On this day exactly 14 years ago, Sachin Tendulkar almost pulled off a single handed miracle at Chennai, but in the end it remained the greatest heartbreak of his career. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the cliff-hanger that saw the master batsman script one of his most brilliant innings.
A tale of blood and tears – perhaps the greatest innings and the saddest tragedy of the splendid career of Sachin Tendulkar. A match that will continue to be remembered by the Master as that moment of inconsolable heartbreak, in spite of the many monumental feats of his willow before and since.
It was a match that attracted international attention. A few months after the two neighbouring nations had been engaged in a competition of nuclear tests, they were resuming cricketing contests that drove people across the borders to fever-pitch frenzy. Both interest and security reached a new benchmark as the sides played in a Test match after nine years.
With the focus of the world on the subcontinent, journalists from all over the world flocked in for the Chennai Test – even from nations blissfully ignorant about the intricacies of the game. At a lonely corner of the press box sat an Italian reported, looking at the proceedings with faintly amused eyes, perhaps wondering why the umpires were not running up and down the boundary line.
The match lived up to the occasion. The teams traded even blows on a difficult wicket, and towards the end of the third day, India required 271 to win against Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq.
Tendulkar walked out with India tottering at 6 for 2, the openers having fallen to Waqar. At the other end, Akram was breathing fire. Saqlain Mushtaq’s fingers itched for a bowl on a wicket that was fast breaking up. Rahul Dravid, at the other end, was just about managing to survive.
The master, out for a duck in the first innings, now seized back some of the initiative. Three boundaries in quick succession, one of them a peach of a cover drive off Akram, underlined that the match was far from over. Interruptions due to light brought an early end to the day, with India on 40 for two.Tendulkar was on 20.
The epic battle
Thus began the last morning, with the match balanced on knife’s edge. The stands of the MA Chidambaram Stadium overflowed with 45,000 people. Tendulkar walked out with the unwavering goal of winning the match. His steadfast focus was evident from the moment he ran down to the far end of the ground and had a long chat with the fourth umpire regarding the exact position of the sightscreen.
Tendulkar glanced the first ball from Akram for four, but it was more than apparent that runs would be difficult to come by. The conditions were supremely difficult and the bowling outstanding.
At 50, Dravid fell to Akram. It was a result of some uncanny skill and control. The second and fourth balls pitched on the middle, swung back late and hit him on the pads down the leg side to elicit mild appeals. And the last ball was overpitched on the leg, swung away slightly and late, and took the off bail with it. Dravid walked back for 10 made over 110 minutes.
It was again Tendulkar’s turn to seize the initiative back, and he did so by pulling Saqlain to the mid-wicket fence.
Mohammad Azharuddin scratched around for almost an hour, struggling against both pace and spin, before padding up to Saqlain. It was delivered from wide of the crease and hit the Indian captain on the leg stump. The angle – even if the ball did not turn – would have taken it down the leg side. However, Steve Dunne raised his finger. It was 73 for four.
Sourav Ganguly struggled half an hour for two runs before falling to another outrageous decision. The cover-drive hit the silly-point fielder on the bounce and was taken by Moin Khan flying across from behind the stumps. Umpire Steve Dunne spoke for an eternity with umpire VK Ramaswamy before giving Ganguly out. Neither Azhar nor Ganguly looked like scoring much that day, but the poor umpiring did not help India’s cause.
At lunch India was on 86 for five, the target looking way beyond reach. Tendulkar was on 44.
The fight back
After lunch, Tendulkar cracked a rare short ball from Saqlain to the point fence and steered Akram down to the third man to bring up his half century – one of the most fighting efforts of his career. The bowling remained classy and tight, Akram and Saqlain piling on pressure, helped along by small spells from Younis, Shahid Afridi and Nadeem Khan.
Nayan Mongia hung in there with the master, the scoreboard almost drying up in the gripping battle. Runs came in a trickle, boundaries dried up. Unable to find gaps in the field, Tendulkar started to paddle-sweep Saqlain. The stroke, incredibly played off the leg-stump with a near straight bat, started bringing him quite a few runs behind the keeper where no fielder is placed. The tension reached breaking points, nerves were taut, fingernails gnawed to the quick. Tendulkar, with Mongia in tow, carried on the fight.
Even Nadeem Khan and Afridi bowled tight lines, getting significant help from the pitch. It was Test cricket at its gruelling best. In a display of supreme determination, Mongia nudged away to 12 from 87 deliveries before latching on to a short ball from Afridi and dispatching it past the point for his first boundary.
