Times at Mumbai’s Taj when only cricket mattered

Following the massacre in Mumbai, TED CORBETT recalls a terrorist threat on a previous England cricket tour to India, and the dilemma for press as well as players

A quarter of a century ago, we never thought of returning home.

Actually, one of the players thought, briefly, that a flight back to Heathrow sounded attractive but Tony Brown, the manager of the 1984-1985 tour squad, led by David Gower, threw ticket and passport on the bed and said: “You can go if you like. The rest of us are staying.”

A shame-faced player left his ticket and passport where they lay and none of the rest of us gave a second thought to going home.

We did hide in Sri Lanka – after hitching a lift with a film crew – but after 10 days we were back in India where the riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination had died down

I was enjoying the life as cricket correspondent of the Daily Star so much I just wanted to see the elephants, exchange chatter with the nearest sportsman and tell everyone how things were on the other side of the world.

I was so keen that, a couple of hours after Mrs Gandhi was gunned down, several of us hired a taxi and went to see the aftermath of that terrible event. Looking back, I realise we might all have been killed but thanks to a driver with the good sense to keep his engine running we escaped the rain of stones that suggested the crowds thought we were CIA operatives rather than reporters.

A month later we were staying in the Heritage part of the Taj Mahal Hotel – now a ruin – in what was then still known as Bombay.

We had only been in the hotel a few hours when we were invited to a party at the British High Commission. I left at midnight after a fascinating conversation with the Assistant High Commissioner Percy Norris, who had served as a diplomat in every trouble spot in the world.

He had seen more parts of the world than anyone else I knew and could tell fascinating stories. It did not occur to me as we spoke that I would be one of the last people to have a long conversation with him – or just what his role had been as he gained those experiences.

Next morning should have consisted only of a team photograph and another lazy day by the pool. What we did not know as the picture was taken was that Pat Pocock, the off-spinner and team joker, had phoned the High Commission to thank them for their hospitality and been told that Mr Norris had been shot.

Gower, who could never resist the temptation to laugh, borrowed the heavy jacket belonging to the photographer Graham Morris, and asked: “Is this protection enough?”

For 24 hours, we thought that we were in serious danger.

Two of us set off for the High Commission, where staff were in tears at the death of the popular Norris who had been killed as his car paused at traffic lights on his way to work.

Middle Eastern terrorists were blamed and suddenly we began to ask if he might have been a secret service man.

Finally, we headed for the junction where the crime had been committed. A cavalcade of jeeps rolled up and a high ranking cop – gold braid across his chest and down his arms – jumped out.

“Sahib, sahib,” shouted one junior officer, “I have this minute found the bullet that resulted in the death of the unfortunate victim.”

The senior officer pocketed the piece of evidence and the jeeps drove off. My companion, a young reporter with an overheated sense of the dramatic, whispered: “My God, I have a world scoop.”

The next time England visited the Taj, England had run into another big story when Bhopal was blown up. I can tell you now that the reporter whose name was on the editor’s bulletin next morning was – for all the brilliance of his descriptive prose – never closer to Bhopal than his room in the Taj.

In those days – when the IRA seemed to bomb London all the time and plane hijackings were a regular events – we half expected to be at the centre of dangerous happenings.

But go home? It never crossed our minds.

So what was it that changed that last week, when the team and press party were shipped out of India so quickly?

Maybe we were too gung-ho, too sure that no trouble would ever be too great to defeat us, that if we could handle the vagaries of telex and a crackling phone line we would never lie down in front of danger.

Wages have risen astronomically for press and players, the cost of insuring a man on his way to India is enormous, and the men with the calculators rule and, as we saw in Mumbai last week, terrorists are now sophisticated, well-trained and ruthless.

“You got out in time,” said a veteran sports editor when I retired earlier this year. “The game will never be the same again.”

Yes, we did have the best of it 24 years ago when all that mattered was the next match, the next deadline and the wish to take part in a great adventure.

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