A match stopped by a murder

An India-Pakistan ODI in Sialkot was expected to be a contest that lived long in the memory. It did, for all the wrong reasons

Danyal Rasool |

A building burns in the riots that engulfed New Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi

A building burns in the riots that engulfed New Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi © Getty Images

Sunil Gavaskar and his Indian team might not have given Sialkot so much as a second thought, even as they checked into a recently constructed hotel there, the evening before the second ODI against Pakistan on 31 October, 1984. A city just a few kilometres from the Line of Control (as the de facto border between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir is called), it is a two-hour drive from Lahore, and not always the smoothest ride at that. The Indian contingent were lucky to be able to stay in Sialkot; before that Indian tour in 1984, there were no hotels to put up visiting teams in.

The deputy commissioner of Sialkot at the time, Ismail Qureshi, remembers this well. "What we normally used to do is have visiting teams stay in Lahore. We woke them up at four in the morning on the day of a game, drove them over to Sialkot, and back again after the match." He laughs at amazement that international cricketers of the day never complained about such a major inconvenience. "There's no question this sort of thing could ever happen today."

India's cricket team was accompanied by several journalists, and the new hotel wasn't large enough to accommodate them. So Qureshi approached the residents of a few of the more comfortable houses in the area, asking them to make arrangements for some Indian guests for the night. "I remember they very happily did that," he says. "They told me not to worry, and that these guests would be extremely well taken care of. Clearly they appreciated that hosting India was a huge deal for our city."

This goodwill appears to have been in sharp contrast to sentiment on the field. Gavaskar had been trenchant in his criticism of the umpires earlier in the tour. Pakistan had prevailed in the first ODI, and both Tests till then had been drawn. After the first Test in Lahore, which the home side had dominated, Gavaskar lashed out at the officiating, saying, "Despite the best efforts of the Pakistan umpires to favour the home team, we have managed to draw the Test and that is a miracle. Before embarking upon the tour of Pakistan we expected close decisions, but what happened in the Lahore Test was pre-planned and predetermined."

After the first Test in Lahore, which the home side had dominated, Gavaskar lashed out at the officiating, saying, "Despite the best efforts of the Pakistan umpires to favour the home team we have managed to draw the Test and that is a miracle"

The Pakistan captain, Zaheer Abbas, recalls it with mild amusement. "Sunil was merely trying to use pressure tactics to put any possible future umpiring decisions under the microscope," he says. "However, I have to stress that the tour, right up until the Sialkot game, was agreeable, and the games were played in the correct spirit."

With India winless on the tour, the Sialkot game represented an opportunity to get off the mark. On a picture-perfect day for cricket at the Jinnah Stadium, Mohinder Amarnath won the toss - Gavaskar sat the game out with an injury - and decided to bat.

Despite the loss of two early wickets, India were delivering their best performance of the tour. "I remember we were batting very well, particularly Dilip Vengsarkar and Sandeep Patil," says Madan Lal, who was in the team. "It was a good wicket to bat on, so it was great to see our batsmen taking advantage."

Ismail Qureshi in 2016. Qureshi was the deputy commissioner of Sialkot in October 1984

Ismail Qureshi in 2016. Qureshi was the deputy commissioner of Sialkot in October 1984 © Danyal Rasool

Though Vengsarkar and Patil built a 143-run partnership, India's dominance on the field soon became the last thing on Qureshi's mind. "As I sat in the stadium watching the game, I got a call from the chief secretary of Punjab around half past ten. Even in 1984, phone companies made sure they installed a landline telephone wherever the deputy commissioner would be stationed for some time."

The phone call bore news that India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been shot and injured in Delhi. General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's president, had ordered the match be cancelled immediately; Zia's instructions famously came with little room for negotiation and scant tolerance for dissent.

"I sat there nonplussed, thinking, 'This cannot be implemented!' India was playing Pakistan, 25,000 people in the stands were cheering every ball. How could I step in and tell everyone to pack up and go home in the middle of the innings? I decided it was beyond what I could handle, so for the moment I let the match go on."

Madan Lal, sat in the dressing room, says no one knew what had actually happened, but the sense of unease was palpable. "We weren't actually told that Indira Gandhi had died, but we could feel something was seriously wrong."

