Like its films and politics, even matches played at the MA Chidambaram stadium in Chennai have never been short of drama.
It began in Chennai all those years ago.
To be more precise, it began on March 22, 2001. India had come from so far behind to pull the rug out from the mighty Australians and it was only fitting that the series decider would be a humdinger. A young tyro who went by the name Harbhajan Singh laid siege to a marauding Australian side looking to conquer the final frontier. But even the victory wasn’t bereft of drama, near-misses, absurdity and near calamity.
Actually, the MA Chidambaram Stadium is in some way an extension of the state of Tamil Nadu, its politics and its movies. There is never a paucity of drama.
But first, a little time travel.
Turn back time to January 1999. India vs Pakistan in the days when the sides still played tests against each other, Pakistan still toured India and the Kargil war was still a few months away. It was Sachin Tendulkar at his prime vs Waquar Younis, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq in their prime. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had announced their arrivals and VVS Laxman was yet to hit his magical note.
In the second innings, India, chasing 271, were reduced to near rubble at 82/5. Like most India-Pakistan encounters, the match had already see-sawed beyond normal pulse rates. Then came a familiar figure, all of 5’5” in height who began to put things back into order. For most of his career, an unfair criticism about Sachin Tendulkar was that he didn’t win enough matches for India, that he wasn’t a second innings kind of a guy, that he only cared about his own personal milestones. From 82/5, he soldiered on with Nayan Mongia for company as they began to slowly chip into the deficit. Tendulkar played brilliantly, all the while battling a severe back strain. With India 53 runs away from an amazing victory, Nayan Mongia played what was undoubtedly the most stupid shot of his career, one I hope still gives him nightmares, leaving Tendulkar and the tailenders to cross the finish line.
By now, Tendulkar had near run of out all strength and began going for shots with aplomb. In hindsight, if India had crashed and burned without going so close, it may have been better. Everyone loves a fight, a close fight, one that goes down to the wire, to the last ball of the last over. Everyone loves a fight as long as their team wins. If their team loses, the heart break can take years to get over. India were just 17 runs short and victory seemed imminent. Sunil Joshi, Venkatesh Prasad, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath didn’t inspire confidence but they could surely help their team score 17 runs? Is that too much to ask?
Sachin Tendulkar obviously didn’t hold the tailenders batting capabilities in very high esteem and tried to finish it off on his own. After hitting two consecutive boundaries off Saqlain Mushtaq, he again attempted to hoik him out of the ground and get third time lucky. The shot was mistimed and Wasim Akram held on to the most important catch of the match. In an instant, giddy excitement turned into sheer panic. All wasn’t lost. 3 wickets and 17 runs. Who would you have picked?
The next few moments are something we all wished never happened. Pakistan turned into sniffer dogs and drew in closer. Anil Kumble was no match for Wasim Akram’s guile and swing and was caught like a deer in the headlights in front of the stumps. Sunil Joshi was castled by Saqlain, bringing Javagal Srinath to the crease. Srinath and Prasad got a dose of their own medicine and the Pakistani hounds got closer. Srinath was bowled by Saqlain Mushtaq and it was all over. 4 wickets for 4 runs. Sachin Tendulkar reportedly never forgave Nayan Mongia for the shot he played. During the prize distribution ceremony, a beaten and bruised Tendulkar was reportedly crying in the dressing room.
While many people may want to forget the match, no one will forget what happened thereafter.
A precursor to the match – it wasn’t even supposed to be played in Chennai. It was scheduled to be played at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi before Hindu activists with misplaced priorities dug up the pitch to protest the series. Delhi would later go onto host the second test, the one in which Anil Kumble recorded his perfect 10.
The Chennai crowd was at first stunned into silence. They had witnessed a meltdown of epic proportions and that too to the arch rivals. As the victorious Pakistani team began their victory lap, the crowd stood up and began clapping. It was at first, faint, then it gradually grew in volume. It didn’t bring the stadium down but it was warm and appreciative. By the time the Pakistanis were done, the whole stadium was on its feet, applauding a well-fought match.
I wonder if we will ever witness such a sight again. In a day and age where anything Pakistani is treated like a sin, it will remain one of the most heartwarming moments between the two sides.
India lost, but Chennai won.
Coming back to 2001.
India had just won the test match of a lifetime at Kolkata and were chasing 155 for an improbable series win against Australia, who were still recovering from the smarting they received in the previous match, were looking to avenge the defeat and clinch the series.
But what is a match in Chennai if things go according to script?
Sachin, Ganguly and Dravid were dismissed without harming the scoreboard much. VVS Laxman continued his sublime form but left before India reached a point of safety. Before long, it was left to Harbhajan Singh and Sameer Dighe to pull India out of a rut and into the pages of history. Alongside VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh too announced his arrival in that series. His monumental 32 wickets made him the preferred spinner in the Sourav Ganguly era. It was only fitting that the winning shot came from his bat.
Years later, Chennai again played host to a monumental encounter between India and England. It was monumental for two reasons – the result and the circumstances under which it was played. With the country still reeling from the 26/11 attacks, a cricket match was the last thing on people’s minds but it was cricket that provided the country some respite from the despair it was engulfed in. The touring English team came back after the BCCI assured them of utmost safety and helicopters were kept outside the stadium to evacuate players if anything unsavory transpired and snipers were positioned on all corners of the ground. Needing an improbable 387 for victory in the second innings, Virender Sehwag gave the team a super bike start and Sachin Tendulkar played another masterful knock to help India accomplish an improbable victory.
An enduring image from the match is that of a groundsman who somehow gathered up the courage to go up to Tendulkar and shake his hand. He must have spent the rest of the day walking on water.
Chennai is recovering from back to back calamities, one a natural one and the other an emotional one. The state lost its beloved a beloved leader, matriarch to many and a figure that transcended politics itself. When the end came, the state didn’t explode in fury as many people expected it to.
A week later, Cyclone Vardah unleashed its wrath, taking with it trees, the power supply and normal life. The level of preparedness was a marked difference from last year when unprecedented rains caused the city to flood and threw life into disarray.
It’s December now and the numerous sabhas in the city are playing host to the month long Marghazi masam. People do sabha hopping, going from one mellifluous Carnatic concert to the other and partaking in the sumptuous feasts that each sabha has to offer. It’s when Raga Hamsadhwani isn’t just accompanied by mridangams and kanjirams but also by more miligai, keerai puli kuzhambu, mango thokku and numerous other mouth watering delicacies. Add to that a test victory that capped of a series win against England to place India at the top of the ICC test rankings and the recipe is complete.
It began in Chennai in 2001 against the Australians. The series victory spawned off what many consider the golden era of Indian cricket. Under Sourav Ganguly and later Rahul Dravid, the team won series in Pakistan, West Indies and England, drew level with Australia in their back yard and won their first test in South Africa.
England’s dramatic collapse in the fifth test brought back a lot of memories. Virat Kohli’s test captaincy has hit the right notes thus far but the true test will begin only when they tour abroad and win. That will be the ultimate litmus test of his captaincy and the team.
Is this the next golden generation of India cricket?
Like in 2001, we can only hope history repeats itself.