March 29, 2004.Virender Sehwag’s bazooka of a bat roared to the first triple hundred by an Indian batsman. And Sachin Tendulkar proceeded to a clinical 194 before the innings was closed by acting captain Rahul Dravid. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the murder, mayhem and some myths of Multan.
Murder at Multan
Legend has it that Alexander the Great led his great world-conquering army in a fierce battle in Multan circa 326 BC. It was here that a poisoned arrow unleashed from the unpretentious bow of a local archer broke through his armour and pierced his lung. The Greek emperor never recovered and died two years later in Greece at the young age of 32.The exact location where Alexander was hit by the arrow can supposedly be seen in the old city premises
The stadium in Multan had a desolate appearance — as if the smouldering after-effects of the war still hovered in the air. The stands could accommodate 28,000 and hardly a quarter sat scattered around the arena. Very few fans turned up to witness the first Test match between the arch-rivals held in Pakistan in one and a half decades.
The sight that greeted the few who attended was savage massacre, often more ruthless than any deed of Alexander’s soldiers. The blade of Virender Sehwag flashed with merciless mayhem, slaughtering the Pakistan bowlers with as much malevolence as any horde of rampaging soldiers.
And in a rather contrasting parallel, just like Alexander had supposedly been struck by the fatal arrow in the battlefield, two and a half millennia later the death blow was dealt to the career of one of the long-serving knights of Pakistan cricket — Saqlain Mushtaq. In this case the demise was instantaneous. Saqlain never played Test cricket again.
It was murderous assault from the first morning. Sehwag’s brutal battering pulverised the Pakistanis. The balls were dealt with almighty thumps with his bludgeon of a bat. The Nuke from Najafgarh rattled away from the start, no Test match tradition of circumspection could hold him back.
The disdain for the bowling, often outrageously unjustified, could not come with minor hints of mortality. At 68 he was dropped, and again at 77. It had little effect on him. With characteristic nonchalance, Sehwag wiped the immediate memory clean from his famously uncluttered mind and proceeded to clobber the leather off the very next balls. Shoaib Akhtar ran in with all his reputation of furious pace. Sehwag slashed him over third man for six, moving from 99 to 105 with this incredible strike.
Akash Chopra departed for 42, having for long been the calmness counterbalancing the crazy carnage at the other end. Pakistan tasted first success in the 40th over. The score was already 160.
Captain Rahul Dravid, leading the side after a back injury had rendered Sourav Ganguly unable to play, did not last long. At 173, Sehwag was joined at the wicket by Sachin Tendulkar.
What followed was a study in contrast for the connoisseur. Sehwag mutilated the bowling with the broadsword of a blade. At the other end, Tendulkar sliced through it with the fine precision of a surgical knife. Runs flowed from both ends, classical mastery mingled with absolute violence. At the end of the first day, India stood on 356 for two. Sehwag was on 228. The only breather he had allowed himself was an eleven ball scoreless period on 199 — perhaps haunted by the memories of holing out to long on for 195 at Melbourne a year earlier. The master at the other end was unbeaten on a clinical 60. The dazed Pakistanis walked back to the pavilion, striving to blink away the stars swarming around their heads from the hammering.
In early days of the city, Multan had supposedly been home to the famed Prahladpuri temple, dedicated to Prahlad of Hindu mythology. According to the legend, Prahlad’s father, the asura king Hiranyakashipu, had been killed by Vishnu who had from inside a pillar, in his man-lion avatar known as Narasimha.
In the modern age, two pillars of Indian batting seemed to have brought forth a couple of contrasting lions, tearing apart and preying on the hapless Pakistan attack.
In the press conference held in the evening, Sehwag said that it had been his best innings in Test match cricket and that he would like to go for 300 on the morrow. No Indian had got to that mark in their 72-year Test cricket, but Sehwag had no time for history. Indeed, two years down the line, again in Pakistan, when Rahul Dravid and he had breathed down the neck of the world record first wicket partnership held by Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy, Sehwag had aired his rather innocent query, “Who is Vinoo Mankad?”
The second day saw history of the tallest order scripted on the ground. And unfortunately it ended with a curious misunderstanding which left a minor but bitter aftertaste to one of the glorious days of Indian cricket.
The morning saw some accurate bowling seen off by a watchful Tendulkar. It was an education to his younger partner on the virtues of patience. The master scored loads through square and fine leg, turns of the wrist perfectly timed and placed for singles, twos and the occasional boundary.
At the other end, the opener saw off a hostile period from Shoaib, Mohammad Sami and Shabbir Ahmed, before launching into the bowling, before blitzing past his 250 off just 299 balls. Once again, the audacity was not free from flaws. But, with their eyes strained on the advertising hoardings against which ball after ball thudded and bounced back, the slips failed to hold two comfortable chances almost back to back. In between these two snicks, Sehwag blasted a boundary that took him beyond Laxman’s 281.
