March 9, 1998.Sachin Tendulkar launched an assault on Shane Warne that determined the fate of the Chennai Test match, the series and the leg-spinner’s future performances in the country. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the spellbinding innings that turned the Test match on its head and won it for India.
It started as the tussle for supremacy between two sublimely-gifted young men; the clash had all the expectations and excitement of Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier. Indeed, it was the cricketing version of a heavyweight bout. It ended with triumph for one and long-lasting nightmares for the other. A Test match was turned on its head, and the destiny of a Test series was determined.
With Shane Warne in the side, Australians had arrived in India to conquer the spin-bastion. In this greatest of modern leg-break bowlers the visitors assumed they had a powerful weapon. The ammunition to do unto the hosts as the Indians had for years done unto them. To answer riddles of the turning ball with someone who turned it more than anyone in the world.
Two weeks before the start of the Chennai Test, the 24-year-old Tendulkar had turned out for Mumbai against the tourists and had mercilessly collared Warne to score 204.from just 192 deliveries.
However, it was known to one and all that Test cricket was a different ball game.
The first round
Before the series, Tendulkar had taken pains to counter the threat posed by Warne, especially on a worn wicket. The prodigious spinner of the ball, ex-leggie Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, had been recruited into the preparation process. On a wicket deliberately scuffed up beside the leg stump, Siva had pitched ball after ball in the rough and Tendulkar had diligently perfected his game plan.
Yet, when the Test match got under way, Warne won the first bout convincingly enough. In to bat at 126 for two, Tendulkar started with an uppish off-drive between the bowler and mid-off for four. In response Warne made one turn viciously outside the off-stump and the young master was beaten as he pushed forward. The next ball was pitched up, and Tendulkar went for a flourishing drive through the off-side. The ball dipped and took the edge of his flailing bat. It flew to Mark Taylor at the 45 degree slip position that he customarily assumed for Warne. The Australian captain held on to a blinder. Tendulkar walked back for four. The Australian spinner had won the first round.
Warne picked up four for 85, and debutant off-spinner Gavin Robertson accounted for another four. The Australian strategy seemed to be working. Indians had totalled an unimpressive 257.
On the third morning, a 96 run ninth-wicket partnership between Ian Healy and Robertson frustrated the huge Sunday crowd and ensured a first innings lead for the tourists. Robertson completed a fantastic first half of his debut Test by scoring a stubborn 57.The total of 328 meant that Australia led by 71.
The balance was quickly restored by a calculated assault on Warne by Navjot Singh Sidhu. India ended the third day at 100 for one.
It was to be a battle for the upper-hand on the fourth morning, and Australia started well with Robertson claiming Sidhu early. Sachin Tendulkar walked in at 115 for two, with the game precariously balanced.
The second round of the epic battle started calmly enough, with a smart tickle to the leg for a couple to get the master off the mark. After a brief equal skirmish, Warne erred by pitching short. Tendulkar unfurled his imperious square cut, twice in succession — the ball thudding into the advertisement hoarding each time. He was on his way.
Next it was Robertson’s turn to be hauled down to earth. The off-spinner dragged it short and saw Tendulkar rock back and pull him for four.
Robertson followed it by doing everything correct. He pitched up, giving the ball air and a fair amount of rip. Tendulkar planted his left foot down the wicket, bent his right knee and swung it over mid-wicket for six.
The perplexed debutant responded by bowling it much shorter, and a thumping pull dispatched it to the fence.
The pulls followed off Warne too. A slight error in length saw Tendulkar go back, swivel and heave it to the mid-wicket. With the spinners being severely punished despite the wearing track, Mark Taylor brought Paul Reiffel back. Tendulkar cut him for four and steered him for a brace to bring up his half century off the last ball before lunch. It had been a calculated assault, an 84-ball gem till then, studded with seven boundaries and a six. India went into the break with 200 on the board for the loss of two wickets.
