that beheld its majesty, before the motley crowd assaulted it forever, probably made it seem larger than life. Today, the IPL related beautification has maybe eaten into the traditional stands. That evening, when the pitch turned a graveyard for Indian hopes and when the conscience-shattering clank of bottles echoed across the dew-laden greens, the aura of Eden Gardens was dimmed if not lost, irreversibly. It was as if, someone decided that the voltage had to be stemmed down that it didn’t deserve the sparkle that usually emanated from its silhouette.
Much has been said and written about one of the saddest nights of Indian cricket. Lloyd, a true leader of men, rewrote history through an unprecedented move of abandoning the game and handing it over to the Lankans. Vinod Kambli would shed tears, later justifying them as disappointment for the faith that the crowd didn’t seem to place in him. Azhar and he would later be involved in a war of accusations, Kambli starting it with speculations about match-fixing. It was an interesting night.
Everyone present had something to be disappointed with. Ranatunga was disappointed he couldn’t drive the final nails in the coffin himself. Lloyd was disappointed the security didn’t act on his request of actually mingling with the crowd. The crowd was disappointed Sachin didn’t take India to victory, after having scored more than half of those 120 runs. India was disappointed it lost a golden opportunity in World Cup history through a tactical blunder. The cricketing world was disappointed at how such a high-profile match ended.
In the cacophony of disappointed crowds, in the clamour of needless analysis, in the aftermath of a heart-shattering loss, the disappointment of a 13-year-old seemed misplaced; almost ignored even. Years later, that pain would be effaced by a much bigger pain of another despairing loss to a arch-rivals Pakistan. Thankfully, all that the Chennai crowd did is applaud and pay a standing ovation, lending the bronzed glow of a sparkling gesture to the loss. As a result, that Test just stopped short of becoming a heart-break leaving the Eden Gardens debacle to occupy the place reserved at the very top of heartbreaks.