Before we acknowledge Sachin Tendulkar’s brilliant knock against a fearsome bowling attack, the circumstances surrounding this India-Pakistan Test in Chennai makes it near-impossible to think of a game of this magnitude would be held even as an after-thought in today’s political climate.
It was January 1999. Bi-lateral relations between India and Pakistan were at its lowest, adding further ammunition to the stakes involved in this duel. Political outfit Shiv Sena had vandals dig up the Feroz Shah Kotla pitch in New Delhi – the preferred choice of venue for the first Test. They even threatened to release poisonous snakes into Chennai’s MA Chidambaram Stadium, where Pakistan had beaten India in high-scoring ODI less than two years ago. It was a match better known for Saeed Anwar’s monumental 194. The Tamil Nadu had a security cover like never seen before, and understandably, the atmosphere was tense.
The last time India and Pakistan had faced each other in a Test series, Tendulkar was a baby-faced 16-year-old on his first-ever international tour. Now, he was widely seen as the best batsman in the world after a stupendous 1998. There were no doubts over who the conductor of the Indian orchestra was.
Yes, Rahul Dravid had risen in stature in world cricket following stellar performances in New Zealand, India’s previous assignment. Sourav Ganguly had established himself as a match-winner in his own right, and then there was the wise head of skipper Mohammad Azharuddin to complete the middle-order. But there was no doubt that the match’s result would hinge on the kind of damage the India No 4 could inflict.
Tendulkar was the face of almost every television set in India by then. Here was a man who could climb mountains on his own. India’s fortunes solely rested on his shoulders.
He was a marketing person’s dream and an all-action cricketer who’d put bums to seats. Cricket, by now, was the de-facto No 1 sport of the Indian masses. Kids went to academies in droves, including current captain Virat Kohli, holding a bat and dreaming of knocking centuries like their hero. While at the crease, Tendulkar could quite easily bring his country to a standstill, or even stop time as Peter Roebuck famously wrote. Sir Don Bradman saw his younger self in the young man from Mumbai. For many, cricket was Sachin. And Sachin was cricket.
The Chennai crowd, though, were put through some agony before a batting masterclass unfolded in front of them. Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra had rattled India in the first innings. Tendulkar’s ploy to take on the off-spinner had backfired and he was out for a three-ball duck.
Fighting fifties from Dravid and Ganguly had given India a slender 16-run lead in the first innings but a belligerent 141 from an 18-year-old Shahid Afridi tipped the scales slightly in Pakistan’s favour on day three. This meant that India had to chase down a formidable 271 to win. Time was on India’s side; they had nearly two-and-a-half days to knock off the runs.
A lethal Waqar Younis sent rookie openers Sadagoppan Ramesh and VVS Laxman packing in no time. After Ganguly was inexplicably given his marching orders by umpire Steve Dunne, the scoreboard read 82/5. Tendulkar and wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia were India’s last recognised batting pair with the latter battling through an illness. Here was rare sight of a batsman wearing a sweater on a balmy afternoon in Chennai.
As was so often the case in the 1990s, Tendulkar was batting on a different surface. Wasim, Waqar and Saqlain were being driven, flicked and lofted with ridiculous ease despite the middle-order falling cheaply. The chase, which seemed dead at one stage, suddenly sprang into life.
There were ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahhs’ that went around the ground whenever Mongia missed. The Baroda stumper played a crucial hand and provided as much of the strike to his well-set partner. His singles were cheered with a roar that was usually reserved for milestones. Sticking faithfully to the pre-match script, the match turned into a Tendulkar vs Pakistan affair. India’s chances of going 1-0 up in the series were well and truly alive with the Master Blaster going great guns.
The boundaries kept coming off Tendulkar’s blade and, with it, the target was well within sight. By Tea, Mongia had also grown in confidence.
Tendulkar had managed to create frustration and panic in the Pakistan ranks. Along with the fours that were struck with such ridiculous ease and panache, he ran aggressively between the wickets; galloping furiously with his bat in hand. There were surely a few soar voices in the stands. The rub of the green also seemed to go India’s way. Vice-captain Moin Khan missed a regulation stumping off Saqlain. The tension was off the charts.
Hearts sunk as there was a stoppage in play with Tendulkar batting on 83. There might have been a few desperate prayers too. He was suffering from a sore back but was keen to soldier on. Carrying a million hopes perhaps comes with its side effects too.
Akram came back to dismiss Mongia but the Pakistan skipper knew the job was far from over. Meanwhile, Tendulkar’s onslaught continued. There was a strong sense of the bloody-mindedness that was on display against Australia in Sharjah the previous season.
But even they were left scratching their heads. Bouncers, conventional swing, reverse swing, doosra – Tendulkar had answers to everything Pakistan threw at him. Akram shuffled his bowlers and went back to his trusted core. He experimented by spreading the field looking for a mis-hit and at times brought his fielders in, laying down the gauntlet.
And Tendulkar finally fell for it. Looking to cart Saqlain out of the park, Tendulkar got a top-edge and Akram made no mistake at cover. Only the delirious Pakistani fielders could be heard. The crestfallen public smarted from their worst fear coming true and rose to give Tendulkar a thunderous send-off to the dressing room.
It was left to the tail-enders to take India home with 17 required. The Karnataka troika of Sunil Joshi, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath were, by no means, duds with the bat. Srinath had even scored a gritty 76 during the New Zealand tour. But Saqlain and Akram were too good for the Indian tail and it was all over after just 21 balls following their talisman’s dismissal. It was yet another day when India had stumbled at the final hurdle.
In what was one of the defining moments in the game, the Chennai supporters caught the attention of the cricketing world. Briefly putting nationalistic fervour aside, they stood up to applaud a visibly ecstatic Pakistan side taking a victory lap around the stadium. The visitors found deep reserves of resilience just when one man decided to ruin their party.
As for Tendulkar, it was a case of déjà vu. So many of his valiant efforts during that period didn’t get the triumphant sheen they deserved. But this 136-run knock, walks into the what-could-have-been list in a glorious career that lasted 24 years.
The 25-year-old was heartbroken and wasn’t on the field to collect the Player of the Match award, which was awarded to him despite being on the losing side.
“He got into the dressing room disappointed,” said then coach Anshuman Gaekwad later. “When he got to know that India had lost he just didn’t budge from the dressing room. He was weeping buried under his towel. He was awarded the man-of-the-match award, but Tendulkar did not come to collect it.”
Gaekwad added: “Raj Singh Dungarpur was on the podium, asking where the Little Master was, but Tendulkar was shattered. Even after the felicitation was over, he refused to move from his place in the dressing room. Eventually, he moved after I talked to him. He got very emotional that day.”
Twenty one years have passed but the impact of Tendulkar’s knock lives on. The cult audience featuring the young and old, to this day, relive the knock on YouTube. A Tendulkar epic, extraordinary exponents of swing and pace, a wily spinner who finished with a 10-for and rival fans turning into flag-bearers of the spirit of a truly magnificent game: Somewhere, the cricketing gods were flashing the widest of smiles. For the average Indian fan, his ‘God’ managed to write yet another glorious chapter, once again in defeat, however.