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The 1998 Commonwealth Games: India-Pakistan politics and a Northern Irish upset in the Malaysia heat

South Africa Commonwealth Games 1998
by Abhishek Mukherjee 7 minute read

As cricket returns to the Commonwealth Games after a 24-year-absence, Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the first time it featured in the Games, in 1998.

For decades, cricket used to be so synonymous with the British Empire that the ICC went by the acronym Imperial Cricket Conference until as late as 1963. A team needed to be part of the British Commonwealth to become an ICC member. Had India not signed the London Declaration in 1949, they would have forgone their ICC Membership as per Rule 5 of the prevalent ICC Constitution. As a result, they would have not been allowed to play Test cricket. South Africa were allowed to stay on even after they withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, but that deserves a separate story.

It was thus not surprising that cricket became part of the Commonwealth Games in 1998, the first edition to feature team sports. It did not matter that Malaysia, the first Asian nation to host the Games, were not an ICC Full Member. What is surprising, perhaps, is the fact that it took 24 years for the sport to return to the Games.

Cricket had been played in Malaysia since the 1880s. Lall Singh, part of India’s first Test XI, was born there (as was Australia Test spinner Steve O’Keefe, though he was 13 in 1998); Garry Sobers famously took five wickets in five balls in Kuala Lumpur in 1964; and the national team had made a few appearances in the ICC Trophy without much success. Despite all that, cricket was not a popular sport in the country.

However, Malaysia had hosted the ICC Trophy the year before, across eight venues. They had the infrastructure to host a 16-team global tournament. The ICC did not consider the Commonwealth Games worthy of ODI status. Neither were sponsor logos allowed on the white shirts donned by the cricketers. However, there were medals to be won.

The sticky tropical heat tested the cricketers, but the playing conditions were reasonable given the constraints. Shaun Pollock, captain of the gold-medallist South African side, later wrote in ESPNcricinfo that “practice facilities were scarce and wickets a touch under-prepared but considering the fact that they only had a year to lay and condition turf wickets, I think they did very well.”

The teams

Of the nine ICC Full Members at the time, seven participated in the 16-team cricket tournament. The eighth, West Indies, were represented by three nations – Barbados, Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda. They were joined by Bangladesh, Kenya, and Scotland, the top three teams in the ICC Trophy; Canada, who had played a World Cup back in 1979; somewhat unusually in a cricket tournament, Northern Ireland; and hosts Malaysia.

The surprising omission was of England. This was, after all, an event for their former Empire, and a sport that they had taken to every corner of that Empire. Unfortunately, the Games clashed with the last two rounds of the County Championship, and they were not keen on releasing 14 cricketers (fewer than one per county).

Several Full Members sent full-strength squads, though there were some exceptions. South Africa, for example, rested most senior cricketers and sent youngsters like Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs, Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini, Nicky Boje, and Paul Adams. And then, there were India and Pakistan.

The Indian conundrum

India and Pakistan were playing the Friendship Cup in Toronto at the same time. Pakistan sent a full team to Canada and a second-string squad (including a young fast bowler called Shoaib Akhtar) to Malaysia, but India flew out two teams of roughly equal strength. Thus, while Ajay Jadeja led a squad containing Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, and Robin Singh at the Commonwealth Games, Mohammad Azharuddin’s men were playing a full-strength Pakistan in Toronto.

They did poorly at both events. By the time India were knocked out of the Games, Pakistan had drawn level 1-1 in Toronto with three matches to spare. The BCCI wanted to fly Tendulkar, Jadeja, Kumble, and Singh to Toronto as reinforcements. The PCB cited the laws – and rightly so – which allowed replacements only in case of injuries or illnesses. Following some behind-the-scenes bargaining, the PCB agreed to two out of four. By the time PCB agreed to Tendulkar and Jadeja flying out, Pakistan were leading 2-1.

The BCCI kept virtually everyone in India in the dark up to this point. Unfortunately, that also included Tendulkar, who was away on vacation with his family. He eventually flew halfway around the world to play only the fifth match. It did not help anyone: India, 1-3 down by this time, lost 1-4.

The Games

In Malaysia, several matches yielded lopsided results. Canada were bowled out for 60 against Australia and 45 against India; Pakistan bowled out Kenya for 60; Zimbabwe beat Malaysia by 221 runs; and so on. The shock result came in Group C, where Northern Ireland, bolstered by Kyle McCallan’s 53 not out and Gordon Cooke’s 5-35, beat ICC Trophy champions Bangladesh by 114 runs.

Only one team could qualify from each group, which elevated the last matches from each group to virtual quarter-finals. In Group A, Zimbabwe posted 265-7 and reduced Sri Lanka to 110-5 before Chandika Hathurusingha (60), Indika de Saram (75*), and Upul Chandana (32) saw the latter home.

In Group B, Steve Waugh scored a round 100 not out before left-arm spinner Brad Young took 4-23 to help Australia beat India by 146 runs. The match was played in conditions so hot and humid that Amay Khurasiya fainted on the field and had to be stretchered off the ground.

Barbados, featuring several international cricketers, got 254-6 in the Group C match, but South Africa overcame them without fuss. And the New Zealand slow bowlers – Daniel Vettori, Chris Harris, Nathan Astle – helped New Zealand rout Pakistan by 81 runs in Group D.

South Africa boasted of the strongest pace attack in the 1990s, but as the tournament went on, their spinners bowled more and more. In the first semi-final, Boje (4-16) and Derek Crookes (2-17) bowled out Sri Lanka for 130. Upul Chandana, Thilan Samaraweera (still an off-spinner who could bat a bit), Malinda Warnapura, and Russel Arnold then reduced South Africa to 96-9 before Boje and Alan Dawson – who became a father during the course of the Games – pulled off a remarkable heist.

Pollock described it in 2010 as “probably the most tense game I have ever been involved in”. It was a significant statement from a man who had played in the epic Edgbaston World Cup semi-final less than a year after the Games.

The other semi-final was nowhere near as competitive. After Damien Fleming’s (3-23) early blows, Young (4-2-4-4) spun out New Zealand for 58 before Adam Gilchrist saw Australia home before lunch. Some consolation came New Zealand’s way when the Vettori-Astle-Harris combination helped them beat Sri Lanka by 51 runs to clinch the bronze medal.

Pollock (4-19) led the way in the final, played in front of 7,532 people at the Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Selangor Sports Complex. He took out Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, and Gilchrist in his first spell. However, the three men were as much responsible for the wickets. “The message was ‘see off Pollock’, but I think our top order somehow heard ‘slog Pollock’,” Fleming later recollected to cricket.com.au.

Steve Waugh did not mince his words either (“I wasn’t upset with the silver, but I was aggrieved at our lack of professionalism”). He remained unbeaten on 90, but found little support at the other end as Australia were bowled out for 183. Led by Mark Rindel – a man whose batting stance is more talked about than his career – South Africa won by five wickets. In just over a month’s time, South Africa would win the inaugural edition of the ICC Champions Trophy.

South Africa’s performance in global tournaments has not matched their incredible prowess otherwise. Other teams might have outdone them in major championships, but South Africa were the first team to don gold medals in a podium after a cricket tournament to the tune of the national anthem.

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