And then came the 78th over of the innings, the most dramatic of them all. India stood at 152 for five, Tendulkar on 83, his lower back starting to betray him at this critical juncture.
Saqlain’s first ball was not really short, but Tendulkar rocked back to pull him over midwicket for four. The next one was an impeccable paddle sweep for four more. The third ball was tossed up, Tendulkar came down the track to hit it down the ground. The ball took the inside edge and Moin Khan floored the difficult catch, and also muffled the resulting stumping chance. Saqlain groaned and knelt down on the pitch in frustration. And agony for the bowler was piled on when the fifth ball was again sent to the fine boundary with another paddle sweep and the last ball smacked to deep midwicket fence.
And in the following Saqlain over, Tendulkar turned one to the square-leg and ran across, arms pumping, completing one of the best ever hundreds of his career.
Akram opted for the new ball in the next over. Tendulkar cracked him through the covers for four. And then there was that sublime straight drive off Younis, little more than a forward defensive push that streaked away between the bowler and the mid-off.
And now, with the immense pressure somewhat relieved, Mongia got into the act. He pummelled a Younis delivery over mid-on. And when Saqlain was brought back after just five overs with the new ball, he whacked the first ball over mid-wicket for six.
The heart break
It was half century for the Indian wicket-keeper, but with the match almost in India’s grasp, he got carried away. An ugly cross-batted swipe off Akram saw the ball skied to mid-on. As it hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity, Waqar positioned himself and took a comfortable catch. Mongia’s 52 was an innings of extraordinary character under tremendous pressure, but the final stroke undid most of the hard work. At 218 for six, India still required 53 runs.
Tendulkar battled on, and at the other end, Sunil Joshi cracked Saqlain over long-on for six.
The back was now really bothering the great man. He drove Akram to the fence to reduce the target to less than thirty. And then came another magical showdown in a Saqlain over.
As had been the feature of his innings, Tendulkar paddle swept – and Ijaz Ahmed, standing at slip, showed spectacular anticipation in moving across and fielding the ball fine on the leg side. Undeterred, Tendulkar stepped out and straight drove the next ball for four. That stroke strained his back even further. He was now in a hurry to end the match. The next ball was pulled imperiously to the midwicket fence. Just 17 runs were required now, four wickets in hand.
Finally the fatal ball arrived, that momentary indiscretion that will forever remain a regret in Tendulkar’s monumental career and the cause of endless grief for his millions of fans. The doosra was cannily floated. Tendulkar did not read it as he reached out to lift it straight. The leading edge went high up and Akram pouched it in the covers. The master could not believe it. He walked back crestfallen. The crowd rose to its feet as one and thunderous applause followed him to the pavilion. The 136 runs had come in 273 minutes – a master-class of ability, technique and grit. He had pushed the door almost fully open, the rest just had to rush in.
They could not.The remaining batsmen could manage just four more runs.
It was a truly epic innings. The most brilliant played under the titanic pressure in an India-Pakistan encounter that brought the side to the brink of victory from the doldrums of 6 for 2. It could have been the greatest match-winning innings played by the master if the last few runs had been scored.
But that was not to be. Akram trapped Anil Kumble leg before, another atrocious decision. Joshi lobbed a catch back to Saqlain. And finally, Javagal Srinath’s defensive shot spun back into his stumps. India lost by 12 runs.
Post Script: A word about match-winning innings
In 1902, Gilbert Jessop scored his only century in Test cricket at The Oval, in what is largely considered the greatest rearguard, match-winning effort in the fourth innings. Chasing 263 to win against Australia, England had been reduced to 48 for five, when Jessop had played a blinder of 104 in 77 minutes. He had departed at 187 after turning the match on its head, and George Hirst had carried England to win – adding the last 15 runs with last man Wilfred Rhodes.
When Brian Lara scored that 153 not out at Bridgetown to famously clinch it by one wicket, Shane Warne put him down at 101, and Ian Healy dropped him with just seven runs remaining – even as Curtly Ambrose stuck around for 89 minutes. To play a match-winning innings in cricket, one requires a slice of luck and some collaboration at the other end.
Tendulkar enjoyed one piece of fortune when Moin Khan missed him on 91, but not another quarter was given by luck. His teammates did not help, only Mongia making more than 10.
The end was a tragedy as poignant as any penned by the greatest of bards – for never was a story of more woe than this of Sachin Tendulkar and Chennai 1999. It took him almost a decade to exorcise the ghosts at the ground, by scoring an incredible 103 to steer India to a win against England in 2008.
However, win or loss, the effort against Pakistan will go down as one of the very best innings ever played in the history of the game.
(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)