1969, the year of political turmoil, cricket upheavals

A couple of days ago, on the website of The Guardian (UK), was an extensive feature on the 1969 Test series between India and Australia in their special cricket section, The Spin. The piece highlighted the riots that took place in the first match at the Brabourne Stadium (exactly 50 years ago, on November 8, 1969), and after the fourth Test at the Eden Gardens.

In some respects, this reflects the evolution of cricket in India and those volatile times for what they were. I took a trip down 50 years, helped along the way by friends of my vintage and some research on the Internet, to find out facets of that period that could have led to these events.

The year 1969 was extraordinary in many ways. For instance, the Hindi film industry saw the arrival of Rajesh Khanna. With “Ittefaq” and “Aradhana”. He hit the box office like a tsunami – in the process also turning me into a movie buff. Then there was Woodstock, the sort-of rebellious music festival which captured the imagination of youth across the world. And perhaps most significantly, the Apollo 9 mission that saw humans land on the moon.

I’ll eschew a detailed run-down of major events in 1969 and zoom to two important ones closer home. In India, there were dark clouds building up in cricket and politics, both national passions, of which one would read about in newspapers or hear about dinner talks and such.

Mansur Ali Khan, then cricket captain, was under pressure from chief selector Vijay Merchant. Results against lowly New Zealand, in the series prior to the one against Australia, were poor. Merchant reportedly believed this was because of lack of discipline.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was locked in a battle of survival, fighting other parties as well rivalries within the Congress. This was having a big impact on the country, including in otherwise politically placid Bombay.

By 1969, politics in the city had taken some sharp twists and turns. The Shiv Sena had come into existence, then fighting “Madrasis”, who were “taking the jobs of the locals”, as well as Communists. Despite this, left parties were doing very well.

In 1967, firebrand socialist George Fernandes shocked Congress strongman SK Patil, winning the south Bombay seat. Strident opposition to the Congress also came through formidable ladies with left leanings: Mrinal Gore, Pramila Dandavate, Ahilya Rangnekar. For Gandhi, however, the real threat came from the old guard within the Congress.

On July 19, 1969, Gandhi nationalised banks to mobilise public support, causing a furore in business and political circles, more so in her own party. On November 12, 1969, she was expelled from the Congress, throwing the country into a tail-spin.

The first Test against Australia at the Brabourne Stadium was sandwiched in between these cataclysmic events. Originally to be played at Ahmedabad, the match was was moved to Bombay because of riots in Gujarat. The entire country by now was polarised and on a knife’s edge. I saw the Bombay Test as a 14-year-old from the East Stand and have some sketchy memories about it. The match at one stage looked in India’s favour, but the pendulum had swung the other way, leading to rising disappointment among spectators.

On the fourth afternoon, when S Venkataraghavan was given caught behind by umpire Sambhu Pan, the batsman dissented, as did non-striker Ajit Wadekar. But what poured oil on the spectators’ ire was radio commentator Devraj Puri, coming down hard on the decision. This was heard by many people through transistors brought to the stadium. Debris were thrown on to the ground causing the stoppage of play before it was resumed under police protection. My abiding memory is of the Aussie captain Bill Lawry pulling out a stump, daring anyone to attack him. Australia finally won, but that was unedifying.

Half-a-century later, why things took such an adverse turn still perplexes me. Socio-political factors can have a deep impact on sports or other activities says experts. There is no reason to contest this premise. To me, however, the greater misery still is India losing the match!

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