"Sheer dominance. It was a statement. The way he dominated the Australian bowlers in that particular innings, it was phenomenal to see. It was such a bloody treat to watch, you don't remember anything else. What better experience you want to have."
It's been 21 years since that innings but Nilesh Kulkarni is still in awe as he recalls Sachin Tendulkar's 204-run knock at the Brabourne stadium. 15 November 2019 marks 30 years of Sachin, nostalgia is in the air and we are reminiscing about Sachin's first-ever double century in first-class cricket. Somewhere amidst his myriad tons and match-winning heroics that innings against Australia playing for Mumbai in the winter of 1998 gets lost.
It's an innings that doesn't get mentioned often or is not talked about frequently. Maybe, it doesn't get the recognition it deserves because the match wasn't on TV or because the one-hour highlights reel is nowhere to be found on the internet (Hopefully cricket videos king Rob Moody aka @Robelinda2 on Twitter is reading this). But for the people who saw it at the stadium, they witnessed something special at the CCI.
Unlike today, the practice matches in the past held significance in preparation for an international series. The formidable Australian side had come down to Mumbai for the practice match ahead of the three-Test series. The prelude to the series was all about Sachin vs Shane Warne. The in-form spin magician vs the best batsman in the world.
Sachin was leading a Mumbai side that was an indomitable domestic force back then but were missing some key players who were on India 'A' team duties. Sanjay Manjrekar was playing his last first-class match. The Australians, led by Mark Taylor, had a good mix of experience and youth with the likes of Warne, Paul Reiffel, Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting, Greg Blewett, Ian Healy, Darren Lehmann, Paul Wilson, and Gavin Robertson. Anticipation and excitement had gripped Mumbai. This was the first time Warne was on Indian shores. Fans, pundits, and aficionados were salivating over the prospect of round 1 of the battle.
"There was a buzz around it because of Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne's presence," recollects senior sports journalist G Vishwanath who covered the game. "The media billed the match as a clash of the titans. But Sachin did not believe so saying that it was Mumbai v Australia, a match between two good teams. The public, though, just wanted to know what Tendulkar would do and against Warne."
Sachin wanted to nip the Australians in the bud straight away. The architect had prepared a blueprint for the Australian series, his first full one against them at home.
"In a three-day match, usually sometimes people take it lightly, but Sachin said we are going to go into the match looking to go all out. We are going to play at absolute 100 percent. As a team we were charged and pumped up, he had motivated all of us going into the match," Nilesh said.
The first part of the plan was simple. Demolish Warne. Destroy the Australians. Get a psychological edge.
The word 'demolish' is pronounced and keeps making an appearance in almost all the chats with the former Mumbai cricketers. You could literally feel the impact of that knock.
Australia won the toss, batted and declared overnight on 305/8. In reply, Mumbai lost opener and wicket-keeper batsman Sulakshan Kulkarni early next day but his opening partner Amit Pagnis, as per the plan, went after Warne and hit him for four boundaries in two overs. His brisk stroke-filled 60-ball 50 instilled momentum.
"All the Bombay batsmen were told that go after Warne," recalls Balwinder Singh Sandhu, the then Mumbai coach. "It was Sachin's plan, He wanted to get on top of Warne and demolish him by attacking. It worked."
Sachin walked out at the fall of Pagnis' wicket and unsurprisingly, lofted the second ball he faced from Warne over the long on fence.
"I had just reached the dressing room and started removing the pads looking at the field, pondering what did I do wrong and at that instant, he hit that six to Warne down the ground," recalls Pagnis.
That is one of his two favourite memories of that innings for Pagnis. The second one, though, was slightly extra special.
"I remember, he called me after the match, gifted me a bat and said well played. I quickly got it signed. For someone who was just getting a feel of top-flight cricket, getting that bat from someone like Sachin was a big thing for me."
Mental preparation was one part of the strategy. The other was achieving perfection. The stories of Sachin preparing for Warne with Laxman Sivaramakrishnan ahead of the Chennai Test are well known. But well before that, Sachin had started charting out the strategy for the Australian leg spinner in Mumbai.
After carefully studying Warne against South Africa, where the spinner took 20 wickets in three matches at home in the series that preceded Indian tour, Sachin wanted to neutralise his most lethal weapon – drift. So he opened up his stance a little and stood outside the leg stump to negotiate the extra spin. He called upon the best spinners in Mumbai, the likes of Nilesh Kulkarni, Sairaj Bahutule, Rajesh Pawar, prepared some rough outside the leg stump, asked them to bowl from round the wicket in that rough and unleashed a barrage of paddle and slog sweeps in the nets. It did surprise his Mumbai teammates who were witnessing something different in his practice routine.
"I was keeping to Sachin during our practice session at the MIG ground in Bandra," recalls Sulakshan. "He batted normally at first but in the last 15-20 mins, he scratched the surface outside the leg stump and asked Nilesh, Sairaj, Rajesh to bowl in that rough, from round the wicket.
