Fifteen years ago on this date, Sachin Tendulkar played the most memorable limited overs knock of all time. I am not saying it was the best innings or the greatest knock ever. It wasn’t even a match-winning knock. But it was a surreal batting performance interrupted by a freak dust and sand storm. It was a superlative individual effort while everyone around him was flailing. A large portion of it was described to an audience of 200 million plus by the understated & incomparable Richie Benaud who knew a masterpiece when he saw one. The setting, the situation (India needing to reach a certain score to qualify for the final game two days later) and the enormous delta in class and competence to anyone else on the field that day make it the most memorable individual performance in limited overs cricket.
I watched the knock live in its entirety (and a few hundred times after that) and a few things stay embellished in my memory to this day. Here they are in ascending order of memorable-ness –
It is easy and typical to wax nostalgic about the past for most sports fans. It is easy to look back at the Indian team in 1998 and imagine a batting juggernaut full of hall-of-famers when we peruse the scorecard. But it could not be further from the truth. The Indian ODI team in 1998 in Sharjah was an one-man army. VVS Laxman ended up having a great test career but on this day he could not have been a lesser sideshow if he had streaked thru the ground. Nayan Mongia was for some reason sent in at #3 and unlike his cardinal generation-changing sin nine months later played an insignificant if non-intrusive 46 deliveries for 35 runs as a pinch hitter. Ajay Jadeja was a pale imitation of the ODI player he had been two years earlier and Hrishikesh Kanitkar would not even make an India ‘B’ side today. If the current ODI side got on a time machine and played the ODI side from 1998, the current side would win with overs to spare (no thoughts on which side Harbhajan Singh would play for:)). The overall mediocrity of the side made Sachin’s knock that much more memorable.
The Australian team on the other hand was full of legends close to or at their prime. This was the fifth ODI meeting between the two sides in a year in which they’d go 4-4 head-to-head (Sachin was Man of the Match in 6 of the 8 games). And it’s fairly remarkable India managed to win four games against a lineup of Gilchirst, the Waughs, Bevan Moody and Warne. The core of this Aussie team would go on to win the World Cup just a year later and would win 22 of 26 games at one point. The nature of the opposition made Sachin Tendulkar’s knock that much more memorable.
The cricket ground at Sharjah is an unremarkable venue. The Indian team visited the stadium annually and sometimes twice a year from 1994-2000. There were too many ODIs played in front of too many sparse crowds for too many questionable results in this period. This match was different though. A packed evening crowd, a rare dust storm and a batsman at the top of his unlimited powers made for a unique cocktail that would never be created again. Titles like desert storm don’t get handed spontaneously and very easily. That’s why this knock was and is so memorable.
Sachin’s placement on the day was incredible. He drove, cut, flicked, pulled and swept into the gaps all night. He has timed the ball better and hit the ball harder before and after that day. But the ease with which he found the gaps in the field made the knock that much more memorable. There is an iconic moment in the game when the fielder at long-off and the fielder at long-on run to within handshaking distance of each other only to see the ball beat both of them to the fence. This is not common. This is beyond the realm of what a batsman should be doing in limited overs’ cricket. That’s why this knock is so memorable.
Sometimes events need a narration and perspective. Someone with an eye for whatever special or unique event was happening is needed for the event to make the jump from special to memorable. In an era of cookie-cutter TV commentary, 68-year-old Richie Benaud lent his extraordinary story telling skills to the masterpiece that Sachin Tendulkar was creating on the pitch. His comments of the searing strokes on display that day in a tone that was neither hyperbolic nor automated, will stay imprinted in my memory as the role model for all cricket commentary ever. Genius needs to be narrated with perspective that sometimes only another genius can offer. And on that April night, Richie Benaud’s narration made it that much more memorable.
India did not win that night but scored enough runs to make it to the finals two days later when they would win in a chase that was very similar. There was no dust storm that night and the stroke play of India’s greatest ever while incandescent was just a little less memorable. A generation of fans when asked to take just one ODI innings to their death beds would pick out the Sachin desert storm from 15 years ago. ‘Cos that was memorable…..