Has there ever been a cricketer who is as revered as Sachin Tendulkar in India?
MS Dhoni comes close. Virat Kohli’s genius batting display has made him the darling of the masses but as far as the perpetuity of Sachin Tendulkar is concerned, it was a relationship that made Indian cricket what it is today.
When Tendulkar batted, everything moved along swiftly. The country smiled.
And when Tendulkar walked back, well, switching off Television was too mainstream. Riots happened. Quite literally.
The storied history of India-Pakistan cricket has kept many narrators and historians on the edge of their seats but on this day, in 1999, it found a different shade altogether. Less than three weeks after Chenani fans stood up and applauded the winning Pakistani team at the Chepauk, all love was lost right after Valentine's week, with the police being forced to evict the Kolkata crowd as people protested against an umpiring decision that saw Sachin Tendulkar being run-out in a really controversial manner.
In the 1990s, many unilateral decisions taken by England and Australia, which thoroughly enjoyed the backing of the West Indies, South Africa, and New Zealand, didn’t go down well with the Asian cricketing nations. Despite the geo-political differences, they came together to form Asian Bloc, which represented a united front for India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. It was a force to work in the interest of Asian members and later, officially Asian Cricket Council was formed.
The Asian Test Championship was the brainchild of ACC to create an extra revenue stream for the boards and the prospect of another India-Pakistan game was lip-smacking for an economy, which had just been liberalized from the clutch of License Raj and private channels were making way into public consciousness.
Right after a tense yet beautiful match was concluded on the back of the Kargil War, this Asian Test Championship was another opportunity for the fans to engage in a contest of oneupmanship - as had often been the case during an India-Pakistan match and with the venue for the clash being Kolkata, the stakes were much higher. George Orwell was never more correct in his assessment in the 1945 publication "The Sporting Spirit” that it was “war minus shooting”. The Kolkata Test fit into the idea pretty fine.
India had the upper hand right from the beginning, reducing Pakistan to 26/6 before Moin Khan's 70 helped the visiting team recover. and post a first-innings total of 185. Sadagopan Ramesh led the way with the bat but the star of the show had to be Shoaib Akhtar, whose belligerent pace huffed and puffed the Indians at the crease. When his yorkers castled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar - the latter was dismissed for a golden duck - on consecutive deliveries, there was pin-drop silence at the venue. Kolkata just couldn’t come to terms with it. Akhtar’s four-wicket haul bundled India out for 223.
India didn’t have any idea what was to hit them though. Despite Javagal Srinath’s best efforts with the ball, Saeed Anwar played beautifully to score 188 himself and Pakistan managed a total of 316 runs, giving India a target of 278. With the ball turning square, Saqlain Mushtaq had all the aces in his armory to put the Indians on a spot which he did but Ramesh put on yet another opening masterclass. He backed up his first innings 79 for a patient 40 in the second dig and India found themselves at 143/2.
It was when Sachin Tendulkar, batting on 7, clipped Wasim Akram to deep midwicket. While he completed 5000 Test runs in the process, he decided to go back for a third. It was not very difficult for the third run to be completed, but Tendulkar was keeping his eye on the ball instead of what was waiting for him at the non-striker’s end. Akhtar ran from extra cover to collect the throw, but he was well outside of the crease at that moment. Tendulkar was unaware of that and with Akhtar coming on his way off the run, the Mumbaikar collided with the pacer. It was at that moment Nadeem Khan’s precision showed its magic. Pakistan appealed for a run-out and the umpire David Orchard and Steve Bucknor referred the call to the third umpire.
After a long delay and checking from every possible angle, third umpire K T Francis shared his decision in Pakistan’s favour and Tendulkar had to walk back to the pavilion. So frustrated was the Master Blaster that he directly walked into the match referee’s room instead of the dressing room to check the replay of his dismissal. If Sachin should have been given out or if Pakistan should have withdrawn the appeal is left to be debated on fair terms, but the Sachin-loving fans of Kolkata wouldn’t have it easy.
The crowd started to react in a rather partisan manner and chant of “Cheat, Cheat” made Eden Gardens reverberate to its roots. Things would have been fine if it stopped with the chant, but the crowd then started pelting water bottles and other things towards Akhtar when he came back to the deep region. It resulted in an early Tea and when Tendulkar and Jagmohan Dalmiya begged the spectators to bring an end to the fiasco, there was an element of respite. Cricket resumed after that.
"The crowd felt an injustice had been done, but there was no violence as such and within five minutes they held up placards saying they were sorry," Dalmiya said. "There were only 20 or so mischief-mongers and the rest of the crowd sorted the matter out themselves."
But it was not the end of it. When India resumed on Day 5, needing 65 runs with four wickets in hand, there was still some hope left. But with Sourav Ganguly’s dismissal early on Day 5, India India lost wickets at regular intervals before Srinath edged one to Moin Khan. With India nine down for 224 and no hopes for a win, people acted out yet again. This was so serious that police had to evict all fans from the ground, but an elderly couple steadfastly refused not to leave the ground, citing their rights to watch the full match. Right before the match could resume to finish off the formalities, a group of police decided to manhandle the elderly couple and evicted them from the ground. Pakistan won the inaugural match of the Asian Test Championship and later won the whole thing to become the first Asian Test Champions.
Wisden reported, "Spectators started burning newspapers in the stands and hurled stones, fruit, and plastic bottles onto the field. The match was held up for over three hours as about 65,000 people were removed by police and security men. The crowd's anger was still concentrated on Tendulkar's run-out, but there was little viciousness in the riot; it was born of disappointment rather than anti-Pakistan feelings. There was no sign of violence outside the ground."
For Dalmiya, who was the ICC Chairman then, seeing people from his own city behaving the way they did, was nothing but a shame. After surging it off as a non-event a day earlier, Dalmiya called the incident “totally unjustified and uncalled for” later and lambasted his city people for bringing the game to disrepute.
"I exactly don't find any reason for provocation today," he said. "The action is totally unjustified and uncalled for. The excitement of the crowd last evening was also too much. The spectators should learn that winning and losing are part of the game. Today's gesture was very clear that the last wicket would not be allowed to fall. I condemn today's action in the strongest possible manner. Yesterday something happened in the spur of the moment but today there is no explanation. If that is the only motive of the spectators, that the visiting team shouldn't win here, I only leave it to the future and hope God changes their [the crowd's] attitude."
Wasim Akram later blamed the Indian media in the post-match press conference for “provocating” reports, which he felt caused the “saddest thing in Test cricket”.
"Whatever has happened today, it is only because of you people and your reports. You have said that Shoaib obstructed Sachin from making his ground and I should have re-invited him to bat. Why should I do that? If a team fails for only one man, that is our bonus. The whole world saw none of them were responsible for the collision. But you have blamed me. Is that wise? You have held [the crowd] responsible for the whole wrong-doings, but I will never blame them for this because they were all preoccupied with those reports, for which the saddest thing in Test cricket happened here today."
The debate about who was right and who was wrong is immaterial now, but as far as cricket romanticism is concerned, this incident left a footprint in the annals of world cricket history.
India, Pakistan, Test Cricket, emotions, logic or the lack of it - everything blended into one on February 20, 1999, at the most passionate cricket venue in the world.
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