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This day, 50 years ago: When Brabourne stadium burned

The Saturday crowd at the Brabourne Stadium was not a happy bunch. The Indian team under MAK Pataudi were not promising much in their second innings response to Australia's 74-run first innings lead. Srinivas Venkataraghavan, who had walked in at the fall of S Abid Ali's wicket with the scoreboard reading 89 for seven, was building a partnership with Ajit Wadekar 40 minutes before stumps on the fourth day of the opening Test of the 1969-70 series.

One run before he could get into double figures, Venkat reportedly tried to square cut paceman Alan Connolly, missed it and the ball was collected by wicketkeeper Brian Taber. Second slipper Keith Stackpole was the one most convinced that Venkat had hit it and went up in appeal. Taber's appeal was less emphatic but that did not stop umpire Shambu Pan from raising his finger.

Radio commentator Devraj Puri was not convinced that Pan had made the right decision and said so on air. This had a role to play in the violence that followed but it must be remembered that 114 for eight is not a situation which will delight a home crowd. Chairs were thrown, soft drink bottles too. Then came the flames in the stands and subsequently fear amongst the players and the rest of the crowd.

Chandrakant Ramani, a spectator in the East Stand was gripped with fear too. He had watched many matches at the Brabourne Stadium, but this was unique. Any intention of staying put along with a friend was doused by volunteers urging spectators to leave for home. Ramani obliged and read about the drama in the next day's newspapers.

Cricket writer GK Menon (left) chats with CCI official and former Test player Keki Tarapore on November 8, 1969. PIC/GK Menon's personal collection

Ray Robinson, the doyen of Australian writers was in the press box. He had seen many a cricket riot and ended up writing a book on the subject - The Wildest Tests. In the chapter describing the 1969 Brabourne riot, 'Sugar' Ray wrote: "A seething mass of people flung their weight against the wire mesh barricade in front of the East Stand. As it rocked, the Australians watched in alarm, ready to bolt for the clubhouse if it gave way.

"Picking up bottles, policemen flung them back over the wire. As the bottles smashed on the concrete, showers of broken glass quickly drove the crowd away. The stands were cleared while the fires were put out."

The game continued but the smoke prevented the official scorer from sighting the signals from the umpires. Official scorer Jehangir Irani is reported to have entered the arena to get a closer look at the action but before that, reporter GK Menon left the press box to inform the umpires Pan and I Gopalakrishnan that the scorers could not see their signals. "It's simple...the game cannot go on if the scorers don't get the signals so I entered the playing arena to speak to the umpires," Shivaji Park-based Menon, 92, said over the phone on Wednesday. Lawry was enraged to see Menon on the field. "P**s off," he is believed to have told the journalist. Menon shot back with an equally demeaning expletive.

S Venkataraghavan, the victim

Ray Robinson, the doyen of Australian writers was in the press box. He had seen many a cricket riot and ended up writing a book on the subject - The Wildest Tests. In the chapter describing the 1969 Brabourne riot, 'Sugar' Ray wrote: "A seething mass of people flung their weight against the wire mesh barricade in front of the East Stand. As it rocked, the Australians watched in alarm, ready to bolt for the clubhouse if it gave way.

"Picking up bottles, policemen flung them back over the wire. As the bottles smashed on the concrete, showers of broken glass quickly drove the crowd away. The stands were cleared while the fires were put out."

The game continued but the smoke prevented the official scorer from sighting the signals from the umpires. Official scorer Jehangir Irani is reported to have entered the arena to get a closer look at the action but before that, reporter GK Menon left the press box to inform the umpires Pan and I Gopalakrishnan that the scorers could not see their signals. "It's simple...the game cannot go on if the scorers don't get the signals so I entered the playing arena to speak to the umpires," Shivaji Park-based Menon, 92, said over the phone on Wednesday. Lawry was enraged to see Menon on the field. "P**s off," he is believed to have told the journalist. Menon shot back with an equally demeaning expletive.

Brian Taber, who collected the ball

Lawry insisted on playing on and Day Four of the Test ended with 125 for nine, Prasanna falling to fellow off-spinner Ashley Mallett for three. The Australians stuck to their plan of going into the pavilion together but mystery spinner Johnny Gleeson, who was behind all his teammates, was struck by a bottle behind his right ear, according to Robinson, who wrote: "The blow knocked Gleeson to his knees. Two policemen lifted him to his feet and he walked into the clubhouse unaided."

Chappell recalled: "We didn't realise Gleeson was struck but luckily our manager Fred Bennett saw it and ensured he was attended to [on the way to the pavilion]. The dressing room was like a casualty ward because the injured were brought in to be treated there." It was a frightening experience for Chappell and his mates and the team, who were put up at the CCI itself, were advised against going out that evening. Chappell had planned to be at former India batsman Ramnath Kenny's Mahim residence for dinner, but couldn't make it. He and Kenny had met a few years ago on a ship headed to England. Chappell said he met his friend Sunil Gavaskar for the first time that day at the CCI where the future batting star was for a net session.

Some in the crowd, according to Mallett, were still in a violent mood even after the Australians were in a team room. The mob headed to the pavilion and wanted to attack Lawry, certainly not the most popular man on the field that day. Bennett indicated to the team that the rioters were baying for Lawry's blood. Doug Walters, known for his dry sense of humour played true to form and said while holding on to his beer can and cigarette, "Hand over Bill Lawry and let's get on with the drinking."

Normalcy was well and truly restored when Day Five began. Wadekar added just nine runs to his overnight score of 37 when he drove at one from leg-spinner Stackpole to be caught by Graham McKenzie. Australia were set a comfortable target of 64 which they reached for the loss of two wickets, both to Rusi Surti in two overs.

The Brabourne riot was not the only one in the series. Violence also broke out during the fourth Test in Kolkata over too few tickets for too many spectators. The stampede of December 16, 1969, according to Dr Cashman, left six dead and several injured. Back then, fans rushed to watch Test cricket. Today, administrators burn the midnight oil thinking up ways of how to get crowds to watch the traditional form of the game.

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