IT all started with a slap on the thigh.
That seemingly innocuous act by West Indian quick Vanburn Holder triggered one of the more notorious acts of crowd violence in cricket’s history, and led to the stunning end to a Test in which Australia needed just one wicket to secure victory.
The incredible memories came flooding back for Australia’s wicketkeeper in that match, Steve Rixon, last week when he visited the scene of the incident — Sabina Park, in Kingston, Jamaica — in his current role as Pakistan’s assistant coach.
That visit came nearly 39 years to do the day, May 3rd, after his side was robbed of a Test win.
Day five in Kingston was the culmination of a testy series which had started with the home side racking up two comfortable wins with their star-studded line-up against an Australian outfit missing its World Series Cricket stars.
By the third Test, the Windies’ WSC representatives also pulled out and a fairer contest was able to take place.
Australia won the third Test and lost the fourth, leaving the hosts with a 3-1 lead heading to Sabina Park.
The atmosphere leading into the fifth Test was no less spiteful.
There were strong rumours that several Australian players would be no-balled for chucking, and the Australian team objected to the appointment of umpire Douglas Sang Hue — who had no-balled Bruce Yardley for that exact reason the previous Test.
In the end, Sang Hue was stood down and Wesley Malcolm took his place, while Australia omitted Wayne Clark — a right-arm quick with a suspect action.
The high tensions led a number of West Indian players entering the Australian dressing room before the Test and warning the tourists not to challenge the umpire’s decision this week because, well, “it’s not the sort of place you want to upset anyone”.
The implication was clear: This was not a crowd to be messed with.
The unspoken understanding was even more dire: that more than a handful of fans in attendance most days at the cricket would be in possession of firearms.
Which brings us back to Vanburn Holder, and his reaction to being caught behind by Rixon off the bowling of Jim Higgs to reduce West Indies to 9-258.
Holder is said to have momentarily disputed the decision, and then admonished himself by slapping his gloves on his hip — which the crowd mistook for dissatisfaction with the dismissal.
And from there, the mood changed.
“On the strength of that there was a big rock that arrived on the ground,” Rixon tells foxsports.com.au.
“And it was a proper, big rock — indicating that some of the best arms in the West Indies weren’t necessarily on the cricket field … they were in the crowd.
“That was the start of it. One rock became five rocks, which became a concern.”
Team captain Bob Simpson was resolute: his team was going nowhere.
“He was in control of the ship and just said not to go anywhere, stay together, stay tight.”
And they did, until they saw a 44-gallon drum filled with rubbish set ablaze before being launched from the seating above the sightscreen and onto the ground.
“I remember that vividly. At that point it was starting to become a little bit more of a concern to everyone that was actually on the ground.”
The appearance of the riot squad calmed matters somewhat — at least enough to safely get the Australian team, which had been stranded in the middle of the ground since the fall of the ninth wicket, to safety.
Prior to that, the walk to the Kingston Cricket Club — which housed the away sheds — was simply fraught with danger as rocks, bottles and anything else which could be picked up was thrown onto the turf.
With the Australian team safely tucked away, the riot squad began clearing the ground using teargas.
Then the gunfire started.
“(The police) did tell us it was all blanks — and it’s all very well saying that!” Rixon laughs.
“But most of our blokes could be found underneath their benches, with the gear on top of them not the other way round.”
Attempts to resume the match in a now-empty ground were quickly aborted.
“We never felt safe even just going back on to the ground even after these guys were outside, because they were then starting to catapult rocks over the Kingston Cricket Club,” Rixon adds.
The team stayed within the confines of the dressing rooms for hours as negotiations continued to see if the final overs of the Test could be played, but the umpires couldn’t be convinced and attempts to schedule a sixth day were quickly scuppered — “stiff shit, basically” Rixon says.
They were the most remarkable scenes Rixon has experienced in a professional cricket career which has spanned 45 years as player and coach.
But, on the eve of the riot’s 29th anniversary, Rixon found himself back at Sabina Park — this time in for Pakistan’s first Test victory of its current series with West Indies.
“I went back and had a look around the Kingston Cricket Club — I couldn’t help myself,” he says.
“I’d just finished a fielding session and was on my way to the nets and it was like a gravitation that pulled me towards (KCC) and I thought ‘no, I’ve got to have a look’.
“Once I knew where the clubhouse/dressing rooms were, I knew exactly where everyone else was — from where I was standing in the middle to where that 44-gallon drum was thrown off.
“I could even see where the rocks would’ve been thrown over the club.”
Every ground he’s been to on Pakistan’s current tour has brought memories flooding back, including a confronting incident which occurred at Port of Spain in the fourth Test — where he watched his great mate Peter Toohey hit between the eyes by terrifying bouncer from West Indian quick Andy Roberts.
These were the days before helmets and Toohey suffered a badly broken nose as a result of the blow.
Rixon was the next man in to bat, and he scratched out his mark in a puddle of his mate’s blood.
“Everywhere we’ve been it’s been a trip down memory lane,” he says.
But nothing quite as extraordinary as that day at Sabina Park.
“Unbelievable,” he finishes.
“I’ve been involved in a few things that have happened over the years, but nothing ever fitted like this.
“It was so real, so dangerous.
“You just had to sit back and think ‘what the hell is going on’.”