After lunch, Warne resorted to the tactics that had brought him immense success around the globe. Operating from round the wicket, he targeted the rough around the leg stump — the very manoeuvre that made him a deadly proposition. This was the session which scripted the fortune of the match, the outcome of the series and the saga of Shane Warne in India all his career.
Tendulkar started with a cross batted pull-drive, played from outside the off-stump to the widish mid-wicket fence. Warne came in again and pitched it perfectly in the rough. Tendulkar went down on his knees and executed a sweep-pull that landed in the stands beyond mid-wicket. The stadium went crazy. The confusion on Warne’s face was all too visible. He was rattled. No one had ever treated him this way.
Greg Blewett ran in with his medium-pacers, and now Tendulkar contemptuously lofted him over mid-on, the ball landing with a resounding thud on the advertisement hoardings. It was a stroke that smacked of the disdain champions seemingly reserve for lesser mortals. The Australians were in a daze.
Warne ran in again, now forced to change his length. It pitched on the rough and turned a long way. Tendulkar stepped back and cut it from in front of his stumps to the cover fence. It was sheer genius — of the unstoppable variety.
The debutant Robertson was brought back, fast realising that Test cricket was no prolonged honeymoon. He gave the ball air and Tendulkar came down the wicket, hoisting him against the spin into the second tier beyond long-off.
Mark Taylor observed the proceedings, a bemused smile on his face. At the other end, captain Mohammad Azharuddin was busy helping himself to this suddenly discovered spread of fours and sixes.
Michael Kasprowicz was recalled, and Tendulkar essayed a delectable leg-glance to bring up his 15th Test hundred, off just 127 balls.
Till this time, Tendulkar had been ducking under the bouncers. But now, after his hundred, when Kasprowicz dug it short, a thunderous pull sent it searing to the square leg boundary. The fast man pitched short again and was savagely cut away for four.
Amidst all this brutality, the incredible innings was laced with plenty of finesse. Mark Waugh was brought on, more a measure of desperation than a move made with weighed pros and cons. He bowled without a slip. Tendulkar steered the ball to the fine third man fence twice, the bat resembling the finest brush of calligraphy.
The 150 was reached by pushing Robertson to long on, coming off 185 balls. The Indian total ticked over past 400. Not only had a sizeable lead mean amassed, the runs had come in the flashiest of flashes. Azharuddin called his batsmen in after having set a target of 348. There was plenty of time to bowl out the Australians on a track that – in spite of the Tendulkar master-class hinting otherwise – had grown increasingly worse.
Tendulkar ended with an unbeaten 155, with 14 boundaries and four sixes, scored in just three hours and 11 minutes, off 191 balls. As he walked in to standing ovation, the Australians applauded him all the way. It still stands as one of his greatest innings, one that conquered the wizardry of Warne and changed the complexion of the match with sheer brilliance of the willow. The leg spinner finished with figures of 30-7-122-1
With 105 overs to be played, the Australians did not even look like making a match of it. Michael Slater, Blewett and Taylor were dismissed on the fourth afternoon itself. The next day, Kumble, Raju and Rajesh Chauhan made short work of the rest of the batting. Seven wickets were lost by lunch, and the match ended soon after that.
The next Test at Eden Gardens saw Warne mauled by all the Indian batsmen, and another huge win gave the series to the hosts.
Warne toured India three times with Test sides and managed 34 wickets at 43.11 apiece, by some distance his worst haul across the world.
Brief scores: India 257 (Navjot Sidhu 62, Nayan Mongia 58, Rahul Dravid 52; Shane Warne 4 for 85, Gavin Robertson 4 for 72) and 418 for 4 declared (Navjot Sidhu 64, Rahul Dravid 56, Sachin Tendulkar 155*, Mohammad Azharuddin 64) beat Australia 328 (Mark Waugh 66, Ian Healy 90, Gavin Robertson 57, Anil Kumble 4 for 103) and 168 (Anil Kumble 4 for 46) by 179 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)