Ganguly would go on to lead India and change Indian cricket forever, but for me, the embers of self-belief were first stoked on that January day when India pulled off a then-world record chase against Pakistan. The first full match that (I think) I ever watched is also my (well, almost) favourite.
Editor's Note: The global coronavirus outbreak has brought all sporting action to an indefinite halt. While empty stadiums and non-existent sports news make for an unusually grim sight, we take it as an opportunity to look back, and - to paraphrase poet William Henry Davies - stand and stare. In this latest series 'My Favourite Match', our writers recall the sporting encounters that affected their younger selves the most, and in many cases, helped them fall in love with the sport altogether. Happy Reading!
If you are a creature of 1990s India, you'll know a thing or two about change. The last decade of a millennium, the promise of something new, a post-liberalised nation dealing with the explosion of information through the arrival of cable network, and yet, it was a decade of stifling mediocrity, communal overtones, and roaring rudderlessness.
Sport, for long, has served as a metaphor for life as well as the tool to measure time with, and in '90s India - bereft of any sporting legend barring one Sachin Tendulkar - cricket filled that space. It was the oxymoronic purveyor of hope and heartbreak, harangue and humour, joy and jitters.
Remember, we didn't have a Saina or Bindra then; Viswanathan Anand was yet to become a world champion, Sushil Kumar was still honing his wrestling chops in dusty akharas of Najafgarh. The sporting cupboard was bare: No medals in 1992 Olympics, one bronze in '96; not a single Test win outside the sub-continent in the entire decade; hockey, once our stronghold, in terminal decline. In desperately incompetent times like these, a world-record run-chase against traditional rivals Pakistan sounds more like manna from heaven than a cricketing accomplishment. It happened one cold January evening in 1998.
Pakistan, for all their storied and glorified uncertainties, held a remarkably consistent grip over India, helped largely by countless encounters in Sharjah that had become a one-sided norm since Javed Miandad's date with destiny in 1986. We looked at them with grudging admiration: Their Waqar and Wasim versus our military-medium trundlers; their steely nerves versus our fidgety feet; their self-belief versus our submission. It was a mismatch made in hell.
And precisely for that reason, this happens to be a memorable bust-up for me. As a 10-year-old, it was perhaps the first full match that I watched on TV, or at least remember it that way. Of course, the 1996 World Cup was the instigator, but it was all about flashes of Tendulkar's genius consumed on a black-and-white Videocon TV set.
Two years on, a healthy dose of neighbourhood cricket and an embarrassing spate of shadow-practice against a mirror meant that I had come to develop a basic understanding of the game. That's where the appreciation stemmed from: a 300-plus target was an unthinkable, unachievable pursuit, even to my untrained self.
Pakistan, led by a Saeed Anwar ton (yet again) racked up 314 runs in 48 overs in third of the best-of-three finals of the Silver Jubilee Independence Cup in Dhaka. The two teams had won a final apiece in preceding days, one of which was marked with a deliciously madcap 78-ball 95 from Tendulkar.
India duly lost the next final by six wickets to set up the decider - an unremarkable match that I remember skipping, thanks to school, but it did pass on an apocryphal legend: Pakistan won because it was a jumma (Friday). Pakistan never lose to India on a jumma. Who was I to question?
The final of the finals thus was on a Sunday, and I remember doing the silliest chore one can possibly do on a Sunday - bathe. Pretending to study and hopping into the shower were the two all-purpose appeasements that never failed to trick parents, and they didn't on the afternoon of 18 January, 1998.
So our family of four positioned itself in front of the TV set as the chase began. After a three-over lull, Tendulkar tore into the Pakistani attack. A sequence of four consecutive fours off Azhar Mahmood stood out, as did the straight six on the first ball he faced against Saqlain Mushtaq. Then, he holed out to mid-off to a mistimed inside-out loft off Shahid Afridi (remember him to be an awfully handsome man), and collective gasps escaped our tiny living room.
Game over, I was told. India captain Mohammad Azharuddin then promoted all-rounder Robin Singh at No 3, presumably to surprise the opponents, and he and Sourav Ganguly went about the chase. The duo had a 179-run partnership that raised hopes of the unthinkable.
Eventually, Robin fell, but Batman (excuse the pun, please!) chose his occasion to fly. Two years since his dream Test debut at Lord's and six years after his forgettable ODI debut, the Prince of Calcutta, as the papers called him, decided to play a workmanlike innings that simmered with a peculiar grit that would, in years to come, become Ganguly's hallmark.
He kept the innings together and brought up his second ODI ton to keep India in the hunt. In a world-record run-chase, against Pakistan, wickets falling around him, in front of a 'neutral' crowd that, to one's lop-sided memory, chanted against your team, the effort of a frail man with nervous eyes and trim moustache perhaps deserves more credit than it usually gets.
Pakistan, though, were not known to give up; not against India. Saqlain, the supremely-skilled off-spinner who would torment the Indians in the Test series next year, accounted for India's not insignificant middle-order - Azhar, Ajay Jadeja, and Navjot Singh Sidhu - and the dream seemed over.
Eventually, Ganguly fell while going for a big shot in the 43rd over, and the next few overs became a nervous blur. One remembers Hrishikesh Kanitkar, playing his first full series and third ODI overall, pulling a Saqlain delivery to the fence with three runs needed off two balls to cue wild celebrations. The tiny living room came alive with spontaneous cheers and claps, crackers went around, and a bunch of children, including yours truly, trooped out, bats in hand and dreams in eyes, to replicate some of the strokeplay they had just witnessed.
Ganguly was adjudged Man of the Match, Tendulkar became Man of the Series, and a memory for life was forged as dusk descended and blues of the impending Monday morning returned. Tendulkar would go on to own that year, bringing Australia to their knees in the Test series in India and ODIs in Sharjah; Azhar would, in a couple of years' time, go on to disgrace himself - a timeless tragedy that broke faiths and hearts; Ganguly would go on to lead India and change Indian cricket forever, but for me, the embers of belief were first stoked on that January day. The first full match that (I think) I ever watched is also my (well, almost) favourite.
To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here
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