"I asked him, 'kyaa kar raha hai tu?' 'He said, kuch nai, thoda practise kar raha hu Shane Warne ke liye. Wo mereko 100 percent ye daalega Test series me.
"He used to defend, defend, defend and then came thak kar ke ek sweep. Defence and then six, defence and then six.
"The fact that he made 200 wasn't a surprise, the surprise was that he took almost 10 years to achieve it. That was the level of his greatness."
Sachin hit his stride straight away and raced to fifty off 46 balls. It was a typical CCI wicket with decent bounce and pace. There were a few scuffmarks in the afternoon but not much spin. An array of drives, cuts, lofts and slog sweeps were unleashed. In the post-lunch session, he went berserk scoring 99 runs and carried forward the momentum after tea to surpass his highest first-class score of 179 (vs West Indies in 1994-95) and registered his first first-class double century.
"It was one of the best knocks that I have ever seen. The reason why I am saying this is I have never seen a ball hit so hard yet so sweetly," Amol Muzumdar, who batted in that match with Sachin, recalls. "I had the pleasure of watching it from 22 yards distance. It was just phenomenal batting you know."
Muzumdar sometimes still visualises some of the strokes that Sachin unfurled that day. They are still fresh in his memory.
"I still see those shots being hit off the back foot. They were just zooming towards the cover boundary. Reiffel was bowling and they were really shooting off Sachin's bat. I recall a couple of times when he hit the boundary, there was Michael Slater at sweeper cover, it was just about 5-10 yards to his left or right, Slater had no chance of cutting them, they were travelling so quickly. That was the impact of that innings."
The Mumbai captain's aggression had rubbed off onto the other batsmen as well as they collectively took on the Australian bowlers. The Aussies were clueless on the field, an extremely rare sight those days.
"Because of the way he dominated, a lot of bowlers stopped thinking what to do and how to get him out. He was hitting boundaries at will yaar," Nilesh reminisces.
"He started using his feet a lot," Paras Mhambrey, another Mumbai player who was in the team, recalls. Even after stepping out, it wasn't that he went for a big shot every time but he still used his feet to caress him for a single, kind of unsettled him a lot. Warne at that stage didn't really know what line to bowl to him. In that phase it was a mental battle between him and Warne. The moment Warnie tossed the ball, he would step out and hit."
For Sandhu, one shot stands out, the first slog sweep he hit off Warne.
"It punctured his ego," Sandhu says. "And after that, the confidence went down and everyone started hitting Warne so he didn't know what to do. It was the first time Warne must have been clueless where to bowl."
"Sweep kar kar ke uske (Warne) bowling ka tappa kharab kar diya tha," Rajesh Sutar, a natural stroke-player, playing his just his second first-class game, recalls watching the action unfold from the non-striker's end.
So, amidst the collective carnage, what was Warne's reaction?
"Warne was just smiling," Pagnis recalls the leg spinner’s reaction. “Wo daal raha hai aur ye maar raha hai (he was bowling and Sachin was hitting everything). That was a really bad day for him."
"There were not many sixes, but Tendulkar hit so many boundaries to make the proceedings electrifying," Viswanath says. "Of course the two sixes that Tendulkar hit proved his mastery over the leggie, and his innings showed how the Mumbai Master Blaster had imposed himself on the Australian attack and Warne in particular before the start of the series."
However, there was one surprising aspect in that match, as Nilesh and Sulakshan recalled. Warne didn't bowl a single ball from round the wicket.
"After the match, I spoke to Warne and Healy for around 45 minutes,” says Sulakshan. “That's when I asked Warne, 'Shane you didn't bowl a single over round the wicket to Sachin or anyone, you have saved it for the Tests, right'?
"Warne chuckled 'very smart, very smart.'
I smiled sheepishly and muttered to myself, 'Boss, you don't know, that man's ready and already two steps ahead of you'".
A substantial crowd had built up as Sachin got into his groove. The stands were buzzing. Just like a thousand others, 10-year-old Sarang Bhalerao had thronged to the stands in anticipation of a Sachin classic against Warne. And he didn’t go back home disappointed.
"Sachin was timing the ball so well. One of his cut shots off Paul Wilson and a back foot punch off Greg Blewett were too good”, Sarang, who now works as a cricket producer and analyst, recalls. "I remember he scampered through for a couple to reach his double hundred, it was a risky second run. We all were worried as Australia confidently appealed. But the square leg umpire said not out. The crowd erupted.
“The chants of 'Ek do ek do Shane Warne ko fek do', 'Awaaz konacha... Sachin cha' were reverberating in the stands.
"I was seated in the North Stand and I remember rushing to the East Stand to catch a glimpse of Tendulkar. He waved at us and that made my day. It was a privilege watching him bat that day."
"The man was in an unrelenting mood," recalls another fan Apurva Bapat who was seated in the North stand with his father that day. "He had gone berserk and so had the Mumbai crowd. Even remembering those few glimpses gives me the goosebumps right now."
