India, Pakistan, Magic…

India vs. Pakistan, the words send electricity through a cricket fan from any part of the world, especially those from either of these two cricketing behemoths. This intense cricketing rivalry has sprung from the unceasing political tension between the two countries, with cricketers from each side looking to deliver their best against the other. Let us go back 17 years, to a match that was charged with the sort of high drama one has come to expect from Indo-Pak clashes.

The year was 1999. These two nations were meeting for a test series for the first time since India’s tour to Pakistan in 1989, a series that saw the debut of two young men, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar of India and Waqar Younis of Pakistan, who would both go on to become iconic players for their respective nations. Political relations between India and Pakistan had deteriorated in the intervening years, and although the two teams had met in ODI matches at neutral venues, talks of arranging full tours had repeatedly fallen through in the face of severe opposition from right-wing Hindu fundamentalists, especially the Shiv Sena. Within the last 12 months, both countries had tested their respective nuclear weapons, adding further strain to the political scenario. However, thanks to the efforts of erstwhile Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, PCB finally agreed to a tour to India, involving two test matches and a triangular ODI series (also involving Sri Lanka).

The first match was slated to be held at the Feroze Shah Kotla Stadium in Delhi, but thanks to the Shiv Sena, who dug up the pitch at Kotla a few days prior to the game in their desperate bid to disrupt the tour, the venue for the first test was shifted to the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium (commonly known as the Chepauk) in Chennai; the Chepauk was originally slated to hold the second game.

Day 1

The morning of the 28th of January 1999 dawned bright and sunny. The pitch looked a typical subcontinent fare, dry with a reddish hue, and showing clear signs that it will increasingly assist the spinners as the match progressed. Predictably, Pakistan captain Wasim Akram had no hesitation in batting first when he called correctly at the toss. The teams seemed almost equally matched in batting, with both boasting of big names. As far as the bowling was concerned, Pakistan clearly had their noses in front. Though they decided to go in with the young and largely untested left-arm spinner Nadeem Khan ahead of the experienced Mushtaq Ahmed, the likes of Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, and the all-rounder Shahid Afridi still constituted a bowling line up that was more than formidable on any surface against any team. India’s bowling hopes were pinned on the Karnataka duo of the unorthodox leggie Anil Kumble, who over the decade had proved well-nigh peerless on home tracks, and the ever-reliable seamer Javagal Srinath.

Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi walked out amidst huge cheers to open the Pakistani innings. This was it. The cricket battle that the entire cricketing world was waiting for was finally underway. After a couple of cautious overs, Pakistan began picking the pace up. While Afridi continued to stutter, Anwar’s usually sublime strokeplay was starting to find its range.

Then Srinath struck, removing both openers in quick succession. Mohammad Azharuddin, the canniest of captains on home soil, sensed an opening and introduced his lynchpin Kumble to the attack. Soon enough, the move paid off with Kumble claiming the wickets of Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Pakistan were struggling at 66/4, which soon became 91/5, when Srinath came back for a second spell and claimed the prized scalp of the vastly experienced Salim Malik.

In walked Moin Khan, not the best wicket-keeper in the business, but an ideal man for a situation that calls for a scrappy customer. Mixing orthodox defence with his trademark cheeky running and the odd boundary, Moin started to build a good partnership with the young and promising Yousuf Youhana. The pair had put on 63 for the 6th wicket and were looking fairly untroubled at the crease, when Azhar introduced his secret weapon to the attack. And lo behold, Sachin Tendulkar struck immediately; Youhana was trapped lbw, having compiled a well-crafted half-century.

Wasim joined Moin in the middle, and the scoring rate picked up immediately for Pakistan. At 214/6, it seemed that Pakistan would go to stumps with a more than respectable score on the board. However, Anil Kumble had other ideas. The collapse was triggered when Kumble induced an edge from Moin, which was snaffled by a diving Sourav Ganguly at first slip. Thereafter, Kumble proceeded to run through the tail and finished with 6/70, as Pakistan folded for 238.

With a little over half an hour left in the day’s play, the debutant Sadagoppan Ramesh came out to face the fiery duo of Wasim and Waqar, alongside VVS Laxman, who was yet to cement a spot for himself in the Indian squad. Much to the surprise and unbridled delight of the packed stadium, Ramesh belied his lack of experience as he laid into the two Pakistani greats with relish, and by the end of the day, had rattled on to 30 off only 22 balls. India finished the day on a comfortable 48/0 in only 8 overs.

