Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, a vivid trip down memory lane chronicling 28 of India’s greatest Test. What we reproduce here, obviously with permission from the authors, is Chapter 16 of the book, titled Clash of the Titans, a vivid re-telling of the Chepauk Test of 1997-98. We won’t go into details on what was billed as an epic contest between Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne. Our task will remained confined to the messengers.

Sachin Tendulkar takes on Shane Warne © Getty Images (representational photo)
Sachin Tendulkar takes on Shane Warne © Getty Images (representational photo)

This is the only occasion in the book that we refer to a game between two nations in terms of an individual contest between two players, but with good reason. If ever there was a head-on contest between two legends that decided the outcome of a game poised on knife’s edge, this was such a game. Champion versus Champion. Sachin Tendulkar versus Shane Warne in Chennai has been told and re-told by the thousands who were there at the ground and by many more who claim to have been there that day. A few weeks later, Tendulkar versus Warne occurred twice in two days in a 50-overs tournament in Sharjah where amidst a swirling dust storm, Tendulkar unleashed his own gale force on Warne and the Australians. It was an unforgettable season.

When Australia played India in Chennai in March 1998, it was the 59th Test of 25-year old Tendulkar’s career and the 64th Test of 28-year old Warne’s career. From January 1993 to February 1998 (just before this game), Tendulkar had scored 3,021 runs, including ten centuries, with a batting average of 60.42. Warne, during the same period, had taken 291 wickets at 23.07. To say that Warne and Tendulkar were both at their peak around 1998 will be limiting, for both were magnificently consistent right through their long and illustrious careers. Their averages for their entire career — Tendulkar, 53.78 (batting) and Warne, 25.41 (bowling) — are proof of this and if at times they dropped briefly from such peaks that was due to injuries or other circumstances. Having said this, Tendulkar was at his destructive best in the years 1993-1999 and then rediscovered that magic during 2008-10. These two were already on the path to become all-time cricketing greats; the Indian ended up being deified as ‘God of cricket’ in his country while the Australian is hailed as the best legspinner in cricket history.

This Test was the first time the two were facing off against each other since the legspinner’s debut at home in January 1992. Australia under Mark Taylor — one of the best captains in Australian cricket history — were coming to India on the back of five consecutive series wins over England, South Africa and New Zealand, but both Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, their premier fast bowlers, were injured. India, on the other hand, were coming off a winless run of 12 matches stretching back 18 months. The captaincy had gone back to the unimaginative and laidback Azharuddin after Tendulkar’s unhappy stint as skipper.

Before the Test, the Australians had played a warm-up match against Ranji Trophy champions Mumbai; rarely has a warm-up game had such a decisive impact on the series. Tendulkar, captaining Mumbai, decided it was important to establish a psychological ascendancy over Australia in the warm-up game itself, and told his batsmen to attack Warne at any cost to prevent him from settling into a rhythm. The strategy was hugely successful, as Warne went for over 100 runs in 16 overs, while Tendulkar hit a blazing double-century. Interestingly, it was Tendulkar’s first double century in first class cricket. The Australians collapsed in their second innings and Mumbai handed them a crushing 10-wicket defeat.

Tendulkar’s preparation for this series was more meticulous than ever, if such a thing were possible. He had identified Warne as the main (and perhaps only) threat and had prepared elaborately. In one of the more interesting chapters in his autobiography, Tendulkar discusses the fascinating technical adjustments he made. Warne’s strength lay in the marvellous drift he got in the air from off to leg, which lands the ball in the ‘blind’ side of the batsman. Tendulkar decided that instead of being side-on, he would open up his stance, stand a little outside legstump, not step out of the crease and instead, from the crease, slog him to mid-wicket periodically. Warne on his part kept his powder dry — despite the hammering against Mumbai, not once did he go round the wicket. But Tendulkar knew Warne would bowl round the wicket in Chennai. So for a week in Mumbai and then in Chennai before the match, he practised against former Indian legspinner Sivaramakrishnan, asking him to bowl into the scuffed-up area outside the legstump. When the Chennai Test began, he was well prepared. Tendulkar was by nature a batsman who dominated bowlers. Warne by nature was a crafty, attacking bowler. There could not have been a better duel in Test cricket in those times.

India won the toss and batted first, with three spinners — Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan — to exploit a turning wicket in the fourth innings. Opener Sidhu had a makeshift but capable partner in Nayan Mongia. Michael Kasprowicz and Paul Reiffel, the Aussie pace bowlers, held no terrors. When the spinners came on, Sidhu took to them and looked good after clouting them for two sixes. The openers put on 100 runs for the first-wicket and just when it seemed India would pile on a big score, Mongia was caught behind off Kasprowicz for 58 with the score at 122. At 126, Sidhu was run out — a big setback, given how well Sidhu was dismantling the spinners.

