Why

Why

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

UNLIKE THE LAST MAN STANDING

A little over fifteen years after playing what many say is one of the best innings played on Indian soil, I still get goose bumps whenever I watch the innings of 136 made at Chennai.

Yes, it was played by a batsman named 'Sachin Tendulkar' - and the name itself makes one come up with opinions. After all he happens to be one of the greats this sport has ever witnessed. However, when you look at that innings in isolation, the real treat begins. After many years of watching the highlights of that particular innings, I must say 'looking in isolation' made me marvel at those strokes and the manner in which he built his innings.

It was on a Sunday - my day began with watching the highlights from the 3rd day of the Test match, the preview with the ESPN commentary panel and the live match itself. I was a fourteen year-old and subscribed to the fact and belonged to the club of people who believed - as long as Sachin is at the crease, India wins!

India started the fourth day at 40 for the loss of both the openers. They had to make 231 runs in the allotted 180 overs or less. That's a little over one run an over. Easy? Not quite. One thing was sure, if India were to bat for 180 overs, then victory was assured. The challenge was on - can Indian batsmen battle it out on a pitch that would deteriorate with time?

If ever I have seen Sachin struggle to score runs, this innings would be one of them. For a large duration of the first session, it seemed that way. After scoring a duck in the first innings, he showed a lot more intent, played for time and the merits of the Pakistani bowling attack led by their skipper Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq. First it was Dravid, then Azharuddin and out went Ganguly - all of them in the first session (never mind the last two being slightly dubious decisions).

The ball was turning and Saqlain looked threatening and on the other end Akram was menacing with his variations and angles. Sachin patiently built his innings as India went through a period where no boundary was scored for 111 balls. His fifty off 136 balls contained six boundaries and the innings of his half-century had already consumed a little over 200 minutes. Clearly, time was not the issue - but it was also not easy to score runs.

Forging a steady partnership with Nayan Mongia, Sachin started to score more freely and was in a more familiar territory. Nadeem Khan, the left-arm spinner did turn the ball square without any luck while Shahid Afridi did not pose any threat. Practically, the questions were asked by Saqlain with his variations on a turning pitch.

During those days, Saqlain Mushtaq was a bowler Pakistan heavily relied on - especially on the sub-continent wickets. He was experimental and had plenty of tricks by changing his flight, loop and angle regularly which resulted him in picking a lot of wickets. Once Sachin started to pick Saqlain with ease and score boundaries of his bowling, the chase was on and Indian victory was well on its way.

One by one Sachin tackled all the challenges, ticking one box at a time and even had luck come his way when he survived a caught-behind while on 90. And then the next two deliveries - off it went for boundaries and Tendulkar now was just two short of a wonderful hundred. He had scored 16 runs in that over and the last shot - a slog sweep which gave him a boundary also had him nurture his back.


He was in his tenth year of international cricket and a few months away from turning 26 - it was a sight one had never witnessed. It was overlooked by the commentators, spectators, viewers and possibly him too? until the time it got severe and was visibly hurting his fluency.

It didn't take much time to score a single and reach his 18th test hundred - his third in Chennai and first against Pakistan. The whole crowd erupted, gave him an thunderous applause. They knew what he had achieved until that point. He had scored a hundred fighting like an injured gladiator. India needed exactly 100 more to win the match. Victory was still a far cry.

He took just over 100 minutes to score his second fifty and 99 deliveries which had seven scoring shots to the boundary. Clearly, he was in the top gear and this was the time when I went out to play cricket as my friends had already taken to field. India would surely win and that was my belief when I stepped out.

The next 36 runs I remember is courtesy of the highlights - which appeared that night on ESPN and now available widely on YouTube. Sachin Tendulkar unleashed his array of strokes down the ground after his hundred. His innings now had a certain momentum with strokes through the covers, punch off the back foot, straight drive and hitting straight down the track. India now require 21 runs and surely Tendulkar would win it for India from here. His previous two hundreds before this - in Bangalore (vs. Australia) and in Wellington (vs. New Zealand) resulted in team losses and with 21 runs, no one even thought about India losing.

The thing about watching the highlights is that - one already knows how or what particular score did a certain event took place. I knew India had lost, I knew Sachin would get out soon! With every stroke and boundary, he tried to nurse his back and I focussed on that - as I had never seen him struggle this much while playing. His challenges were not the bowling attack - but a battle within. He was scoring freely and five hits to the boundaries, India would win the match.   He pulls a short delivery off Saqlain to the square leg boundary - 17 more runs with four wickets in hand.

He walks away from the wicket after scoring the boundary, absorbs all the pain from his troubled back, gathers all those thoughts in his mind masked to an extent by the pain. He was scoring freely and there was no need to change the strategy. Mind you, with batsmen giving him company at the other end, it was on his shoulders to carry the team and win the match. He takes the strike and Saqlain delivers a flighted delivery on the leg-side, slower in the air and Tendulkar with a big back lift tries to loft it over mid-on, mid-wicket area, instead the ball has gone up in the air and Wasim Akram takes the catch at mid-off. The commander of the Indian cricket army is out!

There was no silence as the crowd continued its applause for this champion batsman. They had seen him score these runs and also had seen him struggle with his back. A mammoth effort and the crowd gave him an standing ovation as he left the field in disappointment thinking - probably one shot too many? 

The match was over in the next 21 deliveries with India scoring just 4 more runs and Pakistan picking up the remaining three wickets. I was shell-shocked to hear this result while we were playing. Our neighbours came out to resume their normal lives had faces filled with disappointment. The talking point was - why did he play that shot? and can't our bowlers score these few runs? Believe me, that argument is still on whenever this innings is mentioned.

The last time before Chennai 1999, Pakistan visited India to play a test match was in the 1980's. It was also close to a decade since the last India - Pakistan test match (incidentally Tendulkar made his debut in that series in 1989/90). There is a rivalry of gigantic proportions when it comes to India and Pakistan and the lack of sporting contests only magnified it in 1999.


Chennai crowd gave a standing ovation to the victorious Pakistani team and they acknowledged it by doing a lap of honour. I was too young to understand the relevance of good sportsmanship - but deep down I knew what Chennai crowd that day was a gesture of goodwill. Looking back, I believe Chennai crowd saw the fight put up by the Indians and to an ardent sports fan - nothing else matters apart from that. A win would always be cherished but a defeat - it is not the end of the world!


I have seen a lot of hundreds coming from the bat of Sachin Tendulkar and also have missed a few - this one surely has to be the best one I regret not watching it completely.