WC 1996 Semi-Finals: The Great Indian Heartbreak

“If only pictures could talk, all Indian cricket fans would have wept for 15 years, until 2011”

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The 1987 World Cup finals were at Eden Gardens, where Indians gathered in large numbers to see England lose and celebrate the win of Australia as revenge for India’s loss in the semi-finals. 9 years later, in 1996, the venue was Eden Gardens again and India were hot favourites to win the World Cup as they were expected to trounce Sri Lanka and secure their spot in the finals. The boundaries and stands were festooned with the insignia of multinational corporations like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Philips and Panasonic. The general stands were half empty, the long queue was making its way through the gates. 

Eden: The Craze for Cricket

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India had to face Sri Lanka here in the city of joy. Azharuddin won the toss and put Sri Lanka to bat first. Arjuna Ranatunga, a rotund figure and a calm as ever captain, had the pressure to include one more bowler here at the green top but he believed in his instinct again as he had done so far and played with the 7-batsman-team. Soon, the ground was filled with large numbers of cricket fans. Sri Lankan fans seemed exactly the way Sri Lanka is shown on the World map, few Lankan fans engulfed in the blue sea of Indians gathered in large numbers in the jam-packed stadium of Eden Gardens having the capacity of a hundred thousand.

Crawling Lions

Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana came out to take the crease imperiously, only to give the embarrassing blows to the team as Srinath, the speedster in form for India, struck twice in the first over. With Romesh and Sanath gone, the hopes of India being in the final raised and the daydreaming of the Indian captain holding the World Cup trophy began taking place in the minds of Indian Cricket fans. Sri Lanka was known to have the penchant for hitting over the boundaries in the first 20 overs, but the boundaries dried and they were getting only singles. But Arvinda De Silva, who three years ago was omitted from the team after failing a fitness test, was putting every opportunity to drive the ball towards the fence and was succeeding flamboyantly well.

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When Sri Lanka reached the score of 66, DeSilva had contributed his 50 runs for the team. With Roshan Mahanama reaching his fifty too, Sri Lanka was progressing towards a respectable score. Right when Aravinda seemed to have mastered the Indian attack by hitting the ball as he wished, his defence was pierced by Jumbo on 66. Captain Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne tickled the scoreboard slowly and took their team past 250 by the end of the innings. The target was small, gettable and not enough in front of this mammoth batting lineup of India. 

The Lankan Roar

The pace duo of Sri Lanka, Vaas and Wickramasinghe had done well so far in the tournament and Siddhu departed in the second over itself, handing the catch at point to Jayasuriya who held on to a difficult catch. But with the man in form, Sachin Tendulkar, still, at the crease, a win for Lanka seemed too far. Sachin went berserk at Eden Gardens right from the third over of the game and started smashing elegantly all over the ground. Cover drives, on drives and flicks were played lavishly by the hands of the Little Master and soon the score was past 50.

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By the time the scoreboard read 70 in 10 overs, Sachin had contributed 50 runs in the team’s total. Indians were witnessing something they hadn’t seen for years. A win seemed nearer and nearer with every delightful stroke from Sachin. That was when Ranatunga, who hitherto trusted his part-time bowlers, brought in Sanath who managed to hit on the leg guard of Tendulkar who tried to glance it over only to get confusingly ahead of the white line where the cunning Kaluwitharana whipped of the bails. Red light glared and Eden suddenly went quiet. Heartbeats stopped, tears made the eyes wet as if they were trying hard to pop the eyes and come rolling down on the cheeks. And then started the dramatic collapse of the Indian team which once looked healthy at 98-1. Amidst the deafening cacophony of joyous whistles and cheers, a gloomy silence of grief spread on the ground. Next to go was captain Azhar, caught and bowled by Dharmasena. Sanjay Manjrekar was pierced through his defence by Sanath. Srinath was sent ahead of Ajay Jadeja but was run out.

The Heartbreak

Only one man was expected to handle the pressure and salvage the team from the tears of grief of spectators. The guy was Vinod Kambli who was witnessing the collapse hanging at the other end. Nayan Mongia was caught by Sanath off De Silva and the beginning of chaos started. Wickets kept tumbling and when 8 wickets were down, suddenly 250 seemed to be a formidable target. Spectators who could not see their hopes being rattled by the opposition started chaos by throwing bottles on the ground. The play was stopped for nearly 20 minutes before the match referee Clive Lloyd called off the match and declared the Sri Lankan team as winners.

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Sri Lanka had outplayed the Indian team in their own den. All we could see through our wet eyes was the chaos started by the crowd, banners and posters burnt in the stands and the weeping Kambli returning back to the dressing room.

As an ardent Indian cricket fan one can never forget this day not just because India lost the match but also because the chapter was written in the chronicles of cricket history as a disgrace to the game itself. The city of joy was bursting in the tears of ignominy. Unsavoury moments of Eden Gardens were registered as a black event in the cricket books of India. Indians were thrown out in the semis by Lankans who went on to win the title by defeating the mighty Australians.

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