Day 2

The previous evening had not shown either Wasim or Waqar in good light; this morning, it seemed as if Wasim had come out with the intent to set the record straight. With Saqlain operating with control from the other end, Wasim unleashed his full repertoire on the young Indian batsmen. The runs were still coming at a fair clip, but quite a few were coming off edges amidst “ooh”s and “aah”s from the Pakistani fielders, punctuated by frequent appeals. Sensing probably that something would soon give, the crowd too had gone ominously quiet. Finally, Wasim broke through, a vicious in-swinger trapping a hapless Laxman plumb in front of the stumps. Soon enough, another Wasim special had trapped Ramesh lbw, and India was suddenly reduced to 71/2.

Out walked the darling of the nation, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar; the precocious teenager who had made his debut in the last India-Pakistan test series had blossomed into arguably the finest batsman of his generation. The maestro took strike against Saqlain and cautiously defended the first ball he faced. Then, out of the blue, lightning struck. It happened all too quickly. Tendulkar advanced down the track, took a wild swing at the straighter one from Saqlain, and the leading edge ballooned to Akram at point, who took the simplest of catches.

The Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin, the most experienced batsman in the line-up, joined Rahul Dravid at the crease. Though Dravid was batting with panache, Azhar struggled. Having managed a couple of boundaries off a listless Waqar, he soon fell to Saqlain, popping a simple catch to silly point.

With India under serious pressure at 103/4, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid joined forces. Since their auspicious debut three years back at the hallowed venue of Lords, this pair had widely been heralded as the future of Indian batting, and so far, barring the inevitable blips, they had lived up to the promise. This however, was going to be a huge test. Ganguly was welcomed to the crease by a torrid spell of fast bowling by a charged up Akram. The Bengal left-hander survived the phase thanks to a fair share of luck. Dravid on the other hand smoothly progressed to a half-century, and the partnership too had slowly moved past the 50-run mark, when the tireless Saqlain struck. Dravid padded up ill-advisedly to a straight ball from the off-spinner to be trapped right in front of the middle stump. India was still trailing Pakistan by 82 runs, and it was left to Ganguly to shepherd the tail, a job he had not done very well so far in his test career.

Ganguly had overcome the early jitters by then, and was looking solid, if not at his fluent best. He had settled down against the spinners and now started to take the attack to Saqlain and Nadeem. Though Mongia fell soon, prey to a trademark Saqlain doosra, Ganguly found able allies in Kumble and Sunil Joshi. A couple of towering sixes off Saqlain saw Ganguly reach a hard-fought fifty, and when he fell edging Afridi to the lone slip, India were within 9 runs of the Pakistani total. Given the notorious reputation of the Indian tail-enders, Pakistan might have hoped to gain a slender lead, but that hope was snuffed out as Joshi, aided ably by Srinath and Prasad, effectively helped stretch the Indian total to 254. At the end of the day, Pakistan barely had time to face 9 overs, in which they managed to erase the deficit of 16 runs and progressed to 34 for the loss of Anwar, who fell lbw to Venkatesh Prasad.

Day 3

The third morning started brightly for India, with Ijaz Ahmed falling in the third over the day without adding to his overnight score, popping a simple catch back to Kumble. Given that the first couple of days had been dominated by the spinners Kumble and Saqlain, Azhar soon introduced spin from both ends, hoping to seize the initiative and shut Pakistan out of the match.

However, the plan went horribly wrong. Young Shahid Afridi, who was playing in his second test match, and the experienced Inzamam took the attack to Kumble and Joshi,  repeatedly hitting the spinners over the infield. The pair was looking ominous, when Azhar, clearly lost for ideas, introduced Tendulkar to the attack. The move paid off almost immediately, when Inzamam was given out under rather dubious circumstances, caught at silly point off Tendulkar by umpire Steve Dunne. Youhana walked out and started belting the Indian bowling around immediately. He, however, fell shortly, bowled by Tendulkar. Pakistan was 169/4, and at this point, clearly held the advantage.

The passage of play that followed arguably decided the fate of the match. In the company of Salim Malik, Afridi proceeded to play an innings that would turn out to be the finest of his career. Best known for his 37-ball hundred in ODI cricket, Afridi disproved the theory that he was a mere slogger. Mixing his typical brand of aggressive hitting with uncharacteristic judgment, he batted for over five hours for a monumental 141, utterly dominating the Indian bowling in their own backyard.

