A tribute to Sachin’s greatest innings on his birthday:-
1 March 2003 is a date every cricket-loving Indian will find hard to forget. And why should they? On that day, one of the most stellar innings in the history of ODIs was played against Pakistan on the grandest of stage. The knock of 98 in the 2003 World Cup by Sachin Tendulkar was nothing short of surreal. I rate it as the best innings I have ever seen. It was an innings fit to be discussed and celebrated even a century from now. And this is exactly what I am going to do now. So read on.
Why was it special? Was it the big stage? Was it because it came against an arch rival whom India hadn't played for some time after the Kargil war of 1999. Frankly speaking, I have no clue. Nevertheless, even now, on a hot afternoon, dull from work, desperate for something sprighty, I watch this knock on youtube just to enliven those times.
The stage was big- 2003 World cup. India and Pakistan were meeting each other after a long break, somewhat like parted lovers seeing each other in a school reunion. The atmosphere was pumped up and tense at the Centurion in South Africa. Pakistan won the toss and batted first on a sunny day. It seemed a good decision as they were no loss even after 10 overs, thanks to their openers Saeed Anwar and Taufeeq Umar.
Saeed Anwar needs no introduction to a 90s kid in India. His name evokes images of lazy flays through the offside in which the bat moves with the languid grace of a painters brush and touches the ball at a sweet spot making it disappear at an astonishing speed past the cover point fieldsmen, who would take a few strides just to make a show of effort to his captain while inwardly hoping that the ball picker at the ropes would throw the ball back lest he has to run all the way to pick it up. Anwar does it with so much non-chalance that it seemed he wanted to tell the bowler- “This was no big deal. What are you gawking at?… Go and bowl the next ball”. He has been the scourge of Indian bowlers from the time he decided to bat for a living and even in his twilight days in 2003 he proved he still had fuel left in his reserve. Had it not been against India, I could watch Saeed Anwar bat over and over again.
Pakistan innings went according to script- Anwar scored a century, helping Pakistan reach a score in excess of 270. Now they can unleash their pace attack on the Indian batsmen, duly hoping that the electric atmosphere in the stadium coupled with the scoreboard pressure would sit heavy on top of the Indian batsmen inducing mistakes. Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib were a pace battery from hell. Nobody would relish facing them on any day ,leave alone a hot afternoon in a world cup. Not only does the ball come at a frightening pace- somehow these gentlemen possess the sorcery to give life to it in mid air, making it jag in or out sharply at ungodly angles.
Now, 2003 was not a long time ago from the ‘Get-sachin-out, get-India-out’ era of the 1990s. An Indian cricket fan would still be under the hangover of it. By now, India did boast class batsmen like Dravid, Sehwag and Ganguly in its ranks. Even then, deep inside, from years of traumatic experience, an Indian cricket fan knew that if Sachin gets out cheaply this time, the match is more than half-over if not entirely.
It is said that during the great Mahabharata war, when legendary warriors met in single combat in the battlefield, the gods gathered in the clouds to witness the grand martial spectacle on display. Similarly, if ever there was a cricket encounter for the gods to witness it would undoubtedly be Sachin,Sehwag vs Wasim,Waqar & Shoaib in a world cup match. The stage for the greatest ODI encounter of the century was set.
The first over itself had ominous signs aplenty for Pakistan as the little master and his ‘clone’ Sehwag pumped Akram for 2 boundaries. There was much hype on the epic Sachin vs Shoaib showdown even before this match started. It however turned out to be a dampener as Sachin deposited Akhtar in the stands in the first over itself with a six over thirdman. That single shot went on to have a separate fan base in itself. This was followed by delicate touch shots for a couple of boundaries. Too many things were happening in that one over with Sachin in the middle of it all like a master wizard showing off his repertoire of tricks. I firmly believe it was after this moment- that famous square cut for six- the era of cricketing dominance of India over Pakistan officially begun and is continuing. Before this, Pakistan were always one up on India both on paper as well as on the field. They were the better team in the 80s and 90s without doubt. With this stroke, that era came to an end heralding a new one in which Kohli and Rohit would soon find themselves to be an integral part. The poet in me would like to believe it all started with that cut shot of utter disdain and dominance against the most fearsome fast bowler at that time.
Single-handedly, Sachin took the famed Pakistani bowling attack head-on like an angry elephant roughshods a pack of tigers. He was like a man possessed. Stroke after stroke flowed from his bat which kissed the ball and dispatched it scorching the turf on its way to the boundary. Strokes like that cover drive off Waqar had so much grace that it left even veteran commentators astonished, fumbling for words.
The Pakistanis did come back like only they can with a twin strike from Waqar removing Sehwag and Ganguly. They also dropped Sachin at mid off with India at 58/2. In hindsight, this chance should have been taken by the Pakistanis. That would have closed the match for India in all probability. It taught me that life always gives everyone a chance even if it is against a god. You just need to be ready to take it. Pakistanis didn't. But all these are minor aberrations now, fully engulfed in the tsunami of batsman-ship which Sachin displayed on that day. Kaif came in next after the fall of Ganguly. I thought Kaif played a very underrated and unselfish role in this match by giving the little master as much as strike as possible, at the same time, kept a desperate pakistani bowling attack at bay from the other end. It was a one man show from then on as Sachin went on and on- bringing India within 90 odd runs short of victory before Akhtar had the final say with a brute of a delivery. It was a befitting ball to bring an end to a breathtaking knock of the highest standards. Then on, Dravid and Yuvraj added the finishing touches to the match.
All this happened 17 years ago but it is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. A lot of players may have played a lot of innings since then, but, absolutely nothing compares to the allure and high of this knock in the summer of 2003 at the biggest stage against a formidable arch-rival. It defined a new India- young, bold, willing to leave the past behind and adamant to get what it wants against any odds.
Thank you Sachin.