It took three deliveries to set up one of the best counter-attacking innings of all time.
March 1, 2003. India vs Pakistan. It was a beautiful day. Any day with an India-Pakistan match is a beautiful one. India entered the World Cup on the back of a disastrous tour of New Zealand. At the helm was Sourav Ganguly. Mohammad Azharruddin, who had led India in the previous 3 world cups was a fugitive in hiding, banned for his involvement in match fixing.
In 2002, a young Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh had pulled the rug from underneath the English side in a thrilling chase. An image that would be associated with Sourav Ganguly was of him taking off his shirt on the Lord’s balcony. India traveled to the World Cup without VVS Laxman, who never got his day under the sun in limited overs cricket. His replacement? Dinesh Mongia, who was roped in as an all-rounder but did precious little to justify his place. To explain the difference between them better, VVS Laxman retired in 2012 as one of the all-time greats. Dinesh Mongia was found guilty of match fixing in the short-lived ISL and no one knows where he is now.
Not many recall the beginning of the 2003 World Cup. India began with an unconvincing win against Netherlands in which they scored 204 and had their bowlers bail them out. In their second match against Australia, they were broken, beaten and scarred. Decimated for a paltry 125, the Aussies cantered home to a nine wicket victory. Back home, the obituaries were already being written. Effigies were burnt, mock funerals held. In far away South Africa, team members appealed to the public for support.
Their next two fixtures were against Zimbabwe and Namibia and the performances were far more reassuring. Then came their second noteworthy game of the tournament. The bowling attack was spearheaded by the aging war horse Javagal Srinath who would announce his retirement after the World Cup and a young Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan. Nehra announced his arrival on the big stage with a six wicket haul that sent the English packing.
The nightmare run had taken a turn. It was time for a dream run. More importantly, it was time for the final before the final.
It was, and will always be, India’s batting against Pakistan’s bowling. India had Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Yuvraj. Pakistan had Wasim Akram, Waquar Younis and motor mouth Shoaib Akhtar who had made claims of having plans for Tendulkar. In the pre T20 era, a big score wasn’t 400. Saeed Anwar played the innings of a lifetime and scored a masterful century on the grandest stages of all. Remember his knock of 194 that knocked the wind out of the Indians in 1997? In the end, they ended with 273.
India had never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup. Could this be the moment when history changed course? Could India’s batsman soak up the pressure, the expectations, the cheers, the applause, the history?
In years to come, Wasim Akram would go on to say that Pakistan lost the match in the first 6 overs. Here’s how they went onto to do it:
Sachin Tendulkar never took strike. But in this match, he did. Early niggles meant the match was over. If he went, all of India would shut off their television sets and an indefinite mourning would begin. Outside, the streets were empty. Businesses were shut, wedding halls had television sets so people would turn up for the wedding and the food wouldn’t go to waste.
Wasim Akram’s first over went for two boundaries, one from Sachin and the other from Sehwag. Shoaib Akhtar was a great fast bowler. But his attitude and temperament ensured that he would never be as great as he could have been. His first over was an unmitigated disaster. 3 wides. And then three deliveries that he will forever be entwined with, however far and fast he tries to run away from them.
Something had to give. You almost willed for something happen. A wicket. A six. A blinder of a catch. A run out. A fan running onto the field.In that second over, all the pent up anxiety was drained out in just 3 deliveries.
It should have been a wide. An over-enthusiastic Akhtar threw all he had into the delivery hoping to elicit and edge from Tendulkar. It if were left, it may even run off for four without any help from the batsman. But an India-Pakistan encounter does strange things even to the greatest of players. Tendulkar reached out and connected with the delivery. Before you could blink, the ball had passed the third man boundary for a six. We all got what we had come for. The next delivery was on target but Tendulkar used his wrists to direct it masterfully towards the square leg boundary. Yet to recover from the six, we were all on our feet again.
There is a shot. It’s called the straight drive. It’s a delight to watch, whosoever plays it.But Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive? That too against the world’s fastest bowler, in a World Cup match, in a stadium threatening to explode? It’s like a manna from heaven. In the last delivery of the over, he merely touched the ball and it raced to the boundary.
The crowd by now was delirious. Why not? The master batsman had humbled his nemesis.
Sachin Tendulkar would go onto score 98 off 75 deliveries before being hit by cramps and having his movement restricted. Given the context of the match, it ranks as one of the best ODI innings ever played by him, if not one of the best counter attacks in the modern era. India had a few minor hiccups, losing Tendulkar and Ganguly to successive deliveries but Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh would ensure the team crossed the finish line with six overs to spare.
I remember the encounter in the ’96 World Cup. Ajay Jadeja played a wonderful cameo and the Pakistanis came out all guns blazing. That was before Aamir Sohail lost his head and came down the track only to be bowled and then sent off by a very belligerent and mild mannered Karnataka player, Venkatesh Prasad. The ’99 encounter was played in the backdrop of the Kargil crisis and it wasn’t a thriller. Let’s not even talk about 2007. 2011 saw an keenly contested match but Pakistan lost their way half way through their innings.
Wasim Akram and Waquar Younis never played for Pakistan again. Sachin Tendulkar had to wait 8 more years to get his hands on a World cup.
The 2003 encounter will go down as one of the best matches to feature India and Pakistan. The ride was magical. As the tournament progressed, India vanquished Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Kenya and booked their place in the finals where they ran into an Australian juggernaut.
After the victory, there were tears. Tears of relief, ecstasy and a joy that had no adjectives to describe it.
It was a beautiful day. None of us wanted to let it get away.