Pakistan was sitting pretty on 275/4, and things were looking rather bleak for India, when the match swung around again. Salim Malik, who had ground his way to 32, flashed a cut off Joshi, only to see the edge brilliantly caught by the lone slip Dravid. Thereafter, another manic passage of play followed, during which Pakistan managed to lose their last 5 wickets for a mere 8 runs. All  these wickets fell to Venkatesh Prasad, who after a largely disappointing game, managed a scarcely believable spell of 18 balls, in which he took five wickets without conceding a run.

Though the momentum rested with India, Afridi’s marathon knock had set them a stiff target of 271 runs in the 4th innings. Prior to this, only one higher 4th innings target had been successfully chased in India (West Indies 276/5 at the Kotla in 1987). The legendary W’s had been taken to task by the Indian openers on the first evening. This evening though, was a different story. As both the great fast bowlers found rhythm immediately, the Indians had a premonition of what was to come. Right from the outset, runs were at a premium.

Waqar had been decidedly off colour in the first innings. On the third evening, however, he showed exactly why he was regarded as one of the finest bowlers ever. In the space of a couple of overs, both the Indian openers had fallen to him, Ramesh edging to slip and Laxman falling lbw.

Tendulkar walked out with India at 6/2. As ever, the pressure was on the little man to deliver, especially after his two-ball duck in the first essay. With both Waqar and Wasim breathing fire, the picture looked grim for India. The pitch was deteriorating, and Akram still had Saqlain up his sleeve. Tendulkar survived a couple of close calls, one off Waqar seeming perilously close. But to the immense relief of the Indians, umpire Dunne turned down the appeal for lbw.

The shout for lbw seemed to have stirred Tendulkar, as he launched into a sumptuous cover drive for four off Waqar. Another couple of boundaries followed off Akram, one from a punch down the ground and the other from a dreamy cover drive. Dravid, who was struggling at the other end, finally broke the shackles with a powerful flick for four off Saqlain. Before long though, poor light brought the day’s play to a premature end; India had reached 40/2, with Tendulkar unbeaten on 20.

Day 4

31st January 1999 was a Sunday, and by the time play began, the holiday crowd had thronged to the stadium to such an extent that it seemed as if the entire city of Chennai had packed into the stands.

It was soon evident that it was going to be a battle of attrition. The first blow fell in the fourth over of the day, thanks to the Pakistan captain’s unparalleled wizardry with the cricket ball. A couple of balls had pitched on middle and straightened off the pitch, one of which elicited a confident shout for lbw; it looked plumb, but umpire Ramaswamy decided it was not out. Off the last ball of the over, Wasim redressed the injustice. The ball swung in, pitching on leg stump and drawing Dravid forward, then burst off the surface past a hapless defensive prod to dislodge the off bail. It was a piece of magic that had been the hallmark of Wasim Akram’s glittering career.

Azharuddin looked woefully out of touch, but hung around for an hour before padding up to Saqlain; Steve Dunne had no hesitation in upholding Pakistan’s appeal, and India were struggling at 73/4. Sourav Ganguly could do no better than his skipper. He could hardly get the ball off the square during the half hour he spent at the crease, and succumbed to Saqlain, falling prey to a horrible decision from the umpires. He had smashed a tossed up delivery into the shin of silly point. The ball then bounced off the turf and was picked up by a diving Moin Khan who claimed the catch, and Dunne gave Ganguly the marching orders after conferring with Ramaswamy. India went into lunch at 86/5, and it looked as if Pakistan had effectively sealed the contest in their favour. Sachin Tendulkar, watching patiently from the other end, had other ideas.

Post lunch, Tendulkar reached his fifty. However, the Pakistanis were applying relentless pressure from both ends, and the crumbling pitch was doing India no favours. Not only off Akram and Saqlain, but runs were hard to come by even against the likes of Afridi and Nadeem. Looking for a way out, Tendulkar resorted to sweeping Saqlain, which on a pitch such as this was always fraught with danger. There were nervous moments, but the scoreboard did start to tick over, although boundaries were few and far between.

