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How they won the Eden over
In Feb 1987, a snooty Eden Gardens hosted its first One-day International. What the city’s purists initially turned their noses up at turned out to be a hugely entertaining game of cricket. Twenty five years later, Kolkata still can’t get enough. A revisit...
The Indians were reigning world champions at the time, but the cricket intellectuals of Calcutta (that's how it was known back then) were still a little reluctant to attach too much importance to One-day cricket, at least publicly. "It's pyjama cricket after all, " that was their general feeling towards limited overs cricket, but when it came to acquiring tickets for an ODI, in typical Calcuttan fashion, they were never short of enthusiasm.
So when One-day cricket first came to Eden Gardens, in the February of 1987, anyone with a match ticket was nothing short of a hero. It was Wednesday but many schools had declared it a holiday, while it was understood that the attendances in government offices would come down sharply.
It was the days when One-day games were interspersed between Test matches in a bilateral series. The Calcutta encounter was the second of a six-game One Day series between India and Pakistan - the visitors had won the first one at Indore by three wickets - and it was to be played after a highly-entertaining drawn Test at the same venue. The Reliance World Cup was just round the corner and the Cricket Association of Bengal was looking at this game as a bit of a stage rehearsal for the final. This wasn't a day-nighter though, as the floodlights were still under construction, and by the time the sun went down, it truly panned out to be a great game of cricket. Salim Malik, a bit of an unknown quantity till then, hijacked the honours for Pakistan with some extraordinary hitting after Krishnamachari 'Chika' Srikkanth had set the stage on fire, whilst tearing apart a pace attack comprising Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Salim Jaffer and Mudassar Nazar.
The game itself came with many sub-plots. Sunil Gavaskar had pulled out of the Kolkata leg of that Pakistan series because he had vowed never to return to the venue after the 1984-85 Test match against England, when the city vented its ire on the then Indian captain for dropping Kapil Dev ahead of the Test. That he was then the most hated man in the city was clearly evident. But Sunny's decision to stick to his stance came as a shock for the City of Joy, even as some purists felt "Calcutta deserved this for being so uncultured".
However, during the course of the Test, the pain of missing Sunny diffused - Srikkanth had opened with Arun Lal in place of his regular partner - and by the time the ODI came around, it was a jam-packed Eden Gardens that welcomed the teams. Opening this time with Lalchand Rajput, Srikkanth watched as India lost a couple of early wickets and just when Imran and Akram were looking to take charge, the ever-sniffling, fidgetyas-hell-on-the-wicket Srikkanth decided to have his own 'Garden' party.
"It was one of my best ODI knocks, " says Srikkanth, going back in time, "Everything seemed to click for me, the shots that I tried were hitting the middle of the bat. " His 123 off 103 balls is still considered as one of the greatest ODI knocks at Eden Gardens and as Chika cut Imran for a six over point, the crowd went delirious on seeing an exciting new cricketing stroke. Srikkanth was in fine nick that season. Earlier in the series, he scored an equally-quickfire, identical score in the first Test at Chennai.
"I was playing so well that day that the astute Imran decided to slow down the over-rate, " remembers the former India opener. All they bowled was 40 overs, when they were scheduled to bowl 50. But Imran knew if they bowled all their overs, India might go to 350, " remembers Srikkanth.
Such was Chika's dominance that Imran didn't bowl Abdul Qadir even for a single over. Finally when Akram had Srikkanth with the score reading on 204, India looked well on course. "India had lost a few One-dayers to Pakistan before that. So at lunch-time, I remember the mood was pretty upbeat as 238 off 40 overs was more than a good score in those days, " says Chika.
Pakistan put up 106 for the first wicket, but once India dismissed Rameez Raja and their scourge Javed Miandad in quick succession, Kapil's Devils looked good for a sweet victory to mark Eden Gardens's maiden limited overs international. The likes of Imran, Manzoor Ilahi and even pinch-hitter Abdul Qadir, who had troubled India thus far with the bat, were all gone, and the celebrations had already started in the stadium's galleries.
But till then, they hadn't factored in somebody called Salim Malik. Malik was regarded highly in Pakistani circles before that, but against India, he wasn't too successful. "The right-hander was going through a bad patch at that point of time and I heard later that Imran had threatened to send him back to play for Pakistan A in Zimbabwe if he didn't do well in that game, " spinner Maninder Singh, who faced Malik's wrath that day, says.
There was a point in time when Pakistan needed close to 70 off five overs, which is almost insurmountable even in these days of slam bang T20. Kapil got Maninder, who had done pretty well till then, in to bowl. Malik saw this as his last opportunity. "I don't remember the shots that he played, all I remember is that whatever he was hitting was going out of the fence, " Maninder says.
Twenty two runs in one Maninder over left India shell shocked, and as damage control, the skipper put himself in for the next over. But the great all-rounder too was subject to similar treatment, as Malik stole 17 off his six. "Malik was a great batsman and it was on this day that he decided to announce himself on the world stage. It was unfortunate that we were at the receiving end of it, " Srikkanth says.
But remember, Pakistan had lost wickets and even in the 38th over, India fancied their chances. But Malik had the ever-reliable Mudassar Nazar for company as he took Pakistan to victory with three balls to spare as a green flag started fluttering in Eden's Stand L. But the rest of the crowd was so shocked that it forgot to react, and it wasn't any different in the dressing-room. "We couldn't believe we had lost the game... I almost forgot that I had scored such a great hundred, " says Chika, still rueing the shocker for India at the end.
But in the fading light of that 1987 February in Calcutta, world cricket discovered one of the greatest finishers the modern game has seen. What was a halfhour carnage at Eden Gardens was no flash in the pan. It carried on for more than a decade and Malik remains a symbol of fear for the Indian psyche even to this day (At the time of writing, Pakistan had logged in a 4-0 head to head against India at the Gardens). It is another thing that later generations came to identify him as the man who kicked off the match-fixing saga of the late '90s and the subsequent decade, but that day, Malik was a different beast. All at the Eden Gardens.
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