Sahara Cup 1998 : Toronto Diaries (Part III)
The third Sahara Cup came in with a lot of contexts. An ad-hoc, dramatic 2-hour meeting of the five-member BCCI selection committee was called in Bombay, headed by former Test fast bowler Ramakant Desai on January 2, 1998.
The selectors lost their patience with Tendulkar after India had just 10 victories in 39 ODIs in 1997, 4 of which were in Toronto. 1998 was to be Sachin's miracle year but it started off with him getting unceremoniously sacked from the Indian captaincy.
Desai explaining that the selectors wanted to free up Sachin of any burden said: "We removed him because he could not take the pressure of both batting and captaincy."
This was a time when the ICC had not formalised a Future Tours Programme (FTP) and it was up to the cricket boards to arrange and schedule tours. One-dayers being the cash cow, the sub-continental teams were playing one series after the another and there were growing suspicions among the cricketing circles of match-fixing.
Despite rumours that an interim report by the Pakistan Cricket Board had found several players guilty of match-fixing, the issue was brushed under the carpet. Pakistan went with a third new captain for the Sahara Cup in Aamir Sohail.
In September 1998, it so happened that the climax of the County Championships in England, the Sahara Cup and the Commonwealth Games in Jakarta overlapped. Both countries were contesting the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, even though the matches were only given List A status.
Despite sending its A team to Malaysia, Pakistan fielded a very strong side to regain the marquee series. The BCCI was of the opinion to send strong squads to land a Commonwealth Medal as well as win the series in Toronto.
Thus, Ajay Jadeja, Anil Kumble, Robin Singh and Sachin Tendulkar along with India A players were off to the Commonwealth Games. The side crashed out in the group stages after losing to a full-strength Australian outfit.
India never had the bench strength to compete on two fronts and the depleted Indian side in Toronto led by Mohd. Azharuddin messed up the plot and lost, in what was to be the last Sahara Cup.
The Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Ground was not an international level ground. In fact, it was hardly one; with its white bleacher stands and make-shift arrangements, it was just about better than an English University ground, suddenly brought to fame by being the battlefield for Pakistan-India matches.
But it provided a calm setting and a perennial gentle breeze. Plus the pitches were such a mystery to read that captains were actually glad to lose the toss so that the other one had to make a choice and make things easier.
All through the three years, the Sahara Cup was played with a friendly vibe among the players, as evidenced by this friendly banter between Azharuddin and Shahid Afridi.
Here's a roundup of the final Sahara Cup, a tournament that was covered globally and a bonafide hit that deserved more seasons:
MATCH 1 | September 12, 1998
Overnight rain had induced a delayed start and plenty of moisture in the surface for Sourav Ganguly to help the Indians restrict Pakistan to a modest 189/9.
Opening the batting with Navjot Sidhu, he retired hurt once at 10 but came back to knock an unbeaten 54 and overhaul the target with overs to spare. The injury sustained in the match kept him out of the next, and he never scaled the heights of his form that blew Pakistan away in 1997.
Pakistan 189/9 | Saleem Malik 41, Sourav Ganguly 2/33
India 193/4 | Sourav Ganguly 54*, Mohammad Zahid 1/38
India won by 6 wickets | Player of the Match : Sourav Ganguly