Twenty years is a long time. People age, governments change. Employees retire, marriages break. And yet, certain moments stand out like lone flagposts in an arid desert. Dust the memories, sift through crumbs, ransack the brain and swirl the cerebral space. You could be in college, or in secondary school, or getting married, or giving birth. You could be sitting in a job interview, or jumping off a cliff. You could be going through a myriad of emotions, but chances are, when you look back 20 years to this day, you can afford a wry smile. Nostalgia, you little beast.
1998 was a year of delicious possibilities. The headiness of being at the turn of a millennium, the gravity of leaving behind a legacy, a nation having just completed 50 years of freedom, the turgid incompleteness that the number itself holds — a gigantic figure that is two steps from fulfillment.
Reams have been written about sport’s power to blur boundaries. But ask an average sports fan, and more than diminished distances and political amity, it is sport’s less-celebrated trait to serve as a tool to measure time with that would leave you befuddled. Where were you when Bjorg-McEnroe happened, or when Ali’s cross floored Liston, or when the baton was passed from Sampras to Federer? Those who watched it, or know of it, can justifiably pose a similar query: What were you doing on 24 April, 1998?
It was a Friday, and India were playing in Sharjah. Word had it — so often and so ferociously was it repeated that one took it for truth — that India rarely win on a Friday, more so if it was a jumma in Sharjah. Word also had it — and this one was more compelling in its conviction, statistics be damned — that India rarely won when Sachin Tendulkar scored a century. 24 April, 1998 sought to change all that.
With Sourav Ganguly, Mohammed Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and VVS Laxman in the team, India were hardly light on batting arsenal. The tragedy was, all the opposition needed to do was to get rid of one man, before others reduced themselves to nervous-wrecks. Tendulkar knew it. So for two days in the deserts of Sharjah, he held court in all his pomp. Like a victorious king who had felled an empire, Tendulkar floated in the humid Middle-East air, except that the ravages he looked over were of his own doing, for the emperor was an army in himself.
The destruction he designed, the carnage he created, the opposition he slayed and the ambitions he engendered were to be the coronation of all coronations, and in a career spanning 24 years, he did have quite a few of them.
Watching from the other end was another great, a magician himself who was reduced to a bedazzled artist as bedlam ensued. Shane Warne stood mid-pitch in crying disbelief. He swatted a fly across his face, but his eyes barely blinked. All his sight, all his mind, all the magic in his fingers, and the entire expanse of his experience stood defeated and dissected by the man standing in front of him, who had just ran at him, made room outside his leg-stump, took his leg-break on the full and deposited it over deep mid-wicket. Sixes had been hit off Warne before, but never had he run into a zoned-out, curly-haired birthday-boy with psychotic fury who had virtually held him by the collar and threw him off the precipice.
“I am sure, as a champion leg-spinner, Warne would have known how the ball left his fingers. Then he would have seen Sachin leave his crease, and he would have thought that his plan to draw Sachin out has worked. Except, Sachin hit him for a six. I think that’s why he stood perplexed,” says Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who hit the winning runs in that match.
Two days before, Tendulkar had hit his then career-best 143 in a losing cause against the same opposition, but India had scored enough to edge out New Zealand for a place in final. Then, in the virtual semi-final, as he hit a straight six after securing India’s passage to the final, the late Tony Greig had shrieked in his redoubtable screech, “Sachin Tendulkar is playing for victory.” In India, they nodded with a know-it-all grin. After all, it was nine years after national selector Naren Tamhane had told his colleagues of the 16-year-old boy-wonder with chilling finality, “Gentlemen, Tendulkar never fails.”
And he didn’t, not on the sweltering jumma of 1998. 134 runs flowed from his bat out of a team total of 275. Fourth of his nine hundreds against Australia, 14th of the 49 he would eventually hit, eighth of the 17 tons while chasing.
“I think he entered the zone that only musical genius are capable of. Think of Pink Floyd and AR Rahman, and the trance they enter. It’s a very special space to be in if you are a cricketer. It’s one thing to get into the position and play a stroke after the ball has been bowled, but watching Sachin bat that night, I can say he knew where the ball would be bowled even before it was delivered. I am sure he had the formula to enter that space at will, and that’s truly brilliant,” says Kanitkar.
In Damien Fleming, Michael Kasprowicz, Shane Warne and Tom Moody, Australia had an enviable bowling attack. Tendulkar began with a tentative defence off Fleming that took the inside edge for the boundary. No other chances arrived for next three hours. Steadily, he eased into his stride as stray notes fell into rhythm before a thundering crescendo gobbled a nation in its vortex.
“We knew it was a good pitch. I just told the boys that if it (pitch) is good for them, it will be good for us too. In the mid-innings break, all I told Tendulkar was, ‘tere ko rukna nahi hai’ (You don’t have to stop). I’d say he played his best innings that night. I had never seen anyone bat like that before,” recalls then India coach Anshuman Gaekwad.
“Sachin completely demoralised the Aussies. One could see that they have lost all their confidence. After the final, I met Kasprowicz in the hotel, and he asked me how to get Tendulkar out. I simply told him, you can’t. Considering the form he was in, it was beyond any bowler to get him out, unless Tendulkar himself committed a mistake,” he adds.
The dressing room, Gaekwad says, was confident after a robust start from the top three.
“We had other good batsmen too, and if Sachin would have got out early, Ganguly would have looked to play through the innings. But I can tell you, Tendulkar wanted to do it on his own. He used to psyche himself. On the way to the stadium, in the team bus, he held my hand, and his palms were all sweaty. I told him to relax, and he said it was a good sign.”
Kanitkar recalls an emotionally-charged lot that watched the innings unfold in hypnotic disbelief.
“Adrenaline was running really high in the dressing room. We could see that he knew what the bowler was trying to do. I think we were in awe of his batting, because we knew how easy it looked from the outside and how tough it actually was in the middle,” he says.
“The best part about those two innings was that he never played a bad shot. It wasn’t as if the bowler had to bowl straight and Sachin would eventually miss an across the line shot and get out. All his strokes were well-timed and well-placed to the extent that even if he had mishit some, they would have landed safely,” Kanitkar says.
Two matches, two innings. It does take a while for a legend to be written, for a suitable sobriquet to be sought, for a fitting description to be forged. By the time the sweaty Friday night of 1998 gave way to dawn, two words had entered the cricketing lexicon: Desert Storm.
Where were you when it arrived?