20 years after India and Pakistan played a classic in Chennai, here's why that Test means a lot more than victory and defeat

Editor's Note: The writer, Prashant Kumar, is a Delhi-based aspiring cricketer.

Every once in a while, cricket has personified the coveted title of ‘Gentleman’s Game’. We have witnessed moments when on-field actions have transcended the barriers of victory and defeat, thus helping capture the true essence of sport. The 1999 Chennai test between India and Pakistan was one such classic. It was a match that lived up to the occasion, and firmly reinforced Chennai’s ‘sporting crowd’ reputation.

Traditional rivals India and Pakistan faced-off after over a decade of the ceasefire, and produced an absolute cliff-hanger.

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon of 31 January, 1999. With the usual power cut in our colony, we had to resort to radio’s running commentary. The streets in my hometown wore a deserted look as if the human race was on verge of extinction. It wasn’t the dip in the temperature, rather, some extra-terrestrial forces had kept everyone home. It was the great man himself, all alone and standing tall against arguably the then planet’s best bowling attack, that included the trio of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, and Saqlain Mushtaq at the peak of their prowess. It seemed as if God, with the bat in his hand, just wanted to have a ball.

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Sachin Tendulkar scored a masterly 136 in the second innings of Chennai Test in 1999. AFP/ File

Riding on Afridi’s 141, a blinder of an innings, Pakistan set India a challenging target of 271 runs in the final innings. The chase couldn’t have started more disastrously. India lost both its openers with just six runs on the board. On a rapidly deteriorating pitch, with Pakistani bowlers breathing fire, Sachin Tendulkar walked out, looking to make amends to his first innings duck.

These are the kind of situations that separate men from boys. Tendulkar took charge, but kept losing partners at regular intervals and India were left tottering at 82 for 5. Then Sachin and wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia, defying the spirited Pakistanis, combined for a 136-run partnership and guided India to a relatively comfortable position.

Soon, Mongia fell to a brain-fade moment, but Tendulkar kept battling the opposition bowlers as well as his aching back. Despite the immense pain, he was executing his shots with surgeon-like precision, even as painkillers and a bag of ice cubes provided him the interim relief. However, to the sorrow of the millions of Indians, Tendulkar's lower back had already decided to betray him at this critical juncture.

With pain threatening to get the better of his patience, he decided that an all-out attack was the only option left and started taking the calculated risks. And then came the heartbreak moment — one that muted the entire nation. In 92nd over of the innings, Sachin misread a 'doosra' from Saqlain Mushtaq and lofted a miscued shot to Akram.

When Tendulkar was dismissed, India needed 16 runs, with three wickets in hand, but as history would remember, India ended up on the losing side.

After taking India agonisingly close to the target, he had to walk back crestfallen. It was a masterclass of skills, technique, physical endurance, patience, strategy — it had everything a cricket purist could ask for. His gladiator-esque innings lasted close to seven hours. Saqlain Mushtaq, once in an interview said, “Sachin’s wicket in the 1999 Chennai Test remains my most prized possession even today."

Though it was Pakistan who came out as victors, the post-match scenes at the Chepauk might have misled one to believe otherwise. Contrary to what one might have expected, the crowd, instead of heading home, stayed at the ground and cheered the winning Pakistani team as they took a lap of honor. They had come in huge numbers to support the home team but were still gracious enough to acknowledge the fact that the opponents were better on the given day. It was an unforgettable moment.

I am yet to come across a parallel for this gesture anywhere else in world sport. When the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the players of ‘the enemy’ nation. It made everyone realise how sport can act as a tool to bridge the gap between the two warring nations.

Shaharyar Khan, former PCB Chief and the then Pakistan Team’s Manager, in his book “A Bridge of Peace” rightly mentioned that “the positive goodwill that the Chennai crowd emitted surpassed anything that had happened at the popular level in 50 years of Indo-Pak relations”. It was a victory of the sport. On-field performances of players, as well as the crowd’s behavior, won many a heart. 31 January remains a date that every Indian cricket-lover still remembers, albeit with a touch of sadness.

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 11:22:27 IST

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