On the morning of March 27, 1994, India’s opener Navjot Singh Sidhu woke up with a sore neck, and what happened thereafter forever changed Indian cricket. Sidhu was in the form of his life. His scores in the ODIs leading up to the Auckland game read: 34, 26, 79 and 108. Add a match-saving 98 in the second innings of the Test match plus a fruitful home series against Sri Lanka, and if not for his sore back, the right-hander would have certainly opened in Auckland and also in the remainder of the games in the series.
But, as they say, sometimes opportunity comes wearing clothes of adversity, and it is really up to how you approach it. One of the hallmarks of successful people, is they see every challenge as an opportunity to succeed. 21-year-old Sachin Tendulkar certainly saw a glimmer of opportunity in Sidhu’s sore neck. Having established himself as a premier Test batsman courtsey his exploits in Manchester, Sydney, and Perth, Sachin was still having a middling career as far as ODI cricket was concerned until that point.
Batting in the middle-order until that day in Auckland, Tendulkar has underwhelming returns in ODI cricket where he averaged 30.84 in 69 ODIs without a three-digit score to his name. Most of the time he would come to bat with the field spread out and with the task of stemming the top-order wobble, not allowing him the freedom to impose himself on the opposition.
It all changed on this day, twenty-five years ago in Auckland.
Realizing that a golden opportunity presented itself of showcasing his true potential at the top of the order, Tendulkar went up to his coach Ajit Wadekar and as he recounts in his autobiography ‘Playing it my way’-
“I went up to Azhar and our manager Ajit Wadekar, a former Indian captain and a leading batsman of his time, and pleaded with them to give me an opportunity at the top of the order. Why did I think I should open? Well, I had the ability to attack bowlers and plays shots from the word go, and in One-day game, the key was to take advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. I was sure that I just needed a chance to prove myself. I told Wadekar sir that if I failed I’d never ask him again. In any case, there was no reserve opener in the time and they had no choice but to experiment with an irregular opener in place of Sidhu. If they put me at the top, they could still get a middle-order batsman to fill in for me at number four or five. After a lot of pleading, they finally agreed,” Tendulkar recounts in his book.
While recounting Tendulkar's blitz- a 49-ball 82, it is worth remembering that there was no need for such an assault that day. On a track where shot-making was not that easy as demonstrated by the Kiwis reached the 100-run mark in the 45th over of their innings; no net run-rate to worry about; no bonus points up for grabs, and when T20 cricket was still nine years away from being born, Tendulkar played as a man possessed.
He batted like he had been waiting for this chance to prove himself at the top of the order and was not going to shell it at any cost. He took his strike outside off-stump; waited for the bowler to deliver and then moved across to the line of the ball, and was stroking the ball with death-defying ease.
In the fourth-over off Chris Pringle, the Master Blaster unleashed a classical cover-drive before lofting him over long-on and followed it up with a whip off his legs to deep mid-wicket. In the next over, Danny Morrison was swiveled down to fine-leg with fielders barely having a chance to move while Gavin Larsen, who had asked the wicket-keeper to stand up to the stumps was regularly carted over his head.
Remember it was still 1994. It was an era where persevering your wicket in the first 15 overs and cashing on it later was the modus operandi that most of the teams’ followed. Tendulkar's whirlwind 49-ball 82 left the Kiwis shell shocked and by the time his innings ended, the Master was greeted with thunderous applause from the 18,000 odd spectators.
Tendulkar’s blitz not only gave India world-beating opening batsmen at the top, it kind of changed the approach of how the teams’ around the world looked at opening in ODI cricket. No longer did they seek their best batsman to play the role of a pinch-hitter, instead he was given the freedom to spearhead the innings from the top; Sanath Jayasuriya’s elevation to the top of the order and his subsequent blitz two years later in the 1996 World Cup remains a prime example.
For the fans back home, who woke up absolutely gobsmacked by the shenanigans of their hero, it was the start of a ride where they would see Tendulkar do Tenduklar things in the years to follow; slaying more powerful attacks than the one in Auckland in much more important tournaments all over the world, and off-course ammas 15,310 runs at 48.29- the most by any batsmen in a single batting position.
Apart from all the runs that Navjot Singh Sidhu scored for India, ironically, his two most telling contributions have come when he had to sit out of the game. After his stiff neck paved way for Tendulkar to open the innings in ODI cricket, two years later [in 1996], his tiff with Mohammad Azharuddin during the tour of England made way for Rahul Dravid’s Test debut, and the rest, as they say, is HISTORY.