April 22, 1998
Coca-Cola Cup, Match 6, Australia v India (D/N), Sharjah Cricket Stadium
An event needs a bit of a context and an anchorage of time to be suitably appreciated. Hindsight helps too. It was not that India had not scraped through to the finals of a tri-series before. Such Houdini acts were carried out in Titan Cup in 1996 and in the Standard Bank Series in 1997. Yet, with India, you never knew. The team was fragile, alike the instability of national politics. While cricket was no panacea, but it would sometimes be a stress buster with a victory here, a win somewhere, even a few ties elsewhere. Throughout its rickety progress in cricket in the 90s, India slept soundly after a special Sachin innings, pinning on to the hope that all is not screwed.
His pull, both back foot and personal, were enigmatic and could stop movie shootings, empty out peak-hour traffic and fill the stands with fans. When there was not much that could unite the nation, an innings of his could. People had trust in him, perhaps more than their individual faith. There was a fear of his failure, that they couldn't conceal. This was evident in people getting finicky, even when he was timing everything like a dream. Maybe, they thought, we expect too much from a young guy. It's just too much pressure on his shoulders to express himself freely. He had built a strange relationship with the masses. They cherished him and he replied with runs that gave them contagious jubilation. It was unprecedented and India craved for a déjà vu every time he walked in. It's mad, it's sane. It's beautiful, it's strange.
This was also a time when the game had just two formats. When low-200 scores gave close competitive games. When a score of 250 was enough to almost guarantee a win. When run-a-ball was a massive ask, more than a run a ball, a Herculean pursuit. Australia had set India a steep 285 to win. This 143 was blazed against a very capable opponent, in the midst of a sandstorm, in a perform-or-perish situation, at the height of the cola wars.
The chase began sedately with the required run-rate climbing every over. He was lucky earlier in the innings with a hasty, miscued shot landing bang in between three fielders. Then, his knock clicked into a higher gear. Consecutive boundaries, consecutive sixes. He added memorable shots into an overflowing quiver of strokes when he sledgehammered Michael Kasprowicz for six over mid-wicket, then hoisted a rifle of a ball atop the sightscreen with the cleanest of arcs, then made room to deposit a perfectly okay delivery inside-out over cover. You don't do that to deliveries over 140 kmph. You couldn't. Yet, he did. Unleashing hitherto unseen shots. With that same blade, he then caressed a cheesecake smooth extra-cover drive, glanced off the middle stump to the annoyance of Mark Waugh, smothered the spin of Shane Warne with paddle sweeps and whacks over long on, and later on, with a flat-batted cover drive which left mouths agape at its sheer audacity. Imagine having an option of 3 shots to every delivery, imagine changing a shot midway just because you can, imagine playing so late that an appeal escapes from the lips of Adam Gilchrist, only to find the flick rollicking the ball to square leg.
Tony Greig, whose commentary and decibel levels clicked up a few notches every time Sachin was on fire, exclaimed 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It looks today as if Sachin Tendulkar has set himself up for a hundred'. Yes, 1998 was his annus mirabilis, but he worked so hard in the nets that whatever the Aussies threw at him, became easy. It expanded the scope of what is possible when a gifted cricketer works hard. This 143 was pure distilled talent on display. It was becoming easier for him, so the Emirati storm and Duckworth and Lewis huddled together to come up with a steeper challenge. 20 miles away from the stadium, it was raining down in the neighboring emirate of Ajman. The game was losing overs and was in the danger of being abandoned.
All this while, keep in mind that a nation was slipping towards midnight, 1.5 hours ahead of Sharjah. So much at stake, and millions staying awake, hoping that India can somehow reach the final on a better net run rate. Australia didn't want to bowl to Sachin once again after being ripped to shreds all summer, and thus would very much prefer an all Tasman final on Friday.
Fortunately, the game resumed, and so did he, after impatiently waiting for the swirl of dust to pass. He ran like a hare, preyed like an eagle. Running down the track and hitting a ramrod straight six to a Steve Waugh ball to begin the chase anew. Perfectly bisecting the fielders, manipulating the placements to steal twos, edging with the full face of the bat, it was exhilarating enough to raise the roof in the stadium. A blitzkrieg to follow a storm.
It was all glorious unscripted drama that only sports can provide. As for the sandstorm, it was as if nature wanted to embed itself in the retelling of this folklore. It succeeded. The Australians didn't know how to deal with this whirlwind. Yeah Glenn McGrath was not there, but what could he have done? Not that he hadn't been manhandled by Tendulkar before or after. Riddle me this. How do you sledge when under siege? The neutrals were giddy and the Indians as Greig observed were dancing in the aisles in Sharjah. The hair at the back of your neck stood up, and you felt a certain tinge of happiness, that was awash with the discovery of the new.
His most relieved acknowledgment to the crowd's sustained, tumultuous cheering was not when he was on 50 or 100, but when he scampered back for a double to reach 139 when India crossed the threshold of 238 runs to be in the final. In the now immortal words of Tony Greig, "What a player! What a wonderful player!"
Then, he was dismissed, when he was not out. When a no-ball should have been called for height. He nicked. He walked away towards the dressing room, to a rousing standing ovation; dismayed but satisfied with having overcome the odds and circumstances. The applause of was of rare volume and unanimity. Aussie coach and legend Allan Border clapped on. India finished on 250 off 46 overs. Australia won. India lost. Sachin won. A million fans over. He'll do this over and over, but this 143 will be forever remembered with love and reverence.
This innings was about raising expectations and then surpassing them; leaving girls in coquettish squeals of delight, boys in wonderment of the finesse with which it was carried out, and the pundits just privileged to be on air. Great shots need sublime execution to become legendary. It all came together. That night, the fear of failure was ambushed by the burning desire to grab what he believed was rightfully his. An unwavering confidence in his abilities. A quality that was transparently lacking in the Indian team of the 90s. Now it was all possible. 'It can be done', thought the millions of kids watching, including a young teenager in Ranchi called MS Dhoni. Sachin, still 24, was the swashbuckling, coxswain batsman, displaying how to. Do something for the first time, swim into uncharted territories, and you are remembered, like Magellan; like Sir Roger Bannister, Sergey Bubka, Edmund Hillary, and Nadia Comăneci.
That brand of burning passion kind of inspires a generation, who from that Wednesday night onwards, believed. All thanks to witnessing an irresistible force of Desert Storm.
PS: Then he came to bat on his birthday.Published 22 Apr 2018, 13:18 IST