We in Chennai are pretty emotional about Sachin Tendulkar, which is not exactly surprising when you take into account the point we are emotional about everything. We would still get all misty-eyed and sentimental, and worry over what Sachin would do, now that he has retired, to earn his livelihood, even if he had not played all those resplendent innings here.
But this is not the moment to be flippant; this is a moment to be solemn and flippant. In this season of non-stop Sachin retro parade, I will turn the clock back to 1998 and reminisce on the India-Australia Test match here at the historical M A Chidambaram stadium, with which the legend of …Sachin unfolded? No the legend of my cricket reporting started. Sachin’s heroics had begun long before that.
Since the match happened over a decade and half ago, my memory of it is a bit hazy, and some of the descriptions may be less than accurate, which is just as well, considering that if you were looking for facts you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.
It was the first Test of the series, typically billed as Australian efficiency vs India flair, there was plenty of expectation, mostly surrounding whether Sangeeta Bijlani — who had married Azharuddin two years earlier — would turn up for the match or not. Otherwise, I personally don’t remember much anticipation among the public.
Still, the Tendulkar-Warne rivalry was talked about among the cricketing cognoscenti as an impending ‘battle royale’, which is a pretty cleverly disguised French usage for battle royal.
I remember going to the stadium the day before the match itself. Cricket reporters from all over the country had also descended at the stadium and all of us, as true media professionals, went and collected our meal coupons for the next five days. Otherwise, frankly, there was nothing else of practical value to do.
The thing is there was no scheduled press conference, and much of our reports had to be based on speculation. And even if there had been a press conference —- remember Mohd Azharuddin was the captain then — much of our reports had to be based on even more speculation. To this day — this is something you cannot say even for Warne — nobody has managed to pick Azhar’s delivery convincingly.
Our pre-match reports involved a lot about the state of the pitch, which we figured out by guessing it from around the boundary line, beyond which we were not allowed in. But even if we had gotten anywhere near the wicket, we would have still guessed. For, we reporters know nothing about the pitch. Also, here I would like to point out that pitch reporting is a lot like playing the bagpipe: The expert and the novice always sound the same.
The Indian team arrived and went through net practice and some physical routines, which in those days was markedly less than what are prescribed for Boy Scouts. The press corps hung around in a strategic corner discussing animatedly the cricketing prospects of securing a free ticket or two for our friends and relatives.
In the nets, the cynosure was Tendulkar as word had spread that he was pointedly preparing to take on Warne’s deliveries that would typically pitch (on the rough) outside the leg-stump and turn in sharply. Tendulkar, the perfectionist that he was, had sought the services of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who, I think, using all his rich experience, helped create the rough outside the leg-stump, while some other local lad actually bowled leg-spin. For, Sivaramakrishnan couldn’t bowl nominal leg-spin even towards the last days of his active playing days, which had ended a decade earlier.
Elsewhere, the news from the Aussie camp was one of quiet confidence and Australian captain Mark Taylor, a smart bloke and a shrewd cricket tactician, kept the opposition guessing by speaking in an unintelligible accent.
On to the match: India won the toss and had no hesitation in choosing to bat, as experts reckoned batting last on that pitch would be difficult. Of course, cricket experts reckon batting last on any pitch is difficult. The thing about cricket experts is that they are always reckoning.
To cut to the chase, Trailing by 71 runs, India, when it began its second innings, was the team under pressure. It needed a sensational innings from someone to shutout the Aussies from the contest. Who could play that knock? Who could soak in the pressure and take on the likes of Warne and Kasprowicz at their pomp? Who could put up his hand and be counted? And did India, traditionally weak and vulnerable in the mind, have a batsman who can overcome the daunting odds? To ask such ponderous questions, 15 years after the match happened when the whole world knows what transpired, is monumentally silly. But this is how literary people think tension should be built into any narrative.
Anyway, Tendulkar scored a blistering 155 not out (14 fours and four sixers), and I vividly remember each and every one of them because I just happened to watch them on Youtube. Left to myself, I wouldn’t have been able to recall a single shot. Because when you are watching a match as a reporter, you don’t watch anything. You simply key in your report for publication.
India went on to win the match, and then the series, and then many more ones against many other countries, even as the Sachin legend simultaneously grew manifold adding several honours, several trophies, several accolades to his cabinet and several words to this over-stuffed paragraph.
And as he retires from the game that he so richly bejeweled, we in Chennai, while saluting him in gratitude for having performed so well in this city, would also like to point out to the rest of the world that Sachin’s performances are no real surprise to us. He was always destined for unsurpassed greatness.
His mother’s name (cue for more emotion) is: Rajni.