By Bhavesh Bhimani
The Titan Cup, a triangular One-Day International (ODI) tournament held in India in October-November 1996, was the quintessential battle for supremacy between South Africa, Australia and the hosts. South Africa were the firm favourites to win the competition with Australia, the runners-up of the 1996 World Cup, being the next best. India on the other hand, were in the midst of a terrible year; not winning any major ODI tournament. Mohammad Azharuddin had been replaced by 23-year old Sachin Tendulkar as India’s captain.
The star batsman had a tough task ahead of him and not many had expected India to perform well against the two cricketing giants. What followed however, in one of the league matches between India and Australia, completely turned the fortunes of the tournament and will go down in the annals of ODI history as one of the most unexpected comebacks during a run-chase.
The build up
The first match of the tournament, between India and South Africa, went along expected lines as the hosts were thrashed by the Proteas by 47 runs. Australia too lost their first game against the South Africans as they were walloped by seven wickets. The third match between India and Australia was hence expected to be a crackerjack contest as both teams desperately needed a win on the board. Another defeat here would have made it extremely difficult for them to make a comeback in the tournament.
The game at Bangalore
October 21, 1996 — the stage was thus set at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore as India and Australia prepared to battle it out in a day-night encounter.
In the humid Bangalore weather, Australian captain Mark Taylor won the toss and chose to bat. Intending to set up a decent target, openers Taylor and Mark Waugh commenced the Australian innings. However, their start was far from what they had hoped for. Indian medium-pacer Venkatesh Prasad removed Mark Waugh early for only four, with the score on nine. Michael Slater, the attacking Australian batsman came in next but departed soon as he edged a leg-cutter from Prasad to wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia.
The pitch was a little on the slower side and hence shot making wasn’t easy. The dependable Steve Waugh then joined his captain and the duo stitched together a 92-run stand for the third wicket before the former departed to the guile of left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi for 41.
Taylor was then joined by the hard-working Michael Bevan and together they began to rebuild the innings. The partnership was slow as the two struggled to hit boundaries courtesy some tight bowling by Anil Kumble, Prasad and Srinath. Eventually, Taylor fell on 105 — which was his maiden ODI hundred — to Tendulkar. The rest of the batsmen could not add much to the total and Australia eventually completed their innings on 215 for seven.
The Indian reply
Having witnessed a sedate first innings, not many knew what to expect in the second one. But what followed was something akin to a cinematic script. It had excitement, interminable tension and many heart-pumping moments in it.
The Indian start was similar to that of Australia. Rookie opener Sujith Somasunder had his stumps shattered by a Glen McGrath delivery for only seven. Rahul Dravid followed soon after, trapped in front of the stumps for six by Damien Fleming. Azharuddin had then joined Tendulkar and the innings urgently required some rebuilding. Unfortunately for India, Azharuddin did not last long and was adjudged leg-before wicket (LBW) to a Fleming inswinger for only one. All hell broke loose at this point. Azharuddin was apparently peeved with umpire SK Bansal’s decision and angrily gestured that he had nicked the ball. The crowd, already frustrated with India’s dismal show, now went berserk. They started pelting empty water bottles at the Australian fielders close to the boundary rope and the match stalled soon after. It was only after Azharuddin himself walked out to pacify the crowds that they calmed down. The match resumed again.
It was Sourav Ganguly who came in next; but like the others before him, he did not last long and was run out for only four. At 47/4, the Indian innings was crumbling apart. But, as was (often) the case in the 1990s, Tendulkar held the reigns firmly at one end with some scintillating strokes and measured running between the wickets. Along with Ajay Jadeja, Tendulkar brought the Indian chase back on track with a 79-run partnership with him for the fifth wicket, and took India’s score to 126. Unfortunately, Jadeja then perished and Mongia and Joshi, the next two batsmen, did not last for long either. Javagal Srinath was the next one in and he immediately slogged and missed a few deliveries. The pressure was now mounting on Tendulkar and he soon succumbed, falling for an obstinate innings of 88.
It looked all over for India. Their innings was now in shambles. The scorecard read a sorry 164/8 now, with Srinath and Kumble at the crease. People were seen leaving the stadium. Television sets across the country had been turned off. It was the old theory of the early 90s — Sachin gaya, toh match gaya (Hindi for: once Sachin is out, the match is also gone). But this time, a different script was being written by two unlikely heroes.
The unlikely heroes
It was a rather daunting task indeed and the two men in the centre were playing before their home crowd. India still required another 52 runs off 8 overs to win, with two tail-enders at the crease. A victory seemed improbable. Srinath and Kumble however had other ideas. Both the batsmen treaded cautiously in the beginning; nudging the ball away for singles and twos. Srinath, the more impatient of the two, swung his bat and missed every now and again, but then Kumble calmed him down; constantly running down the pitch to pacify his Karnataka teammate and goading him to hang in there.
Srinath, after settling down for a bit, hit a couple of fours; his trademark hoicks towards the mid-on boundary. Kumble meanwhile continued taking the singles and smartly giving the strike back to his partner. A little later, even Kumble hit a boundary and the required run-rate was now getting under control. Slowly but surely, the two were helping India claw back into the match.
The crowd too was now holding its breath in anticipation. They sensed something remarkable happening; something which cricket fans of that era were not quite used to. At this point, the cameras panned on to two ladies — mother and grandmother of Anil Kumble — sitting with nervous smiles on their faces in the crowd. With each further run scored, the camera would keep focusing back to the ladies’ reaction; the smiles on their faces were widening with every passing minute. It was Indian melodrama at its best.
As the target got closer, Taylor took a gamble and brought in Steve Waugh to bowl the 47th over. As Waugh strode in and bowled his medium-paced delivery, Srinath took his chance by coming down the track and smiting the bowler right back over his head for a stunning straight six. It was undoubtedly the shot of the match and made the crowd go into frenzy. India now needed less than 10 to win the match. A victory was in sights.
On the next few deliveries, the duo played sensibly and knocked around singles with ease. With two runs required to win, Kumble turned a Jason Gillespie delivery, the last ball of the 48th over, past the mid-wicket region for a brace to take India to a thrilling and emphatic victory. The crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium went into mad celebrations and the camera then focused on the two ladies for one last time, who were now up on their seats; cheering and clapping happily along with the rest of the crowd. For anyone who had seen that match; these were scenes that would be etched in their memory for a lifetime.
Srinath finished on an unbeaten 30 off 23 balls and Kumble ended with 16 from 19 balls. Tendulkar was declared as the Man of the Match, but for the crowd, Srinath and Kumble were the heroes of the day. The match would go down in Indian cricketing history as one of the most thrilling contests.
With this victory, the Indian team’s fortunes changed and they went on to lift the Titan Cup, beating the Hansie Cronje led South Africa by 35 runs in the finals of the championship.
Australia 215 for 7 in 50 overs (Mark Taylor 105, Steve Waugh 41; Ventaktesh Prasad 3 for 37, Anil Kumble 2 for 40) lost to India 216 for 8 in 48.5 overs (Sachin Tendulkar 88, Javagal Srinath 30*; Damien Fleming 2 for 39) by 2 wickets.
Man of the Match : Sachin Tendulkar