At the other end, Tendulkar brought up his 33rd hundred with perfect poise just before lunch. At the break, Sehwag was eight short of the triple century.
It is well known that as Sehwag approached his third hundred Tendulkar threatened him with dire consequences if he tried to hit over the top. However, the warning dissolved into nothingness in the same uncluttered mind of the Delhi batsman. Saqlain Mushtaq tossed it up and Sehwag was down the track in a flash, swinging it over widish long-on, moving from 299 to 305 with that dramatic stroke. The first-ever Indian batsman to score a triple hundred in Tests had brought it up in 364 balls, two more than the then fastest-ever by Matthew Hayden.
Eleven balls later, he edged Sami to the slip. He had batted 531 minutes for 309, and mauled the bowling for 39 fours and six sixes. The partnership with Tendulkar had been worth 336. It was sad that only a handful of scattered people in the stands were there to watch history being made — a saga of scintillating savagery seldom seen in cricket.
The Multan Myth
Sachin Tendulkar continued on his way, making runs with the same sustained efficiency. Laxman departed after scratching around for a rather painstaking 29, but in Yuvaraj Singh, the master found an able ally. His 150 came up off 295 balls, a perfectly-paced innings. Tea was taken with India on 588 for four.
What happened next is a tale of miscommunication that cascaded into a myth.
According to John Wright’s Indian Summers, the batsmen were told during the break that they had 15 overs to play before declaration. The innings was closed after 13.5.
It did not help matters that Sachin Tendulkar was unaware of the moment of declaration. He walked back for an unbeaten 194.
With the score on 675, Yuvraj Singh, who had raced to 59 off 66 balls, hit a return catch to the occasional leg-break of Imran Farhat. Dravid closed the innings immediately, much to the bemusement of the master in the middle.
Of course, soon the air was filled with the oft-repeated delusional mantra so dear to the masses — the “individual versus team” chant that is mouthed thousand-fold every day. Many jumped to the conclusion that Tendulkar, playing for his double hundred, had been selfishly slow. India had to win the match and the declaration was necessary for the team.
The numbers, as usual, tell a different story. Tendulkar had made a steady 29 from 36 balls after tea. His last 44 runs had come in 53 deliveries. At the other end, with Yuvaraj Singh going hammer and tongs, the 83 balls since tea had brought forth 87 runs. Tendulkar was rotating the strike superbly, enabling Yuvraj to hit with abandon. It was a magnificently-paced innings, perhaps perceived as sedate because there was no clumsy attempt to hit every ball out of the ground.
As far as the landmark is concerned, even the greatest of batsmen have their ambitions, without which few would ever achieve the sublime heights. A double hundred against Pakistan in Pakistan, the country where he had first played as a 16-year-old, could hardly be put down as an unjustified dream.
Rahul Dravid had not been wrong with the timing. Where he erred was perhaps connection. Somehow the information had not made its way to the middle, or had not mapped to what had been communicated at tea. And Tendulkar blundered not in pacing his innings — which was near perfect — but in the answers he provided to the media. The man who had shouldered arms with such extraordinary mastery during the morning session, now wafted at a dubious poser, resulting in some flutters in the camp. Tendulkar’s absence from the field, ostensibly for an ankle injury, during the short Pakistan stint at the wicket in the dying hours of the second day also prompted masses and media to leap to colourful conclusions.
Thankfully, coach John Wright arranged for a discussion between the two great batsmen, and the misunderstandings were soon ironed out.
The next afternoon, Tendulkar sent down a ripper of a googly that went past the bat and between the legs of Moin Khan to bowl him off the last ball of the day. The great man exulted in unbridled excitement. It was proof enough that all was well in the team and the champion was back to what he did best, helping India win matches.
Inzamam ul Haq and Yasir Hameed did produce a purple patch for Pakistan, and for a while the match looked headed for a tall scoring draw. But, Anil Kumble, that tireless operator, took seven wickets of the 13 to fall on a decisive fourth day. Pakistan slumped to defeat by an innings. A desperate hundred by Yousuf Youhana only succeeded in dragging the match two overs into the fifth day.
It had taken 21 Tests stretched across 49 years. At long last the sledgehammer of a bat of Virender Sehwag landed with a resounding thud to break the jinx and India emerged triumphant in Pakistan.
Brief Scores: India 675 for five decl. (Virender Sehwag 309, Aakash Chopra 42, Sachin Tendulkar 194*, Yuvaraj Singh 59) beat Pakistan 407 (Yasir Hameed 91, Inzamam-ul-Haq 77, Abdul Razzaq 47; Irfan Pathan 4 for 100) and 216 (Yousuf Youhana 112; Anil Kumble 6 for 72) by an innings and 52 runs
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)