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!
For an eight-year old boy, the complexities of Test cricket was hard to grasp. Understanding ODI cricket was much simpler, like a simple addition. A team scores a certain number of runs batting first and then their opponents will have to score more to win the match. Of course there are other aspects involved in limited-overs cricket matches, but I found ODI cricket more entertaining mainly because I could easily get the format.
Test cricket, though, was tricky and bit complicated for my liking. My inability to comprehend all the aspects of five-day cricket made me insecure and prevented me from actually enjoying the most unique format in any sport. If ODI cricket was simple maths, Test cricket was like science, a subject I detested when I was growing up.
This was before India played Pakistan in a two-match Test series at home in 1999.
I didn't particularly enjoy going to school, and that didn't change much for the rest of my school years. Back then, going to school was always a terrible feeling, but things changed when I discovered cricket. Like most Indians, I developed an emotional attachment with the Indian cricket team when my age was still in single digits. I went to school thinking about coming back home to play and then watch cricket. I found a few friends who shared my interest in the sport and it certainly made my life much easier.
Back in 1999, the receding January cold made for a near pleasant climate in Berhampur, a town in Odisha 15 kms away from the Bay of Bengal. I remember the weather on this particular day because it made my already uplifted mood go a notch higher. It was the opening day of the first Test between India between Pakistan and since cricket and the Indian team had already mesmerised me, I was eagerly waiting for the match. I knew it was a Test without really understanding the format and just happy to know that the match will be played over the weekend, which meant that I could watch it for a whole two days.
After missing much of the first two days' play, my father and I occupied the living room of our newly-constructed house before the clock even struck nine on the Saturday morning. Growing up, I enjoyed watching sports with my father. As far as I remember, my father and I always had conversations about sports. In fact, much to annoyance of my mother, my father hardly spoke to me about my education. Our conversations were all about cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, football, Diego Maradona, Pele and everything and everybody related to sports. So it's fair to say I got the sports bug from my father, who was a very capable footballer until a knee injury forced him give up the sport.
So, Day 3 started with Pakistan's Shahid Afridi and Ijaz Ahmed walking to the crease. This was their second innings and they had taken the lead in the Test. My mind was asking all kinds of questions. When will India start batting? How much will they chase? What is this concept of lead? How long will India bowl? I could've asked all these questions to my father, but I never did. I could've asked all these questions long before the Test match had even begun, but again, I had no idea why I didn't.
All my excitement fizzled out as the day's play progressed. Afridi played a blinder to score a century. My father was quick to point out that Afridi was lucky because somebody (Sadagopan Ramesh) had dropped his catch. There was also a dropped chance off Inzamam-ul-Haq at the slips, which resulted in my father leaving the house in frustration to run for an errand. He joined me after sometime only to find out that the match situation hadn't changed much.
Thinking about it now, I think it was my father's superstition. There are so many instances where my father left the house to run errands in the middle of a match not because he had to do it, but mostly because he thought it would change the fortunes of the Indian cricket team in the match. It didn't always work, but he took pleasure when it did.
Day 3 ended with Pakistan having the advantage. India had lost two wickets with the scoreboard reading 40, chasing a target of 271. Back then, I thought India could pull it off because the situation was similar to an ODI, but my father cautioned me. He said it's not as easy as it seemed and that 'Test cricket is completely different'. Again, I had no idea what he meant by that statement, but I was hopeful because we still had Tendulkar.
It was Sunday, Day 4 of the Test. Another beautiful morning in Berhampur and as usual, I got up and switched on the TV before the telecast began. I was buzzing all morning, completely sure about the result of the match. India will win. India had to win. I was being irrational in my expectations but what do I know about being rational at that age? India had the worst possible start to the day, losing Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly before the 100-run mark. My father had left the house but I was glued to the TV. I wasn't giving up hope because we still had Tendulkar at the crease.
Tendukar was already my childhood hero because of what he did against Australia in 1998. I hadn't seen the Sharjah matches live, but heard about those knocks so many times from my friends that I was in awe of the batsman. Even without watching those matches, Tendulkar became my favourite player. And my favourite player was keeping India in this Test. The Tendulkar-Nayan Mongia partnership had kept the the team's hopes alive. By this time, my father had joined me and we both cheered for each boundary. It was also the first time I noticed the crowd noise inside a stadium. Tendulkar's century had me jumping on my couch and father stood up to applaud the master. We knew we were watching something special and felt there was no way India could have lost the game from there.
Mongia fell after scoring a half-century and Tendulkar was suffering from back pains. The image of Tendulkar struggling on the pitch had me in prayers. Probably the first time I had prayed to the almighty with regard to cricket. Tendulkar kept his composure, taking India towards victory with a flurry of boundaries. It was just matter of less than 20 runs and my father told me that this match is a done deal. No, it wasn't a done deal. Saqlain Mushtaq removed Tendulkar to stun the Chennai crowd as well as the two people who were watching the match in my living room. I still thought we could clinch the match considering we only needed 17 runs, but what do I know about Test cricket? In a matter of minutes, India lost the match by 12 runs. This time, my father left the house after the defeat.
It was a horrible feeling. Worse than going to school. The defeat had me in tears but it wasn't about that, it was about the despair I felt after. It felt like the end of the world to me. My father returned to see me in despondent state. Nonchalantly, he told me that this is just a game. I don't remember his exact words but my father wasn't as affected as me. His attitude didn't make any sense to me. How can you be not sad after watching this heartbreaking match?
It was only after the victory in the next Test in New Delhi that I could completely get over from the defeat. If Tendulkar's knock was something special then Anil Kumble's ten-wicket haul was even better. If the Chennai defeat made me feel like my whole world had collapsed then Kumble's magnificent feat made me feel like I had accomplished something significant. I lived those moments as personally as the players who were involved in it. In the midst of my plethora of feelings, I learned a thing or two about Test cricket too.
To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here
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