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!
Cricket has become guilty of taking away the grandeur of equal contests. Be it uneven matchups posed by far too strong a team against a team that barely plays; or taking the 'help' of the pitch to skew contests or having the rules come to the aid of the batsman against the bowler. Whenever bowlers dominate now, it appears to be an anomaly than a feature of the game. In a game of bat and ball, the number of records for runs have started to outdo the achievements with the ball.
That was not always the case. And thankfully so.
In the 90s, Sachin Tendulkar was the Indian cricket team. The Indian cricket team was Sachin Tendulkar. It's not that other players weren't important, but no one was as celebrated as Tendulkar was. And for good reason. But in 1999, a bowler hopped his way to the pitch, effortless and clean in his action, won India a Test, took the limelight in favour of a bowler – an Indian bowler at that – and entered history books.
It was Day 4 of the second Test between India and Pakistan. Pakistan had won the opening Test in Chennai and India needed to win to level the two-match series. February's chill in Delhi had started to subside ever so slowly towards the hot summer months. The mornings and evenings were a chilly affair with the sun beating down heavily in the afternoon. It was a Sunday and the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in Old Delhi was packed. Not that a Sunday was required to fill the stadiums in the event of an India-Pakistan encounter.
The atmosphere was electric as India tried to level the series. There were regular chants of 'Pakistan hai hai!' coupled with 'Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega!'. The latter came more out of hope than anything else because it appeared the visitors would make it 2-0.
I sat in one of the stands, an 11-year-old, with my father, trying to make sense of it all. Cricket wasn't new to me. The 1996 World Cup in the sub-continent was a start, Saeed Anwar's 194 a year later added to the charm of the game and Coca Cola Cup in 1998 took it up a serious notch. The difference was that all of it was consumed on a small BPL TV in the confines of home. When Pakistan arrived in 1999, it presented an opportunity to watch cricket in a stadium. Saturday and Sunday school holidays helped as well.
Watching live cricket was new to me. The plastic seats that are the norm now would have been a dream back then. Concrete steps made for seating fixtures and there were no screens to track the activity on the other side of the stadium. Manually run scoreboards were checked every over to stay updated on the proceedings. And things weren't going well. Pakistan were making steady progress in their chase of the 420 run target.
Openers Anwar and Shahid Afridi had taken Pakistan to a comfortable position at lunch and the seamers (Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad) were struggling. After lunch, Anil Kumble stepped up. He had taken four wickets in the first innings but a bigger challenge awaited in the second. The task was to contain the flow of runs and get wickets.
Soon after lunch which for the audience translated into ushering of sellers coming to you with chips, burgers, colas and popcorn, Afridi departed. He seemed rather flummoxed to be given caught behind off Kumble. Nayan Mongia, behind the stumps, known for being overly excited, was off to celebrate with the rest of them. Afridi wasn't pleased but this wasn't the era of the review system. If the umpire pointed the figure, you walked. Or in this case, walked while sulking.
Rest of the middle order wouldn't put up much of a fight as Ijaz Ahmed, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana (now, Mohammad Yousuf) and Moin Khan would depart for single digits. Half the job was done. With each passing wicket, the decibel level would rise. And for a kid, the ability to see the action would get tougher as everyone would jump up at the very same time! Pakistan were suddenly five down but Anwar was still standing. He wasn't buckling under the pressure, to the low bounce like the rest of his teammates had.
It was a matter of time that Anwar would get sucked in as well to Kumble's guile with the red ball. A bat-pad would loop up and VVS Laxman would hold on comfortably at short leg.
If that challenge was dealt with, in walked skipper Wasim Akram to join Saleem Malik. They would stitch 58 runs together and keep the crowd quiet for a very long time. The euphoria of an hour of play after lunch was suddenly gone and the worries of losing were starting to loom.
The third and final session would go on to be historic. Malik, who had done the job of holding fort at one end, was done for by a quicker one after tea. Pakistan were seven down, the win seemed closer than ever.
Suddenly, everyone was hoping for Kumble to get the 10-wickets. As a young watcher, I hadn't quite registered the gravity of the achievement that Kumble was working towards. But people around me had.
Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq would fall on consecutive deliveries. It became evident to everyone involved that the target is not just the win but the 10-wickets too. The crowd, now at the edge of their seats, were hoping neither Akram or Waqar Younis would fall to another bowler. The Indian team would work towards the same.
But it didn't take long for Kumble to hop-skip-and-jump to dismiss Akram. A leg break produced an inside edge which fell kindly to Laxman. SCENES! 10 WICKETS! Kumble became the first Indian to 10-wickets in a single inning joining Jim Laker with the historic achievement. The crowd had gone ballistic by then. The joy of beating Pakistan, of levelling the series was aggravated by this personal achievement by one of our own.
That Akram wicket, the celebrations, the joy on everyone's faces is etched in my memory. As it would turn out, this would be the last Test I would see in person for almost two decades. Maybe fitting that it would be a historic occasion in an India-Pakistan Test.
To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here
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