Prabhakar and Mongia's inexplicable partnership - The truth behind 1994's 'fixed' match
Just when we thought the dreadfully murky episode of match-fixing in Indian cricket is safely tucked away in the shadows, the 2016 film ‘Azhar’ has opened the can of worms again. Despite its disclaimer that it is not meant to portray actual events and that characters mentioned in the film are not based on real characters, to show an India cricketer called ‘Manoj’ throwing a game away is a serious accusation.
More so, when there are several unanswered questions about a real match that proceeded eerily like one of the ‘fictionalised’ matches shown in the film.
The film, which is a facile attempt to prove Mohammed Azharuddin’s innocence, while pointing fingers towards some of his other teammates (mainly Manoj Prabhakar), is a lost chance at exploring the most interesting character that Indian cricket has probably ever had. In it, we see a certain match against the West Indies being lost because of selfish batting by an opener called Manoj, who scores an individual century but loses India the match as a result.
Back in the dressing room, there is a highly dramatised scene where Azhar is seen rebuking Manoj strongly and a heated dispute ensues between the two players. As a result of this selfishness, Manoj loses the trust of his teammates, as shown by a scene where a prank is played on him while he is taking a shower in the dressing room.
The problem with this representation of the questionable 1994 Wills World Series match, like the problem with the rest of the film, is that along with its grains of fiction, it also contains some grains of truth. With regards to such a controversial chapter in the history of not only Indian cricket, but the whole nation’s collective memory, should not the film have been more responsible when it came to blurring the lines between fact and fiction?
While ‘Azhar’ points fingers at Manoj Prabhakar for having thrown this controversial match, the former cricketer himself had pointed to that match as having been suspicious. In his ‘coming-out’ article in The Outlook in 1997, Prabhakar had alleged that he was under instructions to bat slow.
So what was the real story?
How the actual match proceeded
This was the 4th match of the 1994 Wills World Series, against the mighty West Indies, who were beginning to fall into their period of slide. India had won both their previous matches, against WI and New Zealand, both by batting in the second innings. Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin were in the form of their lives, and so the India captain had no qualms sending the visitors to bat first again, after he won the toss at Kanpur. Indian batsmen looked to be in imperious enough form to chase down anything.
Prabhakar’s bowling figures – Perhaps this was just destined to be black day for Indian cricket. It started off with two dropped catches by Vinod Kambli. Manoj Prabhakar bowled an expensive first spell, eventually finishing with figures of 6-0-50-0, exceptionally bad figures for the pre-T20 era.
Mongia’s missed run out – Wicket keeper Nayan Mongia missed a blatant run-out, to the bemusement of bowler Javagal Srinath, one of the instances pointed out several times as having been an instance of a player throwing his team’s chances.
However, the blunder by Mongia needs to be remembered in context. He had plenty of time to run out Anderson Cummins, who had been promoted up the order that day ahead of the likes of Jimmy Adams and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. But, like others have also done with no incentive of money, he might have just wanted to get the wicket of the more dangerous batsman Keith Arthurton.
With the last few overs of the innings to go, Arthurton’s wicket would have given India a huge advantage, but as Mongia would realise several times in his career, the difference between a hero and a villain in cricket may often be a matter of a few inches.
Cummins, running towards the danger end, was given plenty of time by Mongia to make his ground, as he swivelled around to aim at the non-strikers’ end, where Arthurton was trying to reach. However, even this throw never came, as Mongia stood shamefacedly with the ball in his hand.
It might be that Mongia did not throw to the bowler’s end as well because he could see no fielder backing up the throw. It also might have been that he had just experienced a brain freeze, something not entirely inexcusable for someone playing only his 20th ODI.
West Indies finished at 257/6.
In reply, India’s strategy was clear – Manoj Prabhakar would hold one end up, and his partners (Sachin Tendulkar, Navjot Sidhu, Mohammed Azharuddin, Vinod Kambli, Ajay Jadeja) would attack all bowlers except Courtney Walsh.
Three run-outs – However, once Sachin went out for 34, the intrigue started. Sidhu was mysteriously deprived of strike, as Prabhakar hogged all the balls. Sidhu was run out by a direct hit by Holder at the non-striker’s end. Azhar looked to have the chase under control for a while, but his departure for 26 led to things going horribly wrong.
Kambli was run out by a direct hit by Simmons. Jadeja was run out, also by a direct hit, in the 41st over. Prabhakar, who had scored only 50 runs off 92 balls, opened up the blade of his bat, but would not have been prepared for the anti-climax. Or would he have been? We still do not know.
Slow batting by Prabhakar, Mongia – When Jadeja had gone out, India required 63 off 54 balls. The next four overs saw five runs being added; the next five saw eleven. No. 7 Nayan Mongia plodded on to a 21-ball 4. Despite ‘Azhar’’s accusation at Prabhakar, the cricketer had a defence for what he did. As he said in the Outlook article in 1997, he had been told by Mongia that the directive from the management was to not lose wickets, and also that he had only faced 11 balls of the last 48 of the innings, scoring 9 runs off them.
While India required 63, the duo blocked 16 runs, as crowds left the stadium and Windies players rollicked to an exasperatingly easy victory.
Video Highlights from the match:
The mysterious Nayan Mongia
The mystery of this match can perhaps be pinned to the enigmatic personality of Nayan Mongia – who is so enigmatic, that despite being directly linked with Azharuddin as having been in cahoots with him in fixing matches, finds no mention in the 2016 film.
Despite having been India’s best wicket keeper for almost a decade, Mongia’s name has a peculiar place in Indian cricketing consciousness. A man of contradictions, Mongia was known in some circles as street smart and gutsy, and in some others as selfish and unwanted. "When I see him, I get irritated," Ravi Shastri had snapped on the Tehelka tapes.
The CBI have concluded that there is no evidence that Mongia received money to underperform, unlike Azharuddin. However, when Azhar confessed to the CBI in 2001 that he had received money to fix matches, with eyes covered by sunglasses and hands locked into each other, he signalled not only the end of his career, but also that of Mongia.
About the mystery surrounding what he and Prabhakar did in the 1994 match, Mongia has maintained that it had been a noisy dressing room when he was going out to bat, and that the ‘general consensus’ had been that wickets mustn't be lost to keep the ‘quotient’ up. It was on the basis of this that he conveyed a message to Prabhakar.
Sachin Tendulkar, who was the vice-captain for this particular match, later said that he was sure there had not been any instructions from the management to bat slow, and that he was so angry with the two batsmen that he did not talk to them for a while afterwards.
Results of cricket matches are very difficult to be fixed, and without solid proof, strange events in any game should be credited to the varied nuances that the sport holds place for, rather than giving way to suspicion of it having been orchestrated. The 1994 match too, was perhaps only a bad day in office for Nayan Mongia and Manoj Prabhakar, and a few other teammates.
We can be trusted to make the right judgement.
India won the final of the World Series, beating the same opponents by 72 runs. Prabhakar and Mongia, however, were found to have acted suspiciously, and replaced in the team by Chetan Sharma and Vijay Yadav.
Scorecards of the match in question (from Cricinfo):