Nayan Mongia was looking out of his depth at the crease, but to his credit he hung on grimly, giving Tendulkar some much needed support. As the day wore on, the pair started to press the accelerator slowly but surely. Tendulkar had moved into the 80s, but though his batting did not reflect it, his grimaces between deliveries showed that he was in pain. His lower back had become the point of concern. Regardless, the crowd at Chepauk was being treated to a masterclass from the little master on a glorious late winter afternoon.

As India crossed the 150-run mark, there came another shift in momentum. Tendulkar started treating Saqlain, who had bowled impeccably through the day, with utter disdain. The first ball of the 78th over was marginally short and was pulled over mid-wicket for a boundary. The next was tossed up, and Tendulkar swept it hard to the fine leg fence. The third ball was tossed up as well, Tendulkar danced down the track, attempting to smash it over the infield, but caught only an inside edge. Moin Khan not only dropped the catch, but also could not run Tendulkar out. A visibly frustrated Saqlain fired the fifth ball down the leg side, only for Tendulkar to paddle it away to the fine leg fence. The final ball of the over was dispatched to the square leg boundary.

In the space of one over the tide had turned, once again. With two settled batsmen at the crease, one of them being Sachin Tendulkar, batting on 98, and the target just another hundred runs away, India were making more than a fair fist of the competition. Tendulkar duly reached a majestic hundred, turning Saqlain through square leg for a single. The entire nation was on its feet, applauding a superlative effort from the genius. Tendulkar too, looked pleased, as the back pain seemed momentarily forgotten as he soaked in the applause.

The moment, however, did not hamper Tendulkar’s focus. Akram predictably opted for the second new ball and brought himself and Waqar on. Tendulkar responded in style, driving Akram through the covers, and punching Waqar down the ground past mid-off. Mongia too had started to flourish, and slog-swept Saqlain for a six over mid-wicket to reach his half century.

The target was now well within reach; a mere 53 runs away. And then calamity struck, as in a moment of madness Mongia threw his wicket away, trying to whack Akram over mid-wicket. Tendulkar, though, carried on unperturbed. He was joined by Joshi, who immediately got into the act by smacking Saqlain for a maximum over long-on.

By now, Tendulkar’s back trouble had worsened and the little man was visibly in pain. He battled through the pain though, and rapidly brought the target down to 17, with 4 wickets remaining. Surely, it was a cakewalk from here on. The Chepauk crowd had gone berserk anticipating a historic Indian triumph.

And then, it happened. The wily off-spinner Saqlain floated a doosra down the leg side. Delirious with pain and looking to finish the game in a hurry, Tendulkar reached out, attempting to hit it over mid-wicket. The leading edge ballooned up, and hung in the air for what seemed like eternity, before settling in the grateful palms of the Pakistani skipper at cover.

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source: IBNlive.com

The crowd was stunned into silence, and so were millions of Indian fans round the globe, who were glued to their TV or radio sets. As Tendulkar started his long, painful walk back to the pavilion, the 45000-strong crowd at the Chepauk got to its feet and applauded this titanic effort from the little master. Tendulkar had brought his team to the brink of victory from 6/2 with a herculean innings of 136 runs, having batted for nearly seven hours; surely, surely the tail-enders had enough gumption to see their team through.

Pakistan, though, had smelt blood. Akram loped in and swung one back into Kumble, who managed to get an inside edge onto his pad. Wasim went up in appeal, and keeping in with the trend of dodgy umpiring throughout the game, VK Ramaswamy gave Kumble out. Pakistan were on top, firmly. In the very next over, it was all over. Joshi popped a catch back to Saqlain, and Srinath tamely played a delivery on to his stumps. Disbelief was writ large on every single Indian face in the ground, just as it was tempered with unbridled joy on the faces of the Pakistani fans and cricketers. They had managed to hold their nerve in a thrilling see-sawing battle over four gruelling days in the Chennai sun, and had come up on top.

The match would always be remembered as a classic purely on cricketing terms, but the icing on the cake was provided by the Chennai crowd. Overcoming their despair at witnessing a heartbreaking defeat, the crowd rose to its feet as one and started applauding; a measured, sustained applause. The Pakistan team took their cue and ran a victory lap around the ground, revelling in the moment. The finishing touch provided by the fans truly transcended the game from the realms of a thriller, and elevated it to the pantheon of one of the greatest games in the history of cricket, where the outcome of the match was but a formality, and cricket was the true winner.

~ Angshuman Chatterjee

source: thehindu.com (cover photo)

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