Chetan Sharma, promoted to No 4 in the batting order on this day 23 years ago, surprised everyone by scoring a century and pulling off an incredible win against England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the astonishing innings with its thrilling last moments.
India needed to win at Green Park, Kanpur.
It was the MRF World Series for the Nehru Cup. A tournament of nearly World Cup proportions organised to celebrate the birth centenary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of post-Independent India. And the performance of the hosts had not really lived up to the occasion.
After just about squeezing past a weak Sri Lankan side, two days earlier they had failed to chase down a paltry 196 against West Indies. With England and Pakistan winning against Australia, and Australian in turn winning against West Indies, a loss to England on October 25 would have all but ended their journey towards the semi-final.
When the field spread after the first 15 overs of the Indian innings, things did not look too bright as they chased a stiff 256 to win. The medium-pacers had leaked runs, Chetan Sharma going for as many as 78 in his 10 overs. Allan Lamb had hit 91, guiding England to plunder 55 off the last five overs. Raman Lamba and newly-appointed captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth had not really got off to a flier, and now India was scoring at just about four runs an over. The asking rate was climbing up all the time.
Soon Srikkanth stepped out to Eddie Hemmings to be stumped by Jack Russell. At 65 for two, with a middle-order that had not really fired in the recent times, the signs were ominous. It was with a sense of dwindling hope that the large crowd saw an unusual form walking out at No 4. Sharma had no pretensions as a batsman when he walked out in the middle. In 56 previous ODIs, he had crossed the 20-run mark just once for a highest of 38 not out! That should speak volumes for his reputation as a batsman.
India had been on the receiving end of pinch hitters in those days. In the previous season, Wasim Akram had often walked out with jaunty abandon to swing his mighty bat and many a One-Day International with it. Five days earlier, Sohail Fazal had struck three gigantic sixes at Sharjah, coming in ahead of Javed Miandad and Ijaz Ahmed. Now, India had decided to gamble with some sort of a hitter of their own. The question was: Would it pay off?
It almost didn’t. Sharma was just three when he skied Hemmings and Robin Smith dropped a relatively easy catch on the boundary. Sharma did not look back.
There were some scientific strikes, but most of it was pure old fashioned slogging. It was almost a probabilistic anomaly that most of them came off. With Navjot Singh Sidhu going strong and steady at the other end, Sharma flayed the attack in ways curious and unpredictable, and captain Graham Gooch did not quite know how to set a field. And once he had some runs under his belt, Sharma did not throw it away. He batted on, with some well-placed singles and twos along with the flagrant flashes of the license to swing.
Sidhu was run out at 170 for a well-compiled 61, and by then the match had been turned on its head. The hugely-experienced Vengsarkar came in next and calmly rotated the strike while Sharma went from strength to strength.
At 74, he had two lives gifted as a package. He was miles short of his ground when a throw went astray, and then skipper Gooch put down a sitter. But it did not take him long to put these aberrations behind him, and scythe his way towards his hundred.
The final moments
The contest was as good as over by the 45th over, but the end made for edge of the seat excitement due to a heart-stopping race for three figures.
With 16 balls to go, India stood at 247 for three, nine required to win, with Sharma on 97. Vengsarkar, who had batted thus far with customary professional equanimity, faced Phil DeFreitas. For some reason, the veteran batsman now stepped out to the medium pacer and heaved him over the cow corner for four.
A visibly concerned Sharma came down the wicket for a tense word. As a result, Vengsarkar tried to push the next ball and tried to scamper down for a suicidal single. Having somehow survived the mad dash, he gently spooned a catch to cover off the next ball.
In walked Kapil Dev, out to witness his protégé at the other end score his first major century. All he needed to do was to gently play the last ball of the over and ensure that Sharma had the strike.
He did so perfectly, and a bit too well. The forward defensive shot came off with superlative timing and sped between the point and cover for a boundary.
The scores were tied as Sharma faced Gooch. He needed nothing less than a boundary. And with the fielders in the circle, he creamed it through the off side and got there in style.
Sharma finished on an astonishing unbeaten 101, scored from 96 deliveries with eight fours and a six.
(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