For those privileged to have grown up in times of Indian cricket’s ‘golden generation’, 1 March, 2003 is more of where-were-you-when nostalgia than a prosaic mark on the calendar. No world record was created, no national record shattered, no tournament record rewritten, but when Sachin Tendulkar scored 98 runs off 75 balls, it stayed; it still does, partly due to the stage, and partly because of the opposition.
Fifteen years to this day, Sachin Tendulkar walked out to lead India’s chase of 274 runs against an attack that had Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, and Abdul Razzaq on their roster. It was a group match of the World Cup, but that didn’t matter; for the average Indian or Pakistani cricket fan, matches such as these are the proverbial final before the final.
Waqar Younis won the toss and chose to bat at Centurion’s SuperSport Park. Pakistan were off to a steady start, courtesy the left-handed duo of talented Taufeeq Umar and India’s nemesis Saeed Anwar. The opening pair added 58 runs before Zaheer Khan breached through Umar’s defences.
Pakistan’s middle-order wasn’t in prime form in the tournament, and senior batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq was woefully short of runs. Waqar, however, retained him for the high-pressure game, and Inzamam — with a tally of 10 runs from his last four innings, including consecutive ducks in last two — fell for just six runs. The scorecard tells you he was run out, but those who watched the match would distinctly recall that it was the demons in his head that had reduced him to a nervous-wreck who was desperate to end his misery. He lasted all of three balls and three minutes, long enough to show the world how poor form and muddled head can make a world-class barsman look a walking dead.
Saeed Anwar went on to score his fourth One-Day International (ODI) century against India in what turned out to be his last match against the old rivals. There were some handy contributions down the order from Mohammad Yousuf , Younis Khan and Rashid Latif and Pakistan ended their innings with a boundary from Wasim Akram, who jaunted back to the dressing room pumping fists and grinning wildly. Pakistan rarely lost to India those days, certainly not when they scored 273.
India had an assortment of classy batsmen in their ranks, but when it came to big matches — and that includes all matches against Pakistan — the country, and one assumes the team, looked up to one man. Sachin Tendulkar would later confess that all he had was an ice-cream during the break. Hard to believe, because he went after the Pakistani bowling with the hot rage of a Celtic psychopath. And what a rage it was.
Wasim Akram conceded nine in the first over of the chase, and that really was a sign of things to come. Shoaib Akhtar had knocked back Tendulkar’s middle-stump with a searing reverse-swinging yorker to stun a packed Eden Gardens into silence in 1999 – their first meeting – and it was time for some retribution. The carnage began on the fourth legal ball of the over, which, had Tendulkar decided to leave, would have been the third wide of the over. Instead, he chose to rise on his toes and place the ball over point for a six. Next, a short of length ball was flicked from the off stump to the square leg fence and the full ball that followed was duly punched past the bowler.
Pakistan’s pace battery was given a royal hiding, and though they did get Virender Sehwag and skipper Sourav Ganguly off consecutive balls, the tone had been set. 102 runs were added in 17 overs with Mohammad Kaif, and by the time Kaif was sent back by birthday boy Shahid Afridi, the result was put beyond doubt. Cramps slowed Tendulkar down a bit and possibly cost him a century, but the 98 off 75 balls he made 15 years back is possibly worth more than many of his 100 international hundreds. India won by six wickets and 26 balls to spare, and retained their unbeaten run against Pakistan in World Cups.
1 March 2003 it was, and it still stays.