Out came Tendulkar, and the noise as he came out to bat was deafening. He was facing Warne and immediately smashed a four down the ground. The crowd went bonkers. The next ball was flighted and spinning. Tendulkar went after it, aiming another powerful drive into the offside. But the cunning ball was already curling away and it took the edge and flew fast, high and to the right of Mark Taylor at slip. Taylor, one of the best slip fielders ever, stretched to his right and took it with utter nonchalance. Tendulkar: caught Taylor bowled Warne 4. A deathly silence fell over the stadium, and Tendulkar knew he had thrown away his hand in over-eagerness.

From that point, the innings could not take off. The fact that Kumble came at No. 7 meant India had a long tail. He stuck on and helped Dravid take India to 232 for 5 when the day ended. Next day, once Kumble was removed, the Aussies were into the tail and India folded up. Dravid got a 50, but there were no substantial partnerships in the innings and India were all out for 257. Warne had come back strongly to take four wickets, but the surprise was a new young off-spinner, Gavin Robertson, who stuck to a good line outside off, made the ball turn in and got four scalps.

On day two, India fought back. Kumble came on early and got rid of Michael Slater. The debutant seamer Harvinder Singh sent back Taylor when the score was just 44.Then at 57, Kumble bowled Steve Waugh. Australia laboured through the rest of the day against Kumble and left-arm spinner Raju. At 95, Raju had Ricky Ponting caught behind, and then offspinner Chauhan got rid of Greg Blewett. Raju claimed Mark Waugh, the stylish bat who had played very well for four hours. At 173, Australia lost Reiffel as Dravid took his second smart catch at slip off Kumble. Warne and Healy saw Australia through to 193 for 7. The pitch had little for the pace bowlers but it had turn and bounce for the spinners. Mongia who had a faultless match behind the stumps, wore a helmet while keeping to them, and while it is a common sight now, he was among the first stumpers to do so.

Healy took charge on the third morning. He got unexpected support from tail-ender and debutant Robertson. From 201 for 8, they took Australia to 297 before Healy fell for 90. Healy was an important member of that strong Australian team — an outstanding keeper and a valuable lower middle-order bat. At Chepauk, he played his customary battling innings, spending over four hours in the middle. Robertson got a maiden fifty and Australia wrested a crucial 71-run lead.

When India batted again, Sidhu and Mongia wiped off 43 runs before part-time bowler Blewett got Mongia. That brought Dravid to the crease and the second-wicket pair took India to 100 for 1, a lead of 29, when stumps were drawn. Sidhu crossed fifty for the second time in the match. Sidhu was successful throughout that series, giving India a start every time and taking on the spinners too, providing an important platform for the other batsmen. Tendulkar in his autobiography acknowledged the role played by Sidhu: ‘He had attacked Warne from the start of our second innings and had set the game up for the other batsmen.’

On the fourth day, Sidhu was dismissed early by offspinner Robertson and Tendulkar came out to join Dravid with India 44 runs ahead. The match had now entered a critical phase. Tendulkar settled in nicely, with a tuck to leg for two and a back cut for four when Warne pitched slightly short. After smashing a half-tracker from Warne off the back foot to extra-cover for four, he turned his attention to Robertson. Using the full depth of the crease, he moved back to pull the offspinner for a four and then picked him from outside offstump and hoisted him over mid-wicket for six. He treated the crowd to a sumptuous square-cut off Reiffel. The score had bounded along beyond 200 and Tendulkar had raced to 50.

Now, Warne bowled round the wicket to Tendulkar, as he knew he would. All his pre-match preparation was coming to fruition. Here it is in Tendulkar’s words: ‘I started out watchfully and was soon into my groove. As expected, Shane Warne started to bowl round the wicket and I instantly took the attack to him and hit him over mid-wicket. From an individual perspective it was a defining moment in the game.’ Tendulkar combined his attacking instincts with sound judgment and it made for a thrilling spectacle.

There was no stopping him. He was taking Warne to the cleaners by pulling him off back foot and clubbing him off the front foot. Then he stepped down and lofted Robertson into the crowd beyond the extra-cover boundary. Dravid stayed with him to add 113 runs before getting out to Warne, his sole victim in India’s second innings. Azhar joined Tendulkar, who was peppering the boundary and also hitting sixes into the rapturous stands. Tendulkar reached his hundred off just 123 balls as he turned Kasprowicz to fine-leg for four. With Azhar too on attack, the scoring rate was well over four runs an over. When the latter was out for 64, India had already reached 355, but the pounding continued for Australia. Ganguly came and had his share of the fun too.

