March 13, 1996 is a day etched in my memory and the scars left by the bizarre happenings of that day/night match brutally smudged and reshaped my attitude towards a game I followed like an innocent, curious child who dismantles a toy in an attempt to figure out what makes it work.
India was changing, cricket had never seen the kind of riches it was acquiring and the World Cup, if the frenzy of the people, orchestrated by the million dollar advertising blitz, was to be believed, the Cup and India were "made for each other."
There were as many people inside the Eden Garden's - almost a lakh -- as there were outside and India were one match away from flying to Lahore to claim their right to be called the one-day champions. India won the toss, but going against the expert and the curator's advice, chose to bat first.
It was widely believed that the wicket, which because of the opening ceremony preparations had remained covered for a long period, was under prepared and would not last the distance. Unmindful of what lay ahead, the crowds celebrated the early exit of the Kuluwitharna-Jayasuria duo, who had terrorised the bowlers till then, which had led to the word pinch-hitters be coined for the openers. The majesty of Arvinda de Silva's imperious driving hid for a while the turning nature of the wicket and despite Lanka making 251, no one at the ground foresaw the tragedy that would unfold under the blazing floodlights which made Eden's glow as if a thousand suns were shining on it.
The light seemed to be shining even brighter when Tendulkar was delivering masterly punches to make an Indian win appear a formality. But alas, he lost his balance, while playing a defensive prod, and his stumping triggered an avalanche that swept the Indians away. The wicket suddenly turned demonic and from 99 for 3, Kambli from the non-striker's end saw the end of five more batsmen for an addition of a mere 21 runs.
Shock and anger
Shock, disbelief and anger took control of the stunned crowd and the ground was showered with whatever people could lay their hands on. Water bottles, stones, burning newspapers were thrown at the players and match referee Clive Lloyd had no option but to abandon the match and declare Sri Lanka the winners.
The day, which had begun with the prospect of writing on India's triumphant march into the World Cup finals, ended in reporting a riot and a humiliating exit. An inconsolably crying Kambli, refusing to leave the centre of the wicket became the symbol of an Indian tragedy that is still riddled with a number of uncomfortable questions, the foremost being why did skipper Mohammed Azharuddin not bat first, despite near unanimity to do so?
Conspiracy theories had a field day and for the first time the dormant, silent whispers of match-fixing surfaced, with almost everyone having a different interpretation of the same theme — there was something amiss in the way the Indians had approached the match.
When Kambli, now a much broader version of the young man he was then, cried again, this time on television, to say he suspected something fishy about the way the match was played, he was after 15 years, echoing and legitimizing a sentiment prevalent that night at the ground. Cricket after that nightmare at the Eden's has never been the same for me.