"It was electrifying. I haven't seen such an atmosphere in first-class cricket," Pagnis says. "This was a different experience."
It wasn't just a carnival in the stands, the dressing room was also relishing a special knock.
"I was enjoying like a small kid," recalls Sandhu. "I was enjoying one of my heroes, my junior in sir Achrekar's camp, hitting Warne like that. I was admiring his skills. Any coach will love to see his batsman play such an innings."
"It was world-class spinner under pressure and you don't see someone like Warne under pressure often. It helped the other guys as well. We were absolutely enjoying it yaar," recalls Mhambrey.
Declaration was the only way the Sachin blitz could have been halted. He remained unbeaten on 204 off 192 balls with 25 fours and two sixes as Mumbai declared on 410/6 and gained a lead of 105 on the second day. Shane Warne’s figures read 16-1-111-0.
Strategist, captain, motivator. Sachin donned multiple hats in that match. While batting in the middle, he was playing two roles at one time – the destructor and the guide.
Ahead of the match, Sachin had called up Sutar while practicing in the nets for a word of advice.
"Sachin called me aside and said Raju, suno, jaisa aap cricket khel rahe hai waisa khelo, Australia No 1 hai wo dimaag se nikaal do, aapko lagta hai ki pehla ball maarneka hai to maaro bindaas. Warne daal raha ho, Roberston daal raha ho ya Wilson daal raha ho, khelneka bindaas, mai tumhare saath hu."
It was a massive confidence booster for Sutar trying to make an impression in first-class cricket. While Sachin was guiding Muzumdar on Warne's flippers, he literally handheld Sutar to 43-ball 45.
"Before every ball, Sachin would tell me what the bowler was going to bowl. Is it an inswinger, bouncer, what kind of swing the particular bowler had, the amount of bounce he gets everything. Warne's flipper was his best ball, so in one instance, he told me, be ready, he will bowl a flipper now. He did. I stayed on the back foot and cut that ball for four.
"Normally you get relaxed, but Sachin told me, 'Raju, relax mat hona, aab ye aake beamer daalega aur fir sorry sorry bolega, to aankh me aankh mat daalna.
"Next ball it happened exactly as he said, Warne bowled a beamer and in his typical style pulled his sleeves and started apologising. Wo concentration lose karne ke liye aankh me aankh daalke sorry bolta hai. I didn't make eye contact. I went on to hit him for five boundaries. After each boundary, Sachin would remind me to just tap my bat and move away. My 43-ball 45 was totally Sachin's innings. Usne mujhe prepare karke, Warne ko maarneka kaam bhi merese hi karvaya. Wo thinking level dekhke hum log pagal ho gaye the. It was the best experience in my cricketing career. Bhagwaan hi khel rahe the aur kya."
Nilesh spun a web around the Australians and picked up five wickets as Mumbai bowled out the Australians for 135 and chased down 31 with 10 wickets in hand.
“As a bowler what Sachin gave us was a luxury of runs for us to go all out,” Nilesh says. “He said Bindaas daalo we have enough runs on the board. That's what we did, attacked and built the pressure.”
It was a time when Mumbai played ruthless cricket, beating teams with a day or two to spare in four-day Ranji games. There was even competition within themselves as to how fast they can finish the match. So when Australia arrived the talk was no different.
"We joked around and said it's a 3-day match so we will defeat them in two days," Sulakshan said. "Maybe, since its Australia, thoda allowance dete hai, aadha din ka (We can give them a half day allowance). So make it two-and-a-half days."
It finished in two and a half days. The joke had turned into reality.
"Manjrekar had this habit of ordering biryani on the third day of Ranji Trophies," says Muzumdar. "We played Orissa ahead of that game, beat them on the third day and ordered a biryani. Before that, we beat Railways in three days and ordered a biryani. So as we neared a win against Australia, Sanjay sheepishly asked, "Railways zalai, Orissa zalai, Australia la pan maagvu ya kai biryani? (Orissa done, Railways done, now should we order biryani after Australia win as well?), Muzumdar laughs recalling that chat.
India went on to win the series against Australia 2-1, Sachin dominated Warne with his slog and paddle sweeps and finished as highest run-getter.
That innings at Brabourne had a significant impact on the series. It set the tone for not just the Tests but also a prolific year, one of the best of his career, which also witnessed the iconic Sharjah desert storm innings. For those lucky to witness the madness at Brabourne, it was an unforgettable experience. A special innings from a special player and memories of a lifetime.
"Man... Somebody who has witnessed this knock, I don't think will ever forget it," Muzumdar speaks in awe. "I personally don't think a batsman can hit the ball so hard and yet so sweetly. Not as in slog but correct cricketing shots. I have never seen a ball being so hard. I don't think I will witness it again.
“It was magic… Sheer magic that was flowing that day at the Brabourne Stadium."
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