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It all happened so quickly it was a blur. Yet, time seemed to move very slowly. The impact of those three deliveries left an indelible mark and the outcome wasn’t in question anymore. He wasn’t gonna let his team down. Not today, Not now, Not on this stage, the biggest of them all. He had spent countless sleepless nights dreaming up this scenario. He just can’t let his country down. It was only the second over in a chase of 274. At the end of that fateful over, there were still 247 more runs to be got but the writing was on the wall. He wasn’t gonna be denied in this quest. An upper cut for six, a flick to square leg for four followed by dead straight bat with no follow through for another turf searing boundary, Game, Set and Match – Sachin Tendulkar, Thanks for coming Shoaib Akhtar.
It was past midnight and the date was March 1, 2003. In the snow covered grounds of central Pennsylvania in the days when internet streams for watching live sporting action from around the world were not yet available, three Indian graduate students decided to host the cricket world cup viewing in their basement rooms. They had installed a satellite dish and hooked up two TVs for people to come together in watching the only sport they dearly loved. It was 36th match of the tournament and so far, the general turnout for the games was only 8-10 people per match but they knew March 1 was going to be a different animal, it was India v Pakistan – The Mother of All Matches.
Two hours before the match start, it was only a trickle. A few here and there. But as game time approached, there were about 80 people packed in to two basement rooms. As it turned out, the population of the two rooms were divided along the team loyalty lines, and the folks cleared their pipes with “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” to open the match. Neither team could afford to lose this match. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win the cup, but just win this one. The nervous energy was palpable in the rooms and at the stadium as well. In a high pressure match such as this, teams want to win the toss and bat first. Round one to Pakistan.
You always hear that sport is a great unifier, bringing people fighting each other for generations together for the duration of a match when they still unabashedly root for their teams, standing side by side but at the end of the day, tip the hat to the winner and retire back to their quarters to resume their hostilities on the battlefield. It was one of those days in my household. A group of Pakistani students cheering everything that went right for their team and everything that went wrong for India, and the Indians responding in kind.
Even with the early reverses, Saeed Anwar who had no form to speak of coming in to the match, played in the only way he knows when playing against India – calm, composed and set for a huge score. The Indian fans’ joy at Inzamam’s run out was short lived as they realized the threat of Anwar. He kept at it unimpeded and duly got a well deserved century and got out bowled playing a tired shot. But mayhem soon followed with Pakistan scoring 78 off the last 59 balls. When Wasim Akram was bowled by Zaheer Khan in the 49th over, the Indian side of the basement erupted but when the camera panned to the umpire signaling a no-ball, the Pakistani side exploded in joy with roars that did not stop well past the end of the Pakistani innings.
India had never chased a score more than 222 in a world cup match before and considering the pressure coming in to the match, the prospects looked bleak. The Pakistani fans had a swagger during the innings break and even offered to buy the Indians breakfast to ease the pain of a certain defeat. And so they did. Donuts, muffins and coffee. Extremely nice group of guys they were. So was the India lot. Passionate support for their nations but never crossing that line of civility and decency. One of my most treasured memories in a lifetime of watching the sport.
India’s response began with a bang. Sehwag and Tendulkar were going hammer and tongs at Akram, Akhtar and Younis with India reaching 50 in 5 overs. The gob-smacked Pakistani fans once again found their voice when the wily Younis plucked out Sehwag and Ganguly off consecutive deliveries. A certain uneasiness pervasive in the room. But when Abdul Razzaq dropped Tendulkar off Akram on 32 at mid-off through an ill-timed jump, all the signs were pointing in only one direction – a certain India win. The only question that remained in the match was whether Tendulkar was going to be able to get to a very well deserved century. He batted like a dream, with high elbows, swift feet and supple wrists and all.
A visibly cramped up Tendulkar was trying to hold on and continue the march. When one of the Pakistani commentators on TV bellowed, “If you can’t get him out, at least get him hurt”, both the rooms in the basement booed. It was a sign of two passionate sets of fans realizing they were watching the practitioner of craft of batting was performing at the peak of his powers.
Sport played at its highest level, by players that reduce it to pure art form, can make two opposing sides forget their loyalties, and allow them to bask in its glow. Akhtar may have got the revenge by dismissing Tendulkar with a rapid bouncer for 98 but the crowd of 80 stood as one to applaud one of the finest innings they will ever see. India eventually got home with wickets and overs to spare but the outcome was just a footnote in the grand scheme of things.
For your joy and despair, depending on which team you root for, here is the video of that Sachin innings.