The Big Picture
In sports, there are stories that proceed to whet the appetite of the romantics of the game. There are years where a sportsman is at the peak of his powers to an extent that the lines between human and GOD are blurred.
For the young fans who have grown up watching the shenanigans of Virat Kohli, they will always remember 2016 as the year where Kohli truly emerged like a phoenix who could do no wrong. What 2016 is to Kohli, the year 1998 will forever be to Sachin Tendulkar.
The year 1998 was truly purple for Sachin Tendulkar: a record of 1894 runs [which still holds today] at an average of 65.31, nine centuries and a strike-rate that was way ahead of its time in the pre-T20 era- 102.15. The year was also defined by Tendulkar's systematic annihilation of the Australians; his rivalry in Shane Warne, in particular, was the talking point ahead of every series that both sides featured in.
But Tendulkar's form leading into 1998 was not exceptional by his standards. He had gone without hitting an ODI ton in 33 innings. He ended that drought with a hundred ten days prior to the annual Sharjah Cup which that year featured India, Australia, and New Zealand. The Australians had already beaten India in the tri-series prior to the Sharjah Cup, and with three wins out of three in the league phase looked prime for another heist over the Men in Blue.
Having already qualified for the finals, Australia's last league-stage game against the Indians was virtually a warm-up. But, for India and fellow contender New Zealand, the match boasted of prime importance. India needed to scale down a target in a given set of overs to qualify for the finals and pip New Zealand back of a superior NRR.
And, so came the day of 22nd April 1998. Australia batted first and on the back of a sublime ton by Michael Bevan posted a commanding 7-284 in the days where a score in excess of 275 looked unbeatable.
The whole of India was looking up to their hero Sachin Tendulkar to pave the way for the run-chase. And, Tendulkar was more than up for it.
The Little Champion looked like a guy possessed that night. Sensing the need for a quick start, Tendulkar laid into the likes of Damien Fleming and Michael Kasprowich smoking them for sixes over deep square-leg and over their head. The fans were going wild; so was Sachin and off-course the Late Tony Grieg adding to the drama with his pulsating commentary that still reverberates in every Indians ear till today.
"They are dancing in the isles in Sharjah" Tony Grieg on the crowd going wild during Sachin's blitz.
It was poetic violence at its very best. Tendulkar would stride out of the crease and nonchalantly hit the likes of Kasprowich over mid-wicket and square-leg.
After Ganguly's dismissal, Tendulkar was joined by Nayan Mongia who was promoted to the No.3 spot in a bid to accentuate the run-scoring. Mongia [35 off 46 balls] played an ideal partner to Tendulkar, taking on the bowlers himself to relieve some of the pressure off Tendulkar's shoulder.
The duo shared a 69-run stand for the second wicket before a brief collapse- typical of India in the 1990s- happened. Following the wickets of Mongia, Azharuddin, and Ajay Jadeja, India was reduced to 4-138 and all their hopes of making it to the finals hinged on Tendulkar.
And, Tendulkar was more than ready for it.
The flurry of wickets did not deter Tendulkar's approach as he continued his systematic assault of the Australian bowlers.
One of the images that will forever remain impinged in the minds of every cricket fan was: Tendulkar dancing down the track to Shane Warne and smoking him against the spin over the leg-spinners head to leave him perplexed completely
He flicked, pulled, cut, drove with ridiculous ease and the Late Tony Grieg's voice added glamour to what was already a beautiful picture.
With the score at 4-143, a desert storm struck Sharjah and when the game eventually resumed the task for Sachin and India had become even more arduous. The reduced equation required India to score 237 runs in 46 overs to qualify for the finals.
But as Ravi Shastri pointed out on air during the game, "He is a champion and he needs a challenge and there can be a no bigger challenge than this".
Tendulkar was clearly undeterred by the complexity of the situation: all he was concerned was winning the game for his country, let alone qualify. The interruption did not have any influence on Tendulkar's concentration as the Little Master.
He resumed his innings with the same intensity and started hammering the Aussies again to all corners of Sharjah. He brought up his hundred in the 38th over and with India slowly approaching towards the 237-run mark, Tendulkar's eye was set on not only making India qualify but also win the game for his country. He smoked a straight six off Steve Waugh before Damien Martyn dropped an easy catch at deep mid-wicket to give Tendulkar another boundary.
The Little Champion then proceeded to lay into Damien Fleming with an authoritative six that landed on the roof of Sharjah and Tony Grieg's words: Oh! It's high, it's high, it's all the way, it's way over the top, into the crowds again, Sachin Tendulkar wants to win this match.
Tendulkar single-handedly took India into the finals, overhauling the required target of 237 runs in the 43rd over and celebrated it with an inside-out cover-drive of the very next ball.
With the Little Champion going berserk, India looked prime to even win the game but a contentious decision by Steve Bucker and Tendulkar's own decision to walk after edging a ball to Adam Gilchrist brought an end to his innings but not before the Master Blaster had ensured his sides' qualification in the finals. Tendulkar's innings was an epitome of patience, panache, commitment, and an assault timed to perfection in the 41-degree heat of Sharjah.
Prior to that night, Tendulkar hadn't seen a sandstorm, on the night of 22nd April 1998, he produced one, proceeding to the path of immortality.
Video Credits:- Roblinda
Note: The next part of Tendulkar's assault of Australia in April of 1998 will be published on his birthday.