1996 Cricket World Cup Semifinals: Calcutta ’96 – India’s Maracanazo

Author : Pratyush Peddireddi
Eden Gardens was left flaming by angry supporters

Eden Gardens was up in flames

When I look back on my childhood, the 1996 cricket World Cup comes to mind. Being less than six years old at the time, it was the first major sporting event that I was aware of. I can recollect nice memories but it all culminates in Vinod Kambli’s tears.

1996 was boom-time for cricket in India. Liberalization was in full swing. One of the advertisement boards on the boundary during this game says “Jockey-Now in India”. Pepsi and Coke were pumping money into the game, coloured clothing and the white ball were still a novelty. When the World Cup came around, the country was buzzing in anticipation.

In the previous meeting between the two sides in the group stage, India had set Sri Lanka a target of 272, a stiff ask in those days. Sri Lanka came out all guns blazing. The openers tore into the Indian attack. In those days, reaching 100 by the 25th over was a respectable achievement, which is what India had managed. Sri Lanka reached 50 in 5 and 100 in 15, a scoring rate that was unheard of. The opening partnership of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana is credited with revolutionizing one-day batsmanship. They were pioneers in exploiting the field restrictions in the first fifteen overs. Using this start as a platform, Sri Lanka cruised to the target.

To get to the semifinal, India had just seen off Pakistan in a memorable quarterfinal in Bangalore. Ajay Jadeja’s exhilarating knock of 45 off 25 to finish India’s innings, in which he hit Waqar to all corners of the park is a highlight of the match I watched in Adilabad. But surely the most unforgettable memory from that glorious night was Venkatesh Prasad cleaning up Aamir Sohail. Following such a wonderful win, the nation expected the team to go all the way.

On to Calcutta then, for the semifinal. If Balgangadhar Tilak were around, he would’ve said it was our birthright to win that match. The Eden Gardens, packed with God only knows how many people, was heaving with the uncontrollable passion of around one lakh people. Unlike now, back then few stands had permanently fixed seats, which restricts capacity at modern stadia to a controllable number. The stands were mainly cement slabs and people would be packed in like hens in a poultry cage.

These three matches were the only ones I remember watching in that World Cup. Being five and a half years old, I’d just started watching cricket and did not yet have the maturity to be a “true lover of the game”. Hence the only team I cared about was India, and in the wake the traumatic semifinal loss, I did not bother about the final between Australia and Sri Lanka.

The sea of humanity at the Eden Gardens created an atmosphere similar to the one created by the largest crowd ever to attend a football match-an estimated 200,000 people packed the Maracana to watch the 1950 FIFA World Cup ‘final’. Playing in front of such a crowd, the home team knows that defeat is not an option. I cannot begin to fathom the amount of pressure those Indian cricketers and Brazilian footballers must’ve been under.

I use quotes for ‘final’ because it wasn’t a conventional one-off contest to decide the winner. The format of that tournament was to have a final group stage of four teams, each playing one another with two points for a win and one for a draw. The team that topped the group would be world champion. So going into the final game of the tournament, only these two teams were in contention for the title. Uruguay needed to win, a draw would be enough for Brazil.

Brazil were so confident of victory that preparations for all sorts of celebrations were already ready.  The evening before the game, the headline in São Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva was: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!” Rio’s  O Mundo, printed a shot of the players, saying: “These are the world champions.” Before the match began the selecao were given solid gold watches stating: ‘For the World Champions’. Millions of t-shirts proclaiming victory slogans had been printed. Even the FIFA president Jules Rimet – waiting to hand over his golden namesake – had written his victory speech in Portuguese, lauding Brazilian winners.

Sri Lanka came in to bat first. Javagal Srinath, that tireless hero of India’s seam attack (I can’t use the word fast to describe any of our mid-to-late 90s bowlers) gave India an unimaginably good start. Sri Lanka lost both openers in the first four balls, both swinging at a wide one and slashing it, straight down third man’s throat. 1/2 after 0.4 overs. Not in my wildest dreams. Watching at home, I thought that was the match won right there. I started celebrating India’s entry into the World Cup final.

Having been indoctrinated into the Indian cricket fan’s mindset in which, if Sachin is out early, one might as well turn off the TV, I never even remotely considered the possibility of the middle order batsmen coming to Sri Lanka’s rescue. The two batsmen I feared the most were out, and as far as I was concerned, Sri Lanka were wasting everyone’s time by continuing with the match. Why wouldn’t they just “win declare”?

