Zaheer Khan celebrates after cleaning up Taufeeq Umar early © Getty Images

March 1, 2003. India met Pakistan for the fourth time a World Cup match. Political tensions between the two countries had ensured that the two sides hadn’t played a game in almost three years. This was the World Cup. India, led by Sourav Ganguly, were in a happy zone, having won four out of their five matches thus far. Pakistan were struggling, having won two out their four matches.

Indian and Pakistani cricketers have got along well off the pitch, but nothing matches the intensity when they square off on the greens. The sledges are rampant, the political tension is at fore. From the Prime Minister to the room service staff, everyone wants a win or nothing for their respective sides. Imagine the scenario at World Cups?

A lot has been spoken and written about the intensity and pressure of the 2003 match. In his autobiography A Century Is Not Enough, Ganguly added to it. Fifteen years after the match, Ganguly recalled a scuffle between Harbhajan Singh and Mohammad Yousuf (then Yousuf Youhana) in the common lunch arena.

For all the fun off the field, playing Pakistan was always a charged affair — not just in Pakistan and India but in all neutral venues, be it Sharjah, Toronto, Australia, Sri Lanka or South Africa. Every time you played them you noticed something was different. It was always eventful. But during my five-year captaincy career it is the incident at the Centurion in South Africa that remains one of the highlights for me.

“A scuffle had taken place between Harbhajan Singh and Yousuf Youhana in the common lunch arena. I did not know what led to the fight. But the scene was getting out of control and senior members of both the teams had to finally separate them. An Indo-Pak tie was always just that little bit extra tense. An Indo-Pak tie was always just that little bit extra tense. So the atmosphere was already heated. It also did not help matters that unlike other South African grounds the dressing rooms of the two teams were too close for comfort, Ganguly writes.

When Harbhajan got tangled in the infamous 2008 Monkeygate controversy, Rashid Latif, Pakistan’s wicketkeeper in the 2003 World Cup, spoke about the incident to Sun Herald: In the 2003 World Cup Harbhajan had a run-in with Mohammad Yousuf at Centurion. He wanted to fight after Yousuf made a comment. It was just a joke but he took it seriously. He has a short temper. He needs to control his emotions. He is a good guy but he has some kind of problem with his temper.

ICC World Cup 2003: Sachin Tendulkar's 98 destroys Pakistan’s artillery
ICC World Cup 2003: Sachin Tendulkar's 98 destroys Pakistan’s artillery

Harbhajan went on to accept the incident in the talk show, Aap ki Adalat: It was a match which I did not play and I had an argument with Pakistani player Yousuf Youhana during lunch break. It was a one-on-one kind of a situation. After India won the match, I got really excited and started dancing there along with several fans who had come to watch the match from India.

Anil Kumble was the only specialist Indian spinner who played in that match and returned figures of 10-0-51-0.

A joke of captain’s instructions

Saeed Anwar’s hundred had lifted Pakistan to a challenging 273, a healthy total in the early 2000s and a stiff one, when you consider the opposition had the ranks of Waqar, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar (who had bowled the fastest-ever ball in the same tournament), Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq.

Ganguly had his instructions clear: I spoke to the openers before they went in. Particularly Sehwag. I didn’t want him to get affected by this pressure-cooker situation. We were chasing 273 against the likes of Akram, Waqar and Shoaib. We needed a solid opening partnership at any cost. So I cautioned Viru, it is a good batting wicket. Don’t take chances early. After 10 overs we will accelerate.

India had raced to 50 for no loss in 5 overs. Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar unleashed themselves on the Pakistani greats. Wasim was plundered for 21 off his 3 overs, whereas Waqar and Shoaib had gone for 11 and 18 respectively in their opening overs.

What a joke the captain’s instructions turned out of be! India raced to 60 for no loss (50 for no loss in reality) in 5 overs. Sachin and Sehwag just ripped apart the Pakistan bowling. The hapless Indian captain, instead of complaining, was smiling ear to ear. I realised this was a huge knockout punch and would motivate us throughout the tournament, Ganguly adds.

Tendulkar’s 75-ball 98 and gritty knocks from Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid guided India home with 26 balls to spare. Ganguly got a first-ball duck.

Ganguly describes the win as once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere and confirmed that he had received a special congratulatory call: The Centurion dressing room had a small viewing area. By the time the winning stroke was hit the entire the entire team was down there. It was neither the final nor the semi-final yet it was a once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere. Our joy knew no bounds and back home in India the fans had already started celebrating Diwali in March with firecrackers. By the way, I got a call from the Chief of the Army Staff after we beat Pakistan at the Centurion. If I had any doubts about the importance of this match, that call put it in the right perspective.

India finished second in their group and advanced to the Super Sixes, whereas Pakistan could not go beyond the group stages. The World Cup marked the end of Wasim, Waqar and Anwar’s careers.

Ganguly further elaborated on the satisfaction. Outside the World Cup, Pakistan have had things easier against India. Ganguly’s growing-up days were marred by memories of strings of Indian defeats against a world-class Pakistan that boasted Imran Khan and Javed Miandad.

India continues to dominate their arch-rivals in mega event. The score-line in World Cups read 6-0 with the last win coming in at the Adelaide Oval in the 2015 edition.