The thrill of a cricket match between India and Pakistan is a concept that needs no introduction to followers of the game worldwide, and especially, in the Indian subcontinent. So, when the Sahara Friendship Cup was announced in 1996 as an annual fare between India and Pakistan in a bid to strengthen cricketing ties between the two nations, it was greeted by cricket lovers with open arms. The venue for the contest was chosen to be Toronto in Canada, with ICC looking to expand the reach of the game. The first installment was an intensely contested affair, with the Akram-led Pakistan pipping Tendulkar’s India at the post.
By the time the teams traveled back to Toronto for the 1997 installment, both teams had undergone major changes. Although India were still under Tendulkar’s leadership, the team was going through a horror run of late, having won only 11 of the 37 ODIs they had played over the previous 12 months. The bowling attack had gone through such hell over the last year that it was being widely regarded as the worst bowling attack in the world. This had prompted the selectors to replace the likes of Srinath, Kumble, and Prasad with rookies Debasis Mohanty, Harvinder Singh, and Hrishikesh Kanitkar. Pakistan, led by Rameez Raja, had also decided to rest in their front line fast bowlers.
To much surprise, India managed to win the first two games fairly comfortably, with the unheralded bowling attack doing an admirable job on both occasions, with occasional seamer Sourav Ganguly providing admirable support. However, the general consensus was that India’s good run was too good to last, and that a comeback by Pakistan was just round the corner. The third match was originally scheduled on the 17th of September, but was washed away due to rain after Pakistan had got to 169/3 in 31.5 overs. The match was to be replayed on the next day.
September 18th dawned bright and sunny, and Pakistan captain Raja called correctly at the toss and decided to give India the first use of a pitch that looked like a seam bowler’s heaven. As expected, the Pakistani new-ball duo of Aaqib Javed and Azhar Mahmood made run scoring extremely difficult for the Indian openers Sourav Ganguly and Saba Karim. Both openers succumbed to the relentless pressure and fell after scoring 2 apiece. The skipper Tendulkar followed soon after for a 10-ball duck after edging a lifter from Mohammad Akram to Moin Khan, leaving India precariously placed at 23/3.
What followed next was an example of the value sheer experience brings to the table. Mohammad Azharuddin proceeded to shepherd the Indian innings in the company of Rahul Dravid, Ajay Jadeja, and Robin Singh. Dravid and Azhar started off slowly, scoring at only about 2 runs to the over, but more importantly, preserving their wickets. When Dravid departed for a 79-ball 25, the wicket had eased up considerably, and when Jadeja joined Azhar in the middle, the scoring rate started to pick up. Jadeja took the initiative, hitting part-timer Saleem Malik for two monstrous sixes; meanwhile, Azhar brought up a well-deserved 50.
When Jadeja fell in the 41st over, India had managed to rack up 133/5, considerably less than what would be regarded as a respectable score. Robin Singh came in and set about correcting that with some urgency. Azhar, too, tried to up the ante, but failed as he fell for a well-crafted 67. Robin Singh, however, took the attack to Pakistan’s premier spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, and his unbeaten 32 off 29 ultimately dragged India to 182/6 in their allotted 50 overs; still some 30 runs short of what India would have liked, but a defendable total nonetheless.
When Pakistan started their reply, it seemed as if India’s inexperienced bowling line up would be showed up finally. Kuruvilla and Mohanty were hammered to all parts of the small ground, as Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi made it seem that the pitch was a batting beauty after all. Tendulkar brought in Harvinder Singh in the 7th over, but he was dealt with just as brutally. Anwar fell in the next over, flicking Mohanty to Dravid at mid-wicket, but the run flow showed no signs of holding up. Afridi continued on his merry way, and when he fell in the twelfth over, lofting Harvinder to mid-on, Pakistan had an excellent platform of 72/2, from where the experienced middle order of Rameez Raja, Ijaz Ahmed, and Saleem Malik were expected to ease their side to victory.
At this point, the match took an unexpected turn. Rameez Raja and Ijaz Ahmed suddenly found it difficult to get the ball off the square, and the hitherto pedestrian Kuruvilla and Harvinder started applying pressure. Rameez snapped, and fell for 11, caught by Ganguly off Harvinder with the score on 87. However, Pakistan still had plenty of time to score the remaining runs, and had a lot of batting still to come. It was at this juncture, that Tendulkar decided to introduce his part-time seamer Ganguly into the attack, in the sixteenth over.
After a tricky start to his ODI career, Ganguly had finally managed to cement a spot for himself in the Indian squad at the top of the batting order. However, given that the man was considered a more than handy bowler in Bengal cricketing circles, it was quite surprising that he had been grossly under-bowled in his short ODI career so far. On this day, he decided to set the record straight.
Sourav Ganguly the bowler presents a rather innocuous sight, with his fairly long yet ambling run-up and military medium pace. It was this apparent innocuous sight that seemingly lulled the Pakistani batsmen into a false sense of security. The procession started with Saleem Malik, who chipped a slower (than usual) ball to Tendulkar at mid-on. Hasan Raza followed soon after, trying to loft Ganguly over long-off, only managing to find Jadeja at mid-off. Pakistan had slipped to 103/5, and the Indians sniffed an opportunity.
Berated by critics of late for being too “soft” in their attitude on the field, India employed attacking fields, and the medium pacers Ganguly and Robin Singh simply kept b
owling line and length, goading the Pakistani batsmen to go for their shots. Which is exactly what they kept doing, hoping to throw Ganguly and Robin off their plan, only managing to throw their wickets away in the process. Ijaz fell to a top-edged hook, Moin drove one straight to cover, both off Ganguly; Pakistan were tottering at 118/7, and Ganguly had 4/10.
Mohanty was brought back into the attack, and he was soon rewarded with the wicket of Azhar Mahmood, strangled down the leg side. Saqlain Mushtaq showed some much needed application as he and Aaqib Javed delayed the inevitable for a while, before Aaqib decided to go for one big hit too many, and predictably perished by offering a simple catch to Kuruvilla off… who else, but Sourav Ganguly. Ganguly bowled his full quota of overs on the trot and returned scarcely believable figures of 10-1-16-5.
A few runs later, it was all over for Pakistan, when Saqlain too tried to go for a big hit and perished in the outfield off Kuruvilla. Astonishingly, Pakistan had slumped from 87/2 to 148 all out, giving India an unassailable 3-0 in the series. India had not required even a single over from one of their front line bowlers, Nilesh Kulkarni, with the part-timer Ganguly stealing the show. Ganguly was the obvious choice for the Man of the Match award for the second match in a row, and for the first time, for his bowling alone.
However, the Ganguly show was far from over, as his batting picked up gear in the next two games; he still managed to pick up 2 wickets in both the matches. He ended up winning four Man of the Match awards on the trot, still a world record, and the Man of the Series award as well, as India exacted sweet revenge for last year’s 2-3 defeat with a 4-1 win over the arch rivals.