I only remember the first over from Sri Lanka’s innings. I’ve had to go back to Youtube to watch the rest of their innings. What a wonderful knock by Aravinda de Silva; especially those drives through cover against the quicker bowlers. The Calcutta crowd appreciated his mastery, giving him a good hand on reaching his fifty in 32 balls.

World Cup

Sachin Tendulkar was stumped after a fine half century

Chasing 250, India’s innings was all about Tendulkar, as it was most of the time during that period. For me, the biggest turning point in the fortunes of Indian cricket came with the entry of Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif and Zaheer Khan into the Indian team at the ICC Knockout in 2000. This bunch of youngsters injected a fresh lease of life into the Indian team, in the wake of Azhar’s fall from grace.

1996 was a long way before all of this however. Geoff Boycott prophetically says in commentary about 10 balls before Sachin is dismissed after another wonderful knock, ”..if Tendulkar was to get out, they might have a bigger problem. He’s scoring most of the runs. He’s got 60 of their total (89).” Watching the replay of his stumping, it’s not clear why Sachin even stepped out of the crease, when he could clearly see the keeper collecting the ball. I think it was just an impulse. One fateful impulse.

When Sachin is walking off, Tony Grieg wonders, “Could this be the beginning of the slide?” How true he was proved to be! Watching the remaining part of the highlights is a sickening experience even today. Azhar gets a leading edge, Jayasuriya brilliantly bowls Manjrekar and Jadeja around their legs. The Jadeja wicket is especially superb, the expression on the batsman’s face-simply priceless.  And I have no idea who Aashish Kapoor is.

India lost seven wickets for 22 runs in an almighty implosion when the missiles started to rain. Calcutta had seen enough. Clive Lloyd tried to get the match restarted, but gave up. The match was handed to Sri Lanka by default.  A couple of years ago, Kambli came back into the news, alleging that Azhar had thrown that match as well, with the then captain refuting all such allegations.

On July 16 1950, Brazil took the lead in the 47th minute. The stadium erupted in joy, as they prepared to start the party. The Uruguayans are said to have deliberately delayed the restart for so long that the crowd had settled down and the noise level was back down to normal. Then, they started to play. They equalized in the 66th minute and in the 79th minute, Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia, racing down the right flank, approached the goal. The goalkeeper, Moacyr Barbosa, unsure of whether the Ghiggia would shot or cross, couldn’t stop the ball as Ghiggia beat him at the near post. The silence of the crowd was deafening.

Unlike Brazil, there’s no way India would have expected to push over Sri Lanka. But after the first over of the game, when they got rid of the most feared opening partnership in world cricket, the whole nation started to dream. About six hours later, it had turned into our worst nightmare.

When the football match ended, there was no ceremonial presentation ceremony. Jules Rimet looked for someone to give his trophy to. ‘I finally found Obdulio[the Uruguayian captain]. I gave it to him…without letting anyone else see’. Brazilians described the defeat as ‘our Hiroshima’, ‘the greatest tragedy in Brazilian history’; ‘a Waterloo of the tropics’. Brazil’s yellow jersey, one of the most recognizable pieces of clothing on the planet, was introduced in the aftermath of the Maracanazo. The authorities felt the white jersey they were wearing until then was jinxed.

Moacyr Barbosa, the Brazilian goalkeeper, was made the scapegoat, blamed for letting the second goal in. Vilified for the rest for his life, he never got to play for Brazil again. In 2000, penniless and close to death, he recalled his memory of 1970 – in the year when the greatest-ever Brazil team won the World Cup, a mother pointed him out to her child in a market saying: ‘Look at him. He was the man who made all of Brazil cry’.

On March 30, 2011, when India beat Pakistan in Mohali, I thought of that Calcutta night in ’96, the last time we’d played a World Cup semifinal at home. To whoever said winning is not important; participation is all that matters, you have no idea. Calcutta 96 was India’s Maracanazo. They weren’t just losses, they were national tragedies. They shattered the hearts of the nation and in India’s case, lead to some of the most shameful scenes in its sporting history.

“Only three people have silenced the Maracana…Sinatra, Pope John-Paul II and me”- Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia.

“In Brazil, the most you get for any crime is 30 years. For 50 years I’ve been paying for a crime I did not commit. Even a criminal when he has paid his debt is forgiven. But I have never been forgiven.”- Moacyr Barbosa.

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