When Azhar finally called a halt to the innings, Tendulkar had hit 155 not out off 191 balls with 14 fours and four sixes. The Indians had scored 313 runs that day in 72 overs. Wisden in its match report said, ‘Tendulkar’s belligerence was awesome and his shot-placement enthralling.’ Azhar had set Australia a target of 348 runs in 105 overs, so his bowlers could have a go at the batsmen that evening. What a coincidence that it was exactly the same target Border had set the Indians at the same ground in 1986 in the Tied Test! Like Border’s declaration, this too was a challenging one, but the Australians had been thoroughly demoralised by Tendulkar’s assault on their top bowler. They had also spent an entire day chasing leather in very hot and humid conditions, and even a spirited captain like Taylor could not remain unaffected.

The Australians’ misery was complete in the final hour of play, as India knocked out three batsmen for just 31 runs on the board. Srinath bowled Slater, who failed in his attempt to counter the pressure with aggression. Kumble dismissed Blewett to a catch by Dravid at silly-point. Paul Reiffel came as nightwatchman but to Australia’s dismay, it was their captain Taylor who was dismissed off the last ball of the day by Kumble. A match that had perhaps slightly tilted Australia’s way until the third evening had completely swung India’s way. Venkataraghavan, the former India captain and one of the umpires for this game, had told Tendulkar the previous evening that it would be difficult for India to force a win from the position they were in. Tendulkar, however, was confident they could do it and turned in a virtuoso performance on day four.

On the fifth day, the Australians resisted for a while as India’s spinners pegged away, probing for the mistake that could come anytime. Finally, Kumble broke through after 12 overs, getting Mark Waugh. Australia’s score stood at 54 for 4. The nightwatchman Reiffel finally went, caught by Azhar off Raju, after defending stubbornly for 100 minutes. The left-arm spinner then immediately trapped Ponting lbw and Australia were 92 for 6. If there was one country where Ponting was never at his best, it was India. Not just on this tour but on his subsequent visits, too. Six overs after Ponting’s departure, Raju claimed Steve Waugh as Dravid took his third catch of the innings. Healy played defiantly in a lost cause. Warne hit 35 but Chauhan dismissed him and Robertson off consecutive balls. The annihilation was completed by mid-afternoon, as Australia were bundled out for 168 in 67.5 overs. Kumble had eight wickets in the match and Raju six. Chauhan had chipped in with three. India had beaten Australia by 179 runs.

On a pitch affording turn, with a clutch of close-in fielders and a large animated crowd, the umpires were under enormous pressure. A couple of decisions that morning were marginal while one was certainly unfortunate. The Chennai crowd was sporting as always. Wisden did not forget to mention this, saying the crowd was exuberant but well-behaved, adding, ‘The conspicuous camaraderie between the locals and a substantial group of visiting Australian supporters was most heart-warming.’

In his essay titled Tendulkar outwits Warne, Ian Chappell wrote, ‘It’s rare enough that in the middle of the fourth day a Test match is evenly poised. To then have one team’s champion facing his opposite number with the game hanging by a thread is heaven for a cricket fan.’ Wisden in a summary of the three-Test series, which India won 2-1, wrote, ‘The 446 runs Tendulkar scored in the series, at a strike-rate of 80.65 per hundred balls received and a Bradmanesque average 111.50, were the product of sheer genius.’

Amidst all the admiration for the maestro’s genius and his technical preparation, it is illuminating to read what Tendulkar wrote about his meticulous physical preparation to counter the oppressively humid conditions in Chennai: ‘Having played a lot of cricket in Chennai, I knew that the physical preparation in the lead-up to a Chennai Test has to be different from normal. You have to prepare your body for the heat and humidity well in advance and I always did so at least 36 hours before the match by drinking a lot more water than normal. The extra water intake was particularly important, because you lose so much fluid during matches at the Chidambaram Stadium.’

The two could not be more different in their personalities, but their genuine friendship is based on immense mutual respect. Tendulkar has always acknowledged the genius of Warne and in his autobiography said, ‘A true great, Warne would not let you relax for a single delivery.’ Warne on his part has publicly declared without a trace of inhibition, that Tendulkar gave him nightmares. Gideon Haigh’s wonderfully non-judgmental biography On Warne provides us rich insights into the generosity of the Aussie legend whose fan following in India only grew even greater when he led a modest Rajasthan Royals to victory in the IPL.

Test No. 1405: MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk, Chennai, March 6-10, 1998:

India 257 in 104.2 overs (NS Sidhu 62, Nayan Mongia 58; Gavin Robertson 4-72, Shane Warne 4-85) and 418/4 dec in 107 overs (Sachin Tendulkar 155*, Mohammad Azharuddin 64, Sidhu 64) beat Australia 328 in 130.3 overs (Ian Healy 90, Mark Waugh 66; Anil Kumble 4-103, Venkatapathy Raju 3-54) and 168 in 67.5 overs (Warne 35, Healy 32*; Kumble 4-46, Raju 3-31) by 179 runs. MoM: Sachin Tendulkar.

Captains: Mohammad Azharuddin (India) and Mark Taylor (Australia)