That this was going to be a tour with a difference was never in any doubt. If you needed confirmation, it came in the most dramatic of fashions, even before flying out of New Delhi.
India’s first full tour of Pakistan in 14-and-a-half years was, understandably, powered by a maelstrom of hype and anticipation, if not frenzied hysteria. Not since Sachin Tendulkar had made his international debut as a curly-mopped, chubby-cheeked 16-year-old in late 1989 had India played an away Test against their fiercest rivals, their greatest competitors. All that was to change in March-April 2004, with Sourav Ganguly’s side penciled in for five One-Day Internationals and three Tests across the border.
The yo-yoing scales of the relationship stakes between the two countries had temporarily settled on the ‘cordial’. The general air of distrust and apprehension had made way for the genuine belief that it was possible, and advisable, to mutually co-exist happily; as all things India-Pakistan, that status didn’t last too long, but that’s another matter altogether.
The moment the tour was finalised, there was tingling anticipation at what lay ahead. India were coming off a wonderful tour of Australia, unlucky not to stretch their dominance in Steve Waugh’s farewell sojourn into a maiden series win in the Antipodes. Pakistan, blow-hot blow-cold Pakistan, had never lost a Test series at home to their arch-rivals, but there was promise – or unease, depending on which side of the fence you looked at it from – that that could change. It was a good time to be a cricket reporter.
One had been to Pakistan twice previously – for the 1996 World Cup final and, scarcely believably, for the league clash between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the inaugural Asian Test Championship, in 1999. Both were short visits, both confined to Lahore. The opportunity to see the rest of the country, to take in the sights and sounds of Karachi, to encounter the heat and dust of Multan, to travel over the invisible line between old-world Rawalpindi and new-age Islamabad, to catch up with old friends and make new ones, was too inviting to pass up.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the bubble to burst. My photographer colleague and I had applied for visas in very good time (or so we thought). As the date of our departure neared, anxiety took over. Finally, upon advice from our travel agent, we rushed to New Delhi and hung around outside the Pakistan High Commission for two fruitless days. Amid frantic calls to try and reschedule tickets, we were miraculously summoned inside less than four hours before our flight. Passport stamped, four differently-coloured forms to be handed over at different places collected, we grinned like Kapil Dev on the Lord’s balcony in 1983 on the dash to the airport for what was to be the start of an adventure for the ages.
The air of bonhomie and the warmth of hospitality was to wash over us like giant, unceasing tidal waves for the next five and a half weeks. Wherever we went, doors opened magically. We were greeted with smiles and hugs, offered lifts in bullock-carts and police trucks alike; the tour passed by in the proverbial bat of an eyelid.
Of course, it helped, too, that the team did well. One of the great myths about cricket journalism is the neutrality that professionalism apparently dictates. Several of us are not the excitable, screaming, desk-thumping, levitating entities in the press box, but there is no denying that a series, especially overseas, is that much more enjoyable when the Indian side tastes success. No matter what those who play today might believe.
The ODI series was a fascinating battle of tug-and-pull, one outfit nosing ahead and the other reeling it back in. The atmosphere at the white-ball games was unbelievably electric; there was noise and colour, sound and bustle, a constant buzz magnified by the unalloyed passion of hundreds of Indians who had come over to participate in the festivities. On the field, no quarter was asked and none given; out in the stands, Indians and Pakistanis mingled freely and without rancor, each rooting for his country but respecting the loyalties of the other. How could the cricket not have been good?
India came from 1-2 behind to complete a fabulous 3-2 triumph, winning the last two games in the space of four dramatic nights in Lahore. Pakistan amassed 293 in game four, which India hunted down with five overs to spare; eerily coincidentally, India posted the same tally in the decider and stormed home by 40 runs, Sachin Tendulkar’s leaping catch at long-on to get rid of Inzamam-ul-Haq off Murali Kartik’s bowling the undisputed turning point of a mouth-watering contest.
The appetiser out of the way, it was time for the real deal. India hadn’t so much as won a Test match in Pakistan previously, let alone a series. History beckoned, even though they were without their talismanic skipper for the first two matches, in Multan and Lahore respectively. Ganguly had done his back in the final ODI and was to fly home shortly. Who is to say what might have happened had he, and not Rahul Dravid, applied the closure on India’s first innings with Tendulkar unbeaten on 194. Or whether he would indeed have declared in that scenario.
This innings ought to have been about, and only about, Virender Sehwag. India’s extended quest for a Test triple-centurion had finally come to an end, thanks to the pyrotechnics of the Nawab of Najafgarh. The man who had promised VVS Laxman that he would score 300 in a Test innings even before he had played a single Test had kept his word. That he had done so by flaying a strong Pakistan attack to the tune of 39 fours and five sixes on his way to a 375-ball 309 should have precluded any other talking point, right? Wrong. Day two of the Multan Test ought to have been only about Sehwag, only for the right reasons. Unfortunately, it also became about Tendulkar, about the runs he was not ‘allowed’ to score.