"It is not difficult to empathise with what Vengsarkar went through emotionally, from the adrenaline rush of playing one of the knocks of his career moments earlier and then finding out about the assassination of his country's prime minister" Mian Shakoor of the Sialkot District Cricket Association

Since cricket is played in the winter months in the subcontinent, there is far less daylight than in summer to finish a contest in. There were no floodlights in Sialkot, and the ODIs in this series were of 40 overs a side, to ensure games could be completed. When India's innings ended, they had made 210 runs in their allotted overs for the loss of three wickets, then an almost impregnable total. Vengsarkar had just missed out on a masterful hundred, ending the innings unbeaten on 94 from 102 deliveries, an impressive strike rate even today.

The lunch break represented as good an opportunity as Qureshi would get to break the news to the teams and call the game off. He went over to the Indian dressing room and took Gavaskar and the team manager, the late Raj Singh Dungarpur, aside. "I remember Gavaskar gasping in complete shock. I did not tell him about President Zia's order, asking him instead what he wished to do. He was emphatic: they would pack up and leave. I told him all the arrangements had been made, and the vehicles were lined up outside, ready to leave for Lahore."

The general secretary of the Sialkot District Cricket Association, Mian Shakoor, has vivid memories of the day. A keen observer of Sialkot's cricket scene for over 40 years, he remembers that the two batsmen on the ground were the last to find out, and the ones who took it hardest. "Vengsarkar and Shastri broke down in tears upon hearing what had happened.

"It is not difficult to empathise with what Vengsarkar went through emotionally, from the adrenaline rush of playing one of the knocks of his career moments earlier and then finding out about the assassination of his country's prime minister. His emotions must have been in shreds."

The Jinnah Stadium as it is now

The Jinnah Stadium as it is now © Danyal Rasool

As the Indian contingent was whisked off, the lunch break was up. There was still the small matter of telling the crowd. Qureshi felt that as the man in charge on the day, he had to be the one to break the news. With riot police on high alert, and not knowing what the crowd's reaction might be, he delivered the announcement: Indira Gandhi had been shot, and the game was off.

"To my utter disbelief, people started clapping," says Qureshi. "The crowd melted away, peacefully, out of the stadium. Indira Gandhi was deeply unpopular in Pakistan, but this was a reaction I could never have predicted. I have to say, we were extremely lucky the Indian media had departed before we told the spectators. This coming to light would be the last thing Indo-Pak relations needed at the time."

Shakoor has the same memory. "It was surreal. Here we were, telling them they wouldn't get to watch Pakistan bat against India, that we were offering them no refund, and that India's prime minister was dead. Yet 25,000 people applauded the news and filtered out onto the street as if nothing of note had happened. I have to say this was quite shameful."

Qureshi cautions against judging the spectators too quickly. "Don't forget that Sialkot is very close to the Indian border, and the experiences of those living there are vastly different from yours or mine, far away from the front lines of conflict. These people have suffered myriad casualties, loss of livestock and damage to property from cross-border skirmishes, and had innumerable hardships visited upon them during the Indo-Pak wars in 1965 and 1971. That reaction must have been raw emotion pouring out, and raw emotion is often unsophisticated."

"To my utter disbelief, people started clapping. Indira Gandhi was deeply unpopular in Pakistan, but this was a reaction I could never have predicted" Ismail Qureshi

As the Indian team made its way back home, the full details of what had happened came to light. The Indian prime minister had been shot dead by two of her bodyguards, with ethnic grievances being the motivating factor. There was trepidation about what kind of India it was they would see when they got back home.

"We were all pretty scared," recalls Madan Lal, "but the fear was particularly acute for me, being from Delhi [India's capital, where Gandhi was assassinated]. When I landed at Delhi airport, there wasn't a single soul in sight." Lal had good reason to worry; there were riots in India over the ensuing days, in which about 8000 people were killed. Delhi was at the centre of the bloodshed.

That Sialkot, the potential for a real flashpoint that day, remained untouched by violence represented a small bureaucratic win for Ismail Qureshi. As a result of his contribution in Sialkot, he was appointed to the committee tasked with organising Pakistan's share of games in the 1987 World Cup, which they jointly hosted with India.

Jinnah Stadium remains defined, to some extent, by that day. Given the consequences of events on that October morning, the "no-result" alongside the match in the scorebook feels strangely inadequate. Politics had trumped cricket, and fear gripped people in two huge countries. The realisation that the year was 1984 must have made it all the more ominous.

Danyal Rasool is a freelance sports writer who has been published in the Cricketer, Sport360, New Zealand Herald, and the Daily Times. @Danny61000

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