If you think fairytales don’t translate into real life, then you would not have watched the 1996 Cricket World Cup. That tournament, held in the subcontinent, was important for many reasons. It shifted the power of world cricket towards South Asia, and it was the hotbed for the renaissance of some underrated sides.
The less fancied Sri Lankan team, to everyone’s shock, lifted the Wills World Cup, while in one of the league stage games the amateur Kenyans wreaked havoc on a chaotic Windies line-up to cause one of the major upsets in world cricket history.
West Indies enter World Cup with problems
Kenya, on the other hand, were playing their first World Cup after having formed a part of the East Africa confederation in the first World Cup. Their team in the 1996 World Cup consisted only of amateur cricketers barring Steve Tikolo.
The Kenyans were using their games at the tournament as an opportunity to sight-see the vantage points of South Asia. In fact, prior to the game against West Indies, when the Kenyans arrived in Pune they didn’t even bother to visit the ground. They saw the game against the Caribbeans as an opportunity to take some photographs with their idols.
Later in an interview Asif Karim said: “..hopefully one of us would get Brian Lara’s wicket and we could tell our grandsons.”
West Indies played three matches before the game against Kenya, winning only the game against Zimbabwe. They lost their fixture against India and forfeited the match in Sri Lanka against the hosts on security grounds. Kenya’s victory column was barren until they met the once invincibles.
It was no surprise that the odds were stacked heavily against them. In actuality, no one even placed any bets on them.
Kenya falter with the bat
The West Indies captain won the toss and sent the African team into bat on a tricky track. But the lack of dedication was very well evident, as apathy engulfed the Windies fielding. Altogether 27 wides and a no-ball were bowled in the Kenyan innings. Roger Harper himself dropped two catches.
Despite the leeway donated by the West Indian cricketers, the Kenyans lost their first 6 wickets for 81 runs. 17-year-old Thomas Odoyo then combined with Hitesh Modi to put together a 44-run stand for the 7th wicket to bring some momentum in Kenya’s favour. With extras providing extra support, Kenya wangled a total of 166.
The total, while a good one given Kenya’s initial position, was still a below par score on that track.
The Kenyan team had no belief. There were some serious discussions in the Kenyan camp on the number of overs the West Indian team would take to strike off the number of runs needed. For the men clad in green and red, the earlier was better, since that would give them time to go visit some of the scenic places in Pune.
A rare failure for Lara
Responding to the target of 166, West Indies lost two early wickets. But at the crease was Brian Lara, who could win matches under any circumstances. In Lara, the world had immense faith.
“Our only hope of winning was to get Lara early,” said Hanumant Singh, the Kenyan coach.
However, Lara’s mind wasn’t where his body was. He swished and missed balls and survived a run out chance after kick-starting his innings with a voluptuous cover drive. Lara was going like a brakeless car, and Roland Holder was sent in with drinks to request him to slow down. Lara paid no heed and edged behind to Tariq Iqbal, who after missing many catches and letting runs flow between his legs made use of his groin to clutch the ball.
“As soon as we got Lara’s wicket, we were a different side” uttered Karim. Iqbal was certainly a different man after catching Lara. He transformed into an exceptional keeper, not unlike a frail young man becoming Captain America after being injected with a serum.
Kenya complete a famous victory
That was it, really, as the West Indians slid to 93 all out with Odumbe making use of a turning track and picking up figures of 3/15. The amateur team set out on a lap of honour with the sparse gathering pummelling enough voice out of their larynx to cheer the Kenyan team that had done the impossible.
The embarrassment intensified further for the West Indies, as the paycheck for their team suddenly vanished during the presentation ceremony.
The defeat sparked outrage in the West Indies. Captain Richardson announced that he would retire after the World Cup. Lara was chastised for his imprudence.
Albeit embarrassed by defeat, the West Indies went into the Kenyan dressing dream to congratulate them and to take pictures with them. They would also go on to host a dinner for the Kenyans. The dinner was planned on the eve of the match, and according to the Kenyans: “We could see they were really hurting. They lost to a team they had never heard of”.
Racism claims against Lara
India’s Outlook magazine later claimed that Lara had told the Kenyans that losing to them was not as bad as losing to the South Africans. An anonymous source quotes Lara as saying: “You know, this white thing comes into the picture. We can’t stand losing to them.”
However, Lara’s agent completely denied the allegations, saying: “Brian may be many things, but a racist he certainly is not. I talked to him after the article was published and he is bitterly upset. All that has ever mattered to him, whether in cricket or in life, is that people conduct themselves properly. Colour has never come into his thinking.
“He insists that he went into the Kenyan dressing room to congratulate them on a famous win and said: ‘Losing to you guys hurt badly but it wasn’t the worst day of my life. The worst was losing to South Africa in the 1992 World Cup because I realised we weren’t going to qualify for the semis.’ Never at any stage did he mention black, white or any colour.”
Lara, riled by the raging speculation, broke his silence by proclaiming to the media: “What has happened has been a big blow to me because of the respect I have for the administrators of cricket in South Africa, for the way they are developing cricket and the whole of the new South Africa. We have a great match on our hands. Let’s not try and spoil it.”
Maurice Odumbe, fresh from the high of humbling the Windies, minced no words in his media briefing: “Watch out Sri Lanka, we are going to sort you out just like we sorted out West Indies.”
But their Midas touch failed to last, as they were beaten black and blue by the eventual champions. Karim later said: “I remember Arjuna [Ranatunga] telling me this later on when they came to Kenya for a tournament. He said, ‘Your captain’s comments fired us up.’”
Shehan Karunathilaka, in his award winning novel “Chinaman – The legend of Pradeep Mathew”, cleverly manipulated the match to weave a betting story about it. The protagonist of the novel W.G. Karunesena, in an attempt to find enough money to finance his documentary, decides to bet on cricket matches.
He places the bet on the West Indies team and Brian Lara to score the highest number of runs in the match. But his son, who was in need of money to elope with the love of his life, tries in vain to maliciously alter the bet. The irony is that Kenya wins and Karunesena loses his bet.