As things transpired, India won by an innings, 10 minutes into the final day. Hindsight might suggest Dravid should have ‘let’ Tendulkar follow up his unbeaten 241 in the previous Test, at the SCG against Australia, with another double. But that’s always the beauty of hindsight, isn’t it? The deal was that India would declare at the drinks break after tea on day two. That’s exactly what Dravid did, once Yuvraj Singh was dismissed with drinks imminent. The ‘who’s right, who’s wrong’ debate rages to this day between the Dravid and Tendulkar supporters.
India’s gargantuan 675 for five on an admittedly brilliant batting surface was too much for Pakistan. Irfan Pathan led the way with four wickets and when Pakistan followed on, 268 behind, the rejuvenated Anil Kumble, fresh off 24 wickets from three Tests in Australia, destroyed them with six for 72.
Inzamam, the master of one-liners, was repeatedly queried on the low turnout in Multan, also the city of his birth, for the first Test between the teams in Pakistan since 1989. After suggesting that the heat, the distance of the ground from the city centre and ongoing school exams could have been factors, he finally lost his cool and snapped, “Ab kya jaake mai ticket bhi bechoon? (Should I now go and sell tickets too?)” Even the persistent interrogator couldn’t stifle his laughter.
Stung to the quick after three straight losses, Pakistan turned in a command performance in Lahore on a seaming track. Umar Gul scythed through India on an opening day equally lit up by a wonderful century by Yuvraj Singh. As the juice went out of the pitch, Pakistan opened up a lead of 202 on the back of hundreds from opener Imran Farhat and Inzamam, then shot India out again for 241 and went on to square the series with a nine-wicket win. 1-1 with one to play. Oh, what fun.
Ganguly returned from India to reassume the reins for the decider, in Rawalpindi. The day before the game, he said that like Sehwag in 2002, Yuvraj must consider opening the innings to keep his place in the eleven, given that the middle-order was packed with Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and himself. He also insisted that one of Yuvraj or himself would partner Sehwag at the top. A left-hander did finally open, but he answered to the name of neither Yuvraj nor Ganguly.
Ganguly’s move to stick Pakistan in paid off handsomely as Lakshmipathi Balaji, Pathan and Ashish Nehra winkled them out for 224 in the final session. The pint-sized Parthiv Patel made the move to promote him to open look like a masterstroke with an important 69 after Sehwag was out to the first ball of the Indian reply. Tendulkar’s tour, on the downhill since 194 not out, ended with a contribution of one; India's 600 was almost entirely about Dravid.
Coming off scores of 6, 33 and 0, Dravid chose the most opportune game to return to run-scoring ways. Pakistan wilted under the April heat with the vice-captain batting for more than 12 hours in compiling 270 of the very best. Half-centuries from Laxman and Ganguly helped, but this was the Dravid show, only ended by an attempted reverse-sweep in the search for quick runs, against negative bowling and defensive fields. It was vintage Dravid, the quintessential team man once again sacrificing personal glory for the unit’s needs after batting for 740 minutes and facing 495 deliveries.
By the end of day two, Dravid had reached 134 and India 342 for four, a lead of 118 and well in the driver’s seat. He had promised three of us an interview – "If we have a good day" – after the third evening. Both India and Dravid did so, as evidenced by a lead of 376 (Pakistan were 49 for two in their second knock) and a Test-best 270, so he kept his word.
Those days, not only did we have access to players but could also meet them in their rooms even on match days, so this enterprising trio landed up in Dravid’s room around 7.30 pm. Despite struggling to keep his eyes open, Dravid didn’t disappoint us. We left content at a job well done; then, the penny dropped. To our embarrassment, consternation, and dismay, we realised that one of us had forgotten to switch on the Dictaphone, the battery in another’s died no more than two minutes into the conversation. Fortunately, the short-hand notes of the third bailed us out. Only just.
16 April, 2004. The series ended a day prematurely, though India tried their best to prolong it. Paper napkins seemed to have gone out of fashion; as if unable to wipe breakfast-butter off their fingers, India dropped six catches in 10 overs in the first hour on day four, but rediscovered focus to get the job done well before tea. Pakistan rolled over for 245, Kumble four for 47. Innings and 131 runs for the match, 2-1 for the series. Two trophies in the bag, memories to last a lifetime.
Back to Inzamam, for the final word. Persistent questions on flat pitches that negated Pakistan’s pace riches. Composed. Composed. Composed. Finally dead-panning, “Mai captain hoon, maali nahi! (I'm a captain, not a gardener!)”
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