Rewind...To The Great Calcutta Cricket Riot

Eden Gardens
Sri Lanka progressed to the final after the match was abandoned due to crowd trouble
©REUTERS / Action Images
 

In 1996, after many years living in Hong Kong, I had begun to believe I had completed the difficult transition from a baseball to a cricket fan. To test this, I decided to start at the top with a pilgrimage to the temple of Asian cricket - Eden Gardens, Calcutta for a World Cup semi-final between Sri Lanka and India.

Calcutta as a city and a match venue is a full frontal assault. It is the entire experience.

Another American and I entered this parallel universe through Dum Dum airport around midnight the night before the match. We were met by Driver Ali. He had miraculously elbowed his way through an angry crowd of taxi touts to rescue us.

We climbed into his ancient Ambassador car and bounced off into the Bengali night toward our guesthouse. After some confusion about the difference between address number 3 and 3A (A missing), we were eventually admitted to our accommodation by Mahavinda, the housekeeper.

Mahavinda was a personable but uncommunicative chap, who through various grunts and sign language was able to show us to a room and produce tea at predictable intervals when he was not sleeping on the living room floor in the only dhoti he has ever owned.

The morning of the match, after a failed attempt to motivate Mahavinda to fix breakfast, our tickets arrived. It was a day-night match, so with time on our hands, we took off with Driver Ali for some sightseeing at the old Howrah Bridge. The bridge spans the River Hooghli from North Calcutta to Howrah and it is an instructive microcosm for Calcutta and its cricket.

The bridge itself was so burdened with human and vehicular traffic that it swayed and creaked like a full stadium. Across it, bearers ladened with cargo ran back and forth in the kind of desperation the chasing side shows when the target is too high.

...these 'crackers' are as similar to the fireworks Americans pop off on Independence Day as English Christmas crackers are to hand grenades.

They are industrial explosives so loud they would make a deaf man jump.

And to our misfortune, the tier right behind us had most of them...

Beside it, the older ones, in their final overs, sat in hopeless defiance of their certain fate. And everywhere, the privileged and impoverished for a short time conjoined on this single path in a bedlam of noise and smoke.

Metaphorically, we needn’t have gone farther, but we’d paid for the tickets, so we found Ali and headed back. Ali drove through the seething inner city on streets choked down with rickshaws and pushcarts, buses, trucks, trams and cars. When the streets became impossibly jammed, he ducked down alleys lined with naked children glistening from their gutter-side baths. Wherever he turned were fumes and exhaust and horns and horns and horns.

Ali eventually delivered us to the pool bar of the Oberoi Grand Hotel. A couple of refreshing hours later, it was time to walk to the stadium. Fortified, but still innocent, we went back into the streets to join a crowd shuffling towards the grounds in a herding instinct reminiscent of migrating wildebeests oblivious to lions.

Our herd shoved through the broken tarmac lanes reserved for the few predatory vehicles approaching Eden. As humans and machines converged, my instinct to show no fear and keep walking, soon gave way to the practical view that when a car actually bumps into you, a little fear is no disgrace.

When we finally reached the gates separating people from autos, I was surprised to see the police confiscating newspapers from fans. After all, cricket can be a bit slow at times, and there is a long interval between innings.

Our seats were on the High Court End separated from the rabble by barbed wire fences. Our immediate neighbours were elite northern Indians and Bangladeshis.

Everyone around us knew the game so well their discourse sounded like familiar poetry recited. A teenage Bangladeshi girl next to us who backed Sri Lanka could tell the names of every player on the pitch.

A row of privileged Indian kids behind us with faces painted in orange, white and green, chanted full-voiced in what a Calcutta newspaper later deplored as broken Hindi in the Pakistani style.



On the pitch India won the toss and put Sri Lanka in to bat first. After a shaky start losing two wickets in the first over, Sri Lanka managed to put up a decent but reachable score of 251 to the jubilation of the home crowd.

At the interval, we left the stadium for snacks and beers at the venerable but decidedly dirty, and now sadly demised, Great Eastern Hotel. The only setbacks there were the live bugs in the bottom of our beer glasses and the unexplained black specks on our cheese sandwiches.

Shored up, but with new health concerns, we returned to Eden for what everyone expected would be a comfortable Indian progression to the final. Events diverged.

Flashback

13th March, 1996

Sri Lanka 251-8 (de Silva 66, Mahanama 58, Srinath 3-34)

beat

India 120-8 (Tendulkar 65, Jayasuriya 3-12) by default

World Cup semi-final, Eden Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata)

A good opening from Sachin Tendulkar, which left our young Bangladeshi fan discouraged, was followed in quick succession by a staccato fall of wickets. After the loss of four the painted kids fell silent.

Minutes later wickets five and six fell for zero and one as restlessness succeeded despair throughout the High Court End. When number seven was out with India still 130 runs adrift, the mood was as ominous as the warm yellow wind that whips through the American Plains in advance of tornadoes.

Then suddenly, as if fulfilling the preordained denouement of an enormous tragedy, the new batsman gently lifted his first ball for an easy out to turn a simple loss into an historic disaster, and the crowd took command of Eden.

Hundreds of water bottles were lofted onto the pitch. In seconds, we understood the police interest in newspapers. Cricket fans prize them not for accurate reporting or insightful commentary but for combustion. They burn fast, and on a breezy night they burn hot enough to ignite the cardboard posters Coca Cola so thoughtfully handed out.

In the cheap seats of the High Court End the fans organized themselves into tactical units. The strong arms bombarded the pitch with bottles and the ones with matches lit everything except their own clothes.

But at the top of the destruction hierarchy, was the ballistics group, who had managed to smuggle "crackers" into the stands. These crackers are as similar to the fireworks Americans pop off on Independence Day as English Christmas crackers are to hand grenades. They are industrial explosives so loud they would make a deaf man jump. And to our misfortune, the tier right behind us had most of them.

This episode of constructive fan criticism lasted about half an hour while the players huddled in the dressing rooms and the unarmed foreign spectators ducked for cover. After most of the people who hadn’t brought weapons had left the stadium and the police had begun to roam the stands with lathis, things quietened.

Then, to my undying amazement, the teams were sent back onto the field with the apparent expectation of bringing this sporting debacle to the anticlimax of India losing her last two wickets.

Well, the High Court End was not having it. They were through watching cricket.

They rained ammunition onto the grounds until the umpires called off the match. When the bottles were finally exhausted and the crackers went silent we picked our way through the rubble back to the Grand Hotel for recuperative gin and tonics among the blazered tournament officials.

The epilogue came the next morning when our grunting friend handed us tea and the newspapers, which condemned the violence and predicted it would taint the world’s image of Calcutta…not likely, we thought.

Ken Jackson is a retired lawyer turned freelance writer. He now lives in California but spent 20 years of his life in Asia.


 

Chahal TV Guest Shreyas Iyer & Deepak Chahar